Friday, July 31, 2020

What Dialogue Can Do for Your Book--And What It Should Never Try to Do

In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  They mostly wanted to know what editors looked at first, when reviewing a manuscript? 

Answer:  Editors scan the pages for a section of dialogue.  They read it.  If it's good, they read more.  

If it's not good, the manuscript is rejected.

In August I will teach my yearly dialogue workshop, this time on Zoom.  I'm gathering new material and exercises as I find them, and published excerpts we can study as a group to see what Browne and King meant.

But I can't help but remember my life as a restaurant chef, in southern California, working with a wonderful team of cooks.  And how, after hours, we slummed by visiting other restaurants to taste their soups.

Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill.  Most are hard to season expertly, impossible to fake, unless so-so entrees that can be disguised with great sauces. In the food biz, at least when I was working, soups were the litmus test for a cook's skill.  

A strange analogy, perhaps. But it helps me get why dialogue is an important key to many editors.  A so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters or majestic writing.  But dialogue is the "soup" test to a writer's baseline skills.

Does the dialogue contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)?  Are the beats (pauses) placed well?  Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?

On your next soup take-out run, try out my theory.  Do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."

Here are a few dialogue tips making their way into my workshop on August 22.  

Tip #1:  Most dialogue is not about revealing information.
Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject.  This is called a "reveal."  Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc.  If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension.  The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."

Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story.  This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax. 

Reveals are where someone says what they mean.  So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.

I'll say that again:  Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext.  This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.

Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering.  Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said.  All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.

In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.

Tip #2:  Enhance the emotion of the subtext by  connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene. 
In Leif Enger's brilliant novel, Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin.  Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character. 

Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man.  Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off. 

Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances.  No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed.  So there's plenty of great subtext.

In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up. 

Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill:  As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier.  The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints. 

We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels.  The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly. 

Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.

Study Enger's writing for how this is done.  And try it yourself:  If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way.  Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.

The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.

Tip #3:  Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats.  A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge.  At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader.  In other words, things get more complicated.

Beats are like road maps in dialogue.  They are placed carefully because of this one rule:  Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.

That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension.  Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.

Here's an example: 
"I love you," he said, "not her." 

(You is the word that carries weight here.)

What if the dialogue read:  "I love you, not her," he said.  (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)

Can you see the difference?  Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue? 

Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said). 

"I know your name."  He took a pull on his drink.  "I just forgot it."  (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Emotions: Bringing Them to the Page through Gestures, Movement, Facial Expressions, and More

A client in California emailed me a few weeks ago about film she watched that helped her write emotions more vividly into her memoir.  

"As you know all too well," she said, "I don't write emotion--I just can't get the hang of it. Yesterday I had the best lesson I could imagine when I watched the 2008 animated movie Wall-E. In the first half of the movie only two words are spoken--the names of the two little robots who fall in love and have adventures. Yet the story is highly emotional. 

"Eve, the girl robot expresses delight with squinted eyes and giggles, suspicion with staring eyes and whipping rapidly this way and that, love with downcast eyes and a little moan. Wall-E, the boy robot, cocks his head and raises one eye (raised eyebrow-like), touches his hands together over his heart to show love, when he is afraid, he digs a whole, then peeks over the edge with terrified eyes and whole body trembling. And so much more.
"The story is a good hyperbolic statement on what we have become in this time. The movie is brilliant and a terrific lesson on writing!"

I appreciated this tip (and it'll go on my Netflix watchlist), because it is hard to write emotions.   It's not that we don't feel them.  We just have trouble getting them onto the page in a way that translates for a reader.

Another student referred me many years ago to The Emotion Thesaurus, now a series of books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  Between these two authors there are now at least fifteen volumes, ranging from writing rural or urban emotions to emotional wound.  I only own the original and I love it--like any thesaurus, it gives you options when you're stuck for a word or a way to describe feelings.

I especially refer to it when I begin to repeat myself!  Anyone experience that?

Back to Wall-E and my client's experience:  the words to describe feelings are just a small part of transmitting them on the page.  We humans communicate a tremendous amount without words--via facial expressions, gestures, movement, body language.  If we were watching a movie or stage play, we'd see these.  On the written page, we need to consider them and add them in.

