T Is for Theater

From the mid-1980s to the end of the ’90s I was variously involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, and lead theater reviewer for one of the two local weeklies. (No, I never reviewed a show I was involved in.) What I learned during those years continues to affect my writing to this day. Here are some of the ways.

Of all the things I’ve ever written, one of my most favorites is a monologue: “The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth.” Guess where that came from? It’s all in iambic pentameter, which isn’t all that hard to write when you’re living with Shakespeare day in, day out. I loved performing it and did so “off book,” meaning from memory, without a script. (See “R Is for Readings” for more about giving readings.)

During that period I also wrote three one-act plays, all of which were produced at least once. Spend enough time around theater and it may become one of the languages you speak. I haven’t attempted any plays since, in part because the once-vital local theater scene dwindled and in part because I went on to other things. But my theater experience continues to affect how I write.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse

When writing fiction, I often feel as though I’m watching the scene play out onstage. Early in a play’s rehearsal period, one of the stage manager’s most important jobs is to record the director’s instructions to the actors in what becomes the prompt script. This includes not only the entire text of dialogue and stage directions but how the actors move on the stage and all the light, sound, and music cues. For the rest of the rehearsal period it’s the ultimate arbiter of what cast and crew are supposed to be doing — until the director makes changes, of course.

How the actors move onstage is called blocking — and that’s exactly what I often do when writing a scene. I’m both the director giving directions and the stage manager writing it all down. My characters are my actors. I watch them, prompt them, and sometimes even become them. I also listen to them, because often they tell me what I need to know.

One benefit of this is that it keeps my attention on what my characters are doing, and how they look doing it, as well as what they are saying. In my writers’ group, a common comment when dialogue goes on too long uninterrupted is “More body language!” Characters reveal themselves in what they do and how they move as well as what they say.

What they say (or don’t say) is crucial too, of course, and theater is an ongoing master class in dialogue. Sometimes a reader will complain that a stretch of dialogue goes on too long. To this I respond that full-length plays are virtually all dialogue. We can be riveted for two hours by people talking. As I wrote some years ago in a blog post “Monologue About Dialogue,” the challenge is to create dialogue that’s not only realistic but riveting — “dialogue that develops characters, moves the plot along, and gives the reader a break from one narrative paragraph after another.” You can learn plenty about this from both reading plays and watching them performed.

Sometimes dialogue does go on too long. Theater experience comes in handy here too. Imagine the dialogue being played out onstage. Would you be riveted, or would you start fidgeting, flip through your program, or even think of walking out? Novelist-screenwriter Thomas McGuane called the lengthy, un-riveting sort of writing “dead air,” and he drew on theater and his screenwriting experience to get the point across: “After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.”

A poet I once workshopped with called this dead time “soft ice”: it doesn’t bear weight. You’ll probably have plenty of dead air and soft ice in your early drafts. In revising, you recognize it and either punch it up or throw it out.

Finally, one more lesson from my involvement in community theater: Less is (often) more. Local actors in the late 20th century were lucky to have as a dialect and accents coach the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. When we actors were cast as a character who was southern or English or Russian or Australian, we went to her to learn how to sound the part. Her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way. Conveying a character’s accent, dialect, or use of slang can become parody if overdone, and parody can come across as insulting. So try taking Dr. Gurren’s advice: write as authentically as possible the first time around, then back off enough that the accent, dialect, or slang doesn’t call attention to itself.

R Is for Reading(s)

When I blogged A to Z in 2017, R was for Readers. That’s worth a look if you’ve got an extra moment. I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter at the time. The two lines I quoted from her are worth repeating (virtually everything Le Guin wrote is worth repeating, and rereading):

“A story or poem may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

After comparing “well-made writing” to a “well-made clay pot,” which people put to different uses, and into which they put different things: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

Le Guin sees readers as active participants in what a work means. It differs from person to person, and it definitely differs over time. I’m currently taking an online seminar on William Faulkner, a writer who’s intimidated the hell out of me for over four decades, even though he died in 1962, when I was 11 years old and had never heard of him. We just finished three sessions on The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929. What I take out of that novel now is not what I would have taken out of it when I was in college, if I’d managed to get through it, which I didn’t.

Anyway, back to “active participants.” You’ll never meet the overwhelming majority of people who read your published work. Hell, William Faulkner was long dead before I was ready to read his work, and Shakespeare was much, much longer dead before he became required reading for high school students.

