Still More Contest Entries

Yes. More of your entries to read and enjoy. And if that’s not enough for you, consider this silly old post on Fiction Trends of the Future! (This re-post is offered in honor of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” movie, which opens Friday and is based on the book, a book so good I was still able to fall in love with it even though when I read it I was in the middle of a terribly deep depression brought on by a relational meltdown of epic proportions. Oh to write a novel half as good as Audrey’s debut.)

The short stories now.

Jennifer Neri titled her entry “Morgue”:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. Or on Friday, or on Saturday. On Sunday, the day her body began to stiffen and turn cold, the sun shone. While she lay, dying, the clouds had covered the sky, and lighting had flashed, thunder calling her.

I stared at the body, trying to see the mother I knew. She looked the same, yet in another way, she was no longer the woman who had bore me, her middle son, forty-two years ago.

I heard my father shuffle back into the room, my eldest sister’s voice relentless in his ear. We had been waiting fourteen hours for them to remove the body.

Someone had come with coffee and a box of muffins that my youngest brother had placed on our dead mother’s leg. Eat, he had said. I took the box and moved it to the little table that had held her tray for the past seven weeks she had been in palliative care. I saw him pick up a muffin and bite half of it. My stomach turned, and I swallowed bile. In this way, we waited.

“They are ready,” my sister said. “But, she will not be moved until we are all here.”

The six of us, the children, had scattered when the first bird began to sing. My two sisters had uncoiled themselves from her. One had her hands under our mother’s breast, the other under her thighs.

“What are you doing?” I had asked them.

“She is still warm here,” the elder one had answered.

Suddenly, the room was full, my siblings moving about. Within minutes two attendants arrived, but they were pushed out of the way.

“We will do it,” said my eldest brother, the second born from her.

At the doors marked MORGUE, the eldest, my sister who had her hands nestled under our mother’s breasts, collapsed.

“No,” my father spoke. “She would not want this.”

My sister rose, resumed her spot, and we pushed through the doors. I knew each of us wondered how we could leave her; she had been so scared.

“I will stay,” I said.

The attendants looked at each other, then at all of us, and shrugged.

I was alone, and I reached for the bottle water I had placed on the floor, next to my chair. My lips were dry, and my throat ached. The bottle was empty.

Michelle Evans entered this short story:

‘It was the best of times… no, really, the very best of times. I can’t help but think if only… No but we must look to the future now.’ Louise went to stand up.

‘Oh, Aunt Louise, if you don’t tell me about those times, how will I ever know anything about Mother?’ Sophie, nearing adulthood innocently yearned to know more.

‘The best of times…’ she urged.

‘Yes, when your mother and I were in our early 20’s,’ Louise sighed.

‘What made it the best of times, Aunt Louise?’ Sophie asked.

‘Freedom! We were free and easy and loved it. We did what we wanted.’ Louise turned to Sophie and said in a low voice. ‘But maybe being so easy wasn’t the best.’

‘Tell me more, Aunt Louise,’ Sophie curled her knees in to her chest looking small and childlike.

‘Your mum had just finished her degree, we were pumped for a big night. Sophie, you’re nearly 17, I’m going to tell you this so hopefully you will learn not only about your mum, but so you won’t make the same mistakes.

‘But you said it was the best of times,’ Sophie was a little lost.

‘Yes, well I suppose that’s how we used to think. Looking back, all the hangovers, memory loss, men – many men…’

‘Are you saying, that my mother… many men?’ Sophie blushed.

‘I’m afraid so, Soph, that’s why you’ve never met your father. I don’t believe your mum worked out which one it was, so she never told any of them about you,’ Louise paused for a moment, then rushed on. ‘It was just after your second birthday, your mum rang me and said “Louise lets got out like we used to.” She drank a lot before we went out.’

‘Is this the night she died, Aunt Louise?’ Sophie’s wet eyes looked down.

Louise searched for courage, her lip quivered.

‘I went to the bar to get more beers while your mum was on the dance floor. Stories about spiked drinks were all over the papers and it crossed my mind your mum had left her drink at the table while I carried mine to the dance floor. I searched for her on the dance floor but found her just off to the side, lying on the floor. It was too late. I looked to our table. Her drink was spiked. The bottle was empty.’

Holly Tupper, who is 15 years old, entered this clever story. (I think you’ll agree Holly is well on her way to becoming a published writer.)

“The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. Everyone was bumping into each other because no one could see anything! That’s what Alex said happened after he ate your cooking, Sash! What is this stuff anyway?” My little brother, Josh, eyed the repulsive yellow lump on his plate.

