Category Archives: Story Dialogue

Biting the Bullet

The choice is easy. The path is not.

The choice is easy. The path is not.

It seems my dilemma with River of Lost Souls has come to an important crossroads. In an earlier post (To Hatch Or Not To Hatch?) I fought with the idea that the book might have resurrected too soon, thus explaining my reluctance to bite the bullet and dive into the arduous task of preparing it for publication.

Have you ever tasted brass laced with lead? It’s not a 5-star delicacy even in an army mess hall. The lead is too soft and the brass is too tough. Irreconcilable textures aside, the taste is flat, and to swallow the lot could mean real trouble.

Try as I might, I couldn’t resolve to bite hard enough and long enough to break through the casing to get to the black powder (as if that would bring just reward for my long-suffering).

So, finally, I did the only sane thing and spit the bullet to the ground and kicked it far enough away to temp me no longer.

That was over a week ago and as of yesterday my decision to bail out continued unflinchingly steadfast.

Today, however, I experienced a revelation: But a moment of heady enlightenment it certainly was not.

River of Lost Souls isn’t a book before its time. It’s a book much too disjointed and unfocused to waste precious time on!

There, now I’ve said it. Now you know. If only you could imagine the realization’s impact on my professionalism.

What? I’ve written a complete book, 150,000 words, and it’s an abysmal failure?

Yep, pretty much. The story is schizophrenic and the focus is worse than Hubble before eyeglasses.

Pardon the hand-wringing and the pathetic whimpering. How could such a thing happen? An entire book a complete waste!

Simmer down, Gary. The book is indeed a train wreck, but at least it traveled down the tracks long enough to crash.

Huh?

Yes, debris covers the rail bed and the right-of-way, and the crash site stinks of spilled diesel and charred remains, but much of what’s left is salvageable.

Salvageable? At what cost? Do you have any idea how much work you’re talking about?

Hey, I’m your alter-ego, buster. Of course I know how much work we’re talking about. Believe me, I’ve no intention of leaving you in a lurch. I’ll be right there with you, through every change of plot, every rewrite of dialogue, through every painful moment of altering the outline, through every wretched throb of trying to piece the wreck back together again.

Yeah, but why bother? Why not toss it and write another book. In my experience, that would be immeasurably easier than rebuilding a disaster.

Because you said earlier that Javier DeSomo is a decent and well-deserving boy. And such a fine youngster should have his coming of age, should he not?

Uh, perhaps. But oh so much work.

But oh so much weakness. Is not a good book worthy of such effort?

Oh my, yes ,,, if the book turns out good. Maybe it derails again. How will I ever endure?

Quit your sniveling.  Had we not learned a few important lessons on the first draft, would we be capable of discrimination now?

I … I guess not.

Are you not partly responsible for the ideal that “Writing is Fun”?

Quit attacking me with simplicity. A rewrite of River of Lost Souls will take months.

Years if you don’t quit stalling. Buck up, Mr. Professional and take you medicine. Javier DeSomo needs to grow up and so do you. The book promises the stars and you quiver like a noodle in a boiling pot. Negativity be gone. Pick up the first piece of wreckage and analyze it. Is it broken or not? Can it be reused? If not, replace it and pick up the next. Just that simple. Writing a good, even a great book isn’t about shortcuts. It’s about recognizing what’s broken and fixing it. Here are your work gloves. Put them on. I’ll take this side of the track and you take the other. We’ll rebuild until we meet in the middle and then Javier DeSomo will have grown up with us along with him.

River of Lost Souls isn’t just about Javier’s coming of age. It’s about our coming of age too.

Pass me the pain ointment, partner. It’s time we turn left and not right.

Let’s Write a Story

Whether by pen, by pencil, by keystroke...

Whether by pen, by pencil, by keystroke…

 

I’m sure this idea is not new. Many websites no doubt exist where commentors may contribute to the writing of a story. Why not one more?

