Writing Organic Dialogue

One of my few strengths as a writer is dialogue. I rarely use an outline or definitive plan. Instead I focus on knowing the characters, watching them move and interact. Most important of all is knowing what their motivation is for the scene (why they there and what they want) as well as their background and relationship with the other(s).

I spend a great deal of time in thinking about how the scene starts, the exact lines and scene, and keep that moment in my head. It is almost like a moving snapshot – a gif as it were – that goes around and around, anxious to get out of the loop. And then I let them go and do what they want. At that point, it’s just a question of keeping up with what they say, basically transcribing as they go. They can get stuck, repeat themselves and run down blind alleys. It’s all a matter of trying to keep them on track.

The trick is to move ahead for as long as their voice stay strong. And when the momentum is gone, to step back a little and start again, like getting a car out of the muck, rock it back and forth until it’s back on track. Once the scene is done, it needs to be run through again a couple more times. Time is needed after that, a few days to do a proper edit, focusing on the structure and repetitions and that oh-so-impossible satisfying arc.

A Place to Write: The Magic of the New York City Pub

I remember my first visit on a holiday afternoon. It was warm and quiet, a few people talking at the bar. A football game was on television, the teams on a snowy field. I pulled up a stool and ordered a Bud and a Jameson and thought of staying forever.

My Bud and Jamo at The Irish Punt

Whenever I am anywhere else, I think of getting back here where I can think and write, where I am left alone by everybody (except the bartender that is). If allowed, I would curl up against the rail and go to sleep beneath the warm bottle-filtered lights.

The bottles behind the bar at The Irish Punt

This place is called The Irish Punt, and it is peace and quiet. It offers the certainty of being somewhere, where my mind is clear. Indeed, why ever leave, just to be somewhere, going somewhere else? Why do any of that when I can stay here and order another Bud and Jameson, which I think I will do.

Writing Process: What If You Don’t Know What To Write?

A close friend recently texted me: Write what you know. It’s good advice, like Keep It Simple Stupid or Seize the Day. Then again, what if I stay in bed too long? Make it slightly complicated? And I just don’t know?

Army personnel at The Javits Center during the outbreak of Covid-19, New York, 2020

I’m writing a speculative trilogy about going to another planet, which is something that I know nothing about. But I do know about promise and failure. I know I think of my flaws as attributes. I know that there is a fine line between when to choose the sensible thing and the brave. I know that I am as self centered and mean spirited as the rest. And I know that I will be alone in the end.

Abandoned sign near Wall Street, New York, September 2020

And so it becomes jumbled. Yes, I know what I know. But I think I know too much of that. It might come clear in my dreams, but who wants to hear about that? I’ll tell you about my mother. Actually I think I already did.

So here’s the story: Guy writes a blog for eight years and then writes that one true thing that gets shared to every corner of the galaxy and becomes the soothsayer for all. Share that!

Writing Process: 3 Thoughts

#1 A story is not self about self. That is hubris.

#2 Do not describe what the reader can already see.

#3 In the end, the story is about the disgustingness of one another.

Buying Secrets from the Past: NHL Action Players

I spend a lot of time digging into my memories. I look at pictures of me as a boy – fishing on the dock, beside the Christmas Tree, with our dog Celeste – trying to access that momentous time. I have also tried to searched out childhood things like Checkerboard Ice Cream and Pantry cookies, both of which I cherished in those days and both of which have vanished.

Modern-Day Checkerboard Ice Cream but not my brand (Not the Gluten-free notation!)

It seems somehow possible that if I could just taste them again, I would rediscover a key note to my uncluttered mind, like the magic of holding the tin or the feeling of my bare legs against the kitchen linoleum. But I have not been able to find either.

Something I have found is the NHL Action Players Book from Loblaws grocery store.

Toronto Maple Leafs page of Loblaws NHL Action Players

I collected these stickers from the Loblaws grocery store, furiously opening strip after strip to fill the booklet, trading for missing stamps, finding out who had found the un-find-able ones. There were dozens of Larry Carriere and Walt McKechnie and so few of Guy Lambert and Don Awry. It was impossible to find those.