I shot him a poisonous glare. “It’s macaroni and cheese.” A skeptical frown crossed his face, so I added, “You like macaroni and cheese.”

Josh wrinkled his nose. “Not when it looks like that.”

I glanced at the pathetic pile of watery, half cooked macaroni and clumps of dry cheese sauce and sighed.

“Just eat it.”

I slumped onto a chair next to Josh. So much for my cooking skills. Only my second time babysitting, and not only had I locked myself out of the house while taking out the trash and had had to run over to the neighbor’s to phone Mom to find out where the spare key was, but now I had made a complete mess of dinner.

And it was macaroni and cheese! How hard is it to cook macaroni and cheese?

I brought a forkful of macaroni to my mouth. An unusual odor filled my nose––kind of like the smell you get when you burn oil. I instantly burst into a fit of coughing. I grabbed my cup and gulped down the water, ridding my mouth of the nasty taste.

Josh’s eyes bulged and his mouth dropped open.

“No way am I eating that!”

“Forget it!” With one artful sweep, I dumped the macaroni into the trash can. “We’re ordering pizza!”

Josh flashed me a mischievous grin. “Oh, and Alex said that after he ate your food, his house was stormed by big, scary, green…”

I threw my head into my hands.

“…monsters.”

Remember that I told you to keep your eyes peeled for a story by Andi Newton? Here it is:

Somewhere between roof and the pavement, Sam remembered where he’d left his wallet.

“Ah, crap.” Stepping off the landing, he rode the sliding ladder the rest of the way down, one foot on a rusty rung, the other stepping onto asphalt as soon as the ladder stopped.

“Find it?” Janowski asked.

Sam shook his head. “No, but I know where it is.”

“Yeah? Where?”

“Maddigan’s.”

Janowski’s shoulders sagged. “Any idea where she is?”

Sam switched the blackout monocle from his left eye to his right and scanned the skyline. The silver ring of his exposed eye flicked in mechanical stops from one building to the next.

“There,” he said, pointing at a brick building sporting a neon “Beckman’s Soda” sign.

Janowski sighed and, pulling the gun from his holster, followed Sam down the street.

#

“It’s of no use to you, Maddigan.”

The woman opposite him turned Sam’s wallet in slow circles with nicotine-yellowed fingernails. A corner caught her hair, and it wrapped in brittle layers around the leather.

“Perhaps not,” she admitted, “but it’s of importance to you, and that gives it value.”

“And that value would be?”

“Your eyes.”

“You would blind me, Maddigan?”

Maddigan shrugged. “They say children have their parents’ eyes, and parents swear by their children’s. I have no children, but if I had your eyes I’d have something to swear on.”

Sam watched Maddigan’s hair wrap around the wallet. He could let her keep it, find some other way…

“I’ll let you take one.”

Maddigan curled her hand around the wallet. “Which one?”

Slipping the blackout monocle off, Sam leaned forward. “Your choice.”

Women always told Sam that his right eye was a nice shade of blue when it wasn’t bloodshot, but the valuable one, of course, the useful one was the left. Titanium in iron, fitted with the latest tech. Maddigan didn’t even have to replace one of her own with it. That just made it portable. Finding a new one wouldn’t be easy, but the wallet was worth it.

Sam jerked backward as Maddigan lunged forward and dug fingernails into his eye socket. Grinning, she held her hand open, palm up, for him to see, but Sam didn’t need to look to know what she’d done. He knew already, in the blood that smeared his cheek and the gray that edged his vision.

She chose the blue one after all.

And there you have it. Four more clever entries in the “First and Last” contest. See why it’s so hard to choose a winner?

A few more tomorrow, too. Yup. There are more.

More Contest Entries

As promised, below are a few of the entries I received in the “First and Last” contest. If you haven’t yet read the winning entries, click here.

Also, this might be a good time to read one of my older, educational posts. Like this one on subjectivity, perhaps. Okay, you caught me. I’m trying to distract you from the fact that I’m not writing original posts this week. Guilty as charged. Except… the paragraph you’re reading now is All New Material. Plus, you haven’t seen the short stories anywhere else. So I think I’m off the hook. And anyway, I have to write a short story because I promised I would. (Maybe I’ll post that on Friday. Maybe.)

Righty, right then. On to the first batch of contest entries.

