Monthly Archives: July 2016

Driving

Anne Humphrey is a colleague of mine in MCC’s English Department who first joined in on our Winter 2016 writing group. I have a soft spot in my heart for Anne H., because, in addition to being a fellow grammar nerd, ardent defender of the Oxford comma, and my office neighbor, she is also a fellow alum of DePaul’s MA in Writing program.

And, like me (or like I used to be), Anne is used to commuting quite a distance to and from work. Here’s what Anne has to say about taking advantage of driving for her creative endeavors.

This is a guest post from Anne Humphrey, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

This past week, I was on a road trip to Connecticut and back. I love driving. and I love road trips. On the way back on this trip, I was so excited to work on some of what was discussed at the conference, and from seeing old friends there, that I drove all night without getting tired.

But I love to drive in general. Driving for me is not mainly about the trip itself, or the act of driving, but the way driving makes me feel — I am DRIVING as in accomplishing, moving forward, going to a next step.

I commute over an hour, each way, during the school year. Sometimes, people express concern or pity. But I say “I don’t mind. I make phone calls. I listen to podcasts.” To people I know better, I say, “I rehearse for class; I think through various problems.” Some people who correspond with me frequently know that I even manage text and email communication while driving (don’t worry, just at stop signs).

But what I rarely have admitted to anyone is that driving is for me prime writing time. Admittedly, I’m usually working out carefully worded emails about delicate situations, but I’ve worked on my creative writing too, quite a bit, while driving.

We’ve been spending time in this group discussing our writing space, and I am working on a new space in my house. But my main writing space for about thirty years has been in the driver’s seat of my car.

There are things I’ve tried over the years: a pad fitted for the dashboard (people commented on that quite a bit, but it was not really that exotic — my mom got it for me at Walmart); carrying a camera (now can just use my phone for this); carrying a voice recorder (now I can use phone and even voice recognition the same way); and recording phone calls (legal in Illinois if the other party knows you are doing it) — I would use these to talk through writing ideas with my mother or one close friend who is also a writer.

Most of the driving-writing has been inadvertent; ideas just flow for me in that environment, so in thinking about my WIP, ideas would come. Or random new ideas would occur from the stimulation of the driving. However, some writing I have assigned myself as an objective for the road trip.

On one occasion about twenty years ago, I had a novel almost finished but could not work out a central chapter. I knew what needed to happen, and where I wanted it to happen, but I had skipped over the chapter when drafting because I felt intimidated by that piece somehow. So, I said “I will work on that during this trip.” I was driving from St. Charles, IL to Cincinnati. In northern Indiana, I had to stop to replace my voice recorder, which, under the heavy use of this project, chose the first half of that trip to die completely. I forged on. I wrote the chapter. I even thought it almost was good, or at least as good as the rest of the book (which was not very good, but still).

After that, I gave myself many purposeful assignments for during specific trips, both long road trips and my commute. This summer, I had the idea for the “Prince poem” and wrote about half of it on a road trip back from Lake Erie a few weeks ago. On the overnight trip last Sunday night (action photo above), I worked on a different short something and wrote the whole thing. It’s just a short something. I’m not going to say “poem” because in the past few weeks, at two early music conferences, I’ve sat in a few talks about poetry that made me realize that I was not making poems. So for now I am calling them short somethings. Anyway, the Prince short something is still only half done. But I finished the “Midnight Blindspot in a Rearview Mirror” short something, while driving, on an overnight road trip.

I did it using text messaging, texting single lines or couplets to myself. The technology changes, but my method only changes slightly.

MORAL OF THIS RAMBLING STORY: I’d say, when it comes to writing, we should simply do what works: “Just do it.” Get the equipment, be at least somewhat intentional, and do it. Also, the writing space is where you are/where I am. So we should just start writing.

Notwithstanding this strong pitch, I’ll try to finish and post about my in-house writing space for our end post. I’m pretty pleased with it so far. I want the space to be so perfect for my needs that it lures me in, to writing.

Anne (R) dressed as her alter-ego, Grammar Girl, helps me (L) and our colleague Starr (C) recruit students on MCC Night, 2014

Anne (R) dressed as her alter-ego, Grammar Girl, helps me (L) and our colleague Starr (C) recruit students on MCC Night, 2014

Thanks, Anne! Although I don’t promote texting in the car (Trevor can attest to this, since I harangue him if he even looks at his phone while he’s driving), I love these ideas and wholeheartedly agree that writers can capitalize on driving, both for quiet, alone time as well as for brainstorming. So next time you’re stuck on an idea, get in the car and drive!

Week Eight: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week eight of our online writing group!

IT’S WEEK EIGHT! WEEK EIGHT!

It’s a busy time of the summer, so some of our writers are out of town, out of the country, and out of the writing zone, so check back later this week for possible new updates.

And now, our goals!

