Saturday, October 16, 2010

How to Write Phone Conversation:

One thing I see a lot of in student manuscripts (and something I am undoubtedly guilty of) is horrible phone dialogue. Okay, I know, that might be too narrow. The real problem is horrible dialogue, regardless of its medium. But the issue gets magnified when two characters pick up the telephone. In these scenes, there is nothing to distract the reader from the too-stiff, too-direct one-liners. 

I read a lot of manuscripts in workshop. Telephones are everywhere. Most of the characters in these manuscripts only pick up the telephone to talk about plot points, to talk business. This is what it might look like:

"Hi Dad," I said.
"Hey," he said.
"How's your dialysis going?" I asked.

"Not so good, I'm probably going to die soon." He said, mournfully.

Die? I thought. Could it really be that serious? I hung up the phone, and cried.

There are, of course, many problems with this passage (that I just made up), but let's focus on what's actually being said. The father and son in this passage are discussing the father's terminal illness. It's serious stuff, but it doesn't feel serious. This conversation feels stale and incomplete. It lacks life.

The problem is simple: this passage doesn't accurately reflect the way human beings talk to each other. When we discuss things with others (friends, family, enemies, it doesn't matter), we usually don't jump straight into the business end of a conversation, and stubbornly refuse to leave it. We get sidetracked. We wander off course for a line or two, and find our way back to the important stuff. Talking about cancer is hard, it should feel that way. Sometimes, we don't want to talk about what we have to talk about. So we talk about other things and hope for a segue, and then tentatively get to the meat of things. Other times, our characters might jump into the meat of things but wander off course early on. This prevents the dialogue from being too linear, too stale, and too boring.

To illustrate good dialogue, here is the opening passage from "Housewarming," by Kevin Wilson:

Mackie's son needed help with the deer. "It's in our pond," Jackson said to his father, "and we've got a housewarming party tomorrow afternoon and this damn deer is in our pond. It's dead, by the way. I don't remember if I told you that."

"I assumed that," Mackie said. "This is the first I've heard of a housewarming."

"It's just some people from work," his son said without pausing, "it's no one you would want to be around."

"How did it die?" he asked.

"Well, it drowned, I guess. It's floating in our pond. I don't know what else to tell you."

"You want me to come up there?" Mackie asked.

"Why do you think I'm calling?" his son replied, and both of them hung up the phone without saying another word.

This conversation feels alive. We are learning about the characters not only by what they are saying, but by how and when they are saying them. The reader understands the business at hand: there's a dead deer in a pond that needs to be removed. But we get more than that. Mackie and his son talk about the housewarming party, and we're already sensing it's significance. We're already feeling the exclusion, the resentment from Mackie.

It should go without saying that characters should speak like real people. In this passage we can hear the voices (and we don't even need a "he said mournfully" to help us out) and we can intuit the under-the-surface stuff.

All good writers do this. Dialogue is a huge part of characterization, we should all take great care not to screw it up. I suggest eavesdropping on public conversation. Take a notepad to your favorite diner, and start jotting down some of the things people in the next booth are saying. Write down how they are saying it. Then compare what you're writing down to your own written dialogue. Pretty sad, huh? If it isn't sad, then you're on the right track. But you should probably take your notepad with you anyway. Get to eavesdropping. This stuff is gold.

You might notice I've italicized the word "feel" a few times. That's because writing good conversation is so much about how it feels. If you're struggling with determining whether or not your dialogue feels right, try reading it out loud. It should sound like you're not reading.

If you can write dialogue well, you're miles ahead of most other writing students. This stuff doesn't come naturally, it takes some work to get it right (this is true for all good writing). The work is, I tell myself, worth it. No good writer gets by without it. You do want to be a good writer don't you? Don't you?

For supplemental reading, check out Megan Mayhew Bergman's article, "Trying to Write the Southern Accent." Accented or not, the article contains some great dialogue tips.

Monday, June 14, 2010

New Post About Old Writing

I've realized that this blog doesn't contain much (read: any) of my original fiction. That's mainly because it's a bad idea to post stories that are in progress, or currently being submitted to publications on a public blog. Trust me, as soon as my newest story gets picked up by Tin House or Zoetrope, you'll be the first to know. I hope you're prepared to wait awhile.