Here’s a contest entry from Andrea Crain:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. Why? Well, Kyla is a very beautiful girl, and therefore Kris was always trying to impress her. I was eavesdropping Wednesday night. “I’ll bring you the moon and stars and forge them into a necklace for your beautiful throat! I’ll pull the sun from the sky and bottle the sunshine so you’ll never endure a gloomy day again!”

Big words. Of course, Kyla scoffed. But Kris had a few tricks up his sleeve. He pulled out a golden bottle and a silver hammer, and as Kyla watched with a little smirk on her face, he reached up and tapped down the moon with the hammer and started smithing. He set in a few stars as diamonds. It was a sight!

The necklace was gorgeous. But it was so dense that nothing could escape its gravity, not even the sunlight, not even Kyla. So the sun didn’t rise on Thursday. Kris sat on a distant planet, crying, the bottle at his feet. The bottle was empty.

Jana Nash entered this story:

Somewhere between roof and the pavement, Sam remembered where he’d left his wallet. He stopped and peered down the darkened alley, listening carefully. Then he turned, clambering back up the stairs, cringing at the metallic resonance of his steps.

Upon reaching the roof, he knelt down, breathlessly searching through the dark. There it was, perched precariously near the ledge. He grabbed it and ran back to the stairs, hastily shoving the wallet into the back pocket of his faded blue jeans.

Sam recklessly descended the steps, three at a time, but when his feet hit the ground, he didn’t run. Instead, he crept along the brick wall to the edge of the building. Hiding in the shadows, he peered around the corner, afraid that his pounding heart might give him away.

The street was deserted except for a small crowd forming about twenty feet away. He spotted something on the sidewalk between the crowd and himself. Making certain that nobody was looking, he darted out to get it and returned to the shadows before anyone could notice.

The sound of sirens blasted in the distance. He bolted through the alley, past the fire escape, pausing at the end to check for witnesses. He saw only a few people who seemed to be doing some late night window shopping. He nonchalantly stepped into the light, walking the short distance to his tan sedan. He breathed a sigh of relief after closing the door and starting the engine, thus blocking out the growing wail of the sirens.

Pulling out of the parking space, Sam wondered which way to go. He waited at a red light, watching as two police cars sped by with their blue lights flashing. He stole a glance at the broken camera in the passenger seat. He may not have gotten what he’d come for, but at least he’d escaped with his life. Now, if only he could get out of town.

The light turned green and Sam decided to go straight, heading toward the interstate. After pulling safely into the fast lane, he set the cruise control. Except for a few truckers and night owls, the road was his. Searching for comfort, he reached into the glove compartment and groaned. The bottle was empty.

Richard Fuller titled his entry, “Box”:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday.  Not because there wasn’t a sun.  It just seemed to be stuck.  Undoubtedly, it shone brightly somewhere.  After all, Dora’s night was someone else’s day.  Her stuck Thursday was someone else’s stuck Friday.

She was pretty sure it was her fault.

It began with that weird chemistry set she found at the Fantasy Convention.  Dora hadn’t planned to go.  She thought fantasy fans were stupid, but cute Josh was one and he’d talked her into going.  Soon bored, she’d left him happily browsing among the comic books.  Then she noticed a booth in a dark corner with a sign that read, “Demon Science.”  She didn’t believe in demons but she liked science, so she went over for a closer look.

Among the usual cheesy amulets and spell books was a black metal box with red lettering that said, “ChemMystery: When Stink Bombs Aren’t Enough.”  Because chemistry was Dora’s favorite subject, and because she agreed that stink bombs often weren’t enough, she asked the robed and hooded character behind the counter if she could look inside the box.  In a rasping voice, he/she replied, “You don’t look inside it.  It looks inside you to see if you are the One.”

Screw this fantasy nerd bullshit.  “You expect me to buy it without seeing what’s inside?

“If you are the One, you won’t need to buy it.  The box is yours.”

“Okay, Elf Wizard or whatever the hell you’re supposed to be, can I at least take a closer look at it?”

He/she handed Dora the box.  It vibrated in her hands and grew very hot.  The world blurred and then disappeared.  She dreamed of another life, another box.

She awoke in her room.  Outside, nothing moved, not the birds frozen in mid-flight, not the traffic on the street.  Next to her was the box.  She must have opened it, because a seething, red-tinged cloud of blackness was pouring out, howling through her window and into the still night.

When it was gone, Dora looked in her box and saw a clear container, a stopper, and a singed piece of parchment.  She examined each in turn.  The stopper smelled of sulfur and death.  The parchment bore sanguine script that read, “Thanks.  Good to see you again.”