A tip:  When writers begin to access these non-word ways to communicate a character's emotions, it's such fun and freeing that they can go overboard.  Readers can absorb one or maybe two in a sentence or paragraph.  

You can say "Elise shrugged, gave a half smile, and rubbed her nose, then looked down at her feet" once in a while.  But if you use multiple shown emotions too many times, the writing becomes a three-ring circus that's hard to follow.  Restraint is also fun.

Friday, July 17, 2020

What's the Primary Environment of Your Book--Physically, Emotionally, Intellectually, Spiritually? And Why Does It Matter?

A new author wrote me this week. She'd read my writing-craft book, Your Book Starts Here, and it helped her realize which book project she needed to focus on first: a self-help/memoir hybrid. But she was confused by my chapter on finding the primary environment of your story. How did this apply to her book?

Every book has an environment that it lives in. I think of it like a lab where the experiment lives in a beaker or container. 

Everything happens within that container. 

It's easy to imagine the container of a novel: it's the physical setting, the culture a family or community, the era when it takes place. A story that takes place in the sixties in the U.S. has a different container than a sci-fi novel. In memoir, same thing. Our memoirs are particular to our personal stories--wherever they take place.  

I think of a memoir written about civil war in Rhodesia (Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) compared to a memoir about being a scientist (Hope Jahren's Lab Girl). Really different containers. 

Let's look at nonfiction next--the self-help twist of this author's book and what it brings to the container question.

Her book chronicles a weight-loss journey, the memoir part, but it also delivers information and encouragement to others on such a journey, which is the nonfiction part.  

This writer says there are a lot of "environments" in the book: thoughts, emotions, and the physical environment of her experience of weight loss. That's all good--the memoir side of her equation would include stories about her journey. 
Readers will need to have illustrations of her experiences, which are anecdotes or actual examples of times she struggled or was victorious or learned something new. 

Rather than just telling us a realization, self-help/memoir hybrids show us these turning points through actual stories. How is this done?

Recently I reread Brene Brown's self-help book, Braving the Wilderness. It seems informational at first glance but if you study her chapters, you'll see story occupies at least 50 percent of the page space. Which is a great ratio to shoot for with any nonfiction hybrid. 

Brown's own stories are there, plus anecdotes from other people she knows or has read about. These stories humanize the information, so readers don't feel they're being lectured to. She's an expert but the expertise comes to us in a very digestible form.  

That's the ideal 50-50 balance of outer story and inner story for this genre.

So, then, what's the environment of such a book? You only have to look at the title to see it: the wilderness. It's all about the wilderness of the world right now, the metaphor of things being wild and out of the norms of control that we've grown used to. 

Her stories all take place in the "container" of wilderness. Not all literal wilderness in nature, but psychological, spiritual, and emotional wilderness. 

How might this take-away transfer to my reader's weight-loss book? I'll put my own spin on this, and she can see if it works for her or gives her an idea of where to go to find her own.

In a weight-loss journey, you let go of what you no longer need to carry. You also possibly embrace a new image of yourself. It might feel uncomfortable, unprotected, or at least unfamiliar to live without the weight you're used to carrying. You have to get used to new movements, new look, new clothes, maybe taking up less space physically and otherwise. 

These are all my thoughts, and she will have her own, since every journey and every book is different. 

But whatever she comes to, she can jump right in to imagining the "environment" of her weight-loss book and choose stories and examples that connect around it. 

Examine any published hybrid (memoir/self-help or some similar combination) and you'll see a container. It might look like the book's message, or theme. But if it's well structured, the stories and examples will all connect to this container, as Brown's wilderness container holds all of her stories. 

Good question, slightly complicated answer. If this is the genre of your book, take time this week to browse online or in a bookstore for published titles in that same genre.  

See if you can discern the container, the primary environment, of these books. Chances are, they got published because the agent/editor/publisher could. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Strictly Accurate Memoir? True-Life Novel? How Close to the Line Do You Ride?

Camilla was a writer in my New York classes many years ago. She completed a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II. I remember it as a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters. I also remember the dilemma she faced when she began sending it out into the world.

