Friday, April 30, 2010

There's No Such Thing as Bad Writing Advice



A writer I follow on Twitter recently made me self conscious. Scrolling through my feed I read this tweet: "wow. There's lots of terrible advice on writing blogs." I thought, "I hope that's not me!" and felt terror. 

I calmed down. Personally, I trust that it takes a while to cultivate a successful blog and it's a challenge I'm enjoying. But there's a more general point that's easy to forget. Terrible advice is also awesome advice.

A large part of learning what you believe in is disagreeing with others' opinions.  Every time I read a story and catch myself thinking, "holy hell! Think stinks!" (as first impulse, everyone thinks something like this), I remind myself of two things: 
  1. there are always good things in even the weakest seeming work; my job as a responder is to frontload a story's strong points.  
  2. other writers' missed opportunities are instructive.
Even if I disagree with another writer's methods or opinions, that other writer is useful to me because he or she presents an opportunity for me to remember what methods work for me and what opinions I have; and most importantly, why.




Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 


He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Prompt: Faceless, Hairy, Model

Write for at least 10 mintues (no editing) about:


Image via Flickr (chez_sugi)

Peter dreamed he was a department store mannequin. There he would find himself frozen, paraplegic in this statued shape. His eyes would work even though he would see in a mirror's reflection of the mannequin that it had no eyes. He was a woman's mannequin and as is custom it was placed in the woman's department of the department store. He would watch women of all ages walk about the store, going about their lives as if they were alone yet aware that they were at the same time in public. He'd watch them do secret things like pick at themselves, wedgied underware, ill-fitting bra straps, or pimples or scabs. He'd see them shoplift. He'd watch peculiar things like smell the crotch of undergarments  or rub them across their cheeks.  He was never attracted to these women although many were what in his waking life were his precise idea of beauty and desirous. These dreams were there for a different reason, Peter didn't know why they were or what triggered them but - as his life continued - when they occurred he remembered them and when he woke up he always felt better than before he fell asleep.


Feel free to write your own in the comments below.



Stephen Maher is a librarian in New York City. He has written poetry and short stories -- some of which you may have heard at an odd open mic night or two. His last reads include Marcelo in the Real World by Franciso Stork and Brave & the Bold #33 by J. Michael Straczynski and Cliff Chang. He is currently listening to the audiobook version of 2666 by Roberto BolaƱo. His latest project is writing emails and spreadsheets.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

In the Beginning There was The End: Five Ways to Start as Close to the End as Possible



"Start as close to the end as possible," Kurt Vonnegut advises us.  


This advice (perhaps more than any other) tends to benefit most drafts I've written and read. No matter how completely I've imagined my story, novel, blog post, and (hell!) even an e-mail, the first sentence(s) often end up my Save-for-Later file. It can take a while to get to the bits that will finally engage a reader.  And very often that part is where a story should really begin.  A maxim I used when I was teaching composition was, "end at the beginning," because the best idea in many essay drafts would literally appear in the conclusion.  That sucks if you're the writer.


Writers of all sorts can be so romanced by their opening ideas, it can be downright painful to cut them out.

Here are five ways of thinking about beginnings that I've found helpful:




  1. Free Write: Get in the habit of free writing in a journal or even writing Daily Pages (as Julia Cameron advocates in The Artist's Way). If an idea begins rough in a notebook, you might have pushed closer to a strong start before you begin writing the story properly.
  2. Skip Them: Ignore the beginning and start reading several pages or chapters in when you're rereading a draft.  Does the story still mostly make sense?  If so, take a second look at how useful the opening was.  What can you cut?
  3. Make Each Sentence Work: Another bit of Vonnegut's advice is "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action."  I think this one might be the most valuable. Go through your opening and test your sentences.  Those that aren't doing work can go.
  4. Skip EverythingRead the end of what you wrote. How much of the beginning directly relates to the end? In most instances characters, themes, a setting that came into play in a story's opening should have some link to the end.  If what's hanging around the end is drastically different from the beginning, consider why so much isn't there. Where in the story were all those things eliminated? Maybe you can eliminate them from the manuscript too?
  5. Ask Your Readers: Remember, readers are drawn in by action and conversation; being shown things and not told.  Ask your test readers simple questions like, "What was the first moment that caught your attention?" or "What's the first thing you remember from the story? Without looking at it" or "What was the first action or thing talked about?" Did they jump to something on the second, third, fourth or further page?
Your work's not fully formed until it's published. Shifting form is part of its growing process. Cutting stuff can be difficult, but challenge yourself to do so and it generally pays off. And if it doesn't? Past it back in!