The bottle was empty.

PJ entered two stories. Here’s the first:

It was the best of times… no, really, the very best of times.  But that was last week.  Now, as Samantha looked in the full-length mirror, holding the navy blue shirt-waist dress against her slim body, all she could see were the gray shadows under her eyes and her sagging shoulders.  Her chestnut hair was slicked back into a neat bun but several unruly locks poked out around her ears.  The gray sweat suit she wore was rumpled – she wasn’t sure how many days she had worn it.

“This navy blue one is too somber – I look like I’m going to a funeral,” she thought.  She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.  She felt like she was preparing for a funeral, actually – the funeral for her old, carefree life.  Opening her eyes, she put the navy blue dress down on the bed and shuffled to the closet.  She emerged with a sexy ruby-red dress – the one she had worn to her husband’s inauguration last month.  Everybody had said they looked like John and Jacquelyn Kennedy.

Now, holding the red dress up against her, she felt the full weight of what had happened and her knees started to buckle.  She sat on the floor and struggled to hold back the sobs.  Remembering how happy they were that day made her depression – it had set in since her husband’s arrest one week ago – that much deeper.  Harold, his lawyer, had of course taken care of arranging bail, but those few hours after she found out about the arrest were like a horror film on continuous play in her mind.  The tight knot in her stomach was beginning to convince her that she would never feel normal again.

Of course he had denied everything.  He came home from the courthouse and launched into explanations about how the FBI had made a mistake – he had been framed.  She wanted to believe him but wasn’t sure whether she could.  Spending the week barricaded in her house with protesters outside around the clock was not making his story any more believable.

So today’s press conference announcing his resignation would mark the official end of their charmed lives.  After today, all attention would be on the trial.  She just wasn’t sure she would have the strength for any of it.

“Samantha!  We need to leave in twenty minutes!” he shouted to her from downstairs.

“OK – I’ll be down soon,” she replied as she got up from the floor.  Samantha smoothed on her makeup, slipped into the dress, stepped into her pumps and made her way carefully down the stairs.  She chose the blue one after all.

See what I mean? Good stuff. More great writing tomorrow.

Until then…

Contest Winners! (And Other Friday Fun)

contest-boxI’ll bet you’re here to find out who won the “First and Last” contest, right? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I wanted to say “thanks” to all who entered, 20 of you, as it turned out, though I received 21 entries because I never said you couldn’t submit more than one and one intrepid writer happily sent two entries with my blessing.

These were lots of fun to read – so fun, in fact, that I’m planning on posting the rest of the entries throughout next week. You’ll enjoy reading them just as I did.

Okay, now, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, prizewinners. Patience, my friends. Remember that I promised I’d write a story based on your suggested “first” and “last” lines? I’ll be doing that soon, but I wanted to tell you what lines I’m using in my story. (By the way, thanks so much for submitting these. I had lots more to choose from than you did. And they were all great.)

My story will start with this line: “The striped cat glared at me.”

It will end with this line: “The rain washed it all away.”

And I have no idea what it will be about. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I’ll try to include a few more lines from this list.

Okey dokey. As you know, choosing a winner is always the hardest thing about hosting a contest. And of course, you’re all really winners, not just for having entered, but for writing such great stories. But apparently I am a masochist, because I can only choose three of you as prizewinners. (It’s in moments like these that I wish I still met weekly with my therapist.) And so, now, the three-who-get-prizes-above-and-beyond-the-satisfaction-of-having-entered.

Third prize (a $15 Amazon gift card) goes to…Nicole Petrino-Salter. Here’s her entry:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. Nor did it set. Not for me anyway. The blinds crushed together defying any glimpse of life outside my room with the curtains pressed against them like Spandex. I’d given up my unsteady tromping to the bathroom and brought the decorative plastic-lined wastebasket to my bedside instead. And the box of Kleenex.

I desperately wanted to drink the water in that Dixie Cup on the nightstand, but the sensation of it repeating its journey backward from my stomach kept me from trying. Who in the world was worth this misery?

Certainly not him. I think I told him so, too. I suppose now I’ll never know. Vomiting does seem like a fitting end to it all, now that I think about it. My head still swirls when I lay it back on the pillow—that part is so unfair, although rich with symbolism. I’d really like to remember what I said. Perhaps when the room ceases to move around like a carnival ride.

It’s a good thing I had this four-day weekend planned, but if I remember correctly I wasn’t supposed to be spending it alone. Or puking my guts out. Or wondering if I did anything really humiliating at . . . oohh. Not again.

