Wednesday, October 10, 2018

When words come easy

Very few writers are great at absolutely everything from the outset. How did you respond to the opening hand you were dealt? Do you play to your strengths and avoid the rest. If you try to improve, how?

by Dietrich

I wasn’t sure which way to go, so I began writing short stories when I started out, trying different genres, developing my style and voice. I didn’t know anything about strengths or weaknesses, I just knew I wanted to write. 

Writing short stories taught me about pacing, the economy of words, and getting to the point of the story. I also found writing dialogue worked for me, keeping it tight, yet letting it flow and sound easy. The trick was to make it sound realistic and unique for each character while allowing the action to happen around them.  

Dialogue pretty much drives my stories. It works when it reveals more than what the characters’ actual words are saying, showing something more about their true nature and agenda. Dialogue also gives the reader an idea of the characters’ physicality, along with the scene around them, helping to keep the narrative trim and the story moving.

“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.” – Elmore Leonard

Photo by kind permission of Rick McGinnis, 
Elmore Leonard & George V. Higgins, Toronto, Oct. 1990 

Letting my characters loose on the page leaves them to their own shortfalls, to deal with the chaos that comes from making terrible decisions. It feels right when I’m just following their actions and not interfering by putting my own feelings or principles into the mix and trying to make some neat package out of it.

I like to tell a story without plotting it out beforehand. Relying on instinct  allows for happy accidents, the kind of ideas that come along that I never would have come up with ahead of time. Hooks for the ending of scenes and chapters come naturally as well, something that gives the reader a reason to keep turning pages. 

While I’ve got some writing habits, I try not to have too many rules. I tell a story in my head and connect the story dots as I type. There’s a rhythm to it when it’s working. And by the time I’ve got a first draft, I let it sit until I’m ready for the next round. Then I start back at the beginning, stripping out anything that isn’t working, smoothing out rough spots, and adding anything new that comes along.

Reading a lot helps me to be a better writer. Great books not only entertain, they keep me sharp and inspire my own writing, letting me raise my own benchmark. Elmore Leonard claimed he loved how George V Higgins let his characters' voices dictate the style of writing, how he moved the story almost entirely with dialogue. Here’s a bit from Higgins'  The Friends of Eddie Coyle. A few words that tell us so much about the character.

“I was in Sunday School when I was a kid and this nun says to me, stick out your hand, and the first few times I do it she whacks me right across the knuckles with a steel-edged ruler. It was just like that. So one day I says, when she tells me ‘Put out your hand,’ I say, ‘No.’ And she whaps me right across the face with that ruler.”


Paul D. Marks said...

Dieter, I agree that reading good writing helps us raise our own game. It inspires us to be the best we can be, I think.

Terry said...

This is a terrific post. Dialogue is the most effective way to give information. And the part about reading. Absolutely essential. I heard some one (God knows who) say that it's important to read both badly-written and well-written books. The bad ones are as much an example as the good ones.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks Paul and Terry.