A Dialogue Challenge

"Silver Lake Park Bench" © 2010 by Jim GardnerThe Quillians‘ challenge for April is to write a scene of no more than 350 words consisting solely of dialogue. No tags (…, he said; …, she asked, …the constable exclaimed), no narration (He raised his eyebrows, her lips were set in a thin line), no nothing except pure dialogue.

Now, I was given a word count, again, so of course, I hit it exactly, almost without trying. It’s sort of getting uncanny.

Since we are given no opportunity to create character, setting, or plot outside of dialogue, this was an interesting challenge. How do you get all those things across while at the same time making it interesting to read as a conversation?

Well, from the get-go, I knew I wanted to do something . . . a little odd. (Who, me?) So once I had the character name you’ll see shortly, <cliché alert> the rest of it just sort of wrote itself </cliché alert>. Phone conversations are, perhaps, the easiest to portray this way, because they’re naturally all dialogue.

So, anyway, I now present my entry to the Quillians’ April Dialog Challenge: "Kit-napped"

"What exactly do you want me to do?"

"If you ever want to see Miss Princess Pants again, bring a trash bag of catnip—the fresh stuff, not that over-the-counter crap—"

"Oh, I would never—"

"Shut up! Bring the goods to the park at Webber and Clouseau at 12:00 sharp. There’s a bench near the sandbox."

"Yes, yes, I know the one."

"Lie on the bench watching the birds."

"What? Watch the—? I don’t understand."

"I’ll be watching. Stay until you’re sure no one else is around, then bury the bag in the sand and walk away."

"But, how will—?"

"If you do what we’ve asked—"

"We? I thought there was only one of you . . . Hello? . . . Oh, sweet goddess, hello?"

"If. You do. What we have asked. Miss Princess Pants will be returned to you, unharmed, by 3:00 pm. Understand?"

"How will—?"

"Do you. Understand. My instructions?"

"Y-yes. Bring a bag of fresh catnip—"

"Primo stuff, remember."

"Yes, high-quality catnip. To the park at Webber and Clouseau at noon and bury it in the sandbox."

"Come alone. If I catch whiff of the K-9s—"

"Oh, no! No. I just want . . . I just want my baby back, safe."

"Then there should be no problem, provided you don’t do anything stupid."

"Can . . . Can I speak to her? Please, I . . . I just need to hear her voice."

"Lady, I don’t have time for—"

"Please! I’ll do anything you ask! I just need to hear my baby to make sure she’s OK."

"Oh, fine. Anything to shut off the caterwauling."


"Princess! Oh, my Bast, Kitten, I’ve missed you so much! Are you OK? Are they treating you all right?"

"Mom, I’m OK, I’m OK. These jerks are assholes, but they haven’t hurt me. Can’t say the same for them, th—"

"All right, that’s enough, you little spitfire. Lady, are you satisfied?"

"Yes, yes! Oh, thank you. You aren’t going to hurt her, are you?"

"Not if you follow our instructions to the letter."

"I’ll be there."

"See that you are. Remember: I’ll be watching you."

And there you have it. Three hundred fifty words of pure dialogue. In what I hope is an entertaining little vignette.

We’ll present them and vote on them probably around April 11. I tied for third on the poem challenge for February. I took first place for the Pot of Gold story for March. We’ll see how I do for April. :)

Oh, and two more things. First, I’d like to thank my friend Patti for the names of the two streets. Once I saw her suggestions on my Facebook page, I knew I had to use them. Oh, the puns . . .

Second, this is the first post I’ve done using Microsoft Live Writer. I have no doubt it’ll look great on WordPress. What I am a little trepidacious about is how it’ll look when it’s cross-posted to LiveJournal. Well, we’ll see, I guess.


A Quandary

"In a Pickle" © 2008 by Mike Bitzenhofer

"In a Pickle" © 2008 by Mike Bitzenhofer

These days, e-book sales are burgeoning. They’re not up to the level of traditional books, yet (according to what source you listen to, that is). Kindles, nooks (oh, that lowercase ‘n’ really gets to me . . . ), iPads, and other electronic readers are becoming more and more prevalent.