Here’s how it works. Anybody who wishes to take part, please comment to this post and I will add your contribution to the story. Only requirement is that profanity and adult content are prohibited, no restating of an earlier entry, and no dramatic deviation from the story’s direction. Please enter a pseudonym for credit.

What is the story’s direction? Here are some beginning guidelines.

The setting is an alternate existence on top of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

The time is the present.

The season is early summer.

Mark and Julie, young newly weds, are our story’s protagonists.

It’s my right to edit and post what I choose.

Beyond these, it’s write what may.

With the groundwork laid, it’s my privilege to write the opening. After all, the biggest stumbling block to writing is starting, so here is my contribution to launch us into the future.

 

In particular, nothing appeared different. From the summit of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs spread to the east and the vast Rocky Mountain Range spread in all other directions. The sun hung high and the wind held still. The scent off the treeline below smelled pleasant.

Mark awakened first and looked over at Julie. She lay in her sleeping bag in the same place she went to sleep last evening. Mark rose and stretched, yawned and scratched. Just another morning in paradise.

“What do think of where you are now?” a sweet voice said out of nowhere.

 

That’s it. Let’s have some fun and just do it!

Sunday, June 9, 2013 –  Christi Mone Marie — author of M. de V.A.LL.E. She can be contacted at www.christimonemarie.com

He looked at Julie, thinking her voice had suddenly taken on a super sweet tone. They hadn’t been talking much of late. She must still be peeved at the outcome of our last argument. No, it wasn’t her. She was still sound asleep, despite his rustling around and scratching.

Looking to his right, he tried to see if someone had intruded on their campsite. But no one was there. He looked to his left. Hmm … no one there either. Turning around, he looked at the forest behind their campsite. The thick grove of pine trees was effective at blocking out the sunlight from reaching the woodland floor. It seemed rather ominous. Ominous, yet it beckoned him. Perhaps that’s where the voice had come from?

Shrugging, he ambled towards the tree line. A curious chipmunk ran out to greet him and proudly preceded their entrance into the forest. A perturbed squirrel squawked high on a needled limb, its tail darting back and forth in quick, staccato movements. A robin sang joyously to its mate. Mark’s feet crunched loudly on the mat of fallen debris. The previous season’s leaves were brown and brittle, long since fallen. Pine cones more abundant than the emerging ponderosa pine saplings.

Laughter made him stop in his tracks. A trill so buoyant, it effortlessly floated on the cold, dense air. It seemed almost effervescent. And otherworldly. Mark tried to step lighter, to soften his footsteps on the detritus and succeeded marginally. He pushed forward as quickly as could be mustered, without making his footfall sound like a crashing bear through the underbrush. It was difficult  because Mark was a big, solid man.

The laughter ceased. He stopped walking too. Looking around, he noticed he could no longer see the campsite. But he wasn’t worried, he knew he had walked a straight line. He only had to follow that same reasoning out. Now what? Should he turn around and walk back to the site? Maybe Julie would have a fire going and bacon would be sizzling on the cast iron skillet along with some eggs, sunny-side up. No, not likely. Best you’ll get with her mood is, “do it yourself” Ahh, a woman scorned and fit to be tied.

He’d rather seek further than head back to camp to face the uneasy silence. But what was the use in pressing on when there was obviously nothing there? Shaking his head, he turned around and started heading back. Maybe I need to stop taking Ambien. Must be contributing to my sleepwalking. Or maybe I’m just dreaming I’m sleepwalking.

Emerging through the forest, to the campsite, he saw his wife still sleeping. Typical. She seemed rather depressed as of late. He could well understand why. But he liked to be the eternal optimist and say ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ She tended to get into moods and sulk. And become madder than a momma bear protecting her cubs. Maybe she needed a cub? Maybe that would mellow her out?

“Not likely,” he mumbled. “Well, better start on breakfast since no one else will do it.”

