Let Me Dialogue With You

This is the full text of a guest post I did on Rebecca Cahill’s blog back in September. If you get a chance, drop by and say, “Howdy” or whatever floats your goat. She’s got a great blog and it’s worth checking out.

Back in high school, I had a buddy who thought outside the box. I’ll call him CD to protect his identiy. CD used to write random thoughts, some of which were funny, others thoughtful, and try to sell them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. In his mind, if they were going to try to sell copies of The Watchtower to him, he was going to sell his own magazine to them.

He never did manage to sell any magazines, but he’s been a wealth of stories for me.

One day during a college break, we were sitting in the McDonald’s in the local Walmart and shooting the breeze. It would seem he had a lot of free time on his hands in college and decided on the ultimate way to pick up women at the bar. He was going to buy an Armenian Air Force uniform he’d found somewhere and try to convince people he’d flown Harriers during the Falklands War.

Yes, this was a long time ago. Thanks for asking.

Since he couldn’t do a British accent to save his own butt, he’d come up with some non-distinct, but vaguely foreign-sounding accent. He’d been observing the foreign students at UNM and had discovered a way to really sell his story. If someone were to ask him a question, he’d pause briefly, like he was translating the question from English to whatever language he was pretending to be fluent in, before answering.

“You really flew Harrier jump jets during the Falklands War?”

Pause. “Yes. Yes, I did.”

<Swoon>

I don’t know if he ever tried it in real life, but I’m guessing probably not. However, if you ever come across a guy in a bar wearing an Armenian Air Force uniform and claiming to have flown Harriers during the Falklands War, tell him I said hi and remind him he’s got a wife at home who may or may not know about his past life.

I’m not sure what Armenian Air Force uniforms look like, so this will have to do.

CD’s attention to detail in building a character for the sole purpose of picking up women at dive bars in Albuquerque, New Mexico shows the level of effort that should go into writing characters and, more importantly, the way characters interact with the world you’re creating. It’s the little things that sell characters. Little vocal quirks, like pausing before speaking, add a depth of realism that you just can’t get by slapping some words on a page.

Now, this little diatribe of mine is less about character creation and more about dialogue. Unfortunately, those two things are very intertwined with each other. Also unfortunately, the dialogue aspect of character creation is one of the easiest things to completely screw up. How many times have you come across an excellent narrative only to have it nosedive the first time a character talks?

“I would never do something like, for in doing that, I have forgone my something.”

Seriously, who talks like that?

Writers tend to be introverts. Not always, but there’s definitely a trend that way. You can’t spend the day hammering away at a typewriter, smoking, and swilling whisky like it’s fitness water if you’re extroverted. Don’t get me wrong, introversion can be a good thing. It’s hard to craft worlds and create things to put in those worlds when someone wants to, you know, talk and do stuff.

I’m talking to my characters, thank you very much.

And now, for no reason, Captain James T. Kirk wearing a green woman instead of an Armenian Air Force Uniform.

When we spend too much alone – whisky doesn’t count as an interactive friend – we start to forget what people are really like. Before you yell, “So what?” and start throwing things at the computer, remember this: regular people are the ones you’re trying to sell books to. And regular people like to see things that look real to them. As we’ve already established, one of the best ways to make a character look real is through the way they talk.

But dialogue is more than just character development, it serves other important purposes in a book. Everyone loves to say, “Show, don’t tell”, and dialogue is one of the best ways to do that. If you’ve got exposition to handle, try letting the characters talk about it. If there’s a complex plot substructure or twist, let the characters explain it rather than resorting to a few paragraphs explaining why something happened.

“You mean the minions of Hell aren’t really bad guys so much as misunderstood folks that have been the victims of a multi-millennium smear campaign propagated by a group that had a profit motive?”

“Exactly! These guys aren’t the real bad guys, those guys over there are!”

“My God! It was Old Man Jenkins leading them all along!”

When owls gasp

Okay, not exactly my best dialogue, but you get the point. Let the characters do the heavy lifting when explaining things. It makes for more interesting writing and, let’s face it, it’s a time-honored tradition. Just ask Aristotle.