Week Eight Goals:

  • Alena: I already finished the new short story that I started. So, for the last week of the group, I’ll allow myself to circle back to an old work-in-progress or start a new one.
  • Aliena: Coming soon…
  • Anne D.: What I’m thinking of doing this week is revising a few pieces to be done before the Fall semester starts and submitting them to the literary magazine at Columbia.
  • Anne H.: Coming soon…
  • Bev: Blog about my vacation. Finish my vacation journal. Finish revisions on the next chapter of my memoir, which I dutifully took on vacation with me and consistently ignored for eight full days.
  • Emily: Coming soon…
  • Katherine: Last week, I finished entering my line edit revisions into the computer. It didn’t take me nearly as long as I had initially thought. I also wrote a “closing.”

    My week eight goal is to start researching and writing query letters. Writer’s Digest had a post about some agents looking for memoirs. Also, I want to go to the book store to see who publishes miscarriage and mommy books. HEY YOU MCC FULL TIMERS!!! I might be dropping by in August to see if one of you will look at my query letter(s). I have never ever written one before. (Katherine — Bev might be a great person to hook up with to talk query letters!)
  • Laura: I didn’t get as much done last week as I’d have liked, but I’m excited to continue working this week. I’m going to put my big project aside and get into this shorter piece that’s been lurking around me for years. And I will write the opening scene, at least one paragraph, for a new short story.
  • Lisa: This week I will try to finish and submit my story. Wish me luck! (Good luck!)
  • Matt: I accomplished my most important goal of week seven, which was printing and shipping the 523 pages of my manuscript to my old college thesis adviser, whom I haven’t seen in nineteen years.  That’s a load off my mind!

Meanwhile I have continued my most tedious and painstaking pass through the first story. Each scene seems to reveal a new problem that was invisible before. My goal for the final week is to complete this latest edit of The Liminal Man and finish the eighth week in a state of readiness to move ahead. I’d like to be able to embark on a new read-through of the remaining stories in the aftermath.

  • Matt the Second: Coming soon…
  • Mike: This week’s report and goal will look much like last week’s, but I did continue to make progress with the story. I revised another four pages but didn’t touch the blog post. The goal for this week will be to revise another five pages (which could potentially put me at the end of the story) and finish and publish the blog post.
  • Ray: As always, my writing seems to be going in fits and stops and starts. This week I completed four chapters. I was just in the zone I guess, and I am two chapters away from attaining my goal of having the story arc, completely laid out for a main character, for my third and final novel in the series I am writing. It has been a strange summer, weatherwise, workwise, and the strange world that we suddenly seem to be living in. Some escapism is in order, and I find myself more willing to spend time in storyland, than engaging in following the news. My main concern at this point is that the world will end, before my book comes out about the world ending. Irony huh?
  • Robert: Goal: 7000 words. (Robert, your consistency is my rock, and I am grateful.)
  • Rosalie: I will be making my edits this weekend and then I’m all done. This has been a very difficult project and I’m looking forward to pushing that send button.
  • Sarah: Coming soon…

For this final week, I wanted to give you all a bit of perspective on writing advice. Advice can be helpful, whether you’re a novice writer working on your first piece, or whether you’ve got a list of publications (and an even longer list of rejections, the writer’s best frenemy).

But advice can also be overwhelming, off-base, and just plain wrong, even when it’s coming from someone whose work you admire and who you’ve previously written about as being the Original Gangster of Dialogue.

So this week, please read this funny and on-base essay by Danielle Dutton about terrible writing advice from great writers. As Dutton writes, sometimes “there’s no right track at all” for your writing. Just have faith that what you’re doing is something that can be good, can be great (even if it’s not right now).

Now get writing!

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Week Seven: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week seven of our online writing group!

Nick Dancing in Helmet

We’re almost finished! It sounds as though everyone has made solid progress on works-in-progress, and that makes me feel warm and gooey. I, myself, have gotten more done with this group than I would have without it, and that makes me feel grateful for all of you who are participating. Thank you!

This week, we welcome Donna, who’s going to pop into the group for our last two weeks. I’ve also got some tidbits about willpower from health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal, and later this week, we might have a surprise guest post. (yay! surprises!)

And now, let’s get to the goals.

Week Seven Goals:

  • Alena: I’m nearly finished with the short story I’ve been working on; however, I’m burnt out on it. I’ve started a new short story. It’s pretty experimental so I’m not sure it will eventually get published or anything. Nonetheless, it’s been a good writing exercise for me. My goals for week seven are to work on anything. Just write.
  • Aliena: Coming soon…
  • Anne D.: Coming soon…
  • Anne H.: Finish draft of Prince poem on long road trip this next week. I drafted the first half on a road trip a few weeks ago. If I get this done, perhaps I’ll make a guest post for the next writer’s group on writing while driving. I do quite a bit of work while driving, and I’ve learned a few tips which might be useful, especially for those with long commutes.
  • Bev: Gone fishin’.
  • Donna: My weekly goal is figuring out a name for my main character and what she desires most.
  • Emily: Coming soon…
  • Katherine: Last week I did a line edit of 110 pages and made some structure revisions to the end of the book.