And that’s when he saw it, lying on his sleeping bag. A necklace. Exquisitely crafted. Turquoise beads strung between lapis ones. And hanging in the middle of the pendant was a golden sphere with a marking he couldn’t identify. Picking it up, he ran his thumb over the sphere. The necklace was heavier than he would have expected. It seemed like something Native American but he knew better. His father had been a Native American historian and had thoroughly educated him on the many Rocky Mountain tribes and their customs. No, this was definitely not that. But then what was it?

He heard a rustle from his wife’s sleeping bag and quickly stashed the necklace in his pocket. No use sharing it with her. It would be his little secret. Something he could ruminate on and investigate on his own. “Morning. Sleep well?”

Should I or Shouldn’t I?

To do or not to do, that is the indecision.

To use or not to use, that is the indecision.

Ever try to write a book without speaker attributions?

I have, and it’s a great exercise in conciseness.

The book I’m speaking of is Rendezvous Buzzard Point, a thriller I began about a young man whose beloved wife is murdered.

In an effort to avenge Linda’s death, Alan finds himself embroiled in a nasty plot to destroy Washington, D.C. by a Colombian drug cartel named Flamingo, armed and supported by the government of Iran.

Here is a short excerpt, hopefully showing that stories can be written without speaker attributions.

Please take a read and tell me what you think?

The downtown traffic passed in vague flashes as Alan recalled his and Linda’s trip into the Colombian rainforest. Soon he noticed nothing of the grind of urban life, seeing instead the thick reach of trees, wide bushes and small plants covering the jungle floor.

“Can you believe we’re actually here, Alan?”

Alan took Linda’s hand and allowed her to lead him further into the dense foliage. “Hard to believe, but here we are.”

“It’s different than the wilderness in the Rocky Mountains. It’s denser and more humid … the air is like breathing water.”

Alan winced and grasped Linda’s arm. “Hope we’re prepared.”

Linda nodded assurance. “After all, what’s worse than being torn apart by a cougar or a huge brown bear?”

“Being crushed by a green anaconda?”

Linda laughed. “Then don’t run around in the swamp unclothed, dear heart.”

“How can I avoid it? When I imagine you naked, I lose all control.”

Linda caressed Alan’s hand. “With all this around us, you think about sex?”

Why not? Sex is what made all this possible.”

Linda shook her head. “Okay, let’s hike in further and make camp. Then we’ll see what happens inside our nifty little tent.”

In this excerpt, Alan has met a homeless jazz musician who used to deal cocaine for Flamingo.

Alan couldn’t contain his fascination. “Hey, Bop, you were sure grooving back there and I enjoyed it. Real cool.” At once, Alan felt remorse about his weak effort at hipster lingo and looked away, wishing he had spoken less specious.

“Sorry, man, we was just strolling past the capitol and I couldn’t help but remember when I was playing solo tenor in Jimmy Tate Wilson’s big band. We setup at the bottom of the steps. Yeah, it was a luscious day like today. Sun high and warm. Sweet breeze and all … and Jimmy called a tune composed by Neal Hefti named Cute. Ever hear of it?”

“Can’t say that I have, Bop.”

“Well, it’s a jazz standard of the first order. Medium swing tempo with great ensemble lines played around fine brushwork from our drummer. Cool, it was, brother. One of my favorite tunes to solo over.”

Alan smiled at Bop’s rising passion. “Still love music, don’t you.”

Bop scrunched his face and tightened his lips. “Times it was so beautiful it made me cry inside. Bad times, they was. Really bad.”

“Bad?”

“Yeah, like bad as in bad ass. You know, screaming high moments that made all the lonely hours worth it.”

Alan thought for a moment. “Guess I can relate … but maybe not.”

“Like I said back in the park, us jazz musicians is a bunch of compulsive types. Almost takes that to play your ass off, you know. You ever spend a couple hundred thousand hours of your life refining something, man?”

“Not that I recall. Most dedication I ever mustered was graduating from college and starting my business. Can’t see how that could be the same.”