Questions
  • What techniques do you use to keep track of your beginning?
  • What other questions could be helpful to ask test readers?
  • How important is it to begin with characters acting and talking?
  • What are examples of works that began effectively with descriptions of setting or lots of background information?



Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 
He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Prompt: Woman with Bag



Write for at least 10 minutes (no editing) about:
Image vis flicker (msmelva).
  • While she wrestled the New York Times, folding, unfolding, fawpping, refolding, and finally creasing it neatly on the following page, he'll slide the gun into her bag.  A calm posture irrespective of the cloud of miserable commuters gripping poles and hanging metal straps around her.  A calm posture and pleasant face, ready to say, "pardon?"  Not "what" or an all-attitude "excuse me?" 

    A discolored wedge of skin on the back of her neck, under her hairline.  A neck vein inflates regularly. Once, she looks out the bus window at a street sign.  He grazes an agitated commuter's pocketbook with my elbow. She adjusts herself.  A pickpocket!  Now moves through the space where her pocketbook had been and inhale the target's perfume. Sweat-less even in August.

    It's not hard to get inside a pocket or bag; inside another person's life.  Think of yourself tugging a stray thread and undoing a sweater.  It begins as small, a wrinkle growing in the hand; then it's too late: the sweater's frayed: a pre-Colombian map.  The kind decorated with sea monsters and mermaids because they knew shit about ocean life. 

    Pickpocketing's not much different. A series of small twists. Twist. Twist. Twist. A shape closed in the hand.  Breathe slowly.  Read the names off storefronts, street signs, license plates. Get away and off the bus as annoyed as anyone else.

    A gun drop's not the same as a a pick. The shape of a foreign body. Added weight. The risk she'll move while the hand's inside. Turn. The dull eyes of every pickpocket that terrify their objects.

    The gun rests between the covers of her agenda, in a curl of folders at the bottom of the bag.  The bus pulling out, he watches her forehead over the top of the Times.

Feel free to write your own in the comments below.


Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA.
He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What a Character Wants: Hamlet vs Super Mario

Kurt Vonnegut's wrote eight bits of advice to authors.  Here's the third:

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

It's deceptively simple. This issue involves being sure that plot and character balance. Are you so interested in what a character does that you've lost focus on why. A writer's first impulse might be, "of course my character wants something! Isn't the big fight my next plot point? The biggest fight of his life! As he's concerned, it will be a fight to end all fights!" 

Not so fast. Is it possible that this writer is so stoked for the fight that he (I imagine this writer's male, considering how interested he is in fistfights) may have forgotten how his character's want or desire leads up to that fight. 

In the interest of clarity I'll bastardize Vonnegut's plain eloquence,

Every character should want something ... in order for his actions to make sense.

Action should follow desire.  Desire should lead to action.  Desire should also make sense.

Two Examples

I'll offer two king killers as examples Hamlet (killer of Claudius, King of Denmark) and Mario the Plumber (killer of Bowser, King of the Koopa).

  1. Hamlet makes sense. He's upset his uncle poured poison in his father's ear and unjustly became king.  He wants revenge. He also wants to be sure revenge is the right action to take, so he thinks about it a lot. The play sets up Hamlet's dilemma, then based on that desire he acts.
  2. Mario makes less sense. He's upset because Bowser took Princess Peach and eventually kills him in order to free her. The game is superfun. But, like the majority of video games, superfun action outweighs clearly defined desire. Mario wants to save her, but his actions don't make sense. Why does he save her? Who's she to him that he ends up in the Koopa Kingdom slaughtering turtles and mushrooms out for strolls; eventually throwing an entire state into turmoil by assassinating its monarch? The game sets up Mario's dilemma (save the princess) and he acts, but his desire to do this does not make sense.

When the idea to write a story about an interesting happening was a work's prime mover. The plot may end up being great, but may also result in less well developed characters (cough, cough: Twilight). 
Nonetheless: it's not hard to fix this by figuring out what a character wants. Since you know what a character does, ask yourself, what must this person want if they're going to do what they do?

An Exercise: Use Your Friends and Family

You're stuck. You have absolutely no idea why a want would lead to an action. Tap people you know well.

A good fix I've found is just sitting down with a pen and paper and writing until I figure it out. I write out a summary of what happens and go from there. I write about people I know who might have done or are capable of doing something like this. Who do I know capable of such an action in the first place? What do I know about him or her that would make these actions sensible? What stories do I know about him or her that's similar to my story? 