    This week, I need to make my line edits on the computer. I have thirty pages edited on the computer so far. I am also not entirely happy with the final couple of chapters. I want to take a closer look at those next week.
  • Laura: This week I’m going to keep working on revisions to my short story. I’m not ready to start something new, and I’m happy just to keep working on it every day this week. If I need a break, I’m going to investigate the new horror magazine Belladonna Horror for submission guidelines, and then do a bit of brainstorming.
  • Lisa: My goal for this week is to revise a story. I need a break from the work I’ve been looking at, so I’m mixing things up this week.
  • Matt: This week my focus has gotten even smaller, as I find myself spending greater amounts of time on smaller passages. Sometimes completely restructuring sections for clarity, sometimes just cutting out all the synonyms and dialogue tags. It all feels like a natural pace. The next couple of weeks I have more fewer days away from work so I am just hoping to maintain my momentum.

Meanwhile, I was contacted by my thesis adviser from college, Maxine Scates, who oversaw the original creation of the exact story I’m chipping away on at the moment. Having previously given conditional assent to read a draft of my book, she has now requested that I send her a hard copy. So I am in the process of printing that copy now, and I’m pretty excited to get it into her hands as soon as possible. The version of this story that will be included is already out of date, of course, but there’s nothing to be done about that now. It’s a pretty current incarnation, different from what she read twenty years ago, and will be accompanied by hundreds of pages of stories following the same characters that she saw me develop in the mid-nineties. I feel that her participation in this process will be invaluable, whatever form it takes, and I am unbelievably relieved that she is willing to read this thing.

  • Matt the Second: Coming soon…
  • Mike: I managed to get through the next four pages of revisions on my short story (out of the five that was my goal) but I didn’t have a chance to publish the blog post as I hoped. For this week, I plan to revise the next five pages of the story and actually finish and publish the blog post.
  • Ray: Coming soon…
  • Robert: Goal is 7000 words.
  • Rosalie:  I have a very little bit of work and I will be finished with this project. We will be on vacation next week and I won’t be doing any work but I have set aside Sunday the 24th as my finish date. It has been fun and helpful to be in this group. (And it’s been great to have you!)
  • Sarah: Other than a rather organized guest bedroom closet I got nothing done this week. So I am carrying over my previous week’s goals. I am reading a book called Possession, which is inspiring a great deal of thought. Now to capture that in scripts and videos. To the batcave.

Sounds great, everyone!

This week I wanted to talk a bit about productivity. There are so many books and methods and systems out there aimed toward increasing productivity. If you Google the word, you’ll find not only definitions, but lists upon lists upon lists of “tips” from highly productive people. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them just rehash the same-ole, same-ole. Not that keeping to a writing schedule and being accountable are bad — these things are good, and they’re why we’re all here, aren’t they? But we all know that we need to make time for writing, that successful and prolific writers are those who make writing a priority during their day, no matter what. We know this.

But, how do we actually do it?

Like so much else in life, we need to practice: practice using our willpower and self-control in order to strengthen it for the important activities in life, like writing.

Last winter I read a book called The Willpower Instinct, by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, which was much more satisfying than other self-help and pop-science books I’ve read. McGonigal, a lecturer at Standford, used her ten-week willpower seminar as a model for this book, and she recommends looking at each of the ten chapters as a weekly lesson to be thought about and then practiced before moving on. She also uses gobs of psychological studies as the basis for her conclusions and her advice, which I appreciate. (And, yes, “gobs” is a very scientific term. Thank you very much.)

Now, the reason I mention this book is that McGonigal’s thesis resonated with me. Writing each week is not really about creating a tidy work space in your house (sorry, guys), but it is about having the willpower to turn off the t.v., get off your Facebook app, stand up from the couch, and tell your family you need twenty minutes of alone time to write. That. Is. Literally. All. It. Takes.

So why is it so fu@%ing hard?

Well, McGonigal, citing studies from psychologists Roy Baumeister and Matthew Gailliot, among others, writes that “willpower is a muscle you have to build” (McGonigal Ch. 4)*. She uses a “muscle model” of willpower, which likens your self-control to a literal muscle that can be strengthened with targeted practice and exercise. And like all of our other muscles, your “self-control drains throughout the day.” There’s only so much willpower we have to tap into, so if we’re using the same stash to navigate our family, hold productive meetings with work colleagues, eat fewer donuts, and to write more (or write consistently), we might find that there is less and less at the end of the day.

In her third chapter on strengthening our willpower muscle (the fourth chapter of the audiobook), McGonigal writes about Susan, who wanted to start her own business but had to contend with her hour long commute and a ten-hour work day at a demanding job. When Susan got home at the end of the day, she felt too tired to work on her own business plans. She’d been using her willpower up all day long, and it was spent by the time she pulled her car into the garage.

