May 142016
 

Do you want to write better dialogue? If so, there are a number of ways to go about it. One is to read and re-read books containing dialogue-driven scenes you admire – if you’re a writer then I assume you’re already voracious reader – another is to watch and deconstruct films which contain the kind of exchanges you want to evoke in you’re writing. I advocate for doing both as deconstructing my favorite moments in fiction and film helped me write dialogue effectively.

While there’s no substitute for reading great fiction, watching movies is useful for entirely different reasons. Because movies allow you to hear the way language sounds when it’s delivered by professionals trained to use it for maximum effect. Watching and active listening allows you to dial in on the way vocabulary, syntax, diction, and tone are deployed in a scene to effectively evoke a character that’s attempting to convince, plead with, seduce, flatter, interrogate, or intimidate others.

And thanks to the internet, watching your favorite movie clips is often free. Additionally, having the clip playing on a screen on your desk allows you to watch and re-watch a scene in order to break it down into its composite elements.

Just one word of caution – be selective in the films you choose to study.

“The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal,” says Pablo Picasso. Therefore I aim to steal from the best. After all, why take the time and effort to steal paste gems when a bit more effort will yields real ones? Don’t get me wrong. I read and watch my fair share of garbage. But while I indulge in all kinds of gratuitous reading, TV, and movies, I don’t waste time actively studying scenes which don’t lack challenging material.

Does this kind of exercise really work?

I can only state with certainty that it works for me. Often I’ll come away from deconstructing a scene with tricks, strategies, and ideas I’m able to deploy immediately in my own writing. Other times, I know and understand how an effect was achieved but will have little use for it in a current project. I’m okay with this because I’d prefer to have more tools at hand than less. And, just as reading great sentences will certainly improve ones writing, I believe listening to and internalizing great dialogue can only help me in the quest to write my own.

So how’s this done?

In my next post, I’ll demonstrate how I break a scene down and extract the reasons I think it works. And in later posts, I’ll look at a number of other lessons films can teach writers and list ‘writerly’ movies that I repeatedly return to in order to hone my craft.

Feb 242013
 

A short piece on my alma mater’s blog where I argue that writers should trust themselves enough to create really messy drafts as they’re sure to find promising moments days later:

Here’s an excerpt:

The ability to allow sloppy prose to fill the page, ignore MS word’s blood-red squiggles and green-grammar nagging is certainly an act of faith. When I first tried this method, I had strong doubts that I’d understand my early drafts, much less find anything of value in them to make the effort worthwhile. This was not the case. Instead, I found myself able to decode haphazard gibberish days, weeks, even months later. Discovering meaning in messy drafts led me to create them with abandon. Now, I write them with a feeling that’s suspiciously close-kin to confidence; where I once feared drowning in a sea of noise, I now find, on the worst of days, the lack of comprehension only reaches my waist.

Against the repeated warnings of my attorney, I’m going to argue that fiction writers not only listen to but trust the voices in their heads. Of course, for some of us this may not be the best guidance – but let’s imagine Joe Stalin adjusting the garnish of a picture-perfect omelet in the foreground (ignore the charnel house just behind him) and talk some serious shop. After all, writers who aren’t ruthless in the pursuit of crafting better fiction cannot hope to produce work that’s even remotely interesting. And, frankly – if writing a story doesn’t strain your emotions, if it doesn’t make you feel somewhat vulnerable, you’re probably not doing it right.

You can read the entire post here.

Mar 192012
 

The blogosphere is plagued with posts where the writer makes intermittent apologizes for neglecting their duties to perform like the trained monkey they signed up to be. If you have a readership, you are expected to dance. I feel little need to dance because, stealing a line from Kenny Goldsmith out of context: ‘I assume no readership.’

Really, I maintain this blog for a few very specific and selfish reasons:

1. I’m working to become a better writer.
2. I’m working to improve my grammar.
3. I’m working to have more options when I write a sentence.
4. I’m working to produce more ‘good’ writing in the first draft.

If I said that I was too busy to maintain this blog, I would be lying to myself. I was ‘busy’ doing other things. One of those things was wasting precious time. Recently, I quit Facebook because I was creeped out by their business model. Well, that and I was sick of the obsessive verbal twitching and inane outbursts that social networking both enables and encourages. Yes, my current job takes up a lot of my time, but that is a lame excuse to not be productive. In short, I need to get my ass back in gear, though I’m not really sure I capable of it.

I digress. The blog is a cool space to work because it allows me to work on the four points above with low-stakes writing. My grammar, though far from perfect, has improved, and I am getting better at generating posts in less time. But Sherman Alexie makes a good point about the dangers of blogging, when he says something like: ‘every word on a blog is a word that’s not in a novel.’ This kind of truism is annoyingly accurate. That said, here is a short defense of literary dithering.

I find that I can keep myself on-task when I have an imaginary audience. When there is a novel sitting around that I must make time to read, it is a lot more likely to happen if I imagine someone waiting on my thoughts. This same imaginary audience helps to keep my posts fairly focused and is often very noisy about stupid, sentence-level errors.

Anyway, I am going to try to get back to working on this thing. My new self-imposed rules are to try to reduce the overall post length, generate content faster, and find things of note to talk about outside of fiction.

I really have no idea if I will be successful. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it.