Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Smoothing Out Your Dialogue

Louis Martinez

People talk, and in a story, that takes the form of dialogue. There’s little we can do to get around it, especially when multiple characters are involved. And a story with but a single character may still have internal dialogue.
You can certainly write stories without it, but many stories, dare I say most, will probably have a decent amount of dialogue in them. Therefore, we must know how to handle such a delicate craft.
Everyone will develop their own personal dialogue style. This is part of what makes storytelling so special, the uniqueness of each individual tale. But, to help anyone who may be struggling to find what works for them, allow me to share what works for me. It may just nudge you in the direction you’ve been looking for.
However, first thing first. When it comes to conversations, new character equals new paragraph. When someone else starts speaking, it’s time to press Enter. Don’t put two different characters’ words into the same paragraph. This isn’t so much a personal preference as a rule of writing.
Now, when I write dialogue, I try to mix the character’s words into the same paragraph as their actions as much as possible. This helps alleviate overuse of “he said,” “she said.” It also sounds more mature, and less like the books we use to teach children how to talk.
An example of my style in use:
John opened the ominous barrel, greeting his nostrils to the most horrid stench the world had ever known. “Wow. That’s got quite a kick to it?”
The affront to sinuses everywhere reached Jane just as quick, and hit her just as hard. “Uck. What is that?” She tried to wave away the scent, but to no avail. It sunk into her lungs with a desperate, heavy grip.
“I don’t even want to know.”
“Close it.”
The first paragraph reveals the first speaker through his interaction with the word, as the next paragraph does for the second speaker, all the while avoiding “he said” and “she said.” After that, it’s clear who’s talking during their brief exchange that follows by the different paragraphs denoting different speakers, even though names are not mentioned.
Again, this is just how I like to write dialogue. My wonderful teachers introduced me to numerous methods, and this was the one I found the most satisfying and intuitive. Writing dialogue can be tricky, and it’s important to develop a style of your own that flows efficiently and is fun to read.
So, get out there and get typing. Find your style and make it shine. There are lots of stories that need telling, and you can’t finish before you start. It’s up to you to put those words on the page and get those characters talking.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Specialized Sources to Spark Your Story

Heather Augustyn

As a writer of biographies, I sometimes find myself more of a sleuth than an author. I follow leads down the rabbit hole, searching for a long-dead person or their family members in hopes of discovering their life story. I liken my work to a hydra—I cut off one head, and two grow back—answers provide more questions, research yields more to research. Vacations to tropical locations are spent, not on the beach with a fruity drink in hand, but instead in dusty library archives with bound volumes of crumbling yellowed newspapers. Entire summers are passed, spinning through spools of microfilm. And large phone bills to octogenarians in countries all over the world reveal the spoils of the quest.  But these methods of searching through old newspapers, magazines, interviews, microfilm, and out-of-print books can be useful for anyone who looks to tell a story, true or not, to anchor it firmly in authenticity. Here are a few ideas for how to utilize obscure sources to inform your own writing:

1.     Consider the primary source
Interviews with people who are either similar to the personality of your character, or have similar backgrounds as your character, can provide authentic dialog or inspire your creativity to develop that dialog. Steal their word choice, their thoughts and opinions, their patois or accent or way they stress a certain word. You can also discover their struggles, their hopes and wishes, their loves and desires, their vision for motivation, which can become the same as your character, or help remove a block you may have had in developing some aspect of your character or plot. Watch their mannerisms, their facial expressions. Look at their dress, their accoutrements, their home or their work. See what they reveal, and also what they conceal. This will give your character and story an accuracy that imagination may not be able to yield. It will also give it an authentic voice.

2.     Set the scene
If your story is a period piece, chances are you have read plenty of material from that time period to inform your story. But what about if you are telling a story that is less about a time period and more about something else? Still digging into material, whether historical or contemporary, can help inform that storytelling. Knowing the type of vegetation that grew in the character’s landscape, the style of car that was popular in their carpool line and the afterschool activities common with their children, the kinds of meals they ate, the decorations they used to adorn their homes, the brand of cigarettes they smoked, the way they dried their clothes—on a line or in a front-load dryer, the shoes they wore to the mill—all of these details that make a story real can be found in obscure places. Find magazines or even family photos from the era, either in libraries or purchase from ebay. Recreate that image. Recreate that feeling. Vacation slides can be treasure troves for the imagination and ebay frequently has lots of these (pun intended) for a few bucks.

