Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Importance of Having Your Characters Talk Good

So my writing class has begun the workshop rounds and once again, I get to enjoy the fruits of my classmate's creative labor....yay.

Yeah, I know it's not the sort of workshop I'm talking about but it's a lot cooler than showing a bunch of writers sitting around in a circle.

So what I've been noticing is that a lot of young or inexperienced writers really seem to have a big problem with dialogue.  Either the words spoken by their characters come out stiff and unnatural - more like written prose than actual speech - or there is little within the dialogue to differentiate one character from another.  It's something I see again and again throughout these workshops and it's usually my number one critique whenever I read a dialogue-heavy story by another student.

I would honestly think writing structured, narrative prose would pose more of a challenge than simply giving speech to a fictional character.   Everywhere we go we are surrounded by spoken words, in real life, on television, in the movies, different people all talking differently with decidedly different quirks to their word streams.  Emulating these speech patterns in writing, for me at least, is only a matter of channeling whatever person or people I'd like my character to sound like and then basically allow that character to begin speaking for themselves on the page - I only need supply the essential story details.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Do You Write?

It's a pretty simple question, but sometimes I wonder how many writers actually consider this honestly.  Flipping through the pages of most bestsellers you'd find in the bookstore, with their simplistic, stale, and languid prose, one would think most of these contemporary novelists write for little more than a paycheck or notoriety, writing books that will satisfy both publishers and bored housewives to the tune of paperback sales.

One of my favorite quotes regarding the act of writing comes from one of my favorite authors, George Orwell, form his personal essay "Why I Write".  In it, Orwell speaks on some motivations for writing, those of which he feels are noble and those which he feels stray from the idea of writing as an art form.  As he concludes the piece, Orwell searches for the most personal of reasons behind his own writing, declaring that:  

"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

Never before had I read anything that so perfectly characterized my own feelings towards writing, this idea that there are words and stories stuck within me like some virus worming through my veins that needs to come free of my body.  Getting this thing, this organism, these words out of my system on onto a sheet of paper or a computer screen has always been the trouble, the "long bout of some painful illness" that Orwell spoke of, something that I would never see through to the end because it was so difficult.  I know now though that resisting, attempting to quit, is a useless gesture, as I will always come back to pick up the pen or turn on a word processor no matter how long I leave my ideas and my craft dormant.

The reason for this is the answer to my own question.  I write because I am compelled to do so.  What compels me I have no knowledge of but it's there, always, in my blood, in the deepest regions of my thoughts.  I have been this way for as long as I could remember, even before I began forming structured stories on paper I would create vast tales in my imagination for my own enjoyment.  It is then perhaps a desperate need to displace these swarms of imaginings from my brain out into the real world, to give these things shape and function, to give wordless expressions a form pleasing to both the ear and the eye.

So I ask you, all of you who call yourself writers, as I know there are quite a few of you who read this space, to ask yourself "why do I write?" and to formulate a real, concrete response, an honest one.  For yourself rather than for anyone else.  I'd be interested to know what you come up with though, if you care to share.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Compromise

This is my entry for the third installment of the 150-word story competition.  The required words are those in the bold.  If you are interested in entering yourself, you have until January 19th to post something on the thread I linked to.

His eye is twitching, the right one, what's he thinking about? I hardly trust him, not after the party, not after I saw him grind his crotch against Kevin. Of course, he blames it on the booze, an easy excuse.

This is the compromise though, we're finally off to meet his mother, but I can tell he's fighting the urge to just turn the car around and go home. He's ashamed of me, it's all over his face. He says his mother is still old-fashioned, thinks the “gay business” her son is into is just a passing fancy.

I couldn't care less what she thinks. We're here and I'm watching him closely, his face and his hands. His mother invites us in with a smile, says she's already mixing us some drinks. Slight relief crosses his face as he nervously glances my way, it's going to be a long afternoon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Grinding Halt

That is what my independent creative output is coming to.  The reason?  University classes.  A common blogger malady it seems, preventing many from regular updates and giving one scarcely enough time to keep up with followed posts.

So, I thought I'd take a cue (read: rip-off) from a post by Nano and show you all the classes which will be keeping me chained to assignments (which I should actually be doing right now!)

Advanced Writing of Fiction

My most important class seeing as I am a Creative Writing major.  It's a bit different than it was last semester (I have to take it twice) in that instead of focusing on the writing of short stories, which is the norm, the class will be focused strictly on more dramatic forms of writing - screenwriting and playwriting.  An unexpected but welcome development.  And though in my youth I did write a few short, one-act plays, I have never written a screenplay though have always wanted to learn how.