So, to pass the time, here's something you don't have to wait for: my previously published flash fiction stories!

All of these originally appeared in the Boise Weekly's Fiction 101 contest, in which all the submissions must be exactly 101 words long.

Most of you have probably read these by now, but this blog is looking a bit naked without them. So here you go.

2010: 1st Place Winner - The Swells (Link)

     The beach was biting cold, but our mom wore a two-piece and swore it was a vacation. I wrestled Andy into the ocean. We toppled in waves, nostrils stinging with salt.
     Mom lit cigarettes, hugged her arms.
     "Looks like rain," she said. Clouds smeared like charcoal behind her, Mom's bikini bright neon against them.
     A man noticed, too. He waved, flashing his tan-line wedding ring.
     Mom blew smoke and smiled.
     Andy and I gasped on the sand. We watched the swells heave like our chests, like the ocean catching its breath. We locked hands, determined to wait out the coming storm.

 2009: Honorable Mention - In Tongues (Link)

     Inside Foursquare Pentecostal, our mother paces aisles, swallows hot coffee, and waits her turn to be knocked down by Jesus.
     My kid brother spins this yarn about his birth: says the nurse on duty swears on a stack of bibles she's never seen a baby flail so much. Says she nearly fumbled the catch. He signs this story with whipping, exaggerated arm motions. He's mute, see? That's part of the joke.
     Soon, we'll line up between pews with Mom. She'll stand, singing, raising her arms toward God. My brother will mouth silent hymns, praying, waiting his turn to be born again.

 2008: Grand Prize - Billows (Link)

     If not a monster, then something close; our grandfather lumbers around the house like a B-movie Frankenstein, swearing up storms at misplaced Tonka trucks, his skeleton creaking and groaning like an antiquated arm chair.
     You boys wear a coat or catch a fright, he says.
     It's too goddamned cold, he says.
     And stop pissing in the cat lady's yard.
     After sandpaper kisses, we see his frame by the fire, burnishing his belt buckle with a threadbare handkerchief. We whisper, our breath expanding then dying in the January air, leaving clouds like ghosts.
     Through the window, we search his neck for bolts.

and, 2008: First Place - The Cats

     Me and my brother throw stray cats off our roof. They don't always land on their feet, but most come close.
     We talk about it at breakfast. Daddy sometimes says to shut the hell up, usually though, he don't say anything at all. We pour milk and stare out windows. We drop fireball candies into ice water and take turns tasting it.
     Come November, there ain't no more cats, just hoarfrost and exhaust. Daddy cranks the car heater and says that lady threw us for a loop. My brother grins and says the same, says mostly we land on our feet.

2007: Honorable Mention - The Archivist (Link)

     The man was a fossil, a burlap sack stretched tightly over bones. Hunched over his work, his glasses were buried in a shadow like an artifact, some anachronistic relic from ancient times. Arm quaking, he handled the paper gingerly. Folding, turning, inspecting, and folding again. The man's eyes were yellowed and myopic, his movements ungraceful yet slowly deliberate and certain. He gazed at his grandson seated across the cluttered desk with fiercely puckered lips and an angled brow.
     To the boy, his eyes appeared large and comical behind the colossal lenses, but there was nothing about his look. It was expectant. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

My first poetry chapbook!

For my final poetry portfolio I decided to make a chapbook. It only contains 10 poems, so it wasn't too tough to make, but I think it turned out awesome. Dani helped with the binding (she stitched it) due to my fear of needle and thread.
Here is how it turned out:

Friday, March 26, 2010

Translitic Poetry

Taken from "In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop" by Steve Kowit. Steve, you're a gentleman.

A translitic is a poem "translated" from a foreign language by paying attention not to the meaning of the words but to their sounds. The poet uses as a guide whatever homonymic associations come to mind. So a line like "Garni vers un plus immortel" (from a pom by Jules Laforgue) might vaguely sound like "Garnish worst of plush immortals" or "Carnivore's impulsion or tells" or "Carny verse unplugs the mortals." Needless to say, it is easier to use a poem in a language you don't know. You can stick close to your first reading or, in later drafts, simply use what you have as a springboard and go as far afield of the original poem as you wish, making the final poem entirely your own.