She wrote me, "I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous. Although calling it a novel seems untruthful. In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual. I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction. Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II? 

"And I have all these photographs that kick off some of the chapters. I think these old photos really add to the story. Do you think I can get away with calling it family history, and still attract an agent?"

Camilla's question is common to many memoirists. First, we must ask ourselves: What is a memoir? 

It's a true story, written by the author, about their own life (not an autobiography--not covering an entire life, just a snapshot of it).  As I wrote about last week, most modern memoirs revolve around a pivotal event that births an argument or theme. 

Because of this, twenty years ago, many booksellers didn't know what to do with the memoir genre. They shelved memoir with biography and autobiography--because back then only famous people published stories about their own lives. 

Now it's different. Memoir is hot genre. It has produced unprecedented scandals and changes in publishing. Memoirs easily climb to the top of bestseller lists these days, and ordinary (read: not famous) people with extraordinary events or different perspectives are now welcome by publishers. 

Because it's a hot genre, many writers have tried to climb aboard, with stories that are not really true. And this has led to the big question: How much of memoir needs to be true? How can we really remember accurately? And how does an honest writer tell an accurate story of her life? 

Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous book I Could Tell You Stories, writes about this dilemma: "No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory." 

Add to this brain science's recent discoveries that memory changes as we remember something.  How it is possible to accurately tell what happened when we were very young, or very traumatized, or very ignorant?

This has provoked wonderful discussions among writers. Hampl suggests that there are two kinds of truth in writing about real life:
the emotional truth
the factual truth

Learning the difference--and finding out where you stand on the line between the two--is the first step. 

Some writers haven't bothered. They just had a great story to tell, and they really didn't care if it was accurate. Thus was born the "fake memoir." 

A well-known fake memoirist was James Frey. His 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, made it to Oprah's book club, the highest rung on the promotional ladder, until his story was revealed as false and Oprah denounced him on air. 

Margaret Seltzer followed close behind with her 2008 memoir about growing up in Los Angeles amid gang wars and drug lords, Love and Consequences. When her sister outed her, saying they had no such background, the published book was pulled from the shelves. 

But this is not new. Even before these recent scandals were quieter ones: Two favorites, The Education of Little Tree(1976) and Mutant Message Down Under(1991), were published as memoirs of life with native populations but turned out to be fictionalized. 

I loved both of these books. I remember how they held me up during some tough periods in my life, and how it made little difference to me that they were not true life.The Education of Little Tree was about a boy living with the Cherokees, but actually written by "a former white supremacist," according to Wikipedia. Shocking, and a betrayal of a reader's faith. But to be honest, I still loved the book, and I still own a copy.

Who likes to be lied to? I don't. I depend on truth, or as close to truth as possible, in what I read. 

But I do love a great story. I also depend on being moved, emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, by the books I love.

So here's the rub. The Education of Little Tree, Mutant Message Down Under, drew me in as a reader. Good stories, well told. It pained me to hear what the writer had done, in each case. But the books still engaged me. Am I a flawed person to think this?

Hampl might say that I was drawn in by an emotional truth in each book, even as I was later repelled by its falsity in facts.
So there's the line: Emotional truth and factual truth--where do you comfortably stand, as a writer? 

Back to Camilla's question.

Writers, who are delving into the unreliable area of memory, are beginning to wise up, and a new genre is emerging in publishing today: the true-life novel or faction book. 
Jeannette Walls authored a very popular memoir, The Glass Castle, then went on to write its prequel, Half-Broke Horses.Although The Glass Castle is labeled as "memoir," and we still assume all those events are true, Half-Broke Horses is called "a true-life novel." 

Walls comments in the introduction that she remembered this story of her grandmother's life, but since she wasn't actually there to hear the dialogue and see the details of facial expression and other facts, she made them up based on what she knew. And because of this imagining process, it was best to call the book a true-life novel. 

Goodreads, a popular online book-sharing forum, has a "shelf" called True-Life Books, which features Walls's novel, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank, A Child Called It, and Elie Weisel's Night. Where's the line here, as far as genre? These last three are classified as memoir, as Walls's latest book is not. Where's the line? 