Musicians and theater actors, on the other hand, regularly get to have contact with their audiences. If they perform in a stadium or a huge theater, the contact won’t be one-on-one, but they’ll still get to feel how the audience is responding to what they do. If it’s in a much smaller venue, like a coffeehouse, audience members and performers may get to meet face to face after the show.

Poets and writers can have this experience too. In the age of Covid-19, face-to-face opportunities are almost non-existent, but we had them before, and they will come back. Public libraries often host readings by local writers. If you’re lucky enough to have a coffeehouse or similar venue nearby, check them out. They may already have a spoken-word series or be willing to start one.

If no public space is available, how about a house reading? Musicians of the sort who don’t require massive equipment do house concerts: these take place in private homes with living rooms large enough to accommodate 20 or 30 people (when social distancing is not required). The seating is cozy and not always on chairs.

How do you get people to come? If the venue is small, like your or a friend’s living room, word-of-mouth is the best way to start: friends, friends of friends, family members, fellow writers . . . A double bill with a writer friend or a musician will greatly increase, maybe even double, your circle of possible attendees.

Combining a reading with a potluck can make a reading more enticing to those who’ve never been to a reading or who have had less-than-wonderful experiences at the ones they’ve attended. I first read my work in public at a potluck-reading organized by the writers’ group I was part of at the time. The place was packed, and it was a great experience for all, especially those of us who’d never read in public before.

While Covid is still with us, you might be able to pull off a Zoom reading.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been to many readings yourself, you’ve probably been to some awful ones. What makes a reading awful? The two biggest reasons:

  • The reader(s) go on much too long.
  • The reader(s) are mediocre performers.

The first problem is easy to fix: Don’t go on too long. Forty-five minutes is plenty long enough for a set of prose or poetry if the writer or poet has some experience as a performer. No more than two sets in an evening, please, and make sure there’s a 15- or 20-minute intermission between them. If there are several readers on the program, 10 minutes max is a good guideline. If there’s a more experienced and/or better-known reader involved, that person can have a full set, with the other (probably earlier) set divvied up among three or four writers.

This segues neatly into how not to be a mediocre performer:

  • Time your reading. With practice you’ll be able to guesstimate how long it takes you to read, say, a page of prose, but a guesstimate is no substitute for actual timing.
  • Note the word practice. Musicians, dancers, and other performers know they have to practice. Plenty of writers don’t get this. Performing — which is to say communicating to an audience — isn’t the same as writing. Some writers are natural performers. Others aren’t. Whether you are or not — practice. Draft a friend or two to give you feedback: too fast? too slow? fuzzy enunciation? etc.
  • Come to your piece the way an actor comes to a script: as if someone else wrote it. A theater director told me this long ago, and it may be the most important advice I ever got. Memorizing lines for a play, an actor says them over and over and over again. She isn’t just imprinting them in memory; she’s trying out different ways of saying them, different phrasing, different tones, different emphases. By the way, I generally recommend not memorizing whatever you’re going to read, not unless you’ve got some performing experience under your belt. You do, however, want to know your work well enough that you don’t have to keep your eyes glued to the printed page or the laptop screen.

You’ll probably find that giving readings affects your writing. You’ll start writing with your ear as well as your eye; you may develop the habit (if you haven’t already) of reading everything you write aloud. Maybe it’ll whet your appetite for theater: you may want to experiment with staging, or start writing monologues or other pieces that are meant to be performed, and not just by you. In that case, go ahead and memorize your work so you can perform unencumbered by your “script.”

 

D Is for Deadline

You know we’re off to a good start: I’m writing this at half past noon on the day after it was supposed to be up. Never mind what the button says: Blowing off deadlines is not good practice if you value your income and/or reputation.

But if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never missed a deadline, I’d be surprised.

And if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never used deadlines as an excuse, I’d be even more surprised. In the last month I’ve avoided two or three events by saying “I’m on deadline.”

It wasn’t a lie. I had three editing deadlines to meet in a two-week period, all on substantial book-length jobs. The real story is a little more complicated. I took on one job with a more-than-reasonable deadline: a little over 200 pages in about four weeks. The deadline was so reasonable that I accepted another job. And then another.

So I was on deadline, but I could have finished that first job in two weeks easy if I hadn’t taken on the other two.