Susan realized, though, that instead of starting her morning at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee, checking her work emails, she would use that same time for her own project. That early morning kitchen table time and space was when she felt clear-headed and full of energy for the day, so why give it up for someone else? She could certainly wait until she got to work to check those emails; she needed to prioritize herself when her willpower was at its strongest.

Clearly, identifying when our willpower is strongest can help us choose when to schedule our own writing time. But that’s not all there is to it: we must also practice using our willpower for small things so that when the time comes and we are supposed to sit down at our writing space, we can actually do it.

This is where Baumeister and Gailliot come in. They aimed to answer the question “could willpower exhaustion simply be a result of the brain running out of energy” (McGonigal Ch. 4). Gailliot used sugar to boost participants’ energy levels, and then looked at how those participants were able to exert willpower. The study’s findings ultimately discovered more about the effects of blood sugar levels on willpower, and supported the scientists’ hypothesis that willpower could be strengthened with exercises in self-control (because mental exercises are a better idea than just eating some sugar every time you need a boost to get some writing done [I’m running an unscientific replication study using Twinkies in an effort to disprove this; I’ll let you know my findings.]).

If the body, and the brain, is out of energy, it may resist exerting extra energy for self-control. And you know that this is true: it’s almost impossible to get out of bed or off the couch if you’ve got a cold or if you’ve had an emotionally taxing day. So how do we strengthen our willpower to make sure we have it when we need it?

McGonigal looked at the Baumeister/Gailliot study, along with others, and found that small exercises can help. She writes that “committing to any small, consistent act of self-control — improving your posture, squeezing a hand-grip every day to exhaustion, cutting back on sweets, and keeping track of your spending — can increase overall willpower” (Ch. 4).

The reason these small acts work is that in order to get into the habit of doing something small, like saying “yes” instead of “yeah,” your brain has to be on alert and then pause before you make the decision. Training your brain for that kind of mindfulness will help you apply it to larger tasks and projects, like your writing.

So these are your jobs this week:

  1. Identify a time of day when your willpower is at its strongest, and then use that time of day for yourself, even if you’re accustomed to using it for someone/something else;
  2. And do something small to practice your willpower. You can focus on improving your posture throughout the day, drinking water instead of soda, or eliminating your own verbal tic (saying “um” a lot, consistently using a slang term…). Choose anything you like, just be aware of it and try to adjust it every day this week.

If nothing else, by the end of this week you’ll have some insight into when you’re most motivated to write, and how good your posture is. This information will be useful!

 

*my citations are for the audiobook, which labels the introduction as “Chapter 1”, so chapter labels in the hard copy will be different

Works Cited:

McGonigal, Kelly. How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Gildan Media, LLC, 4 Jan. 2012. Audiobook.

Further Reading:

Baumeister, Roy F., Matthew Gailliot, C. Nathan DeWall, and Megan Oaten. “Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior.” Journal of Personality 74:6 (Dec. 2006): 1774 – 1802. Web. 18 Jul. 2016.

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Read Me A Story…

Group member Lisa participated in last year’s writing group and wrote an excellent guest post on finding small moments to write. In this post, Lisa shares why reading out loud has become so important — and fun — to her.

Lisa doing a different kind of reading out loud: her own fiction at an MCC faculty reading series

Lisa doing a different kind of reading out loud: her own fiction at an MCC faculty reading series, The Typewriter Factory

This is a guest post from Lisa Crizer, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

Each night, we finish our day here at the Crizer abode with a book. Currently, we’re going between the Random House Book of Ghost Stories, Lila and Myla the Twin Fairies, and Thor: The Mighty.

I have to admit, I love reading aloud. Sure, there are nights, especially when Pinkalicious is requested (again!), when all I want to do is give some quick kisses, tuck a few blankets, and sit in front of the TV as fast as humanly possible. But, as soon as I start reading, I’m always in my happy place.

There’s something special about hearing your own voice as you read the words on the page, pacing yourself, finding the slight nuances of each character, pausing dramatically, and even choosing to skip an unnecessary dialogue tag here and there. And to say it’s magical for me is nothing compared to how it lights up my little ones; their focused eyes exploring every detail of the illustration; their fingers twiddling with pillow cases as their imaginations give life to unearthly visitors, fantastic creatures, and warrior heroes. I jump at the opportunity to read in my kid’s classroom. Twenty-five little imaginations swirling at once. It’s pretty incredible!

Like most summers, though, I’ve been giving myself grief lately for not reading enough. I borrowed Gaiman’s American Gods from the library (again), I’ve started Rigg’s Hollow City twice now, and Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is on call for tonight. These are all good books, but what makes reading with my kids so much more enjoyable to me right now? We do everything together…everything. So, how can something that has always been such a solitary experience for me changed into such a group activity? I think it’s actually the other way around.

Books and reading have always been such an integral part of my life that they found a way in. Even if I don’t have the time, energy, or focus to read the volume I used to, I am able to share in the wonders of story in a way that is new and different, but really fun and rewarding. I’ll take advantage of this for as long as I can. One day, I’ll be back on my own, curled up with a good book.