NHL Action Players available for purchase on Ebay.

And then Doug Crosby, a rich and somewhat simple boy in my class, bought the completed book from Edward Etchells for $50. The class bully Andy McAlpine mocked him. “You idiot! That’s not how it’s done!”

Class bully Andy McAlpine today.

I realize that the whole thing was about the experience of collecting things, but why not do it Doug Crosby’s way? Why go through all of the hassle of bartering for the rare stickers when you could just buy the whole thing in one shot? As much as Doug seemed to have missed the point, Andy totally misses it. It’s not about scamming the system but learning from the experiences of the thing, be that finding Don Awry or eating Checkerboard Ice Cream.

Writing Process: Conjuring a Scene

I am stuck on a scene in my book, Anori. There needs to be something there, but I don’t know what. It begins like this: Dee and Tommy are on the coast of Maine (with Dee’s exotic cat) where they talk about the end of their relationship. A park ranger arrives and tells Dee that exotic animals are not permitted in the state park. The exchange is cordial and the ranger leaves.

But then what? I have a tentative scene of three poachers appearing with a dead moose in the bed of their pickup. The ranger returns and says nothing. The contradiction is the aim. The ranger does nothing because he knows the poachers and will receive compensation. I like the premise of this but don’t know what should happen in the end. It seems that the stakes will have to be raised – Tommy proving himself with bravado or Dee challenging them – but I don’t want this scene to detract from the arc of the novel.

To put into context, the following scene is this: Dee and Tommy return to New York City the next day with Apollo. They spend another night together, and there are moments of hope. Dee begins to reconsider her perspective. But Tommy vanishes early the next morning. Dee is saddened and yet relieved. She returns to her work in Greenland.

Options include: a) Dee and Tommy see the poachers from a distance and leave. (Missed opportunity?) b) Tommy shoots one of them in the foot. And then…they race off to NYC? (Stakes too high?) c) Dee records their confrontation on her phone and threaten to expose the ranger’s corruption. (Convoluted and heavy handed?)

Presently, I am thinking a combination of b) & c). Tommy threatens the poachers and then he and Dee leave the park in a hurry. No one follows. I like the idea, but is it obtuse?

Editing: Killing the Sexy Bits

You have to be in the right mindset to edit. A cruel focus is needed. No matter how great the scene, image or dialogue, if it’s not completely on point, it must go. They call it “killing the babies”, and I suppose it is something like that, even if that’s as self-centered as all hell.

Dee’s sexuality is key to her character, but it is a subtle thing in Anori, unlike My Bad Side, because it is more speculative fiction than psychological, and as much as sex might sell, her tryst with the Oregon Park Ranger is done, only to appear here.

The waves rolled up on the beach in a long rattling rush. She thought she could see someone in the distance and waited and then walked back along the path to the ranger’s cabin. There was a light. She went around the side and tried to look through the little window and then ducked through the underbrush, getting stuck for a minute and stood there stupidly like she had to go to the bathroom, and came around the corner.

The room was empty, just a brown fabric couch and a television left on. She waited. A truck came down the road and pulled up to the house. And then he was there, the Oregon Parks Ranger, his shirt undone. “You look lost. Can I get you a drink? I’ve got beer.

There was a bedroom at the end of the hall, strewn and cluttered, piles of books leaning against the walls, heaps of clothing in the middle. The bed had an old lacquered headboard and long faded wood down the sides. She took off his shirt and then his pants. She had a desperate burning inside, along her stomach and thighs and into her groin.

She wanted him to go faster but he pushed her hands back. He was naked, his penis at her breasts and held her shoulders. She looked up at his face and chest and the wooden beams and white ceiling above. She was rigid, arching her back, grabbing his legs. He moved in a long cycling motion, pushing up high, going too fast and then slow. She wanted that back and grabbed at him. He pressed down onto her stomach and held her neck. She pushed into him faster.