I bitch about deadlines, but in truth I like them. They help me stay relatively organized. And the adrenaline surge can be, well, a rush. For the better part of a decade, from the late 1980s to the late ’90s, I worked for a weekly newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Key ingredients in the weekly rush to deadline:

  • Martha’s Vineyard is an island.
  • The printer was off-island.
  • The “boards” from which the paper would be printed had to reach the printer by a certain time to ensure that the finished copies would arrive on the island early the next morning.
  • In the days before digital transmission, there were only two ways to get the boards to the printer: by ferry or by plane.
  • Ferries and planes have fixed schedules.

The paper came out on Thursday, so Wednesday was deadline day. The boards had to be on the 5:00 ferry, without fail. No matter how much writing, editing, and paste-up got done earlier in the week — the features sections generally went to bed by Tuesday night — Wednesdays were synchronized chaos: stories breaking, reporters writing, advertisers begging to change their ads or get a new one in, and everything having to be edited, proofread, and pasted up.

Me checking the boards on my last day as features editor, October 1993. In 1996 I returned as one-woman copy desk, where I remained till I went full-time freelance in mid-1999.

I loved it. I loved the way we all came through under escalating pressure, right up to the moment that the finished boards were zipped into the big black carrying case and the editor in chief headed out the door.

After that we crashed, of course, and it was a groggy bunch of campers who showed up for staff meeting the next morning. But the camaraderie and the sense of achievement was real. We knew we could depend on each other to come through under pressure.

On the subject of pressure — I was the paper’s main theater reviewer in those days. Theater reviews had to run by opening night, which was usually our publication day or the day after. This often meant that I’d review the last or next-to-last dress rehearsal.

The deadline curbed my perfectionist tendencies, but on one occasion I froze. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The lead actress was excellent — but I had no idea what the play was about. I couldn’t watch the play again, or interview the director, or even read up on Beckett. (This was before the World Wide Web, so research options in my small town were limited.) I had to write something, so I riffed on the notes I’d taken, trying to understand what was going on.

Into the paper went my review, and after the paper came out on Thursday, the lead actress told me I’d “gotten it.” I knew her pretty well and don’t think she was just being nice. It was a major life lesson to realize I could wing it under that kind of pressure and not wind up with egg on my face.

Working on a big project without a set deadline is hard. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, my writers group stopped meeting. Well into the fourth draft of my second novel, I hadn’t realized how much I depended on those meetings to keep going. Sunday night was my weekly deadline. When it stopped, so did I.

Meetings resumed in warm weather, when we could meet, socially distanced, outside. In the fall we finally made the transition to Zoom. By then I’d put the novel aside and taken up another project: The T-Shirt Chronicles, a blog organized around my formidable T-shirt collection. Will I pick the novel up again? Not sure, but as time goes on I’ve been thinking that maybe the weekly deadline was getting in the way, and what I needed was time to step back and consider the structure of the thing. The novel’s ingredients are all fine, but the whole isn’t doing what I want it to. I’m not even sure I know what I want it to do.

Short version: Deadlines can be powerful motivators, and that includes the ones you set for yourself if you take them as seriously as the ones others set for you. But pacing yourself so that every deadline doesn’t become a crunch is important too. Leave your mind time to meander a little off the track, to follow up on leads that might take a while to bear fruit. And when you meet a deadline and know you’ve done a good job, pat yourself on the back.

Adventures in Copyright

As a longtime editor and writer I knew the basics about copyright:

  • I own the copyright in any original work that’s fixed in some tangible medium. IOW, if I print out copies of a novel chapter for my writers’ group, it’s copyrighted. I don’t have to put “© 2018 by Susanna J. Sturgis” on it. However . . .
  • If I want to defend my copyright against possible infringement, it needs to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • You can’t copyright an idea.

Then things got complicated. I was offered an honorarium to develop a script from 1854 . . . a folk opera, a concept left behind by one Jack Schimmelman when he died in 2015. This concept included some inspired ideas but few distinctive characters, no story, and no usable dialogue. It was a stretch for me: I’m basically a nonfiction writer with a minor in fiction, but I’ve also got some theater background, my three one-act plays have all been staged, and I’m good at dialogue. As a longtime editor, I’m also pretty good at recognizing the potential threads in a big pile of carded wool.

Aside: For some background on the work, see “Fundraiser for 1854,” written by me for another blog I manage.

I took the gig. I read and reread works about and written in the 1850s.  The project absorbed most of my writing energies through last fall and into the winter.

After a few writer friends read it and an informal read-through was held in April, I knew I had something. I cut some characters (it’s still got a big cast) and did some trimming. It was still a work in progress, but it was ready for further testing.

