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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Judy Davies April Contest Winnner

I'm always amazed at how we writers tend to hide our accomplishments. When April's winner sent me her bio, notice how far down Judy stashes a major achievement. Judy, stand and be proud. You are a writer to be reckoned with, and we are happy to have you once again as a winner on Lyrical Pens.
Residing in Gautier, MS since 1998, Judy Davies writes poetry and prose and manages the music publishing company for her composer husband, Ken Davies.  Ken has set some of her poetry to music as art songs and their first full-length CD of narrated poetry with custom crafted music, Poetic Soundscapes, has recently been released.  The couple is available to do live presentations of selections from their CD for groups or classrooms.  See her website at to purchase CDs.  Judy's book, Poetic Images, was released in 2011.  She is vice-president of the Mississippi Poetry Society, an active South Branch member and the 2012 Senior Poet Laureate for Mississippi (I see you found it.)  Judy holds degrees in English and Paralegal Studies.  She and her husband enjoy traveling to both music and poetry festivals and are usually accompanied by their cats Little Fluff and Darius Meow.
            As soon as I opened the door I knew it wasn't a normal day.  Nothing was in its proper place.  Only a fool would assume it had been left like that.  Someone had searched my office and been in quite a hurry.  What had been the snoop's target?  I was just the secretary.  Why had my office been ransacked?  Quickly I backed out of the room without touching anything, wondering if the intruder had found what he wanted or if he would be back later.   Suddenly someone caught me by the shoulders. 
            "What's going on?"  Feeling the color drain from my face, I muffled a scream as I recognized my boss's voice. 
            "Good thing I don't have a heart condition," I muttered as I turned to face him.  "Someone has ransacked my office.  In fact, he may still be in there.  I was going to the next office to call the police," I whispered.
            "Good.  You do that," he ordered.  "I'm going in to check my office and the safe."
            With that he whipped out a handkerchief with one hand, pulled a small handgun from one of his boots and stepped through the door. 
            I hurried down the corridor to the adjacent office where my friend, Michelle, was busy at her computer. 
            "Good morning, Karen," she smiled sweetly.
            "Calling the police!" I answered as I grabbed her phone.
            "This is Karen Dunley at 345 Woolery Building, Suite 460.  We've been burglarized.  Please hurry."
            "What!  What in the world?"  Michelle exclaimed.
            "Someone has ransacked my office; I have no idea why.  Mr. Benson just arrived and is in there checking his office and the safe.  And, Michelle, he had a gun!"
            "Who had a gun?  Is the thief still in there?"
            "I don't know if he is or not.  And I certainly didn't know Mr. Benson carried a gun.  I didn't even know we had a safe.  Oh, good grief, I forgot to tell the police Mr. Benson and his gun were in there.  I hope they don't shoot him.  I'd better go down and warn Mr. Benson."
            "Karen, are you crazy?  You don't know who might be down there and the police are on their way.  You need to stay right here and I'm locking this door."
            "I guess you're right, but what could a thief possibly want?  We don't deal in anything  contraband or keep large sums of money?  Mr. Benson's safe must be in his desk because I've never seen it in the three years I've worked there."
            "I hear police sirens.  We should know something soon."
            Karen unlocked the door and peeked into the hall in time to see Mr. Benson in handcuffs.
            "He was just leaving with a briefcase full of diamonds," said the police detective.  "Apparently his brother was here earlier searching for them.  We've been looking for this pair for awhile.  He won't be coming back anytime soon.  I suggest you find a new job."             
by Judy Davies

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Talkies, Part 2

Story is all about characters and plot/theme, and a writer has to be intimately knowledgeable about both in order to write good dialogue. As in life, character personas must undergo change as the story moves forward, and dialogue is a great way to give readers insight into those changes. 

I love writing dialogue because it keeps me in the character's head. For dialogue to sound real, I have to know my character well enough to speak as she/he would speak...using words and syntax that fits the character's background. And I do read my dialogue out loud after I've written it, but not right away. I usually wait a day or so and take a fresh look at it. 

Through dialogue, writers can give the reader some sense of the characters' emotions and their attitudes toward each other (anger, sarcasm, humor) without "telling." Here's a brief example using an action clue: "'You're wrong,' he said with a sneer." The action/nonverbal clue, "sneered," helps the reader interpret the emotion and attitude of the character. (By the way, "'You're wrong,' he sneered" is incorrect because "sneered" isn't a verbal tag.)

A quick exchange of dialogue (no dumping backstory) is a great tool for pacing. It breaks up grey blocks of narrative and keeps the reader moving through the story. I personally tend to use shorter exchanges between characters because I happen to love Robert B. Parker's style. The words, the length of the sentences, the punctuation are all excellent tools to intensify danger or sexual tension.  