“I wouldn’t know. Never done that. But with them glorious highs there was all them brutal lows. Playing jazz is like sailing a ship in a storm, one moment you’re up top a smasher wave, the next you’re surrounded by walls of hell–bent fury.”

“Think you can harness that kind of drive again?”

The point is that speaker attributes are avoidable, and why not? They need space, thought, and serve no purpose beyond telling the reader who spoke.

When I started to write, I attributed too often, never realizing how clumsy it was.

Further, I used every kind of attribute I could think of — demanded, commanded, cried, wailed, sang, spat, snipped, quipped, among many. After some research, I discovered that many successful writers use nothing more than “said” and “asked”.

The reason is that these two are quick, easy to understand, and discreet, stealing little from the pace of the story.

It follows that fewer attributions might work better, even to the point of dropping them. Easy enough to try, so I gave it a go.

I actually liked it, because if done well (and I’m improving) my story snapped into hyperdrive and sped between the stars.

Then every word used was dedicated to narrative, dialogue and action, with no interruptions.

I thought that was really neat, so I decided to commit to it.

Please understand that I’m not suggesting speaker attributes are passé. They still predominate in the market and likely always will. But once in a while a story avoids them, and if done well, the reader never misses them, often reflecting later how snappy and fast the story read.

Just a suggestion you might try to clarify your writing further.

Your opinion on this topic fascinates me. If you feel moved, please take a moment and comment.

GSS

A Horse is a Horse By Any Other Name is a Horse

And they go on and on and...

And they go on and on and…

Another of Sam’s annoying habits is rambling. Often he says something and says it again, albeit with a clever slant, and then has the gall to say it again.

In my opinion, a clever statement isn’t the third try. It’s the first — the one with the most clout.

Here is an example of Sam’s needless ramblings. This is a scene where he is sucking up to Sheriff Uriah Jersey to save himself jail time:

“I shot at him and missed? Listen, Sheriff, I shot at him, all right, but I danged well didn’t miss. He was aiming down on my dog with a scattergun. And I can tell you if he’d killed Ballou, I would have killed him right there. Two things you don’t take from a man west of the Big Muddy. One’s his horse. The other’s his dog. I aimed for the barrel of his shotgun and I danged well hit it square. Knocked the gun right out of his hands. I’d say I more or less saved his life with one shot.”

Sam, I hate to tell you this, but the more you beg the less likely you’ll save yourself.

Here’s how I cleaned up Sam’s mess, to quicken the pace and save him from his pathetic begging:

“I shot at him, all right, but I danged well didn’t miss. He was aiming to kill my dog with a scattergun, and had he done it, I would have dropped him right there. Two things you don’t take from a man west of the Big Muddy are his horse and his dog. I aimed for his scattergun and knocked it away. Teal Webster’s lucky ’cause one quick shot saved him from dying.”

Here’s the value in the rewrite.

Sam’s original dialogue totaled 101 words. Sam’s rewrite totaled 73. By my math, that’s over a 27% savings –– shorter and quicker with more information.

Of course, some readers might say that there’s nothing wrong with Sam’s ramble and they could be right. I’m not the reader, so I don’t know. I do know this — the faster a bullet hits, the faster the results. Sam’s explanation needed trimming to simulate his fast shooting, so I toned down his self-absorption to meet that need.

In closing then, a horse is a horse by any other name is a horse — simply stated and with a lot more speed and accuracy — is a horse.

“Giddyap, Cactus.”

Feeling Worn-down?

Sam, your boots look awful.

Sam, your boots look awful.

 

Sam Claiborne, the protagonist who many of you know, recently required some redirection.

Oh, he’s a smart enough fella, born of solid Missouri stock, but didn’t take well to schooling, so good speech habits were skills he never mastered.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not deriding Sam because he isn’t an English professor. He can ride, hunt, shoot, figure on matters well, and knows hornswoggling when he sees it. That pretty much qualifies him for survival along the Front Range in 1872 Colorado Territory.