3.     Look at the big picture
If you are writing a piece that takes place in California in the late 1960s, sure you have the scene and the events to create your character. But what about what else was going on in the world during this time that can turn a seemingly cliché view into a unique story? By knowing that in 1969, ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, relayed its first communications between UCLA and Stanford, this could possibly provide a unique angle or a direction for your story. Could your character have been aware of this technology or involved in this, rather than a hippie in Haight Ashbury like every other character during this time, as an example. If you are writing about a soul musician in Chicago in the 1970s, they likely would have known of Afro-pop in Nigeria during this same era. This can deepen your character and take them in directions that are more authentic. So look at world events, connect cultures, connect music and art, and connect through conversations with characters or plot.

I once wrote about a character in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, who sat beneath a large Bilbao tree on the campus of his school when he practiced his trombone. While combing through a magazine on Bilbao trees, I found a photograph of that exact tree. Unfortunately, it came after I had written the chapter, but had I discovered it earlier I could have used this photograph to provide detail to make the writing more vivid.

Actual photographs can help to describe more than mere appearance—they spark the writer’s imagination in a way that is rooted in reality. This photo of Jamaican trombonist Don Drummond helped me to describe my character’s mysterious mind.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Mark Twain on Speech Preparation

Mark Twain’s advice on speech preparation seems contradictory at first glance, but a closer look brings a different conclusion. The following quotes come from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010).

This first reminiscence comes from Twain’s early years on the lecture circuit. It emphasizes the importance of trying out your material on more forgiving audiences and making any necessary revisions before taking it to the big stage.

I began as a lecturer in 1866, in California and Nevada; in 1867 lectured in New York once and the Mississippi valley a few times; in 1868 made the whole western circuit; and in the two or three following seasons added the eastern circuit to my route. We had to bring out a new lecture every season . . . and expose it in the ”Star Course,” Boston, for a first verdict, before an audience of twenty-five hundred in the old Music Hall; for it was by that verdict that all the lyceums in the country determined the lecture’s commercialvalue. The campaign did not really begin in Boston, but in the towns around; we did not appear in Boston until we had rehearsed about a month in those towns and made all the necessary corrections and revisings.

* * *

But sometimes lecturers who were new to the business did not know the value of “trying it on a dog,” and these were apt to come to Music Hall with an untried product. There was one case of this kind which made some of us very anxious when we saw the advertisement. De Cordova—humorist—he was the man we were troubled about. . . . The audience were so sure that he was going to be funny that they took a dozen of his first utterances on trust and laughed cordially; so cordially, indeed, that it was very hard for us to bear, and we felt very much disheartened. Still I tried to believe he would fail, for I saw that he didn’t know how to read. Presently the laughter began to relax; then it began to shrink in area; and next to lose spontaneity; and next to show gaps between; the gaps widened; they widened more; more yet; still more. It was getting to be almost all gaps and silences, with that untrained and unlively voice droning through them. Then the house sat dead and emotionless for a whole ten minutes. We drew a deep sigh; it ought to have been a sigh of pity for a defeated fellow craftsman, but it was not—for we were mean and selfish, like all the human race, and it was a sigh of satisfaction to see our unoffending brother fail. [Pgs. 147-148.]

There is more to the story, but it is too long to print here. If you want to read it, you will have to track it down for yourself in the source material listed above.

These next musings come from closer to the end of Mark Twain’s speaking career and show how experience affects preparation.

I have to make several speeches within the next two or three months, and I have been obliged to make a few speeches during the last two months—and all of a sudden it is borne in upon me that people who go out that way to make speeches at gatherings of one kind or another, and at social banquets particularly, put themselves to an unnecessary amount of trouble, often, in the way of preparation.