Now we’ve got a couple good reasons to work with dialogue in a story: character development and showing rather than telling. The problem is, if your dialogue isn’t realistic, no one will read it and all your time spent putting your characters in Armenian Air Force uniforms and letting them explain the dynamics of your world will be for naught.

So, how do you write realistic dialogue? Well, fortunately, that’s the easy part. It does require a modicum of effort, but it’s effort well-spent. Go back to that idea that regular people read books and they want to read about people that seem real. Then go listen to some real people talking. Bada bing, bada boom, you’ve got the makings of good dialogue.

The real world, no matter how irksome it may be sometimes, is full of examples of how to write good dialogue. The first thing you have to do is toss aside all the rules of grammar that we’re all supposed to adhere to when we’re writing. Follow the rules in the text, but realize people don’t speak in grammatically correct sentences. People talk over each other, they use contractions and colloquialisms, conversations wander, points don’t always go where we think they’re supposed to go. Sometimes people forget their points entirely.

My buddy in college and I could spend all night talking. This was back before texting and when Geocities was still a thing, so talking was a good way to pass the time waiting for the damned modem to connect. Our conversations went all over the place and outsiders had trouble keeping up. One night, he, his girlfriend, and I were all out by the fountain chatting and looking at the stars. As per usual, the conversation drifted all over the place like a drunken frat boy and his poor girlfriend was feeling a bit lost.

“You guys shift topics constantly,” she said, “how do you do that?”

“Yep,” I replied, “We shift gears so fast…”

And then I lost my witty retort and ended with the lame-ass “we go really fast.”

“We shift gears so fast…we go really fast.”

I swear, I actually had something for that and lost it mid-sentence. Poof. Gone. Vanished. I want to say my buddy wrote that whole scene into a book of his own.

When your real life hits a book

People do that kind of thing all the time. Conversation is rarely linear, sometimes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and almost never follows the grammatical rules that govern writing. If you want to make your dialogue more realistic, listen to people talking and use what you learn. Toss aside the monologuing, kick the perfect sentence structure to the curb, and revel in all the things you don’t get to do in the main part of the text.

You’re not supposed to use “ain’t” in good writing because it’s not a word? People use it all the time, so stuff it into dialogue. Do you love thinking in run-on sentences, but worry about getting tagged by grammar Nazis? Let a character babble away. Give them linguistic quirks like pausing before talking or saying “Okay” a lot at the end of sentences. Christoph Fischer did an excellent job with this in his book In Search Of A Revolution. In that book, Fischer had a character repeat words when he was stressed or otherwise out of his element. “No, no, no. That’s not what’s supposed to happen.” Things like that.

The trick here is that the dialogue must fit the character. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have an aristocrat use the word “ain’t”, but it ain’t outside the realm of possibilities if you develop the character that way. This is where you embrace the character with all his or her flaws and really dig into their head. Remember, just like real people, characters reveal their natures through not only what they do, but what they say, so the dialogue has to fit the psychology of the character. Since you created the character, you’re the ultimate arbiter of whether a line of dialogue fits a character’s development. As long as you as a writer don’t look at what your characters are saying and think it’s out of character, it’s unlikely anyone else will, either.

One gotcha here: a character’s linguistic quirks and dialogue have to remain intact throughout the whole of the book or story. I had a character in a recent book who I decided shouldn’t use contractions. The last few pages of the story explained why, so it became important that none of his dialogue had a contraction. It was nightmarish looping through the whole text and verifying Chan never shortened his words.

In the end, it might pay off or it might not. It’s possible, that was something most people will ignore or not even notice. That may be a perfect example of taking a linguistic quirk too far, but it did differentiate his dialogue from the rest of the characters who cursed and used contractions with reckless abandon, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

Let your characters live and breathe. Sure, dress them in Armenian Air Force uniforms and let them claim to have flown Harriers, but if you want to make them real, it’s their dialogue that will do that. Pay attention to how people really talk and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t be afraid to copy conversations from your best friend in high school or the quirks your boss gets when she’s mad that the project still isn’t done. Take all those things and weave them into the story. Observe the world and use what you find to enhance your writing. Your dialogue will be that much more realistic because it’s based on real conversations.