“Holy fuck.” It was more of a wheezing, not words, and she started laughing as she crawled over the books, and he pulled her back and there was only a tightness, her skin blood-rich, trying to make it more, keep it like that, harder, everything stretching out, her head tilting back, peering into the chasm, ready to fall, and then nothing.

Writing Process: Tapping the Id

I am not one for dream scenes with the character lost in their heads; this is the part of the story where I lose complete interest. That’s not to say that these images aren’t a wellspring of inspiration, the pure of the id as it were, that can be woven into the narrative, like John Savage fear-grunting in The Deerhunter or Tanner Mayes clinging to her necklace.

What makes a story isn’t the arc, conflict and resolution but how it accesses what it means to be conscious. The western world seems bent on burying all of that fine stuff just to fill our pockets with more things and regret.

I didn’t dream of beer but of eating Checkerboard ice cream, spilling it all over, and I was jealous of that person and dreamed myself back to my old university where I was living on my own, shitting in the sink, not even closing the door.

I love the mania of getting into this, slopping through these base things, finding what might be next, making clouds so that I might escape into a tiny convoluted body and fly again. None of this has happened, but I think that it might. It’s about knowing that unknowable thing within.

Research: The Best of Writing

“What’s a Qivittoq?” Dee was getting unbearably cold now, the chill entering her body like it would never leave. “What’s that?” (Extract from Anori)

Choosing the most effective word can be painfully tedious. Is she really unbearably cold? What about terribly cold? Desperately cold? What word translates the feeling for how cold she is? One word works and the other. It goes back and forth in the edit, until the word works as it should. Whatever that means.

A much more immediately satisfying part of writing is the research. Anori is speculative novel set in Greenland and so futuristic elements as well as aspects of Greenlandic culture are needed to develop the setting.

Aeriel view of icebergs outside of Ilulissat, Greenland

A Qivittoq is a mythological, often evil creature – akin to the Ojibway’s Wendigo – is derived from the custom of banished a person who violates the sacred codes of society.

Thule Air Base also came up in my research, a United States military camp where a B-52G Stratofortress loaded with nuclear weapons crashed in 1968. This led me to think that nuclear weapons might have created a Qivittoq or two.

Disko Island glacier

Other research for Anori included Earth-out-of-view Syndrome (a psychological disorder when one can no longer see Earth), O’Neil Cylinder (mining asteroids in space), Cave Swallows (birds in the Yucatan), dry dock (lifting boats out of the water for repairs) and cantilevers.

The cantilevered architecture of Jenny Polak’s Offshore (Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, New York)

The trick of effective research is not allowing it to completing distract the work at hand… unless a book on the trivia of research is to be launched. (Is there a market for that?)

The Miserable Insanity of Writing

Writing is a misery because the magic can be there, perfect and exact, and then it’s gone. One moment every word is right there, waiting to be transcribed, every detail noted, every moment caught, all right there. And then it’s all gone. To have it and then not have it, back and forth, in and out, like a lunatic in the asylum. And worse than that, much worse, to find that the very next day, all the writing that seemed so perfect and exact is in fact inept crap.

Maybe not inept crap as much as undeveloped sophomoric shit. Or is that just the same thing? Perhaps it’s not a misery as much as a mental disease, that of schizophrenia. And it isn’t just the mirror-world thinking, never knowing when it’s the backwards world or not. The wonder of writing is getting into that world, living there, and hence not being here. It makes simple conversation next to impossible. I mean, you aren’t even you. You’re worse than a gutted actor. You’re a nothing, a driveling idiot.

You’re left outside, staring at things, not even looking at them. And then, in time, there’s something to notice, to wonder what it might mean and how it could be used, how it might mean something in a story. It begins again, when the idea of writing the thing goes around and around and gets louder and then quieter and louder again, and the words are unintelligible and wild, pure and magical like that.

Those words of not knowing anything and will never understand, even it could be sorted, actually with the sorting making it worse, farther from the goal, because even with the sense of knowing, it’s nothing more than liking booze and sex, realizing there is nothing smarter than that. Yeah, that’s the book I’m thinking about now. A big seller that.