Check out the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Storyline Online website with videos of some great children’s books being read by actors. So fun!

Enjoy!

Thanks, Lisa, for sharing. Your kids (and their classmates) are so lucky!

Week Six: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week six of our online writing group!

Week Six, y’all.

Everyone is doing swell, and kicking some butt on the writerly front. This week, in addition to today’s goals post, we’ll have a guest post from Lisa on Wednesday. So come back for that! And now, on to the goals.

Week Six Goals:

  • Alena: Week five has been the first week that I fell short on my goals. *Sad violin.*Now I’m hungry to get back to my short story. (and maybe the novel I’ve been working on too?)
  • Aliena: Coming Soon…
  • Anne D.: Thinking is my goal this week. (Think away, Anne!)
  • Anne H.: I’ve been out of town much of the last four weeks, and had out of town guests another week, so my report is that I’ve done almost nothing since my first burst of energy on the Prince poem (which I am now carrying around, waiting to finish). I hope to have more to report next week! I want to at least get the writing area set-up done. (Even if you don’t, check out last week’s post for writing area tips!)
  • Bev: Week six: Finish the Ch. 11 revisions, which I didn’t get done last week, get Ch. 12 revisions done, do my usual blog post, and pack for vacation.
  • Emily: Goals: 3 more questions for book. Progress: Embarrassing. (Have you gotten out of bed and thought about your writing? YES. No embarrassment.)
  • Katherine: I feel as though I have completely finished my “writing,” and I have moved on to revision this week. I did print out my 110 pages at Office Max. I am working on finding necessary edits and revisions that I missed on the computer. I am 50 pages in.Next week, I need to finish my revision work, which will include some restructuring to the end of the book.
  • Laura: My productivity last week was mediocre, but I’m not discouraged. I have high hopes this week to keep working on my larger project (finish Chapter 2; start Chapter 3), and to continue working on a short story that’s yet unfinished. The person who inspired the story got married last weekend, and his wedding was lovely, so I feel like I owe it to him to just get the damn thing done.
  • Lisa: As far as this week goes, I hope to just write anything. I’ve been slacking this past week, so I’m hoping to get back on track!
  • Matt: I know that, pretty soon, I’m going to embark on another read-through of my entire book, with a lot more editing concerns, but for the moment I’m continuing to focus my efforts on the first story, “The Liminal Man.” Over the past few weeks I’ve put in a lot of hours and succeeded in reducing the overall story length by more than five thousand words, and each strategic reduction is getting me closer to where I need to be. Everything I remove allows me to focus on something else, something revealed in a new light when I chipped away its surroundings.  

After this most recent pass, what became clear to me is that the beginning of the story is the very worst thing that anyone has ever written. It’s so boring that I wept tears that hung themselves in a basement. So that’s what I’m concentrating on right now: making the beginning of the story into something you could actually read. Like, for example, if I put a copy of my story on a table next to a loaded gun, and you sat down to read it, I would like you to be able to at least make it through three or four pages before you grabbed for the gun painted the walls just to avoid having to finish it. To that end, I’ve written a new first line that’s kind of promising, and we’ll take it from there. Week Six: Back to One.

  • Matt the Second: Coming soon…
  • Mike: 1) Continue revising the same short story as in previous weeks; complete another five pages of work on it, and 2) Finish and publish the blog post about my daughter that I worked on last week.
  • Ray: I have been covering another guy’s work all week, and I just got my proofs back for my first book. So I haven’t been getting a lot of writing done. This week things should be back to normal though, and I fully anticipate being able to get some writing done. I am going to aim for one chapter, just to get back into the swing of it.
  • Robert: Goal: 7,000 words this week.
  • Rosalie: I am finishing my project today. Will start massive editing tomorrow and intend to be all done by Friday. It has a soft deadline of July 15, and I intend to make it. 
  • Sarah: I have set up my writing space at the front of the house so that when my three year-old gets engrossed in a game I can be ready to write. That helped me make some progress this week. This week I need a more specific goal to help focus. Currently I have numerous video scripts started but nothing complete. So this week I need to finish China video lectures. I will write the scripts, record the videos and cross China off my to do list.

Last week, I asked participants if they’d rather read a post about writing or a post about project management. No one had a preference, so this week I’m going to focus on writing dialogue.

Writing dialogue is difficult. It takes a writer who’s a good listener, has a good ear, is able capture realistic speech, and balance that speech with a certain amount of exposition. Yeah — it’s difficult. And when you find someone who does it well, you should read as much of it as you possibly can, even if it’s not in your genre. That writer for me is Elmore Leonard.