Mercy. Do I deserve this?

What little memory I could muster in my dizziness captured the vision of competitive shots of Tequila. Then words. Loud ones. Oh. Yes. I see it plainly now. The bottle was empty.

Second prize (a digital audio recorder) goes to…Merrie Destefano, for her entry, which she titled, “001010101111.”

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. That should have been a sign, a warning. It should have set all the alarms ringing inside Sam’s head. But it didn’t.

Because he didn’t wake up.

Nobody did.

The day the Earth stood still—the day everything changed—went completely undetected. It lodged like a rock, right between Wednesday and Friday, dark, cold, silent. No NASA scientist and no Hindu philosopher caught the great hiccup in the universe. Friday came, blinding and bright and charged with energy—a bit too much energy, in fact. Power surged and crackled through cables and wires and shorted out cell phones around the world.

The Internet, on the other hand, ran smoother than ever.

Sam thought he noticed a difference when he sat down, fingers poised over keyboard. Thought he heard a crack, snazzle, pop. Like liquid silver, every connection zapped into place faster than ever before.

He grinned.

New Web sites sparked into prime time, exquisite and compelling and somehow already linked to existing sites. Without realizing it, his computer began to prefer these new, almost alien sites, would route him there over and again, would leave him there for long intervals.

Basking in the light.

Sweet. Flickering. Light.

A soft strobe pulsed just beneath the surface, a message read by brainstem and cerebellum like secret code. A whisper program that ran undetected. A cyber virus that thrummed all day long. Even after his computer turned off.

That night, while computer junkies around the world slept, cozy and safe inside footed pajamas and Ambien cocktails, the program kicked into high gear and the transformation began. So subtle it wouldn’t even be noticed, just like that missing middle-of-the-week day.

The morning came and a few hackers observed that the sky hung a bit darker, cereal crunched a bit quieter, surfaces felt a bit smoother and dialogue—well, dialogue came in a steady stream, more like binary code than conversation.

1101011010001010101

Sam smiled as he sat down on the wrong side of the screen, 001010101111, ready and eager to get to work.

Head tilted, he listened.

00001010101

The sound of birds, singing.

11110101

The clatter of keyboard keys, cyber-universe turned inside out.

001010101111

One word repeating itself over and over, one human staring at him through transparent screen, typing.

001010101111

In some languages the symbols meant:

They’re. Here.

But in most they translated differently.

001010101111

They’re. Monsters.

And first prize (a $50 Amazon gift card and a bunch of plastic animals I collected a few summers ago from the Mold-A-Rama machines in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo) goes to…Katherine Tomlinson, for her entry, which she titled, “Darkling.”

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday.  The blogosphere, which never sleeps, outpaced the news channels in reporting the situation, but CNN had posted a graphic (Black Thursday!) by 11 a.m.  The parade of pundits began that afternoon, with self-styled experts throwing out phrases like “Little Ice Age” and “global hydrological cycle.”

Dr. Nicholas Solarz, whose theories on nuclear winter had been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, seemed to be everywhere at once, basking in his moment of geek glory. He talked a lot about the surface temperature of the earth being 300 Kelvin and predicted that without sunlight, the temperature would drop by a factor of two in weeks.

When these statements were met by puzzled looks from anchor-people who couldn’t do long division without a calculator, he explained that 275 Kelvin is the freezing temperature of water and that in a month; the planet’s surface temperature would be down to 150 Kelvin.  Then he had added, somewhat unhelpfully, “You do the math.”

But to do the math, people needed to know the difference between the Kelvin and the Celsius temperature scales and have a passing grasp of the concept of “absolute zero” and most everyone had enough problems just converting Celsius to Fahrenheit.  Also, a fair number of viewers thought Dr. Solarz was saying “Kevin” and wondered who he was and what he had to do with anything.

Shows that couldn’t book Dr. Solarz counter-programmed with G. Taylor Wells, a contrarian Canadian climatologist whose business cards proclaimed him a “prophet of doom.”  Wells told everyone who would listen that the lack of sunlight would precipitate climate change that was unprecedented in speed and amplitude in all of human history.  No one was quite sure what “amplitude” meant but they were pretty sure it wasn’t anything good.

A TV weatherman in Los Angeles started blogging about the apocalyptic weather caused by the extreme temperature gradients along the coast.  By Saturday night, his site was the hottest URL on the Internet.  Unfortunately, he drowned early Sunday when a freak cyclone slurped him off the Santa Monica pier and dumped him offshore.