People you know well are great resources when you're trying to figure out the who's and why's of your characters.

Questions
  • How do you use people you know as resources for fiction?
  • What books or stories have you read with great plots and flimsy characters?
  • How do you round out characters who seem flat?
  • The classic question: plot first or character first?



Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA.
He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How to Use Kurt Vonnegut's Advice: "To Hell With Suspense"

The eighth and final piece of Vonnegut's advice to writers on the list I wrote about yesterday is an odd one:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


What?

This advice seems strange.  
Doesn't suspense keep the reader flipping pages? 
Haven't my own experiences with Vonnegut's novels Breakfast of Champtions, Slapstick, Slaughterhouse-Five, because when cockroaches didn't eat my book I still wanted to know the end?
How severe a roach infestation did he have? 

This remark deals with suspense not spoilers. I think it's directed at the risk of creating coy, false suspense and lame twists. "To hell with suspense" is an edgy way of saying "don't fuck around." Readers should know what's going on at the right time. If a reader is made to wonder something; finds it out and realizes her wondering didn't matter, you have a pissed off reader. She's not going to trust your control of the story.

Two examples
  1. Is your protagonist male and you could easily indicate that on page one, but decide to be coy and leave his gender ambiguous until Chapter Two? The reader should understand why. 
  2. Do you have a First-Person narrator, but withhold those pronouns until page three? (This drives me nuts. Shouldn't I be digesting expository information instead of wondering who's telling me this story?)
I recently read a novel so laden with twists they lost all impact and left me confused as to what each character wanted; why they were doing what they were doing; and (worst of all) why I should care.

No good.


How to Use This Advice

Fundamentally he's talking about two things: 1) exposition and 2) plot points. Every reader's wants to savour a good story.  Part of savoring involves expectations. 

Think about how you experience a restaurant. Vonnegut's suggesting that we be sensitive to what silverware's been laid out and what plates are being brought to the reader.  Is there a salad fork?  A steak knife? A soup spoon? Each leads the diner to expect different courses. If something surprising comes out of the kitchen it should be a free dessert; not a hair. Is your surprising plot point a hair or a dessert?


Here are two ways to hold yourself accountable for setting a good table.


Exercise 1: List all the events leading up to a given plot point. How close are they to the Big Moment? Do they all unfold at once? That can work but can also catch your reader by surprise.  Ask yourself if introducing some of that information earlier would actually hurt your story. If not, consider what would change if you moved it up.  


Exercise 2: Keep the fourth of Vonnegut's tips in mind, "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action." Force your draft, sentence by sentence, to respond to this. Sentences that do neither may need to be cut.  They also might be opportunities, if you ask a follow up question, "what could this sentence be doing?"  That answer just might be an ingredient in your reader's free dessert.

Questions
  • What are some memorable plot points you've read?
  • How was the information leading up to them revealed?
  • Do you think there's a difference between a plot twist and a surprise?
  • When do you think of a plot twist as a cheat?  When do you think they're great?
  • What's the difference?
You may want to check out a related post about suspense on this blog: BREAKING: Your Reader's Mind Was Not Blown


Next Up: Your Character Wants Water (Vonnegut's Third Tip)


Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 


He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Prompt: Field Tripping


Write for at least 10 minutes (no editing) about:

Image via Flickr (RobDurdle.com)
  • The Robertson family loved their weekend out in old Bedford Hills Park. Their father, Walter used to go there when he was a boy with his brothers. Back then they would go hunting with air rifles and slingshots. His oldest brother, Dimitri taught Walter how to aim and was there to help him gut his first kill - a small raccoon kit There would be no hunting today, Walter and his children preferred hiking and collecting leaves. 
  • "All right class. Gather 'round. Gather 'round. Does anyone know who knocked this tree down?"
    "Was it Big Foot, Mr. Robertson?"
    "No Henry. Not Big Foot. Big Foot is not real."
    "Was it termites?"
    "No, Gary. While termites are real they don't do this to trees like you see them do on those Bugs Bunny cartoons.
    Does anyone know why this tree fell?
    No? Well I'll tell you. It was Mother Nature that did it."
    "You're daft."
    "Who said that?"
    "I did, sir."
    "Kim, that was very rude. Please apologize to me and to the class for your disruption."
    "I'll apologize for the disruption but you're still daft."
    "Ok, Tough Gal. Do you know how the tree fell? Do you?!"
    "Not exactly but Mother Nature is as much a mythical construct as Big Foot. So if you believe in Mother Nature then why can't Henry believe there's a Big Foot?"
    The was a collective "Ooooo" from the class.
    "Ok. Ok. Point taken, Kim. It wasn't 'Mother Nature' that fell the tree but forces of nature. That work for you?"
    Kim turned her attention away from Mr. Robertson and the class. She heard a noise in the distance and saw a flash of movement.

