Just a quick update to tell you about my new blog – Read it and Eat. I came upon this idea via the realisation that pretty much all of my favourite recipes come with a tale or two, on how they came to me. The idea is to share with you lots of yummy things and hopefully provide a little entertainment at the same time.
The link is just to the side, on the left. Please do go and have a look and leave a comment if you like what you read!
A couple of weekends ago, Katie and I travelled up to Northumberland on our second visit to the very wonderful Fiona McGee – star of the previous Alchemy story, ‘Arrival’.
It was Palm Sunday. We’d just had a delightful lunch in a country pub called The Rat, which, in case you ever find yourself in the Hexham environs, I can highly recommend. Admittedly, the name is not all that promising, but the reality is a proper treat. Food, service, atmosphere, garden – the lot.
After lunch, we decided to pay a visit to nearby Corbridge – once the epicentre of much battle and drama involving not least some feisty Romans, but now a picturesque, highly desirable market town, population about 3500. It was a gorgeous day: brilliant blue sky; warm sunshine; lovely surroundings. As Katie and Fiona basked on a bench, I stalked around the churchyard taking slightly pretentious architectural photographs of interesting angles and bits of stone. Whilst doing so I came across a truly magnificent clump of tulips, a fiery blaze of brilliant reds and yellows amid the tombstones.
When I returned to Katie and Fiona, they were deep in conversation with an older couple who were amongst many now arriving at and making their way into the church. We were, it transpired, welcome to join the assembled crowds who were there to listen to the church choir perform a piece called, appropriately enough, the Crucifixion. Why not? we thought, and went inside.
I’ll say now that it all started rather well. Save the odd bum note from the organist (which reminded me of my wedding day when I had to walk up the aisle in fits of giggles thanks to the utter chaos being made of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at the Exhibition) the choir did a pretty good job, particularly the two soloists.
Unfortunately the equilibrium was not to last.
Somehow, Katie’s iPhone managed to find its way out of her bag and onto the floor, right in the midst of a quiet and serious bit, clattering loudly as it landed. I looked to my right to give her a grown-up admonishing look, at which point she said, sotto voce, “I try to be good!”
It was the look on her face that did it for me. Before I knew it I was doubled over, tears running down my cheeks as I battled to regain control. I was transported back to my childhood; to the funerals of numerous great aunts, when someone, somewhere, would start the inappropriate giggling, sending a silent, shaking, infectious wave throughout the rest of the congregation. When I dared to look up, Katie and Fiona were at it too and I knew it was game over.
Our saving grace was that we’d had the good sense to sit at the back. During the next noisy part, we slunk out like naughty schoolgirls then burst into further spluttering fits of hysterics as the door closed behind us. We passed the tulips on our way out, standing tall, proud and loud; ashamed of nothing.
Greetings all. This is my second attempt at this posting as I inexplicably managed to delete the first one about a minute after I’d uploaded. Don’t ask me how as I have no idea, but in the interests of being positive, I am (after several minutes of swearing and teeth-gnashing) banking on Take 2 being an improvement. This is in fact what happened when I inadvertently managed to delete half my English Lit ‘A’ Level dissertation the night before it was due in. I had written it in WordPerfect 5.1 on my mum’s 386 laptop (this was millions of years ago you understand) and when it asked me whether I wanted to save changes, I said ‘no’. The perfect logic being applied was that I wanted to save ALL of it, not just the changes.
Anyway, I digress. The purpose of this posting was to share with you my thoughts on writing dialogue, as indeed the title suggests. In doing so I am aware that the writing on this here blog has all been short stories with in most cases little or no dialogue. However, this is not all. No indeed not. Whilst the shorts provide instant gratification (to me if not to anyone else) in the background I am toiling away on a longer piece. It’s actually my second novel-length effort though I confess the first has not yet seen the light of day. That little, ahem, gem remains languishing on an external hard drive in all its chick-lit glory waiting for my loving ministrations once more. Why? Well, I got to within a chapter of the end and decided I didn’t like the second half. However, neither was I enthused about the prospect of a re-write of 40,000 words, so there it remains. Oh, and I know I said chick-lit, but really it’s a Suffolk Borders Aga Saga with a dash of Formula 1 and a Love Rat ™. I can see it now, emblazoned on the nice shiny dust jacket enticing in the weary masses as they trudge through Terminal 5….
So, to dialogue. The point of telling you about the unfinished not-chick-lit thingy is that probably the best bits of the first 40,000 words – and indeed the passable bits of the aforementioned second 40,000 – take the form of meaningful conversations between characters. Even after all these years, they’re still really real in my head. In general terms, it’s great dialogue that really introduces the reader to the complexities of the characters, creating empathy and bringing them to life. This in turn is what makes people truly fall in love with a story, even physically missing the protagonists when the book is ended.
It is for this reason that building great characters is the most important part of the writer’s work. Why do I think this when we’re talking here about dialogue? Well, the better your characters are, the more likely they are to do the work for you and deliver something truly authentic. Developing great characters is all about really knowing them in all their mundanity and all their flawed human excellence. You know their height, weight and hair colour; what they had for breakfast; their favourite colour, record, TV show; what they do of an evening; which side of the bed they prefer; their parents’ names; their views on Marmite and so on. Even if this information doesn’t make it into the book (and I sincerely hope that some of it doesn’t) you nonetheless know it. It’s a critical part of the set-up.