The global electric grid, overtaxed by 24/7 demands for light and heat, began to falter, then failed completely by Tuesday.  After that, there was no one to chronicle the deaths that followed or document the change as the living evolved into something better suited for survival.

Monsters.

I never expected the three winners would use the same opening line. This is not because I preferred that line, by the way. My favorite (yes, I had a favorite opening line) was the one about Sam’s wallet. But as you can see, I didn’t let that sway my final choice. I also tried not to let any genre preference get in the way of my decision. I happen to love all kinds of fiction. Mostly I tend to read (and write) angsty stories about love and loss. (Yes, this means I like chick flicks, too. Please don’t tell anyone that my DVD collection includes both Titanic and Serendipity. Okay?) But as you can see, two of the top three here were of the speculative variety.

I think it’s important for me to say again that there were some amazing entries fluttering just below the Chosen Ones and, had the wind been blowing a different direction during my reading, they might have clawed their way into the top three. Seriously, there’s some writerly brilliance bubbling out there in the Interwebs and it has visited my blog.

But ultimately, I chose the stories that captured me ever-so-slightly more than the rest. One, a vivid picture of regret. One, a creepy science fiction story that hits way too close to home as we all look upon our computer screens in this very moment. And finally, a clever and smart apocalyptic story. Katherine’s took top prize because it not only packs a ton of details into 400 words, it does so with the perfect touch of humor that makes the punchline oh so much sweeter in the end.

Congratulations, all. And I really do mean all. Wait until you see Adrian’s story. And both of PJ’s stories. And 15-year-old Holly’s story. And Richard’s. And Erika’s. And Ellen’s. And Andi’s? Um, well, you’re gonna want to keep your eyes peeled for that one. And. And. And. Truly, you all rocked this contest. I wish I had 20 prizes to award.

Have a great weekend.

Talking About Talking [Updated]

I promised a post about writing good dialogue. So here it is. (Because you don’t want yours to end up looking like this.)

Before I share a few book excerpts, consider these general tips. Keep in mind, these are principles, not hard-and-fast rules.

  • Avoid repetition of attributions. While you need the occasional “he said” and “she said,” you don’t need one for every line of dialogue. If it’s a conversation between two people, establish the characters at the beginning, then allow for the natural ebb and flow to reveal who’s saying what. Now, if you’ve got a long stretch of dialogue, you’ll need to insert the occasional “said Ben” or “said Margaret” to keep the reader from getting confused. If you’re unsure if the attribution distribution is on target, have a friend read the dialogue. If it takes more than one pass to understand who’s saying what, you might need to add an attribution or two.
  • Stick to the “said” attribution as much as possible. If you’ve done a good job with character and setting and the emotion of the scene, there’s no need to have a character blurt or spout or pontificate. Context will deliver all that’s necessary for the reader to know what tone is being used.
  • Don’t have characters over-use each other’s names. “Mary, I don’t believe you.” “Why not, John?” “Well, Mary, it’s because you’re a liar.” “John, how could you say such a thing?” “It’s easy, Mary. I just open my mouth and…” Okay. Get the point? While it’s probably fair to say that characters in a novel will call each other by name more often than people do in real-life conversation, pace yourself, okay John?
  • Don’t have characters over-explain things. Put yourself inside the conversation and remember that characters are a part of a living, breathing world. Step into each role and imagine the assumptions that each character would have. Are they both in the same room, sitting at the same counter? Then it’s overkill for a character to say: “I set it next to the toaster that’s on this gray counter.” Instead, try something like this: “I set it right there,” he said, pointing to the toaster. Allow actions to fill in the blanks.
  • Think rhythmically. Dialogue is a dance. Sometimes it’s a waltz.  Sometimes it’s a tarantella. Sometimes it’s ordered, sometimes its a reckless improvisation. Usually, it’s a blend of many different steps. The quickest way to kill dialogue is to have line after line of the same droll drone. Mix it up. If it’s fun to read aloud, it’s probably fun to read silently.
  • Don’t copy real-life dialogue verbatim. Written and spoken dialogue are similar – but not the same. In real life you have the benefit of body language and physical expression and actual spoken tone, but with the written word, you have to create the illusion of these things (as well as other things like interruption and simultaneous speaking and fractured thoughts). If you want, you can start with a real conversation, but as you commit it to the page,  you may have to add or delete or replace words. And you’ll probably have to get rid of more than a few non-word pauses like “um” and “uh.”
  • Allow characters to speak colloquially (according to their character and the time-period or culture of the novel’s setting). Unless the character is meant to sound like a British aristocrat, allow him to use contractions and sentence fragments and even to screw up his grammar now and then. Imperfections and mistakes help give characters unique personalities.