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Twittering

Keep going. Keep getting better.

Twitter catches a lot of crap for being the digital version of the Wild Wild West. While that may be partially true in a “not racists, but #1 with racists” kind of way, that doesn’t mean the whole shebang is a shit-show. And, to be fair to Twitter, they’ve nuked a bunch of White Supremacist groups. There are plenty of good reasons to explore Twitter and a lot of good things can be found there, too.

At the very least, you’ve got #caturday, so you can haz cheezburger if you’d like.

I’ve used Twitter for a variety of writing-related reasons, ranging from seeing what’s out there and dropping ads, to playing the writing prompt games.

A couple posts back, I wrote a post about the idea of getting better at things by doing them a lot. Like most of my posts, it was a rambling affair, full of magic and heroism that talked around the issue as much as engaging it. That post was partially a reaction to various people I’ve met who  worry about not being good enough at writing to write a book. To those people, I’ll reiterate: Yeah, you’re probably not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t just write the freaking thing even if you’re not an expert at writing. Do something often enough, look for a feedback loop, and, if you take the feedback into account, you’ll likely get better at it.

Don’t listen to him. Zoidberg hates everyone.

In other words, just start writing. The more you do it, the more natural it will become. Pay attention to criticisms, provided they’re not completely useless, and you’ll improve. Simple as that.

Now here’s something else to add. When I first started programming, I followed the directions in the book and things happened and I was happy. But, I didn’t really learn to program until I had to sit down and write an application that I didn’t get to choose and I didn’t have the book with handy-dandy directions to follow. It was just “write me a service that will listen for GPS data from trains, figure out where they are, and determine how far off schedule they are based on position and time.”

That’s when the rubber hit the road. Or the wheels hit the iron. Whatever.

The point being, I didn’t get good at it until I had to do something where I didn’t get to choose what the program was going to do. There was also a lot of feedback from the customer about what things were working, what weren’t, and how many things needed to be changed. In the end – such as it is – I wrote what they wanted and got a whole whack of new skills in the process.

Or, in my case, it was trying to figure out how to determine time on target when speed is a huge variable.

Which loops us back to Twitter. In the midst of all the cat pictures and ass-random presidential tweets, lies a pretty large group of authors swapping lines back and forth. Do a little digging and you’ll find people tagging tweets with things like #musemon, #2bittues, #1linewed, #thurds, #fictfri, #slapdashsat, and #sunwip. To the unitiated, those may sound like gobbledygook, cockamamie nonsense, or flat-out flumadiddle, but the tags have meaning to the authors that partake in them.

See, Twitter is a vast wasteland and it’s impossible to take in the whole of it, so it’s segmented by hashtags that create little sub-worlds withing the vast miasma of the whole of Twitterdom. Once you learn about those hashtags, you get the keys to the kingdom.

Most of these hashtags have rules. They’re not simple “write whatever you feel like and toss a tag on it” games. Each week, the person responsible for the tag determines a theme for the week. It could be thankful or half-full or angry or whatever. All except #slapdashsat, that’s always theme-free. So, each person that tweets and tags that tweet is expected to follow the theme. In a pure world, you’d find a line from whatever you’re writing that fits and use that. Sometimes, that line doesn’t exist, though, and that’s when the rubber hits the road.

Just like with programming, you can learn a lot from writing according to a spec, even if it is a one-word spec. So, whenever I don’t have a line that will fit, I write one that fits the tag and the book I’m working on. In case you’re wondering, most of those tweets will wind up in the book in some form or another.

This is what I’m working on, by the way.

Now, part of my morning ritual is going over the tweets from the one or two tag games per day I follow and putting up my own tweets. It’s been a great way to see if I can work a word or phrase into whatever I’m working on or sharing something I’d already used in a story. There’s something about being put on the spot that’s helped me craft a few zingers here and there and the process has improved my writing by making me think beyond just what I feel like doing.