By then, however, my alarm bells were starting to ring. An advisory committee had been formed to produce something stageworthy from this concept. It was led by the principal in the one-man nonprofit that owned the copyright on the original concept — the person who hired me to develop the script. Its members had even less theater experience than I did.  It was seriously suggested that, since resources were lacking to produce the whole work in 2018, half of it be produced this year and half of it next. I suggested instead that a staged reading be held this year, to refine the script and create some buzz, and a full production in 2019. This suggestion was adopted.

The alarm bells, however, were ringing louder and louder. At fundraisers and in PR, the work was identified as 1854 . . . a folk opera, by Jack Schimmelman. My play wasn’t an opera — the original concept wasn’t either; at most it was a blueprint from which an opera could be developed — and Jack Schimmelman didn’t write it.

I could see the day coming when I might have to defend my rights in this script. In other words, I had to register the copyright. First, though, I had to find out what my rights were. I wanted to give Jack Schimmelman credit for his work, but I didn’t want him getting credit for mine.

I engaged an attorney who specializes in copyright, including theater and performing arts law. In a series of emails I explained the situation and he walked me through it. At the outset, he confirmed my belief that my script wasn’t a “work made for hire.” It wasn’t “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.” The fact that I’d been hired and paid to do it made it a commissioned work, but it fulfilled none of the conditions that might have made it work for hire. Even if it had, we had never “expressly agree[d] in a written instrument signed by [the parties] that the
work shall be considered a work made for hire.”

The next question was whether it was a “derivative work” —  one “based on or derived from one or more already existing works.” In many instances, this is obvious: a movie is based on a novel, a work is translated from one language into another, a drawing is made from a photograph, and so on. Since ideas can’t be copyrighted, my case was trickier. The lawyer suggested at first that my script might not be derivative at all. I went through Schimmelman’s concept again, page by page. I’d used none of his original text, but I had borrowed his basic structure and some of his characters, one in particular. I pointed this out to the lawyer. He agreed — and reminded me that  the copyright owner of a derivative work holds all the rights to her original contribution.

Apart from two passages from Frederick Douglass, which are in the public domain, that meant the entire script. I had emails and a payment record to show that I’d had permission to develop a script from the copyrighted concept. Earlier this month, I registered my script electronically with the U.S. Copyright Office, forked over $55, and uploaded the most current copy of the work.

So last night 1854 had an unstaged reading. It was planned before I knew what my rights were, so (other than singing in the chorus) I had no hand in it. The good news is that we had a good audience, the audience was enthusiastic, and at the end the co-director announced that I had written the script. The not-so-good news is that the cover of the program identified the work as “1854 . . . a folk opera,” by Jack Schimmelman, my credit as playwright was buried on the back cover, and my annotated notes about the characters were included in the program with no attribution whatsoever.

I am, in other words, very glad that I engaged a lawyer, ascertained my rights, and registered my copyright. Now 1854 cannot be produced or recorded without my permission, which I’ll be happy to give as long as the title of the work is 1854 (no more “folk opera”) and I’m identified as the playwright.

Dear Characters: Now What?

It’s been two and a half months since I last posted here. Eek. It’s not because I’ve had nothing to say about “writing, editing, and how to keep going” — it’s more that I’ve had too much. At some point “too much” became overwhelming because I didn’t know where to start.

Sound familiar? You’ve been there before and so have I, so I’m doing the only thing that’s worked in the past: Start somewhere.

Travvy, on whom the title character of Wolfie is based

So I’m closing in on the end of draft #3 of Wolfie, my novel in progress, The writing of draft #3 has deepened the characters, enriched the story, and surprised me quite a few times. I just arrived at the key scene where draft #2 stopped. It’s not the end of the novel, but by the time I got here last time around, I knew I had to let both the characters and the plot develop further before I could see my way forward.

In the eternal debate between “planners” and “pantsers” — those who map out their plots before they even start writing, and those who plot “by the seat of their pants” — I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a general idea of where I’m going. Almost from the beginning I’ve had a final, or near-final, scene in mind. The trick is figuring out how to get there.

Characters are key for me. They drive the plot, but sometimes I have to get to know them better and even nudge them along. When I was doing a lot of community theater, one director repeatedly urged his actors to “make interesting choices.” An interesting choice leads to more interesting choices — the way one billiard ball bumps another and makes it move? Less interesting choices lead to dwindling energy or even dead ends.