So here is my poem. Translated from the Swahili. I will first post the original, followed by my first translitic iteration, and then my final draft.

     KUNA SIRI GANI HASA?! (Original)
     by: Atoya Dadi
  1. Kichwa kinanizunguka ,kila nikifikiria
    Ni wapi ilipotoka, nani aloivumbua
    Ni nini hassa hakika, mie havijanelea
  2. Kama ni mila hakika, iweje imeenea
    Kwa bara la afrika,yuropa hata asia
    Fikira zinaniwaka, hili nataka kujua
  3. nnani alotamka, fikiraze kaenea
    Dunia ikaitika, wazo lake kachukua
    Wazungu maafrika,hata na wachina pia
  4. Kina mama pasi shaka, ndio waliotuzaa
    Hata awe na haraka, anakimbia balaa
    Mkoba hujipachika, hatakama hajavaa
  5. Mkoba wa mkononi, kwa kina mama hadaa
    ukimuona njiani, mbwembwezake ni balaa
    Akiufungua ndani, wallahi utashangaa


    by: Luke Felt   

1.    Kitchen Zucchini kills necrophilia.
       Nice walking hippopotamus, not alive bamboo.
       Zucchini has a paprika, we have genitalia.
2.    Common manila paprika, a Quiji. I mean it.
       A queer bar in Africa, Europe and Asia;
       fickle ear a zamboni, now talk a cut who-hah.
3.    Mommy, a lot and corn filled raise. Canine!
       Doing it with the IT guy was a lame, catch you, idea.
       What’s with you, my freaky hat, now watching a pie?
4.    Keener mama passes shaker into wally, or does the?
       Hotter are the maracas on a give me a dollar.
       My cola hoochy patch leaks: a hat and camel and java.
5.    My cola warm cone only clocking a mama hat, ah!
       You key a moon, own a ninja, and when bazooka nebula...
       I kill you fungus and awning. Wallaby, who would shot God?


    CAN I SEE YOUR EERIE HOUSE?! (Final Draft)
    by: Luke Felt

1.    Catching Zachary killed the night time.
       I was walking, hips outstretched, but not lying. Barely.
       Zachary had a palid face, we had generosity.
2.    Commonalities provided a needless experience:
       queer babbling about Afros, your home, etcetera.
       Wander near the trombones, now talking doo-da, doo-da.
3.    Morning: a walk in corn fields, raising hell.
       Doing it now, what’s mine made tame. Watching your ideas!
       What’s with you, my friendly fat cow? Watching awhile?
4.    The other mothers pass, shaking, into walls. The orchestras
       are hot with maracas. Give me a holler.
       My cool new house leaks about a quart of water.
5.    My cool new house warns for only a moment of
       you screaming a tune about midgets. And when you looked around you,
       I killed the fungus in the night time. Now ask me, who shot God?

Writing these were a lot of fun. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Exercise taken from:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Quarter-year review:

So the year is almost 1/4th of the way over, and I've decided to recap.

On January 6th I won the Boise Weekly Fiction 101 contest with my story "The Swells."

Here is what it looked like:

Pretty cool huh?
That same day I had teriyaki chicken for lunch. I ate it at work, in the cafeteria, while pondering my future. The fortune cookie said this:

Yes! Damn right, fortune cookie. I popped the fractured cookie in my mouth and savored its sugary goodness. This was the year of Luke, I knew it. I sat poised to take over the literary world with my small-town newspaper publishing credits. The universe was on my side.

Then I got laid off.  January 18th. My daughter's birthday. Suddenly, I had nowhere to eat my teriyaki.

Now I am a slob with too much time on my hands, and I'm running out of excuses for not writing. That's really what this blog is for, I think: to encourage its author to write something.

All in all, I guess I'm calling the first quarter of this year a wash, but the game ain't over yet. I'm ready to pounce. I feel like a young Simba, and the world is my Zazu. C'mon rest of the year, where you at? Look who's got a blog! Not so tough now, huh?