I’ve now read a total of two books on my Kindle app for my Android phone. I’m in the middle of a third, and I have a number of others queued up. I have the Kindle app on my (work) Windows XP machine, my Windows 7 machine, and my MacBook Pro. And I’m definitely seeing the advantages to having the books electronically. I can read them literally anywhere I am, at any time, without having to tote around a huge backpack or satchel, and without having to have a bright light.

But there’s one major question that this trend brings up: when I see my favorite authors at conventions, what do I give them to sign?

It’s not an issue for me, yet, because I still buy five or six dead-tree books for every one e-book, but at some point, the convenience is going to win out over the “nostalgia,” for want of a better word. The tactile feel of the paper, the smell of the ink and paper, the weight of the book, the sound of pages turning . . . It’s a multisensory experience that just isn’t the same when the book is just electrons. And yet, if the book is good enough, the medium just isn’t as important. I’d read Jim Butcher’s books shaved into the backs of baboons. Granted, it might be a little difficult to mark my place, but . . .

So, have authors found a solution to this, yet? Or do we just need to start carrying around a deck of index cards at conventions and book signings?


Murder Your Darlings

"Murder in the Snow" © 2005 by Kurt Komoda

"Murder in the Snow" © 2005 by Kurt Komoda

A long while back, I had a vivid dream. In this dream, I was basically me, but I was being followed by something. Something that wanted to do me grievous harm.

But in the dream, no one would believe me. I’d describe how I was seeing whatever it was out of the corner of my eye. I’d see it, turn . . . and it wouldn’t be there.

Finally, in the logic of the dream, there was one—or possibly more—person I was trying to convince of my sanity, and I did this by standing under a street light in the middle of a sidewalk, screaming at them that I would show them!

And then, in the dream, I turned my back on my friend(s) and took a step.

Into Death.

It was Death who had been stalking me. Him I’d seen out of the corner of my eye.

It was a horrific dream. Probably the worst nightmare I’ve had in recent memory.

But what I remembered more than just the dream was that when I woke up, I wasn’t screaming. I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry out. I didn’t do any of that.

I whimpered.

One, terrified whimper as I stepped into the chill of Death incarnate.

Now, being a budding writer, my first thought after reassuring myself that I was, in point of fact, not dead was, “This would make a great story.” I jotted down as much of the dream as I could remember.

I didn’t write the story right then, though. No, I wanted the story to be as perfect as possible, and the only way it could remain perfect was for me never to write it.

Logic. It’s a bitch.

I overcame that, eventually. After listening to an episode of the I Should Be Writing podcast (hosted by the multi-talented Mur Lafferty) in which Mur talked about having finally written her ‘inspired by a dream’ story that she had put off writing to make sure she never sullied it by actually trying to write it, I sat down and, in one sitting, wrote about 3000 words of the story. I had several false starts. What POV should I use? Where does the story start? How do I make that whimper scary? I eventually realized that to make it truly horrifying I needed to tell it from another POV than the protagonist. Enter the friend.

I wrote it, workshopped it past the Fountain Pen group, and then set it aside for a while.

Recently, I picked it back up, intent on making it better. So I edited it, making the dialog cleaner, cutting out unnecessary words, etc.

I ran it past the Lawrenceville Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group (seriously, guys, we need a shorter name), and got a lot of very helpful commentary.

Part of that commentary was that the ending I had written just didn’t work for several people. I’d heard the same thing from the Fountain Pen group as well, but I was convinced I could force it to work.

During the critique, one or two people offered some ideas on how the ending could work better. And I really liked a couple of those.

Over the last couple of weeks, those have been percolating through my head. And last night while driving to the Fountain Pen meeting from work, a gruesome, horrible ending popped into my head—poing!—based on one that someone else had given me during their critique.

I think I finally have something that could work. That I could . . . submit?

All I have to do, now, is write it. Heh.

Now, what does this have to do with the title of this post?

Way back in 1916, a British author and literary critic named Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch published a book called On the Art of Writing. It was a collection of his lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1913-1914. The twelfth and final lecture is called “On Style.” In it, he talks about first what style is not, and gives an example. Then he says the following:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. [emphasis his]

We still quote this, today, although it’s often erroneously attributed to other writers. I hear it all the time.

The way it’s usually used is when an author has written a particularly clever turn of phrase or bon mot or whatever, they often will try to keep it during the editing/rewriting process because they like it and not because it serves the story. This ultimately hurts their writing.

So, “Murder your darlings.”