In real life I’ll usually choose to avoid conflict. Onstage or in fiction, this can be an interesting choice, but not if you have a whole cast of characters choosing to play it safe.

Is it a selfie when one hand takes a picture of the other hand?

So I’ve arrived again at my key scene. It’s the scene that nearly all the characters have been moving toward through the entire novel. It’s as if the logs and kindling have been laid for a bonfire — but who’s going to strike the match?

As usual at such crossroads, I’ve turned to my fountain pens and started writing in longhand. I’m playing with possibilities. It’s almost like conducting an audition: which character is the most interesting choice, and what interesting choice will that character come up with?

Watch this space!

But That’s How It Happened!

“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”

This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.

I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.

An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?

Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.

This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.

When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.

Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .

Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.

And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you.  This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?

If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.

Do the Doing: An Actor Writes

This seems related to my recent post about details. Using her experience as an actress, the author writes: “Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.” I think something similar is true for writers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest post from Cecile Callan:

“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.

I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.

“But it feels that intense,” I argued.

“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.

I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had…

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Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.

Monologue About Dialogue

The catalyst for this post was a recent musing about “How Do You Create Realistic Dialogue?” on the Creative Writing for Me blog.

At the time I was reworking a chapter from Wolfie that’s nearly all dialogue. Almost 30 manuscript pages of nearly all dialogue. The warning lights were flashing: It’s too long! It’ll put readers to sleep! Readers want action action action, and talk is not action!

Aside: That “readers won’t like it” mantra gets embedded in our heads. It’s not just editors we have to talk back to: it’s ourselves.

But full-length plays are virtually all dialogue. We can be riveted for two hours by people talking.

So how to create dialogue that’s not only realistic but riveting? Dialogue that develops characters, moves the plot along, and gives the reader a break from one narrative paragraph after another?

Listen to people talk. Listen to yourself talk. Listen to the self-talk that goes on inside your head. Pay attention to how they talk as well as what they’re saying. Some people speak carefully, weighing every word. Others rush headlong into a sentence and don’t get to the end till five minutes later. In a conversation of more than two people, there’s usually one who says almost nothing. People use words to evade and conceal as well as to communicate.

Pay attention to the interactions. People in conversation react to each other. Sometimes it’s obvious: one person interrupts another, or two people complete each other’s sentences. Other times it’s subtle: one person has something to say but holds back, maybe waiting for the right opening, maybe from self-doubt. Or one person has zoned out of the conversation completely and is just itching to get out of there.

Read everything aloud. I read everything aloud, even narrative passages, even essays and reviews, but with dialogue and monologue (like the thoughts swirling inside a character’s head) it’s crucial. I read my long conversational chapter aloud to my writers’ group, Because of its length I did it in two parts. To my surprise and delight, they weren’t bored.

Let it flow. My dialogue usually starts when I point two or more characters at each other and let them talk. In first-draft mode I let them go on, and on and on and on. Often it’s not till they’ve gone on for a while that they get to the point, and often I don’t recognize it until they get there.

Shape your dialogue. People in books, plays, movies, and TV shows generally don’t talk like people you overhear on the bus or at the grocery store, but their conversations still sound “realistic.” You the writer have to actively distill the way people really talk into dialogue that sounds natural but gets to the point more efficiently than any real-life conversation. This takes practice, and a lot of it. Here are some things to keep in mind.

• What do you want this scene or this bit of dialogue to accomplish? Usually it’ll be more than one thing: disclose a bit of information, reveal something about a character, show how the relationship between two characters is developing, etc.

• Even more important, what does each of the speakers want to accomplish? What does each want from the other(s)? Send each character into the conversation with a goal. My very long conversation involved several characters, all of whom already knew most of the others. I had an agenda — Amira has to reveal to Shannon a crucial bit of backstory about someone who isn’t there — and so did each character. Giles, a successful artist, wants to encourage Shannon, a chronic procrastinator, to keep painting. Shannon is trying not to fall in love with Amira. Amira is troubled by a traumatic family event. Jay wants to watch the Celtics game on TV.

• People are not talking heads, even when we’re sitting at the supper table or watching TV. We fidget with our clothing, we gaze off into the distance. In theater, film, and TV, the actors show us all this. In a story or a novel, the writer has to do the showing. Pay as much attention to what your characters do as to what they say.