Some consider Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a work of journalism and fiction both--"the originator of the nonfiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement," says one reviewer.
Those who love factual journalism may feel slightly nauseous as we end this discussion. As a newspaper writer for many years, I can relate. 

"How can you tell what is real anymore, and what is just storytelling?" one student complained. For factual-truth writers, storytelling is nothing in relation to what is real. But for other writers, the thing that matters is whether the reader is engaged. 

No easy answers, but perhaps this discussion will help you answer my original question: where do you stand on the line?

Friday, July 3, 2020

Memoir's Primary Argument--How to Make Sure Your Memoir Has Universal Meaning

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, once said, "The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality.  It's tapping in to your universality."  

A.M. Homes said, "Memoir is about more than you."

My aunt, who is in her 100th year, wrote her memoires.  It was fun to read them, and I learned things about my father's family that I never knew.   This style of memoir follows the Anglo-French definition:  an "account of someone's life." A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.

But if you're gearing towards publishing outside of family and friends, you need to consider the wisdom of memoirists like Strayed and Homes.  Modern memoir is not autobiography.  It focuses on a salient part of a life, not the entire trajectory, as an autobiography might.  And it contains a universal element, a meaning, that has nothing to do with the person writing it. 

I'm teaching an afternoon workshop on memoir on July 17 on Zoom, and I've taught this workshop every summer for about five years. This time, I'm looking into the meaning element of memoir, that universality, and how the writer finds it.

I think there are three steps.  First, I believe the writer needs to orient towards a snapshot, a certain pivotal period of time, that changed his or her life in a big way.  Once you find that pivotal moment that your story orbits around, it's easier to reach out from it to find which storylines are part of the memoir--what might have happened years before which led to this moment,  what happened years later that came as a result.

Second, I think the writer needs to choose where to place the weight of the memoir.  Some memoirists write about the time leading to the pivotal moment; some write about the aftereffects--the living with, surviving from, reconciling or not.  A memoir can often be built on any of these, or sometimes all of them, with the event in the middle.

Once you find that pivotal moment that your story orbits around, it's easier to reach out from it to find which storylines are part of the memoir--what might have happened years before which led to this moment,  what happened years later that came as a result.

Most writers feel they have to include all of their childhood, maybe twenty, thirty, forty years of smaller but significant (to the author) events.  Otherwise, how will the reader understand the big change?  This is where the storyboard comes in so handy.  Memoirists create two or more storyboards, or maps of their storylines, then learn to weave them together like a braided rug.  

But the most intriguing step, the one that fascinates me, is discovering the primary argument of the memoir.  This is the key to its universality, and best described through example.

Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen, is about mental illness, being confined to an institution.  To me, it's primary argument is What is sanity, truly?  The argument is not stated outright, not for a while, but it's clear even in the opening scenes.  That's what draws us in, keeps us reading.  The situation is personal, the argument leads to the universal.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, has three storylines:  her training of a hawk, her father's death and her relationship with him, and the author T.H. White's falconry.  Complex story, so I'm guessing at the primary argument, but it is tied to what drew me in:  what we can control, what we can't, and how love appears within that empty space.

Writers often wonder what backstory to include, and where to put it.  The argument tells you.  Only backstory that elucidates it is needed.  If Kaysen included stories of trips to the circus as a young girl but they didn't illustrate the question of sanity, they'd feel off to the reader--the writer stepping in where she wasn't wanted.  

This takes incredible restraint. Because everything is fascinating to us, who lived it.

Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance, talks about the "frame" of a memoir.  Which window will your memoir look out of?  This is another way of getting to the primary argument and one I use in the workshop, because it's also fascinating.  Shapiro's frame concept forces the writer to focus the story in some direction.  Unlike an autobiography, it's heading towards a universal meaning. 

This week, I'll share a writing exercise, a taste of what we'll be exploring in the workshop on July 17.  Set a timer or your phone alarm for 20 minutes and begin a list of the most important events in your life, so far.  No censoring, no editing, no explanations needed, just it get on paper.  Then begin to ask yourself if any are related or linked.    Do they have a common argument, or theme, teaching you something about life?

If you're interested in joining me on Zoom on July 17 for more about memoir, click here to go to the Loft's website for more information.