My darling in this story that I’ve preserved through all the edits has been that the protagonist turns and walks into Death with a whimper, and disappears. The guys in the Lawrenceville Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers (Pen-acles? The Write Stuff? Wordniks?) made me finally confront this, and I’m going to murder my darling.

<sharpens axe> Heeeere, darling! Come to papa! He has a present for youuuuu! <insert evil chuckle here>

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this to be an easy read. The story kept me entertained, turning pages to find out what was going to happen next. I enjoyed the Bitchun Society, and how seamlessly Doctorow blended both the high-tech narrative and the deep Disneymania into the story in a supportive way. The plot depended on it, but didn’t get overwhelmed by it. So the exposition was handled well, I thought.

Setting the story as a conflict between two teams of hereditary Disney employees bent on making the park a better experience for all involved made the story simultaneously more approachable and more obscure. By setting the action against a backdrop that is essentially the same in whatever far-flung future Doctorow has imagined as it is today, it gives him a familiar anchor point to highlight how different things are. At the same time, however, for those of us who haven’t been to Disney in a long time or who are unfamiliar with the various rides featured in the story (I have never seen the Hall of Presidents or the Haunted Mansion because both have always been closed for maintenance during my visits to both Disneyworld and Disneyland.), it is more than a little frustrating.

The problem I had with the book at the beginning was that nothing was really at stake. For anyone. The park was not going anywhere (as in “static”), and all the changes being made were done to preserve the experience for the visiting public. So no matter how it came out, nothing would truly change. Sure, maybe some of the characters would be inconvenienced, but it would be just that–an inconvenience.

Julius, the main character, goes on and on at some length about how death–even his own murder–is not that big a deal. Serious, debilitating health problems–such as, say, murder–are easily fixable: just clone a new body, make a backup, and restore into the new body, better than the previous one. With multiple lifetimes to live, humans tend to lose the urgency that makes every minute of our lives precious, and this is nicely portrayed throughout.

When Julius loses all of that about halfway through the book, this is when it “picked up” for me. Now we have a character who genuinely has something to lose. His every moment becomes precious because he can’t back up, so if he renews, he’ll lose a large chunk of his life, including the last year of the life of one of his best friends. This underlying story was what kept me turning the page, wondering how it was going to be resolved.

I didn’t really expect the revelation at the end (the Whodunnit), but it made sense within the framework of the story, and didn’t betray the characters’ personalities. I thought Doctorow handled it well.

The reason I gave this three stars instead of four (I did really enjoy it while I was reading it) is that the ending…just sort of petered out. Again, nothing was really at stake. Once Julius agreed to be restored if anything happened to him and forgave his murderers, there just wasn’t any reason to care anymore what happened to him. Which may be exactly what Doctorow had in mind. Julius moved on, Disneyworld went back to whatever passes for “normal” in the Bitchun Society, and the story ends. What eventually happens to everyone other than Julius is left unrevealed, and as a reader, that didn’t bother me.

Because nothing is at stake for any of them.

My main dilemma right now is trying to decide whether this story was Utopian or dystopian. I could go either way.

View all my reviews


In Which I Pimp a Podcast

"Writing" © 2010 Jonathan Reyes

"Writing" © 2010 Jonathan Reyes

I listen to a number of podcasts1 on a regular basis. One of my absolute favorite podcasts—one that, when I see it download, I immediately listen to it if I’m able—is Writing Excuses. It is hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Their tagline says it best: “This is Writing Excuses: fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.” (But they really are that smart, so it’s, like, irony.)

They occasionally have guests on the show to talk about various topics. The guests in the most recent episode (Season 5, Episode 28: E-Publishing) were Tracy Hickman and David Farland (a.k.a. Dave Wolverton).

All of that link soup is merely a lead-in to tell you the source of the quote I’m about to use from the podcast. It was one that stood out for me the first time I listened, so I restarted the podcast, listened to it again, and this time transcribed what Tracy Hickman said.

Dan (I think) asked Hickman what advice he would give for self-publishers to be successful. His answer was as follows.