* * *

The person who makes frequent speeches can’t afford much time for preparation, and he probably goes to that place empty, (just as I am in the habit of doing), purposing to gather texts from other unprepared people who are going to speak before he speaks. Now it is perfectly true that if you  can get yourself located along about number 3, and from that lower down on the program, it can be depended on with certainty that one or another of those previous speakers will furnish all the texts needed. If fact you are likely to have more texts than you do need, and so they can become an embarrassment. You would like to talk to all of those texts, and of course that is a dangerous thing. You should choose one of them and talk to that one—and it is a hundred to one that before you have been on your feet two minutes you will wish you had taken the other one. You will get away from the one you have chosen, because you will perceive that there was another one that was better. [Pgs. 254-255.]

Actually, there is another major difference between the two pieces of advice besides experience, and it’s an important one. The first refers to speeches that are given many times and to different audiences: there practice is imperative. The second involves after-dinner speakers at banquets given to honor particular persons or events: those speeches are unlikely to be repeated, so the busy speaker cannot afford the same amount of time to prepare.

Even so, Mark Twain’s advice can be summed up this way: if you are an inexpert speaker, try your speech out on a minor-league audience first; if you have years of practice, use what you already know to create a more spontaneous experience.


This picture of Mark Twain on the lecture circuit was drawn by Joseph Keppler and appeared on the back cover of PUCK on December 23, 1885. It is in the public domain because of its age.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Speaking Advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson began his career on the lecture circuit in the mid 1830s and continued giving lectures until his death fifty years later. This included several European lecture tours. As with Mark Twain, Emerson’s speaking activities had a two-fold purpose: to supplement his income and to promote his writings.

Some of Emerson’s best advice on speaking actually precedes his experience on the lecture tour. It comes from a July 15, 1828 letter from Emerson to his younger brother, Charles, in which Emerson commented on Charles’ valedictorian speech. We don’t know if the letter was ever sent, and given its tone it may simply have been Emerson’s private outlet for his feelings. Either way, the letter has a lesson for all speakers and is as relevant today as it was almost 200 years ago. Here are selected passages.

There is very good management of the voice, fine tones, varied and delicate sounds—some that are music to hear; there is very elegant and very nervous [i.e., sensitive] gesture; and these are used to convey beautiful and forcible periods indeed a very finished oration—to all who have a mind to hear it. There’s the rub—you may hear it or not as you choose. The orator leaves you to your option. He does not address you. He has chalked round him a circle on the floor and within that he exhibits these various excellences to all the curious. . . . So Mr. E. with noble elements for eloquence, was all but eloquent. I felt that that voice should have thrilled me as a trumpet. I only heard it with pleasure. I felt that he should have made me laugh and cry at his will. He never touched me.

* * *

Instead, therefore, of feeling that the audience was an object of attention from him, he felt that he was an object of attention to the audience. This of course is the reverse of what it should be. Instead of finding his audience—like other orators—an angry master who is to be pacified, or a sturdy master who is to be cajoled,—and in any case, one whose difficult regard is to be won,—he takes it for granted that he has the command.

* * *

Let him remember that the true orator must not wrap himself in himself, but must wholly abandon himself to the sentiment he utters and to the multitude he addresses;—must become their property, to the end that they may become his.*

Your main purpose in speaking may be to sell your books, but that shouldn’t be the focus of your speech. Don’t just know your audience; get into its mind and give it what it wants. To paraphrase Emerson: if you give yourself to the audience, it will belong to you.   

This mini-series concludes next week with some more remarks from Mark Twain.


*    From First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson, pgs. 66-68. The bracketed notation and italics are from the book.


The picture at the head of this post is based on an albumen print from Southworth & Hawes, which was created around 1857. It is in the public domain because of its age.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Storytelling Advice from Mark Twain

As mentioned last week, Mark Twain used lecture tours to promote his books and supplement his income. These tours took him around the country and even around the world. But nobody would have paid him to speak if he hadn’t known how to tell a story.

The advice in this week’s blog post is taken from a short piece appropriately named “How to Tell a Story.” In it, Twain distinguishes between what he calls comic and witty stories (and which we would call jokes) and the humorous story, which he labels as uniquely American.  As you read, don’t forget his penchant for irony. For example, he says that the humorous story strings “incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way,” but in fact nothing is purposeless—it all works together to create the effect he wants.

Mark Twain’s deadpan approach may not work for many writers, but the pause has a more universal application. Enjoy these selections and take from them what you can.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it . . . .