The summer between my junior and senior years at college, I lived in Washington, D.C. for an internship at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (now called the Multicultural, Media, Telecom & Internet Council). I lived in the Georgetown Law School dorms, which were empty of law students for the summers, so they could be filled with interns like me. I shared a room with another interning student, but I moved in three weeks before she was and (being an introvert), I wasn’t great at starting up conversation in the building commons. And there was no t.v. in my room. And this was 1997. And I wasn’t old enough to go to a bar.

I figured the best way to spend my off-work time was to read (and listen to Loveline every night, because…1997), so I got myself to the bookstore. The movie Jackie Brown, based on Leonard’s Rum Punch, was coming out that December, and I’d seen some trailers. I bought a mass market copy and got reading. And I needed to go back to the book store the very next day. Six books later, my roommate got there and I had a mad literary crush on Elmore Leonard.

The thing I continue to love most about Elmore Leonard — aside from his lovably crooked and frequently bumbling criminal characters — is his dialogue. As I read his dialogue, the voices just came to life in my head. They. Came. To. Life.

And his dialogue is what makes his books so easily and successfully adaptable to the big screen. The screenplays just write themselves because the dialogue can be lifted right off of Leonard’s pages. But it wasn’t always fast or easy for him, just like it’s not fast or easy for any of us. Here he is, talking a bit about writing dialogue:

And now, here is his work in action, from his novel Glitz, the last four pages of Chapter 9. Notice the way he works in summary dialogue (without the quotation marks, not every word, just as part of the narration):

Read this page

Read this page

Now, read this page

Now, read this page

Next, read this page

Next, read this page

Finally, read this page

Finally, read this page

YES.

So, what can someone like me, someone who writes literary fiction, and maybe someone like you, who doesn’t write crime fiction, take from Leonard’s dialogue? First, we can take away how he writes dialogue tags. Notice how he rarely uses any at all, and when he does, it’s only “he said” or the rare “he asked”? There are no adverbs, and he certainly doesn’t have his characters thinking about things as they talk — they just talk. This back-and-forth style of dialogue with very few tags quickens the pace and is doable for a writer of any kind of fiction. And these minimally used, simple dialogue tags make sure that the writing is streamlined.

Another thing we can take away from Leonard’s dialogue is the way he drops words, frequently articles like “a” and “the.” By doing this, Leonard is mimicking spoken word: people don’t speak in grammatical correct sentences; people don’t speak in complete sentences. So, don’t have your characters speak in grammatically correct, complete sentences. We also use words like “gonna” instead of “going to,” and we start sentences without subjects. So drop words, drop letters, drop whatever you need to in an order to make things sound spoken rather than written.

Leonard also assumes that his reader is smart enough to follow along, which is why he doesn’t have his characters stop to go over things. Instead, his characters tell anecdotes to give character development and background rather than simply lay out what we as a reader need to know: that Sal is concerned with his appearance and his impression, and that Ricky the Zit “eats like a fucking goat” (which is also a great metaphor).

And no, none of this comes quickly, as Leonard himself admitted in the video. But it should be fun — fun to make these characters come to life, have their own voices and ways of speaking, just as we all do. Their dialogue should reflect who they are as a person. These aren’t just words on the page.

So that’s your job for this week: listen. Listen to the way people speak around you. How do they say what they’re saying? What do they include? What do they leave out? What ticks and speech patterns do they have? What words do they repeat? Write it all down and then, when you need it, use it in your work to develop something about your character. That’s one of the most fun parts about being a writer: calling eavesdropping “research.”

And your unofficial job this week is to watch more interviews on YouTube with Elmore Leonard, and then read one of his books. It’ll only take you about four hours. And, damn, will those be a fun four hours.

For more about Elmore Leonard’s writing, including his dialogue, read this excellent profile from The New York Review of Books.

And check back on Wednesday for a guest post from the terrific Lisa!

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Hasta La Vista, Sobre Vista

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of my life as well as (much more interestingly) the lives of five of my high school girlfriends. To celebrate this coming-of-middle-age, we decided to plan a trip to Sonoma and Napa Valley, California, so we could ring in the year the right way: with wine.

A handmade gift from Julie's husband, Jeremy

A handmade gift from Julie’s husband, Jeremy, that is filled with sparkling rosé, because what else would make sense? Juice? Water??! That’s crazy talk.

One of these amazing women couldn’t make the trip because, honestly, she’s too amazing. Truth. This friend, Mary, and her husband are opening a Goddard School in Skokie, and it just so happened that the week we’d scheduled our trip was the busiest week they would have until they open their doors this August. So, please be aware that we dedicated our trip to her, and this post is dedicated to her as well. And for her actual birthday in a couple of weeks, we’ll probably kidnap her and force-feed her wine (this will not be necessary; she will drink it willingly) until we forget that we’re forty(ish).

With the tremendous planning skills of the group (minus me, because I didn’t really do anything except pack a bag and show up), we had a terrific four-day trip together. Here’s how it all went down.

Tuesday Night

I spent the night with Lisa and her husband, Matt, because our flight left early Wednesday morning and they’re just a fifteen minute taxi to the airport (at 5 a.m…). This meant that I got to witness Lisa’s spectacularly organized packing method, hang out with their dog, Cholula, and sleep in their guest Murphy Bed.