Besides, remember that feedback loop that’s so important to getting better at a thing? In the Twitterverse, that feedback comes from likes, retweets, and the odd comment. Hashtag games have become a great way to test lines in front of a group of people I’ve never met and see what works and what doesn’t.

Feel like trying it out? Dig up the hashtag games for the day and post a few tweets. Who knows, maybe you’ll strike gold.

WATWB – Your Monthly Shot Of New That Doesn’t Suck

As kind of a corollary to last month’s post, police in Delaware have been giving out incredible numbers of citations in recent weeks, but it’s not as bad as it seems.

America’s cops have a bad reputation. Some of it’s deserved, some of it not, but it’s undeniable that a lot of US citizens look at the police less as a peacekeeping force and more as a group of armed thugs with the full backing of the law on their side.

This reputation didn’t spring up over night and it’s not limited to the criminal element in our society. Random shootings, entrapments, breaking into the wrong house, racial profiling, and a whole host of other bad ideas have engendered a sense of hostility between the police and the people they’re supposed to protect. It’s only made worse when the police in question usually get away scot-free, leaving folks nervous and on the defensive.

Unfortunately, the police response to this negative publicity is usually to shrug their shoulders and say, “So?”, which just makes matters worse.

The thing is, most cops are good people. I’ve had very few interactions with the police – largely because I’m not a criminal – but I’ve usually found them to be pretty good people with tough job. And, as I’ve said before, I respect anyone who gets up in the morning, puts on a uniform, and says, “I’m going to put myself between the bad guys and you.”

But, as any cop can tell you, it’s really bad when the people you’re trying to protect don’t trust you. It makes an already tough job even tougher. So, it’s nice to see some police are slowly coming around to the idea of improving their negative image.

Recently, in Middletown, DE, police officers gave out an unprecedented amount of citations. Seriously, they were busting people left and right and handing out tickets like they were candy. But this time it was different. The citations were for performing random acts of kindness and the cost of the ticket was the perp got a free turkey.

“Hey, punk, I saw you helping that old woman with her groceries. Here’s a reward.”

As far as I’m concerned this is a double-whammy of cool. It helps the cops seems like humans and it also encourages people to do the right thing. And all at the cost of a turkey.

Read the whole story here.

November’s awesome co-hosts are Andrea MichaelsDamyanti BiswasInderpreet UppalShilpa GargSusan Scott and Sylvia Stein. Please visit their blogs too.