OK, so how does the dialogue actually happen? For me it’s like this:
1. Know your characters inside and out. Know them so well that you could almost reach out and touch them. Make sure they’re that clear for you, even if you hate them. You are giving them life.
2. Set your scene. Where are your talkers? Are they indoors or outside? What’s the space like? Are they sitting or standing? Is there a table? What’s it made of? What colour are the walls? Are there windows?
3. Unless you’re feeling very brave or experimental, or alternatively are stuck for plot detail, make sure you Know Your Outcome. What does the dialogue need to deliver? What purpose will it serve?
4. Once you have set everything up, step back a little, shrink down to about the size of a housefly, find a discreet place to park up and….listen.
That’s it. Really. If you’ve followed all the other steps, your characters will pretty much just start to talk. The best part is that you can pause them, slow them, speed them up and even rewind them. They won’t notice. All you need to do is listen carefully and take dictation. You probably won’t even need to interrupt.
Once you have the hang of this, it should be quite easy and you may even get bits of dialogue pop up when you’re not actively engaged in writing. When this happens I jot down the key bits in my ever-present notebook or sometimes take an audio recording on the phone, just reading out what’s in my head. Now and again I’ll get snippets of dialogue from known characters that have nothing whatsoever to do with the book. An example of this is in the short story ‘Sacrifice’ which together with its twin forms an earlier post on here. The comments I’ve had are about the emotional impact that just a few lines of text can have. Though little detail is revealed about the nature of the protagonists, I know them – and this is what makes their words authentic.
I think that’s just about it for now. If you’re a writer, I hope it’s useful. If you’re not, I hope it’s interesting. If you have another approach, I’d love to hear about it.
You’re cold and unresponsive. You don’t even turn over when I try, gently, to coax some life into you. I don’t blame you – the past months must feel like neglect.
I smooth the smudges of dirt from your body; there isn’t much but its a small thing I can do for now, to show I care.
I reach for the resuscitation machine: plug it in; hook you up. I am hoping to wake the dead.
An hour later, I press the button that lets the sunlight in. The first really beautiful day of the year is there to greet us. With care, I separate you from your energy and tidy you up. Fingers crossed tightly behind my back, we try again and, in one flick that send my spirits skyward, you ROAR into life!
I had forgotten the depth of that vibration as it resonates in my chest, suffusing my body with a deep sense of calm. I swing onto your neat little back and we take off, blowing the winter cobwebs from us both. We take in all our favourite countryside routes, getting to know the curves and contours ready for another year. You’re silent again, just for a moment, when we stop to appreciate the brand new signs of spring.
You always did attract the admiring looks, Electra. Quite the centre of attention.
Three Sundays ago, just before bed, I sat and made a list. It wasn’t a long list: just the few things I was going to commit to doing the next day; the few things that when accomplished would prevent the day from becoming another write off.
To explain: It’s been a really rough few months and I’m not sure now (or ever) is the time to discuss that stuff, but suffice to say there are days when just existing is about all I can manage. Other times it seems much better and I’ll carry out what I guess looks to others like a normal day, but to me they feel anything but normal. I’m lucky that just now someone’s got my back.
So, three Mondays ago I woke up at a reasonable time but made the big mistake of scrolling forward through the day before getting out of bed and I tell you, every single thing on that list looked like a climb up Everest. I didn’t move and actually, I couldn’t move, not really. I just lay there, and was still there at 5pm when I next saw another person. It’s taken me this long to write because of the shame.
If the darkest hour is before the dawn, my little ray of sunshine came in the shape of my niece who right out of the blue called me up to ask for help with her college work (English Lit). If I ever find a way of telling her what that did for me, I will. Right now there are no words that come close.
I’ve never met Peter and, notwithstanding any given afterlife, I never shall, as he’s dead. Nonetheless, he’s changed my life.
I saw him first in my teacher’s house, before she was my teacher. Later, at my first class we all had a good look. He looked back, silently, regarding us with his steady gaze. I decided straight away that he looked like Jesus and said as much – then immediately qualified this. ‘A romanticised Anglo-Saxon representation’ I said to my assembled colleagues. (My mother invented political correctness in the 70’s, along with the muesli belt and recycling. I’ll not forget the washing line, a-flutter with rinsed-out sandwich bags, like tethered, transparent butterflies)
Months have passed and every week we sit and sketch under Peter’s watchful eye. To my own eye, his air of benign holiness has been replaced, gradually, with something else. I notice his hair is artfully tousled, the ends tipped with bleach. His eyes hold a thousand stories; the seventies Scheherazade of Carnaby Street. (He worked there – God’s truth). There are the unmistakeable signs of decadence. I check. It’s confirmed.
While he’s watched us, I’ve been waiting: waiting to be good enough; waiting for the time I can do him some kind of justice. Whilst waiting, I’ve sketched and drawn, painted and practised, rubbed out and re-drawn. Last night. I picked up my pencil and began.
Conversely, it begins at the other end; a slight stinging of the toughened skin as the ball of each foot presses on the ground. Left, right, left, right. Small steps compiling the journey.
In the pseudo-darkness, crowds rush past me on their way to goodness-only-knows-what. Or where. They must know something I don’t: each body presses on, every face avoids my gaze.
To me, the streetlights are as they once were – a sulphurous glow, the toxic polluting of a dark night. The sight of them burns through to the brain, boring holes in my consciousness.