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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3 thoughts on “Week Six: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

  1. Pingback: Coming Soon… | lakeprojects

  2. Pingback: Week Eight: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group | lakeprojects

  3. Pingback: Week Two: Winter 2017 Online Writing Group | lakeprojects

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