I also like that because dialogue is written in the present tense, it's an active experience that draws the reader into the scene and into the plot—which is exactly where you want the reader to be.

That's all for now.  You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to do the same. 


PS:  Stop by my Facebook author page and tell me what you think.

PPS:  The bird photo by Jeff Johnston is a Yellowhammer flicker, the Alabama State Bird.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The talkies, part I

Cedar Waxwing
First, I want to thank Kathleen for sharing her techniques with her wonderful series. She is so right: nothing improves writing more than writing more.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about dialogue and offer up a few things I've learned about what's makes dialogue good and what's makes it bad. Part I of this two-part conversation is about the bad—the things that can distract a reader and deter agents. These "no-no's" are in no particular order.

It's not news that non-fiction writers employ a lot of lovely narrative text to enthrall their readers while fiction writers use more dialogue. The white space of frequent paragraphs makes for a faster read and moves along the plot of a novel. Unfortunately for either author, dialogue is not as easy to write as one might think.

Something that writers often have trouble with are the tags that go with dialogue. I know the tag "said" seems so totally overused that you might think it's distracting. Unless it is abused by using it in every sentence, the opposite is true. Readers glance over it, only taking note of who is speaking. On the other hand, exclamatory tags (screamed, yelled, etc.) can distract readers from the actual dialogue and can slow the pacing. Readers have to hesitate a moment to register the word. Plus, the author is telling the reader, rather than showing them by the action, the words, or the situation. Don't want to keep using "said?" Inserting action and non-verbal cues can help a reader understand what's going on. I'll talk about those on my next blog. A quick note about dialogue between two characters: Since a two-character dialogue is an especially fast-paced tool, put in a he-said/she-said tag about every fifth line or so to help the reader keep track of who's speaking.

If you're writing a period piece, i.e., set in the 19th century or in the 1950s, and unless you mean your story to be satire, it is imperative to use the language of the times. There are websites that can give authors the idioms of different eras. Look up "how to speak..." or "19th century vocabulary," et al., on your favorite search engine (as I did in the examples below) and verify any wording that seems suspect. Let's face it, a 19th century character just isn't going to use the words, "Have a nice day." Also, be true to your character's personality and heritage. Is your character from Alabama or from Brooklyn? There is huge difference in speech patterns and word usage, and neither of them is formal. Authors must get into each character's persona, and each will be different. So, be sure to write dialogue the way your character would say it.

Which brings me to phonetic dialect. Overuse of phonetically spelled dialect can make reading and understanding the story so difficult for some readers that they put down the book. You can  show that a character is from a different place or time by the words they use and how they phrase their sentences. In Ireland, a flashlight is a torch; an elevator is a lift. The American reader will understand the meaning of the words by the context of the dialogue. No phonetics required. For those writers in love with dialect, perhaps they might consider using a bit of phonetic dialect, particularly at first, then going to grammar/sentence structure.

A huge no-no is using dialogue to insert large amounts of backstory or giving the character a long, uninterrupted narrative. Uninterrupted speech doesn't happen in real life, unless you're at a podium. Someone will interrupt and ask a question or make a comment. Backstory is best inserted in small bits and pieces, over a period of pages or even chapters. That way, the reader is kept wondering and questioning and turning pages. Also, don't use dialogue to repeat information that the reader already knows. If you've introduced your character as a policeman, don't, a few lines or pages later, have another character say, "Oh, you're a policeman." If there is a need to remind your reader, it'd be more natural to say something like, "How long have you been a cop?"

Finally, read your dialogue out loud after you've written it. Does it sound "natural?" Listen for sentences that are too complete. Would a 20th century character really say, "Please take a seat. I hope you find the food adequate?" It'd more likely be something like, "Sit down and eat. Hope you like it." Take a look at all those "uhs" you've inserted to show pauses...delete them. You might speak that way in real life, but don't put it on the written page. "Uhs" definitely slow your wonderful pacing.

Next time, I'll go into the things that make good dialogue important.

You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to the same.


PS:  Jeff Johnston's photo is of a cedar waxwing flipping up its luncheon berry, taken on Dauphin Island, AL.

If you're in the Mobile, AL, area, Jeff is presenting a class on photographing "Backyard Birds, Bugs, and Blooms" on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Call Calagaz Photography at 251-478-0487 for more info and to register. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kathleen Thompson, M.F.A. - 3rd in Series

Kathleen Thompson shares a piece she wrote in the MFA workshop and some of the notes that go with it. Thank you, Kathleen, for your insights and your willingness to share your exciting trip, the MFA program, and now some of your Southern memories.