If you’d like to connect your blog and help spread a little joy (or snark, like I do), it’s easy to sign up. Just ask and ye shall receive. Or go check it out here: here.

~~~GUIDELINES~~~

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity and brotherhood.

3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.

5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.

6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

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And now, your moment of Zen.

Addendum, 11/26. I just realized I forgot to add the moment of Zen. So now, here’s your moment of Zen.

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Kung Fu Theater

When I was a kid, I used to live for Kung Fu Theater. It was a show that popped up from time to time on one of Farmington’s minimal stations, usually at odd hours and oftentimes without warning. Kung Fu Theater wasn’t a show so much as a clearing house of old Kung Fu movies. This was where I first met Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sonny Chiba and experienced the horror of The Master of Flying Guillotine.

They were all old school Kung Fu movies, written, produced, and filmed in China. They were all also overdubbed, usually poorly.by voice actors who were phoning it in to get a quick paycheck. To be fair, though, most of those movies were big on talking. The golden rule of classical Kung Fu theater meant fists flew and kicks smashed things. It was world of animal styles where Tiger Style and Crane Style clashed with monkeys and dragons in a cataclysmic orgy of fighting prowess.

I’ll confess, I still have a deep and abiding love for watching a good fight scene and there’s some pretty amazing stuff out there right now. The Raid, the current crop of amazingly artistic kung fu cinema, Tony Jaa’s elbows and knees putting Thai boxing firmly on the cinematic map, and Donnie Yen’s ability to calmly destroy his opponents (even if they’re stormtroopers) are all good stuff.

The only thing that’s lacking now is my ten-year-old imagination and blind faith that with enough training I, too, could jump thirty feet in the air or master the Buddha’s Palm technique.

Unfortunately, the more I’ve trained in martial arts, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing magical about them. The martial arts, as a collective, tend to be about practicality more than flash. That doesn’t mean modern martial arts aren’t worth studying, they very much are and I heartily recommend that everyone try out one of the many arts lurking around out there.

Martial artistry is a fascinating study – and damned good exercise – but it bears so little in common with the Kung Fu Theater I grew up with it can be hard to reconcile what I’m learning with what I thought I’d learn.

Oh, ah. What are you gonna do?

The answer, it turns out, was to write my own martial arts book: Greetings From Sunny Aluna and write in plenty of fight scenes and general badassery. It’s my love letter to the old-school Kung Fu movies I grew up with.

And the cool thing is it’s on sale right now and for the next couple days.

Go get a copy!

Urban Fantasy

Back when my son was still wildly into dinosaurs, I found a book called Dinopix by Teruhisha Tajima. It was a bunch of photo edits that posited what the world would be like if dinosaurs had lived into the current day. It didn’t concern itself with the struggles early humans would have had to deal with when encountering a hungry T. rex or a pack of Deinonychus, nor did it deal with what evolution would have done with those creatures over the past 65 million year. Dinopix dropped dinosaurs, as they were before they went extinct, straight into the modern world.

Please clean up after your diplodocus. Carry a very large bag and a shovel.

The result was brilliant and enchanting. Although, as I recall, my son was less than impressed with it than he was with Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, which melded two kiddo favorites into a fun little adventure complete with pronunciation guide for those of us reading aloud who had forgotten how to pronounce Giganotosaurus.

Both books did a fantastic job with melding the real world with the fantasy world that all kids and writers seem to inhabit. That’s the beauty of looking at the world through different eyes and rather than seeing a normal checkout counter, wondering what crazy thing has happened or will happen there. Maybe the person manning the cash register is a werewolf just trying to make ends meet. Lycanthropy, after all, doesn’t pay very well.

This kind of melding of the magical and the mundane is often referred to as Urban Fantasy, but I’d argue it could also easily fall into the magical realism world. Both deal with the idea of magical or extraordinary events happening in a predominantly realistic world. Werewolves running cash registers or vampires running night clubs. Or even a rogue Valkyrie trying to kick off Ragnarok. The differences are pretty trivial, but magical realism has been a thing in Latino literature for a very long time while the rest of us were only made aware of it when Narcos premiered on Netflix.

I recently read where someone said urban fantasy – as a genre – was for lazy writers. The argument was that urban fantasy was essentially fantasy without all the world building and was, therefore, easier to deal with than real fantasy.

In case you’re wondering, this is the gist of this post. I just felt like rambling on about dinosaurs, pirates, urban fantasy, and magical realism.

As an essentially urban fantasy writer, I bristled at that admonition. I have no beef with fantasy, I’ve even dabbled with it a bit, even though Greetings From Sunny Aluna would probably be better classified as wuxia than traditional fantasy. If we’re going to insist on classifying everything, that is.