The professor seems cool.  A young guy, pretty laid back, very obviously gay.  He seems more interested in getting us to learn how to use these methods of writing effectively rather than judging us on our bare skill as writers.  I suppose that's okay.  There is a lot of reading involved though.  On top of two text books, we have to read five or six each of screenplays and plays over fifteen weeks.  And on top of that, we must write and have workshopped three original pieces of our own:

  • A dialougue-heavy short story of 6 or more pages
  • A screenplay (either a scene or a short film) of 10 pages or more
  • A complete one-act play of 10 pages or more
So certainly I will have a creative outlet in this class and of course, I will share what I come up with, but certainly this will cause the writing of my novel to come to a complete stop until the semester ends.  Ah well, I am thinking of fashioning the short story to fit within the confines of the novel story though...

Cultural & Media Studies

Now this sounds like a anthropology class or something of that nature but it's actually an English class.  As far as I can tell, we spend a lot of time talking about American television (and watching some!) and basically treat it like we would literature and discuss its effects on the culture.  

Again, the professor is very laid back here and she definitely knows her stuff having a PhD in English and a Masters in Media Studies as well as being a venerable expert in American TV both past and present.  Should be interesting.  Plus we spend an hour every Thursday just watching TV shows.  This Thursday it's the Simpsons.  I can't say I can complain.

Oh, also we apparently have to write blog posts for credit?  I'm not entirely sure what that' all about but 10 % of our grade for that class is dependent on online work which is something I'm not used to at this school.  At least I have ample experience in forum and blog posting....

Modern American Literature, 1900-1945

Reading is the name of the game in  this class.  Eight novels in fifteen weeks.  That is our charge.  And these are no beach-side paperbacks either.  Two novels each from the likes of Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and that insurmountable bastard of dense prose William Faulkner.  

Time usually spent on the hour-long train rides to and from the campus idly listening to music or napping must now be dedicated to thumbing through great works of American literature from the early half of the 20th century.  As with most English classes, several short papers are expected from us throughout the semester as well as a large, heavily weighted final paper.  I am, however, awesome at writing term papers (as I nearly type "righting" instead of writing....).

Prof. is very wordy, very talky, funny, and extremely knowledgeable about his field.  It's a smallish class of about about twenty four students (actually the largest of all my classes this semester though now that I think of it) so much intimate discussion will be had.  Yay.

Elementary Latin II

The black sheep of my schedule and the one class I must attend all four days of my school week.  It's also the smallest, with a mere six to eight students showing up on any given day (from what I can tell thus far).  This means that we all have to participate and participate a lot.  

Oh, and if you couldn't guess we're learning Latin.  Not very good yet but it's interesting to say the least.  Latin teaches you a lot about Western language structures and in that sense is very useful for someone attempting to become an English writer.  The professor is the same as the one I had for Elementary Latin I - a very old and crotchety Englishman (which makes him equally charming and rude). 

I like him, he's funny.  Often without even realizing it.  And it's oh so fun to see the disgust forming on his face as he looks upon us boisterous and ignorant Americans.

At any rate, that's my class load and that's why my presence here may become scarce.  Now, I really have to get going, I am in great danger of missing my bus.  

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

And Now You Walk Away

Another self-created exercise, albeit a simple one.  Using this random word generator, ten words were chosen.  Each word then had to be used in a single line of a poem and could only be used once and no two words from the list could occupy a single line.  Thus, this short and strange ten line poem was formed...

Mood was melting down from his eyeholes,
A temperature rising to something billowing and steam-filled when,
With a burst of exasperation, sound burrows out from a
Deep direction, down his throat and out into cold air,
Creating smoke, stirring swirls before his face.

Feet move one way, another way, doubling
Over steps that match and sometimes don't,
Striking clumps of frozen earth that fly to the freshly paved walkway
Waiting to suicide with the fresh rays of daytime
Already creating a distant contour of her distant, shrinking shape.

Try and figure out if you can which words were the ones chosen at random...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Milk Run

I wrote this as a challenge to myself.  I told myself I had eight hours (a single work shift) to come up with an entire short story start to finish - all while completing my usual occupational duties.  Clearly my mind was in a sort of strange place that day.

Milk, the kids needed milk in the morning. That was why Linda was driving past nine at night, in the dark, racing on an icy road to get to the store before it closed in twenty minutes. They needed it for breakfast the next morning, otherwise they wouldn't eat at all. James and Anna were only capable of pouring bowls of cereal for themselves while caught in the sleep-induced miasma that took hold of their dragging bodies every morning, even something as simple as toast took extra inspiration in order to be made as it required the use of electrical machinery. So they needed milk.

James, the little smart ass, just like his father, just like Daniel. Fifteen minutes ago he comes out of the kitchen, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt, giving his mother that smug little smile that looks just like Daniel's, and he says: “Mom, either you're going to need to start buying more milk or just get us a cow to put in the basement and milk ourselves, 'cause we're out again.”

Little shit, she thought, Linda had been half tempted to tell the brat to go outside and start shoveling snow for the neighbors so he could buy his own goddamn milk. No, that would be wrong, she knew it, that was what Daniel would have said except with more vulgarity and added slaps to the face. She would be the good mom, she would go out and brave the elements to provide for her kids.