Feel free to continue or write your own in the comments below.

Stephen Maher is a librarian in New York City. He has written poetry and short stories -- some of which you may have heard at an odd open mic night or two. He is currently writing emails and spreadsheets. 






Monday, April 26, 2010

Writing Advice Overload? Ask Vonnegut




Writing blogs have changed the way I think about writing on a daily basis. I take several breaks a day to read through my favorites on Google Reader. This weekend was more of a marathon, because I wrote up a Recommended Blogs page for this site and wanted to be sure I did in fact recommended those blogs.

While going through them I realized how consciously I now debate issues to do with writing. I also realized that too much good advice can leave one a wee bit foggy and had mini-crisis about a particular question that's been on my mind now that I'm revising my novel.


Kurt Vonnegut's advice for writing short stories always keeps things in perspective.  Eight concise (witty) principles originally published in Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. I find it so helpful that I keep it near my computer.  




Kurt Vonnegut's Advice to Short Story Writers 

(also applies to novel writers!!!) 



  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.



If something I'm working on feels wrong, thinking about simple ideas like these, can make the thought process a little less stressful.  

  • Does a lot of advice sometimes overwhelm you?
  • Does a particular author's tips about writing speak to you?
  • What do you do to try and focus when it seems like there are too many tips?




I got the idea for this post from a recent one on Gary Smailes' excellent blog Bubblecow.







Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 


He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Last Week's Neat Links



Writing and Fiction
Article


Galleries
Clips with Music
  • San Francisco, 1958 (music by Air "Alone in Kyoto," which you might recognize from Lost in Translation)
San Francisco 1958 from Jeff Altman on Vimeo.
  • LCD Soundsystem's weird new video for "Drunk Girls" (directed by Spike Jonze)
Something Else

Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 


He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   






Friday, April 23, 2010

Prompt: Flower



 Write for at least 10 minutes (no editing) about:
 Image via Flickr (Carlosgg).

  • The girl whose birthday falls on September 11 spends the entire day signing for the flowers her lovers send.  They think flowers will do the trick.  If she doesn't throw them away, everyone will stop at her desk with questions that she will either have to answer with lies or accept their sympathy or attempt to make light of it.  It's easiest to rush to the bathroom and shred the petals into the toilet. 

    The janitor spends all day calling "housekeeping" into on the eleventh floor's Ladies Room; then snaking petals out of the clogged toilet, terrified a woman will walk in on him and mistake his reason for being there.  She'll think he's the mentally challenged kid who stands in Ladies Room, scaring the hell out of women.  "This is the Women's Room," they say. "So?" he says and washes his hands for a while before leaving.

    "Housekeeping," he calls.  He knocks, then calls.  Then calls again.  Water soaks up his leg from the floor into his pant cuffs.  Hiking them up doesn't make a difference.  He'll leave the room holding shredded flowers with soaked socks and lower legs. 

    The door swings open and a woman rushes carrying a stuffed Elmo holding a bouquet of pink daisies.  They regard one another, she's flush; he's holding the snake. He doesn't yell.  He forgets his anger, standing in the flooded bathroom.  The woman with flowers and an Elmo, wearing a tiny shirt with "Thinking of You!" printed on it.  He doesn't tell her where flowers should go.  He asks, "what are the flowers for?"
              

Feel free to write your own in the comments below.

Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA.
He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

The Blackout Test: Balancing Action and Dialogue

I wrote about balancing dialogue and action yesterday and the day before.  Rounding out the week, here's an exercise I find helpful to get a sense of what my characters are expressing while they talk. 

Take a conversation and black out its dialogue. Ask yourself, what are my characters doing while they speak? How do their actions advance the plot or develop who they are?

Here's an example of what I'm talking about from the first few pages of a story I'm currently revising.  It's what prompted this week's focus on the importance of balancing dialogue and prose. In this scene the story's two main characters are talking:



That's a lot more conversation and a lot less action.  

As a contrast, here are the next few pages: 



There's an imbalance here that I didn't realize until I looked at the story this way.


I've got an opportunity to elaborate on what my characters are doing and thinking while they talk on the first few pages.  This will help balance the dialogue-heavy opening pages by developing who these people are beyond the ways they speak.