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

* * *

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.

* * *

The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length—no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

Next week we will hear from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also used lecture tours to promote his books.


The picture at the head of this post was taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907. It is in the public domain  because of its age.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Speak to Promote

Many writers promote their books by giving speeches. But speaking also requires different skills than writing does, and it isn’t as simple as getting up and talking. The next few posts will contain advice from Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom promoted their books (and supplemented their income) by going on speaking tours. But first, here is a reprint of an earlier post on the IWC blog. It was originally published on April 17, 2013 and has been modified to remove outdated information.

Speak to Promote

You've published a book and want to promote it. Or you haven't published anything yet but plan to develop a platform. Have you thought about becoming a speaker?

If you are used to talking to groups, start by deciding what topics you will offer. Then consider joining one or more speakers' bureaus.

But what if you lack experience and are too nervous to follow through? Maybe that writers’ conference you plan on attending has a session or two on public speaking. For more extensive training, check out speech classes at local colleges/universities and park districts. Or join a speaking club from an organization such as Toastmasters International.

Belonging to a Toastmasters' club gives you the opportunity to speak in a non-threatening environment while learning how to prepare and present speeches. Members range in experience from other beginners to people who command significant fees for speaking engagements. They'll all help you gain confidence and become a polished speaker.

New Toastmasters members receive a beginning manual that covers everything from organizing a speech to vocal variety, gestures, and using visual aids. After completing the first manual, members proceed to advanced manuals focused on various types of speaking, such as Persuasive Speaking, Humorously Speaking, and Interpretive Reading.

To find a nearly Toastmasters' club, go to and use the meeting finder at the top of the home page. Guests are welcome, so you can attend a meeting or two before deciding to join.

If you want to speak to promote, you have options.

Use them.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Believing in Yourself

Louis Martinez

This past year, I’ve managed to find made my way past many self-defeating hurdles: restrictions imposed upon myself through my own refusal to believe. Before, I was unproven, and I don’t mean to the world. I was unproven to myself. I hadn’t found a reason to believe in myself and the things I can do.
Thankfully, the people I’ve surrounded myself with have helped lift me up and over many of those hurdles in recent months, one of which was the self-doubt I carried along that weighed down on my writing skills. I’ve still got a long way to go, but now I realize there’s nothing other than myself holding me back from getting to where I want to be.
I realized I had a gift for writing during my teenage years. Once I did, I was eager and enthused. I had finally found my thing, that special talent everyone has that allows them to do something effortlessly when everyone else seems to struggle with it. Everyone has a gift. I had found mine.
Young and reckless, with too much energy for my own good, I thought I could do it all. I tried writing a novel at the age of eighteen. I failed, miserably. I could pump out short stories like it was nobody’s business, and I foolishly believed crafting a long story would be no different.
Everyone has a gift, but everyone also has a breaking point. Attempting to write a novel at such a young age bumped me down to mine, draining me of my will to continue as I tried to craft something my underdeveloped mind could not possibly understand.
I exhausted myself over the same story for years (no exaggeration), refusing to give up on something I started – another hurdle I’ve passed is knowing when to move on, and how that’s different from giving up. I just couldn’t get it to work. I couldn’t understand how to make a plotline span such a length.
For me, writing a novel was an insurmountable feat. Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t move on after realizing it was simply not something I was prepared to do at the time. I gave up. I quit. I fell into the misguided belief that my inability to do something right then and there meant I was attempting something I could never possibly achieve.
I didn’t move on. I gave up. I quit.
I held that belief for several years and am just now starting to see past it. Thanks to my amazing mentors, I now realize writing a novel is something I’m simply not ready for. It’s not something I could never accomplish. I’ve learned I have a lot to learn, but it’s no more complicated than that. I just have things I still need to learn, and I am learning them.
Why do I say all these things? Why do I tell this story? What’s the point?
The point is if I could feel the way I did, there’s a chance many other people are feeling the same way. I tell this story so anyone out there who’s not writing because they don’t believe in themselves might happen upon this post. I tell it because it just might be the very thing they need to hear. Self-doubt can stifle creativity and potentially prevent someone from telling an amazing story, and I don’t want that to happen.
That’s why I tell this story.