Forget about the idea of mass audience. Get rid of the idea of mass audience and deal with individuals. You need to contact people individually, and that’s why things like virtual tours—virtual blog tours—are so important. You need to get in touch with the readership. You need to find the audience. And you find that through the gateway of people’s blogs and personal connection with them. I think that the old time of the old school book tour where you go and fly to some book store in San Francisco and sit there with ten people is done. I think people don’t do that anymore. And book stores—brick and mortar stores—are having enough trouble as it is. What is the case, though, is that you have to concentrate on reaching your audience one on one, and that means going on virtual book tours. That means having a website that is open to people communicating with you, and engaging your audience in a conversation. If you engage your audience—not in a sales conversation, but in an intimate, personal conversation—then they will read your words, and your words will come to life. Your words do not live or breathe until someone reads them and puts life to them and so you need to have the intimate, personal connection with them. So it’s not about mass audience. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to anybody: it’s about you making a connection with every individual who is going to read your book—at some level—online. [Emphasis added]

And that’s a very good point. I can write and write and write and (I hope) get better and better . . . but until and unless someone gets2 to read my words, I might as well be shouting into a hurricane for all the good it’ll do me.

The “personal connection” thing I think I have. After all, I have this handy-dandy website right here just waiting for people to read it. I have samples of my work up for people to read, and I’m relatively easy to contact (or will be when I get the email for this site working like I want it). So there you go.

I just thought it was important to put those words in bold up there somewhere that I could find them to remind me why I write: because I think I have a story to tell that other people might find interesting.

Oh, and if you’re not already, do listen to the Writing Excuses podcast. If I had to recommend just one podcast for aspiring writers like myself, it would be that one. I’ve learned a lot from Brandon, Dan, and Howard.

  1. Where that number is 81, plus five new evaluations ongoing for “new” ones (to me). Of those 81, I’m “catching up” on 10 of those (i.e., I am downloading new episodes, but listening to them from episode 1, and I’m not up to current, yet). A good many are monthly or on indefinite hiatus at the moment. Of the full 86 (counting the five in evaluation), a whopping 26 deal with writing, reading, books, fiction, language, grammar, and the like. And that doesn’t even count a few that could have gone either way, so it’s probably closer to 30.
  2. “Gets” sounds like it’s a privilege, and some might consider that arrogant. I don’t mean it that way, though. Anyone who reads my blogs or any of my work does so because they chose to do so. I meant it as a stern reminder to myself that no one can choose to do so unless I choose to make them available.


Pot o’ Gold Challenge

"Pot of Gold" © 2010 by Wizetux

"Pot of Gold" © 2010 by Wizetux

Last month, my Second Life writers group—The Quillians—had a challenge to write an anti-Valentines Day poem of any length and in any style. I wrote a sonnet and posted the result. Mine tied for third place of the entries submitted (voted on by the Quillians present for the meeting of 2/14/11).

For March, our challenge is to write a 250-word flash story that includes the phrase “pot of gold,” but not leprechauns.

Well, begosh an’ begorrah! How are we supposed to do that?

Here’s my submission. :)

“What did we hit?” Jen asked.

I pulled off the road and turned off the wipers. Blood was smeared on the windshield over a spider web of cracks.

“Whatever it was, it was big.”

I squinted out the windshield. The rain was sluicing what was left of the blood away.

“Did you see anything?”

“No,” she said. “I was too busy screaming.”

I laughed. “Don’t worry about it. One of us had to.” I sighed. “I’d better check it out.”

She didn’t protest, and I popped open the glove compartment and grabbed the flashlight.

I got soaked immediately.

I wan’t sure exactly what I was looking for.

Wait. What was that? I shone my flashlight toward where I had seen a glint.

It looked like a Barbie doll. Twisted and obviously dead, diaphanous wings crushed beneath her, still oozing blood, which was washing away in the rain. I bent closer. The tiny female form was blonde, dressed in leaves, and a tiny wand lay near her outstretched arm. And something else . . .

I grimaced, then scrunched up my face and reached out to pick up what she’d been carrying.

Back in the car, Jen turned to me, her eyes wide, and said, “Did you find anything?”

I held up the thimble-sized pot of gold.

“Another fairy? You’d think they’d figure out eventually not to fly so low over human roads.”

I tossed the tiny pot into the glove compartment with the flashlight. At least it would pay for a new windshield.

Exactly 250 words. Don’t give me a word count on something this short unless you want exactly that many words. :)

Who knows, I may come up with something else before the deadline. But this is what came to me in the shower this morning and then wrote during lunch.

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