This is good organization.

This is good organization.

Cholula Sleeps

This is a cute dog.

This is comfortable.

This is a comfortable place to sleep, and it folds up into the wall. Bonus.

Basically, I could have gone back home the next day and still been happy.

But, no! We had…

Wednesday

Lisa and I met up with Julie at O’Hare for our flight, and then once we landed in San Francisco, we met up with Megan, who had flown in from Philadelphia.

Megs and Lisa at the Airport

Megs and Lisa at the Airport

The four of us met Amy at the rental car place, and then we hit the road to Sonoma, where we were staying on Sobre Vista Road, overlooking the Enchanted Hills. Seriously.

Golden GateSobre Vista FrontWe stopped for provisions along the way so the kitchen would be stocked when we needed it (first on our grocery list was cheese, then more cheese, then some fruit, some bread, and then, finally, some cheese). But we had a few hours to spare until our dinner reservation, so we decided to hit up a winery, and we chose Buena Vista Winery. We chose well.

Our tasting room bartender was Dapper Don (maybe “Dapper” isn’t his given name, but, whatever) and he treated us to a one-of-a-kind experience. We walked in just an hour before closing, so when we were finished with our tasting and the winery was closing up for the day, Don took us on an unofficial tour of the Bubble Lounge (bubbles only are allowed!) and the barrel cave, where Megan may or may not have schooled him on the piano.

Buena Vista Tasting Room and Bubble Lounge -- We made some weird friends.

Buena Vista Tasting Room and Bubble Lounge — We made some weird friends.

Me and a Leopard

Hi, leopard friend.

Dapper Don Plays Piano

Don started playing…

Megs Plays Piano

…and when he was finished, Megan showed him how it was really done.

Buena Vista PatioBy this time, we were pretty hungry for dinner, so we headed to downtown Sonoma. But we were still too early for our reservation at The Girl and the Fig, so we had one more glass of wine at the Roche Winery tasting room, where we didn’t take any pictures, but it’s possible we broke a glass. It was fun.

Now, let’s talk about dinner. No, we’re not going to talk about the gorgeous mussels we ate, or the beautiful cheese plate (do you understand by now that we like cheese?), or the carrot entree I ordered and ate and am fantasizing about eating again right now because it was so good. No, let’s talk about the waiter, one Russell Sage — if that is his real name.

If you’re thinking that this distinguished gentleman was our waiter at The Girl and the Fig, you would be, unfortunately, wrong:

Our Russell Sage was a man who liked to wear cologne, who seemed to really like forty-year-old women, and who liked to lean in. He leaned in a lot.

Russell leaning in

Russell liked to lean. Julie does not look comfortable with this.

He was also a man who felt inclined to invite himself to our house to swim in our pool, and then leave his phone number on our check, in case we were motivated to call him. Oh, Russell. You’re not going to swim in our pool.

Now, if you think that Russell provided the only strange waiter experience we had at The Girl and the Fig, you would be stone cold wrong. There was also Geoffrey, whose name I know how to spell because he said he was “like Chaucer,” as he filled up our water glasses. And Geoffrey felt inclined to follow us out after our meal and sing “Happy Birthday” to us on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. We. Did. Not. Know. What. To. Do.

#awkward

GEOFFREY, WHAT IS HAPPENING? Julie, again, does not look comfortable.

So we just let him sing, and then after he went back into the restaurant and we waited for our car to pick us up, we tried to ignore Russell Sage waving at us through the window.

Thursday

Thursday was our big Napa Valley winery day. Lisa had taken care of making us reservations at four different spots, and Amy had taken care of getting Mike the driver to take us around so none of us had to be responsible for operating a motor vehicle.

We started the morning with sparkling wine at Mumm Napa. The view was perfect, our waiter was a normal human person who didn’t sing to us or lean in at us, and, honestly, who wouldn’t want to start the day with bubbles? Probably some people, but not us. No, not us.

Mumms CoastersAfter Mumm, we headed to our unanimous favorite, Frog’s Leap Winery, where we did a little tasting…

Frog's Leap Tasting Table…we met a dog named Abbie…

Abbie at Frog's Leap

Abbie parked herself underneath my leg and I could not have been happier to give her a ten-minute belly rub.

…we did some thinking…

Megs at Frog's Leap

…and a little light reading:

Napa Valley Then and Now

We didn’t want to leave Frog’s Leap, but, alas, we had to. Cakebread Cellars was waiting for us.

Cakebread Tasting Menu

Our time at Cakebread was pleasant, but a bit rushed. They didn’t let us sit down for our tasting, and our guide hustled us through the wines like it was her job (I guess because it was her job). But we met two lovely young couples — one from St. Louis and another from Dallas — and we drank some good wine.

Our last stop on our wine-whirlwind was Chimney Rock, and this one was special.