I had submitted a discussion on the possibility of writing/not writing a memoir. Ellie suggested she’d like to know more about a mention I’d made of Daddy and his putting me on the back of one of our large mules when I was a child. She wanted to know more about mules, so, I used the technique of adding to: I gave her mules in my page of revision.

We stayed in that house until I finished seventh grade. It is that time period that I wrote about in my first novel. In that house I remember listening to the radio, picking corn from the red field, watching Mama butcher a hog, eating two-fist sized Alberta peaches from our tree in the backyard, devouring watermelon hearts and abandoning the rest of the hillside of green striped beauties as a break from picking cotton in the adjacent field. I remember Mr. Hatchett and my poetry notebook, and, yuck, starting my period. I remember periods the way you remember grit in spinach salad. I remember elastic sanitary belts with little metal pieces with teeth to grip the sanitary napkin and the absolute dread of having a bloody spot leak through on my dress. And I remember mules.

The mule was an essential part of the small farm. Only a few landowners we knew had tractors to plow with, and one must cultivate the fields in order to plant and harvest crops. Without a mule one could not pull the wooden slide to transport bags of fertilizer to the various fields. Without a mule one did not have transportation except on foot. It was especially handy to have a mule and wagon to bring dry corn and fodder to the corn crib from a remote field.

We owned two big mules, but I remember only one name, George. Our mules were not pack mules, but big mules. I’m not sure of their breed (all mules are technically a mixed breed and do not produce offspring) but I remember how high a mule’s back is for someone about nine years old. It loomed as large as the sixteen-hand Tennessee Walker my husband owned in the 80s. My daddy hoisted me up on George’s bare back once to give me a ride—the first time I knew heights would bother me. Daddy had stopped George in front of the house with a load of guano in sacks on a slide to take to the corn field down the road. Probably he stopped to get a  drink of water from the well on our back porch.

Daddy’s directives to George were at once a plea and a command, and most of the time they escalated into a holler: giddap, gee, haw, whoa. The old saw about mules is true. Daddy could be heard for half a mile trying to keep him in line. That was one thing Daddy did well: he could plow a straight row. The vision of a field plowed into rows and furrows before the planting on the gently rolling hillside is a painting etched into my memory in the pinks and purples of sundown. Daddy in his long sleeved, sweat-soaked work shirt, holding a line in each hand, pulling back on the bit to guide the mule; George, sweaty and stubborn, swishing  horseflies away with his tail. The long straight rows curved over the hillside. Row after row of upturned red Alabama dirt with Daddy walking behind in a furrow. Daddy in denim overalls patched at the knees, raveling out at the bottom, his high top work boots run over to the outside of his heels. Daddy and his smile when he saw me, his Katarat, coming across the field, bringing him a fresh quart fruit jar of well water which he would guzzle down in one breath. And it was widely known that Jude Smith (he only had one name Jewell and somehow Jude became his nickname) was the best gravedigger in Tuscaloosa County. He could size it up and get the ledge for the casket just right without any tools except his shovel. He got plenty of practice digging the graves for four of his babies.

Daddy married a pioneer who never traveled much outside her birthplace in Fayette County, Alabama. Mama’s daddy had twenty-seven children by two wives and Mama was the oldest of the second bunch. She would sometimes catch a ride to Tuscaloosa (we never had a car) and then a Greyhound Bus over to Columbus, MS, to see her sister, Aunt Luvenia. Giving childbirth to twelve probably seemed like peanuts to her. Butchering a hog that looked as big as an elephant to me, scalded and hung up with a rope from a tree limb was a thing she was known for in the community. The single long distance trip she made was to visit my sister Ree when she moved to Charleston, SC, with her new Air Force husband. We packed so many people into my brother-in-law’s green Chevrolet that Daddy vowed never to take a trip that far again. There was my brother-in-law, Ralph, his wife and my oldest sister, Ann, Judy their child, Daddy, Mama, me, and my sister-in-law Bernice and her two babies who was going to visit my brother J. B. also stationed somewhere near Charleston. We were like canned sardines.

So that is one suggestion I have for you: clarify what you’ve written by adding specific details. The second is to be a stickler for pointing out changes that would benefit the writers in your group. But avoid being negative. It serves no good purpose. Let the ending of my workshop serve as something of an example.

I cried when I read my revision to the group. Nothing new about that—I tend to be nostalgic and quick to tears. But Ellie cried with me and reached out her hand to me. Such an affirmation from our leader! Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

I’m not suggesting you blubber the way I tend to do. In fact, I heartily suggest that you not do that. But you get the point. Go home, and start writing about whatever it is you’re supposed to be writing about! Nothing improves writing more than writing more.
Kathleen, I couldn't agree more.