Yet, there are a few things about Sam that have worn on me. One is his constant need to restate. Here’s what I’m saying:

“Sam, your boots look awful,” I said.

“Awful, you say? Hey, slick, they’re worn some and a mite dirty, but there’s plenty of cowhide to walk over the range with,” Sam said, disgust pouring from his dark–brown eyes.

“Guess there’s use in them yet. How about that broken-down derby you wear?”

“Yep, there you go again, spouting off about my simple pleasures. My black derby’s rode my skull for over five years, seen more trail than a pioneer, been rained on too many times to remember, and still keeps the prairie sun off my head. Now lay off of me,” Sam bellowed, spitting as he yelled.

“Sam, didn’t you tell me your eyes are dark–brown on page 12 when we first met?”

“Yep, but you’re nothing but simple-minded, so I got to keep telling you.”

“I’m not simple-minded.”

“You saying you aren’t?” Sam snapped, glaring hard as stone.

“Sam, it seems we aren’t getting along, so I think I’ll spend my leisure doing something else. Goodbye.”

“Tarnation, slick, aren’t you more than a bit touchy?” Sam shouted loudly.

“What? Where did you go, slick?” Sam asked, his face forming a question mark.

“Danged if slick didn’t mean it. He’s gone. What do you suppose I did to miff him?” Sam wondered, yanking at his dark blue bandana with white fleur de lis on it.

Are you for real, Sam? I asked myself after opting for music. Here’s what miffed me:

1. If a person is a competent reader, and most are who read novels, don’t describe on page 135 what you described on page 12.  Sam, I already know your eyes are dark–brown. Thanks, now let’s get on with the story.

2. “Awful, you say? Hey, slick, they’re worn some and a mite dirty, but there’s plenty of cowhide to walk over the range with,” Sam railed, disgust pouring from his dark–brown eyes.

Boring, too much detail, too many words, Sam –– and please, can’t you keep your speech succinct and allow it to explain your mood. Why not try this?

“Awful? Slick, they’re worn and dirty, but still get me around,” Sam said.

Or perhaps…

“Worn and dirty, but they still cover my feet!”

So, here’s what I’m saying, Sam. Never restate. I said your boots looked awful. Don’t parrot it back, please. Also, don’t rail and pour disgust out of your dark–brown eyes. Show it in your words. Don’t describe it.

3. “Yep, there you go again, spouting off about my simple pleasures. My black derby’s rode my skull for over five years, seen more trail than a pioneer, been rained on too many times to remember, and still keeps the prairie sun off my head. Now lay off of  me,” Sam bellowed, spitting as he yelled.

Thanks for your derby’s life story, Sam. I really don’t care. And don’t bellow, spit and yell simultaneously. It’s bad for your gall bladder.

How’s this sound?

“There you go again, tearing down my simple pleasures. My derby’s rode my skull for over five years and still keeps my head cool. Now lay off,” Sam said.

Better yet, drop the speaker attribution. I know it’s you who’s speaking, Sam. We’re face to face. You’re showing your vanity by referring to yourself too often.

4. “You saying you aren’t?” Sam snapped, glaring hard as stone.

I’ve already said I’m not simple-minded — and keep your snapping, glaring and bad analogies to yourself. Your response is redundant. Don’t squander my time. But if you insist, maybe I’ll forgive you this time.

“You saying you aren’t?” Sam asked, glaring.

5. “Tarnation, slick, aren’t you more than a bit touchy?” Sam shouted loudly.

You’re wasting breath, Sam. Tarnation sounds silly, “slick” is overused, and avoid shouting loudly. It’s a double whammy to your vocal chords.

6. “What? Where did you go, slick?” Sam asked, his face forming a question mark.

Never ask two questions in a row, especially when nobody’s there to answer them. Remember, I’m gone.  How on earth can you contort your face into a question mark? Get serious, Sam.