• People often talk in slang, sentence fragments, and anything other than neatly constructed sentences.  Punctuation conventions are generally aimed at producing neatly constructed sentences. Beware the editor what wants to punctuate your dialogue according to The Chicago Manual of Style or the precepts of some grammar guru. At the same time, you needn’t rely entirely on punctuation to shape your dialogue the way you want readers to hear it. You’ve got other tools in your toolkit. Pay attention to how words sound, and how sentence structure affects what words are emphasized. (When a writer overuses italics, it’s often because she’s not paying enough attention to the pacing and cadence of her sentences.)  Where you put the “tag” — the he said/she said — in a piece of dialogue can have a big effect on how your readers hear it.

A couple of my previous blog posts deal with dialogue. See “Of Dots and Dashes” and “Editing Workshop, 1.” Both focus on punctuation, which is an essential tool in shaping dialogue.

So — have you got any bits of dialogue that are giving you trouble? Other Write Through It readers can learn from your questions — and from the bits that work especially well too. Send them along using the contact form below.

 

 

Beyond the Written Word

Words flow through my fingers and onto the paper, onto the keyboard. I take them for granted, even when they’re lumpy or reluctant or stuck. They flow out of my mouth as reliably as tap water (I’m lucky that way). Sometimes I sing them. I’m not a real singer, but I sing regularly, in a pick-up group — all comers welcome — that gets together monthly to sing and also in the Spirituals Choir. The choir is part of the U.S. Slave Song Project. We sing the folk songs sung by African slaves in America between 1619 and 1865.

For more than a decade, between the mid-1980s and the very late 1990s, I was very involved in local theater, first as a reviewer for one of the local papers, then mainly as a stage manager and actor. I even wrote several one-act plays.

Mostly these days, though, my creative life is words on paper and words on screen, writing them and editing them.

A couple of weeks ago, Roberta Kirn, the leader of the pick-up group I sing with and also a dancer, drummer, and teacher, sent round an email to all the singers, drummers, and musically inclined people on her list. An upcoming production at The Yard was looking for singers to form a sort of flash mob in the audience during the performance. Contact information was provided.

Of course I was tempted — but I’m not a real singer: was I a good enough singer to do this, whatever it was? And The Yard is a summer dance colony in the next town over. Of all the creative arts, dance is the one I have the least affinity for. Dance is a language I don’t speak. It’s spoken mostly by skinny people who can contort their bodies in impossible ways. I’m not skinny now, and for a couple of decades I was downright fat. My contortions are all mental. I do them with words.

Poster for "The Queue" at The Yard

Poster for “The Queue” at The Yard

Still, it sounded fun, and a little risky, and an excuse to get out of my head. I signed up. I had to miss the rehearsal; the director said come anyway. Our song was a three-part arrangement of the chorus of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Before Friday night’s performance, we did a run-through with the cast of The Queuedeveloped and performed by the Lucky Plush dance theater company from Chicago. The company began the song onstage, then the half dozen or so of us singers joined in from our scattered seats in the audience. I managed to pick up my note, hold my part, and remember the song even with no one around me to lean on — always a worry of mine.

The big reward was getting to see The Queue twice through. It’s set in an airport. At the beginning, apart from a gay couple setting out on their honeymoon, the seven players don’t know each other. Gradually connections develop and emerge among them. The piece is theater as well as dance. I do speak theater, and I totally forgot that I don’t speak dance. In theater, how the actors use space and their own bodies can be at least as important as what they do with their voices and the words of the script. The Queue draws on slapstick, vaudeville, and the great choral production numbers of yesteryear, among other things, and since the players are trained dancers who can do astonishing things with their bodies, I forgot that dance, music, and theater are supposed to be separate arts involving separate skills.

Well, OK, I already knew that. Thanks to my theater experience, writing often feels like directing or stage-managing to me. My characters are my actors. I watch them, coach them, and sometimes become them. Singing probably makes me even more attentive to sounds, rhythm, and silences than I would be otherwise. But lately I’ve been so exclusively engaged with the written word it’s like I’ve had blinkers on. Or as if I’ve been riding on an escalator focused entirely on the straight-ahead, screening out all the distractions to left and right.

And dance. I was totally ignoring dance. It’s not just for skinny people, and it’s not just a foreign language spoken in places I’ll never visit. I was just part of a dance production, even if all I did was stand up and sing.

Writers are scavengers. We’re the ultimate recyclers and repurposers. Our minds may seem crammed to capacity, but they aren’t. There’s always room for more.