Okay. That’s just a few ideas to get you started. Now, here are a few brief scenes to illustrate effective use of dialogue. The excerpts were chosen from books randomly pulled off my meager shelf. Yes, I said “meager.” Maybe someday when I have a real house and a real life, I’ll fill a wall or two with books, but these days my pickings are slim. After I read a book, I usually just give it to a friend. (This is the second best reason to be my friend. The first is the fact that I make damn good chocolate chip cookies.) [Updated Thursday afternoon to include two more examples – from authors who have a little more estrogen than the three examples originally noted below.]

* * *

She raises the lid of the piano, strikes middle C. “Do you play?” she says.

“A bit.”

“Classics or jazz?”

“No jazz, I’m afraid.”

“Will you play something for me?”

“Not now. I’m out of practice. Another time, when we know each other better.”

She peers into his study. “Can I look?” she says.

“Switch on the light.”

He puts on more music: Scarlatti sonatas, cat-music.

“You’ve got a lot of Byron books,” she says when she comes out. “Is he your favorite?”

“I’m working on Byron. On his time in Italy.”

“Didn’t he die young?”

“Thirty-six. They all died young…”

- from Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee

* * *

“Kath, I’ve been looking all over for you. I meant to say sorry. I mean, I’m really, really sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to hit you the other day. I wouldn’t dream of hitting a girl, and even if I did, I’d never want to hit you. I’m really really sorry.”

“It’s okay. An accident, that’s all.” I gave him a nod and made to move away. But Tommy said brightly:

“The shirt’s all right now. It all washed out.”

“That’s good.”

“It didn’t hurt, did it? When I hit you?”

“Sure. Fractured skull. Concussion, the lot. Even Crow Face might notice it. That’s if I ever get up there.”

“But seriously, Kath. No hard feelings, right? I’m awfully sorry. I am, honestly.”

At last I gave him a smile and said with no irony: “Look, Tommy, it was an accident and it’s now one hundred percent forgotten. I don’t hold it against you one tiny bit.”

- from Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

* * *

We sat and looked out. Brett stared straight ahead. Suddenly she shivered.

“It’s cold.”

“Want to walk back?”

“Through the park.”

We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.

“Do you still love me, Jake?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.

“How?”

“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”

“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”

“Don’t do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”

“You ought to stop it.”

“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”

Her hand was trembling.

“I’m like that all through.”

“You oughtn’t to do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”

“No.”

“I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Oh, darling, don’t be difficult…”

- from The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

* * *

“Well?” Annabel says.

“She wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t there. Everyone was right. I was wrong. It’s over.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You know, I really believed I could find her. Remember my senior year of college, when you came to see my photography show in the student union?”

“Of course,” Annabel says.

“There’s something I never told you. I was the last person in my class to get a show. The very last. Everyone else did one during the fall semester, but my professor thought I wasn’t ready. In the end, the only reason I got to do the show was that I spent every night for three months in the darkroom, long after everyone else was in bed, working my ass off. Then, over time, I built my own business and made it work out of sheer stubbornness. I know I wasn’t blessed with obvious talent. My art has always been something else: hardheaded determination. It always worked for me before. I thought it would work this time, that if I was determined enough, for long enough, I’d find her.”

“You did everything you could,” Annabel says.

“It wasn’t enough.”

“Where are you calling from?”

“Playa Hermosa. I’m packing up.”

No tears now, I can’t find them. Even the anger is gone. All that’s left is a dry, empty space. This longing that will never be satisfied. This guilt.

“Come home,” Annabel says.

- from The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond

* * *

When we return to the house, my father calls Dr. Gibson. I hang around in the den so that I can hear him in the kitchen.

“I just wondered how the baby was doing,” I hear my father say into the phone.

“That’s good, right?” my father says.

“Where is she now?” he asks.

“She’ll be there how long? . . .

“Does she have a name yet? . . .

“Baby Doris,” my father repeats. He sounds surprised, taken aback.”You say she’ll go into foster care? . . .

“It seems so — “

Dr. Gibson must make a comment about foster care and adoption, because my father says, “Yes, cold.”

I can hear my father pouring a cup of coffee. “When the system doesn’t work, what happens? . . .

“She’d be prosecuted, though. . .

“Thanks,” my father says. “I just wanted to know that the baby was okay.”