I went back to first few pages and turned the blacked out dialogue yellow. I made notes to myself using Word's insert comment tool.  I found lots of spots where I might develop my characters while they spoke with one another and inserted comments in each:


Every writer will learn what editing tactics are productive for them. I find visuals such as these effective as a means of coming to initial conclusions that can lead me to look at how I might begin to revise. Whether you do or not, the principle of paying attention to the balance between dialogue and prose is pretty important.

Check out how well balanced the second page of
Raymond Carver's story "Are These Actual Miles" does when it's given the blackout test:  

What's clear here is that she's well dressed and confidant while he plays with his pimples and follows her around.  Even without the information provided by the dialogue, there's still a clear sense of a big difference between these people.  She's got herself together; he doesn't. 

This scene is actually about a woman dressing up to go sell her car before a lien is placed on it.  She and her boyfriend assume that she's more likely to get a good deal than he is. She wants to look professional.  As a result, this part of the story's focused on the imbalance between them. Why does it work?  Both Carver's dialogue and action use body language and dialogue to establish how different these people are at this point. 

Let's blackout everything but the dialogue and look again:

Oh snap! 

The dialogue alone conveys just about the same dynamic the body language did.  This is one reason Carver's stories are great.  These characters' actions and words make them seem like Real Life People.

Some Questions
  • Does a visual exercise like this seem useful?
  • Do you assess your work visually like this?
  • If not, what techniques do you use to get your characters' movements and words reinforcing one another?




Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 


He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How Film Can Help Expand Your Characters' Body Language

Think about arguments you've had.  If you're like me you probably become hyper aware of what gestures you should or shouldn't make. Which might escalate or begin to resolve tension.
Do you extend your arms wide, palms up and smile? Let's make up.
Do you drop your forehead into your palm? Exasperation.
Do you stand up suddenly?  Uh-oh.

Real Life People are often quite aware of what their bodies are doing during a conversation, especially if it's a tense one. Fiction should do the same thing.  Dialogue often provides information, introduces or develops relationships, and characterizes who the speakers are.  Strong dialogue often accomplishes more than one at the same time.

However! It's not uncommon to read first drafts in which dialogue exists in a vacuum.  There's lots of quoted speech with very little around it.  Why?  The writer was so focused on providing information that little else happens. That's not like real life.

When revising a draft's dialogue ask yourself some questions:
  • What are these people doing while they speak?  
  • What postures have they assumed?
  • What do their bodies express?
  • What emotion or mental state do their actions reflect?
An Example and Exercise

Actors are constantly working with their bodies.  What their bodies do often speaks more than the words they say.  You can see how influential body language is very simply. Take a film or television show and turn the volume down and write down what you see the bodies doing.

Here's an example from the Coen brothers' film No Country for Old Men.  Watch it with the volume down.





Ask yourself some questions about how these actors' body language influence this scene (a transcript of the dialogue can be found here):
  • How would you describe the scene differently with the sound turned down?
  • How did their actions lead you to that description?
  • How do the actors' body language contrast what the characters say?
  • How does their body language re-enforce what they say?
When reviewing a draft, think about it like an actor might.  Figuratively speaking, try turning the volume down and see around the dialogue at what the bodies are doing.  Where are they standing?  When do they move?  When do they remain still?  The answers could be more interesting than you thought.

Some Questions
  • How do you approach writing dialogue?
  • Generally speaking, do you compose a scene's dialogue before you visualize it?
  • What techniques do you use to visualize characters and scenes?


Paulo Campos wrote his first novel in high school but didn't return to fiction until well into graduate school.  He's since written three novels and a collection of short fiction.  One of the novels and the collection seem good enough to shop for publication and are being revised.  He was a recipient of Glimmer Train's "Best Start" competition in November 2009.  His first published piece of short fiction will appear in the June 2010 issue of THEMA. 

He lives in New York with his wife and two suspect cats.   



Prompt: Slurp!

Write for at least 10 minutes (no editing) about:
Image via Flickr (10b travelling)
  • Onofo took a sip from the trough where last night's rain water had collected. It was cool even though the morning sun had already steamed the dew from the leaves. Onofo's tongue swam in the night water - it's big pink muscle curved and gathering. If the trough were big enough Onofo would bathe in it. He loves the water. How it gets through his fur and soothes his skin. Last night he dreamt he was a fish and fell from his perch. After he drank he said his prayer to gods. They answered him and sent Onofo a day without strife.


Feel free to continue or write your own in the comments below.


Stephen Maher is a librarian in New York City. He has written poetry and short stories -- some of which you may have heard at an odd open mic night or two. He is currently writing emails and spreadsheets.