7. As for this monstrosity, I’ll leave it for you to analyze:

“Danged if slick didn’t mean it. He’s gone. What do you suppose I did to miff him?” Sam wondered, yanking at his dark blue bandana with white fleur de lis on it.

In closing, friends, the KISS principle often holds when it comes to dialogue. Keep it short and simple, so the reader isn’t overwhelmed; and let the words do the work, so Sam can’t forever rail, shout loudly, spitting as he yelled, wondering while yanking at his dark blue bandana with white fleur de lis on it

It’s time to get real, Sam!

 

C-3PO at His Finest

If it rings like metal, it's metal.

If it rings like metal, it’s metal.

 

I never intended to create a robot out of my protagonist; he was supposed to resemble a flesh and blood man, young and supple and not forever bending only one joint at a time. But, alas, he rings like metal, so he’s definitely a robot.

Of course, the protagonist I’m referring to is Sam Claiborne, my lead in the latest project I’m editing — Heller’s Canal.

Sam, please allow me to introduce the actor who can best play you in the movie version of your story.

Sam, this is C-3PO of Star Wars fame. C-3PO, this is Sam. (Ha, you should see all the herky-jerky handshaking.)

By the way, kudos to the casting director, Sam and C-3PO have so much in common it’s uncanny. But I digress.

So, when I wrote Heller’s Canal the words poured from me like warm honey. The book took three months to write, and, years later, 30 seconds to recognize its flaws.

Sam is a fine young man, the usual wrangler off the range, who finds himself mixing with civilization out of necessity. (Age-old plot, but when it comes to plots, nothing is new under the sun.)

Sam is affable, rugged, handsome, independent, the usual lead in a Western, except he wears a derby and not a Stetson.  Hey, nobody’s perfect, least of all Sam.

Sam’s problems stem from his rigidity, his total lack of flexibility. He walks a lot. He laughs too much. And his speech is excessive. So, try as I might way back when, Sam came off more robot than human.

What a shame, because Sam so impressed me back in 2004, when he first broke upon the range, youthful, vigorous and confident. (This is the point where I was supposed to show devastating disappointment. But strange as it seemed, it never occurred to me.)

I guess it happens that some young people suffer from rigidity well before their time. But laugh and talk like a stiff, too. Definitely a robot.

Thus, realizing that Sam’s got oil in his tubing, I didn’t discard him, but decided, instead, to tear him apart and rebuild him more like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, the humanlike cyborg in Terminator 2.

First thing I did was go after Sam’s shallowness.  Oversimplification defined his character — a character that did way too much of way too little. You see, Sam never sauntered, moseyed, shuffled, marched, stomped, or stormed anywhere. All the poor guy did was walk. (But how can anybody expect advanced robots back in 1872. Hey, this is the 21st century, Sam. Step it up.)

To attack this flaw, I went through the entire book and loosened up the fella a little. Soon his body responded more to his emotions and his environment. Sam had grown muscles to control his titanium endoskeleton. Hmm, nice improvement, Sam, but still you have those other problems.

In regard to Sam’s laughing, he must surely be on peyote.

No, he assures me, so I fixed his boring laughter the same way I fixed his invariable walking.

Before the fix, Sam thought everything was funny. Now Sam uses his laughter to express his mood. Sometimes he chortles, other times he snickers, often he howls, roars or shrieks. Sam has learned that laughing is a refined reaction, expressing happiness, fun, disgust, mocking and even abuse.

Next I addressed Sam’s speech. Let’s face it dialogue is tricky, and in Sam’s case even trickier, because he insisted on explaining everything about his story with another character. Solution here was to give Sam an inner voice, the internal dialogue one always carries on with one’s self.

Suddenly, Sam is more human. He moves like a person. He demonstrates individual reactions. And he mulls things over to better understand the world around him.

So, in closing, I offer these words of encouragement. Smile and be happy when your story has flaws and your lead character is made of metal.

The flaws are there for a purpose. They’re there to test your mettle, so attack each like you would a cyborg T–1000.

“Hasta la vista, baby.”