My father hangs up the phone. I move into the kitchen. He’s sipping the lukewarm coffee and looking out the kitchen window. “Hey,” he says when he hears me.

“She’s all right?” I ask.

“She’s fine.”

“They’ve named her Baby Doris?”

“Apparently.” He sets the mug down. “Going to Sweetsers,” he says. “Want to come?”

I don’t have to be asked twice to accompany my father on a trip to town.

- from Light on Snow, by Anita Shreve

* * *

You may notice that these authors don’t follow “to the letter” my suggested guidelines. Well, you’ve heard a lot about a writer’s “voice,” right? One of the defining facets of that voice is the way an author presents dialogue. The use of “say” where you might expect “ask” is a matter of voice. So is the decision to have a line of dialogue follow a colon. (So, also, is the use of the occasional adverb, as you can see in two of the excerpts.) [Updated note: I like how Anita Shreve handles the phone call in her scene. This is a great example of mixing dialogue with contextual action (the daughter’s eavesdropping) in just the right measure so the reader hears everything said and unsaid.]

The main thing to ask yourself when reviewing your written dialogue is this: Does the conversation fit organically into the rest of the narrative? Does it “feel” right? If so, you’re on track. But if it pulls you out of the story or causes you to cringe, you’ve got work to do.

Okay. Tomorrow, some news about the contest entries. And (if everything goes as planned) an announcement about the winners. Plus, other random stuff.

Until then, write well.

Let It Die

Is it time let your novel die?

That’s a question every writer faces at least once in his or her writing life. The decision to pull life support is difficult at best, debilitatingly impossible at worst. You’ve worked on this novel for, what, months? years? How many hours have you invested? Even a poorly-written novel takes a long time to write.

Then there’s the emotional cost. Whether you love your characters or hate them, they’ve most likely become real to you. (I’m 99 percent certain I’ve seen some of mine hanging out at the local Starbucks.) Giving up on their story can feel like signing a bundle of death warrants. And who wants to do that?

There are a number of good reasons to let a novel die – a plot that goes nowhere, characters that just lie there on the page, un-patchable holes in story logic, an unbelievable premise, and (though this might be the hardest one for the writer to identify herself), shoddy writing. Thankfully, most of these things will rear their ugly heads long before you’ve finished your work, saving you the agony of having to decide the fate of a Fully Operational Death Star… I mean, completed novel.

But let’s assume for a moment that your plot is sound, your characters interesting, and (according to someone other than your mother), the writing is actually decent. And you’ve finished the book. And you’ve been shopping it to agents (or, if you have an agent, he or she has been shopping it to publishing houses) for months. And months. And months.

And nobody wants it.

You’ve heard a dozen variations on “It’s not for us” or “The writing is good, but I’m just not blown away by it” or the real soul-killer, “I wanted to love it…”

Do you give up on your novel after ten rejections? Twenty? Fifty?

How many times can you go back to the story and “improve” it before you actually start to make it worse? Five times? Ten?

I’ll offer you the inspirational message first. Don’t give up! If you need a break from constant rejection, just set aside the novel for a time and work on something else. [Insert any of a hundred stories of authors whose novels languished for years before becoming an “overnight success” story.] When the time is right and the market is right and the stars align and God decides He likes you, all your hard work will pay off in a contract offer and the subsequent joy of walking into Barnes & Noble to see your lovely book on the front table next to Dan Brown’s next bestseller.

If inspiration is what you need, you should stop reading now.

For the rest of you? Well, killing your unsalable book might just be the best thing you ever did. It’s quite possible your stillborn story is holding you back from creating something better. If every time you sit down to write a new work, you look longingly at your last project and wonder “why oh why don’t they love you like I do?” you might be dooming your current work to the same fate.

Letting go of a novel can free you up to try new things with the next one.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting you should delete all files and throw away all hard copies of a go-nowhere book. That would be silly. You should keep past work in some sort of archive. That archive is a great testament to all you’ve accomplished, and (hopefully), a scrapbook that shows how far you’ve come.

But what I am suggesting is that you effectively let the book die. Stop thinking about it. Put all your time into the current project. Apply everything you’ve learned from the last one and make this story shine. You can’t hurt your previous novel’s feelings. A novel understands its role, even if the writer doesn’t. A shelved novel has already served a very important purpose. It has taught you.

Now about this new work? You really should pay attention to it. Because, as you know, this is the one that will get you published.

Yes, this one. It’s a living, breathing thing.

And I think it’s hungry.