So, are urban fantasy writers lazier than traditional fantasy writers? I’d have to argue no. Even though urban fantasy takes place in a largely realistic world, snapping robot dinosaurs into it takes a lot more thinking. In a traditional fantasy world, seeing a dragon isn’t that far out of the ordinary. It’s fantasy; it’s supposed to have dragons.

Probably not run by actual dragons.

But the real world isn’t supposed to have dragons wandering around running hot dog stands or selling drugs on street corners. Making that kind of thing work takes finagling or it feels fake. Which means, the world that dragon inhabits has to be aware of at least the idea that dragons could not only be real, but they could also get a license to run a hot dog stand.

It’s that license part that requires world building inside of the real world. Twisting the mundanity of penetrating bureaucracy into something a dragon had to do means you have to build hooks into the real world that will allow things like that to happen. That’s world building.

World building is more than describing castles or various tribes running around stabbing each other. It means making the world of the book be internally consistent with itself. Or, at the very least, making it seem real enough that the reader doesn’t hit a page and think, “What the holy fuck just happened? How did we get from elves to zero point energy?”

Well, you see, elves have always been big proponents of not only zero point energy, but also cold fusion.

And, let’s not oversell the world building done in fantasy. Most of the fantasy genre sits plainly in the European Middle Ages, just with less disease and more magic. Sure, some people have done some amazing jobs with it – The Dragonriders of Pern series comes to mind – but a lot fantasy is just kings and dark wizards throwing down over land rights. Now, before you grab pitchforks and torches, yes, I know McCaffrey’s dragons are usually classified as Sci-Fi. Let’s face it, though, there are a lot of traditional fantasy elements to those books. Besides, it could be argued that sci-fi is fantasy that replaced the magic with technology and the dwarves with aliens.

Not amused.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. I enjoy sci-fi, usually more than I enjoy fantasy, but I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of fantasy stories, too.

So, is urban fantasy just fantasy for lazy writers? Hell, no. It takes a lot more effort to believably shoehorn dragons selling hot dogs into downtown Albuquerque than it does to have that same dragon snatching up damsels and swilling the blood of knights out of a very large mug.

What are you thoughts on it? Is urban fantasy for lazy writers? Do elves really have a thing for zero point energy? Is sci-fi just fantasy with technology in place of magic?

Happy Halloween

I’ll keep this short and sweet. Have a safe and happy Halloween. Dress to the nines, hand out candy, worship the Dark Lord of the Night, whatever floats your goat. Go out and have a little fun and don’t worry about what people think of you.

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Happy Halloween and Don’t Hate Me

Our Kenpo instructor opened class on Thursday with an odd statement. A cup of butter has over 1600 calories in it. My immediate thought was I’d better stop drinking a couple cups of melted butter in the morning, but it went further than that and ultimately digressed into a discussion of how many burpees it would take to work off one small piece of Halloween candy.

For those unfamiliar with the dreaded burpee, this is what it looks like. It’s a squat jump, a mountain climber, and a push up all rolled into one thing.

They’re just as uncomfortable as they look like, but they’re a damned good workout that I largely eschew because reasons.

We didn’t get a final count in class, so I took it upon myself to do a bit of research and what I found may shock you. First up, a single piece of candy, like one of those small Snickers bars you give out on Halloween, has about 100 calories. That doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly.

Now, there’s no exact measurement of how many calories a single burpee burns because it’s somewhat dependent on weight and athletic prowess. Studies have show that a 125 person doing 30 minutes of vigorous calisthenic similar to burpees exercise can burn about 240 calories. The larger the person, the more calories burned in the same time frame with 185 pound person burning off upwards of 355 calories in the same time frame. I’ll go with the larger number and assume a single burpee takes a few seconds to complete. That means 20 burpees in a minute and 600 in a 30 minute stretch. That means a small person would need to do about 12 minutes of burpees to burn off 100 calories and a larger person would need to do around 8 minutes. So, to burn off a 1.25 small Snickers bars, you’re looking at between 160 and 240 burpees. Per tiny candy bar.

Of course, there are other exercises out there that are a bit easier on the body.

  • Weightlifting: 112
  • Walking: 186
  • Yoga/Stretching: 149
  • Stair Stepper: 223
  • Swimming: 223
  • Cycling: 260
  • Rock Climbing: 298
  • Rowing: 316
  • Elliptical: 335
  • Running (6 mph): 372

These numbers came from here, by the way. If you can’t trust the LiveStrong group, who can you trust?

So, why bring all this up? No real reason. Enjoy Halloween, enjoy the candy, dress up and scare kids. It’s once a year and it’s supposed to be fun. You can always do more burpees tomorrow. Or ride a little further, or hit a little harder.

And now, because it’s almost Halloween and I’m current writing a book about a woman who gets killed in the first few pages, enjoy a ghost.