Chimney Rock

At Chimney Rock, we got a guide named Donna, and Donna was the queen. She. Was. The. Queen.

Donna took us out to the vineyards to look at the crops, talk about the history of the winery and the property, and to take some pictures — with and without her finger near the lens:

Donna's Pictures

Donna was an excellent guide and gave us a lot of great information about the head wine-ista (this might not be her actual title), Elizabeth, and she showed us the ins and outs of the facilities.

Amy gets the low-down from Donna

Amy got the low-down from Donna

Julie tried to figure out why her glass was empty

Julie tried to figure out why her glass was empty

Lisa contemplates stealing a barrel of wine

Lisa contemplated stealing a barrel of wine

We challenge the Chimney Rock employees to a game of five-on-five, and we beat them soundly (obviously there are no pictures of this because we were playing)

We challenged the Chimney Rock employees to a game of five-on-five, and we beat them soundly (obviously there are no pictures of this because it’s hard to take pictures and hit three-pointers at the same time, and I was clearly just focused on hitting three-pointers)

And then Donna gave us some wine.

Chimney Rock MenuChimney Rock Tasting Room

We took a group picture at three of our four stops — I think we didn’t get one at Frog’s Leap because we were having such a good time there.

Napa Valley Group Pictures Thursday

At the end of the day, we went home to hang around the house, chat, and drink all of the wine we’d bought that day.

Friday

Friday was our day of relaxation around the house, so we didn’t have too many adventures. Early in the day, we discovered that the owners of the house were likely watching us from their Sliver-like monitor room in some undisclosed location.

We found this camera...

We found this camera…

…and imagined this. (Image credit)

But after a bit of discomfort, we relaxed and did some swimming, some floating, some reading, and some napping. Whoever had to watch that boring video, I say, ha, sucker!

Megan reads, and then naps

Megan reads, and then naps

Lisa swims

Lisa swims

And I float

And I float

Saturday

By Saturday, we were ready to leave the house again, so we hit up a couple of wineries: Imagery Estate Winery, where we enjoyed some wine on the patio, and B.R. Cohn, where we ate some pre-lunch oysters.

And once our oysters were digested, we were hun-gree, so we headed back toward our neighborhood and to Juanita Juanita, a restaurant we’d been steered toward by our server at Frog’s Leap. And as soon as we got in, we knew we were in the best place. Kate, the owner’s daughter, helped us right away and was as friendly as could be. And when she learned that we were in California to celebrate our birthdays, she told us that it was, in fact, her actual birthday. So, of course, we loved her and joined in to help everyone sing her happy birthday, and Lisa tried to buy her a drink, but Kate told us that because her mom owns the place she’d been drinking there for free since she was fifteen. But she appreciated the gesture.

Everyone there was great, and the food was stupendous. Amy made a friend named Wyatt, who talked to her about his baseball card collection,

Amy and Wyatt

and we all appreciated the piñatas (although not as much as I appreciated the fish tacos).

Juanita Juanita Pinatas

But the best part of eating at Juanita Juanita and befriending Kate and the rest of the crew there was that when their friend Jesse, an off-duty cab driver, came in to hang out, we quickly convinced him to take us the two miles back to our house.

See, it’s not easy to get a fast Uber or a Lyft in Sonoma that fits five people, or one at all. We were looking at a wait time of at least thirty minutes, if ever, and while we loved Juanita Juanita, we were ready to head home. So we were discussing our problem when Jesse walked in and Kate told us he was a cab driver. We nearly pounced on him and the poor man tried to fend us off by telling us he had his personal car, not his cab. We didn’t care. We gave him some cash and a lot of toothy smiles, and he relented to take us.

He had to move his kid’s car seat, and Lisa had to ride in the way, way back, but Jesse was clearly the right driver for us.

Jesse's Cassette Tape

It would have only been better if it’d been a Guns N’ Roses tape.

Lisa in the way, way back

Lisa in the way, way back

He got us home quickly and with no problems, and we were left to spend the rest of the afternoon and the evening hanging around at the house, wishing we weren’t leaving the next day.

Amy and Lisa did some wine-yoga; it's all the rage in Sonoma.

Amy and Lisa did some wine-yoga; it’s all the rage in Sonoma.

Sunday

And on Sunday, we left. We woke up and watched the sun come up over the Enchanted Hills, and then headed to the airport.

Sobre Vista Sunrise

We said our goodbyes to Megan outside of our gate, and then we had an uneventful trip back to Chicago. We were subdued at baggage claim and then all went our separate ways, wine in our luggage, tired smiles on our faces.

Roo and Trevor picked me and to take me back to Camp Crystal Lake

Roo and Trevor picked me and to take me back to Camp Crystal Lake

And that was our trip! It was wonderful, we missed our friend Mary like crazy, and we are going to have to recuperate for the next five years until we’re ready to celebrate being forty-five. We’ve already decided that Key West might be our next destination, so, Florida, please start the preparations.

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