Writing Better Dialogue

I’m in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on multiple conversations, and I’ve realized a few things:

  • People mostly talk about themselves. They don’t ask a lot of questions. They’re just waiting to say the next thing about themselves.
  • Real dialogue sentences are short. People speak in short, simple sentences. They don’t have vast vocabularies and they don’t speak in complex metaphors. So when writing dialogue, keep it simple. Save your complexities for your paragraphs of exposition.
  • People say, “I feel like…” “It seems like…” and “The thing is…” ALL. THE. TIME.
  • In real dialogue, people repeat their favorite phrases over and over. The guy next to me has said, “Well, people are stupid” 8 times already in less than 10 minutes.
  • People trail off when they speak. They speak in half sentences, then make gestures with their hands. If the conversation is animated, the other person will jump in and finish each half-sentence. If the conversation isn’t animated or emotionally charged, people will sit back, and there will be long pauses while the person gestures vaguely with his or her hands.

Reading With Willy Vlautin, Wed, Feb 21st

I’m reading with Willy Vlautin tomorrow night in Eugene as part of his release tour for his new novel Don’t Skip Out On Me. We’ll be at The Foundry, Sam Bonds on 8th, at 7PM.

Willy was in London last week, and Portland last night (reading at Powells). He’s one of my favorite authors and an incredible reader.

Come check us out if you’re free!

Update From Joshua Tree National Park

View from the front porch of my cabin.

View from the front porch of my cabin. The Lost Horse Wall is half a mile away.

As the writer-in-residence the past three days in Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve revised 72 pages on my novel, written parts of three poems, worked on a new story, and read for hours and hours.

Off-the-grid cabins, in the back-country, up a service road, past a gate, are sort kinda a little bit quiet. Who would’ve thought?

What else have I done?

Bouldered 10 routes.

Rock Climbed 5 pitches.

Stared at the stars.

Watched the sunrise over the Lost Horse Wall.

Researched flora and fauna.

Explored to the summits of three domes near my cabin.

Hiked and ran 9 miles.

Watched a black lizard sun himself on a rock on my back patio.

Followed a coyote as he yipped and jogged up an arroyo.

Stood still as two jackrabbits chased each other through the underbrush.

Nudged a yellow and brown centipede as it crossed the road.

Best of 2013 Lists

LET THEM BE EATEN BY BEARS just made Parents Magazine “Top 5 Books of 2013” list:

And GRAPHIC THE VALLEY was chosen for LitReactor’s “Best Books Of 2013”:

I’m so grateful to be included on their lists.

Dirtbagging, Climbing, And A Good Books Weekend

Lifting books weights with Willie Vlautin, PNBA Feast of Authors event

Lifting book weights with Willie Vlautin, PNBA Feast of Authors event

Grateful for five days at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association trade show, Castle Rock State Park, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association “Feast Of Authors.” I learned once again that most people are wonderful. The authors were sharp and funny, humble and grateful. Booksellers were looking to promote authors and titles, and doing their work out of love for stories. And climbers are always excellent to be around.

We started the weekend in San Francisco, at the NCIBA author event, a speed-dating experience where an author pitches his book to bookseller after bookseller in fifteen-second conversations, an excellent way to get an elevator pitch down. If she likes me, I sign a book and give it to her. If I’m not what she’s looking for, she walks away. Simple and clean.

Ben Leroy, my publisher, and I went from San Francisco into Castle Rock State Park where we got to climb with locals, including the superhero John Ford, who took hours out of his climbing day to show us around and point out classic after classic.

After hiking west into the sunlight, we camped tentless in a grove of Madrones that night, sharing food and campsite with a guy we met, living the dirtbag ethic.

Then on to Portland on Monday and Tuesday. It was fun hanging out with Willie Vlautin, Tom Barbash, C.B. Bernard, Benjamin Parzybok, and Brian Juenemann from the PNBA.

A few pics:

Backpacking into Castle Rock State Park with Ben

Backpacking into Castle Rock State Park with Ben

First ascent, "Independent Witnesses", Castle Rock, CA

First ascent, “Independent Witnesses” variation, Castle Rock, CA

Camping with a good guy named Joe

Camping with Ben and a good guy named Joe

Shown around by a local, John Ford

Shown around by the local climber, John Ford

It’s Hard To Write When You’re Reading – On A Summer Reading List

As my old poetry professor Dorianne Luax said, “It’s difficult to read when you’re writing.” And the novelist Seth Kantner told me that he always gets the writer’s voice in his head and has trouble creating anything that’s truly his own – the worst being anything by Annie Proulx because she’s too good.

So as I was writing my new novel this summer, a novel that is nowhere near ready or good in its current draft form, I’ve tried to read varied, talented writers, writers that might inspire me with their voices, imagery, plot, or narrative arcs.

I’ve mostly written this summer, but these are the books that I’ve read and a few reactions:

– After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell

– The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

– Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

– The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

– The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

– Ablutions: Notes on a Novel by Patrick deWitt

– Collected Stories – Flannery O’Connor

– Sartoris by William Faulkner

– The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

– Northline by Willy Vlautin

Notes and short rants on these books in no particular order –

First, Willy Vlautin is the real deal. When reviewers say he’s like the secret love child of Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, they’re not exaggerating. He’s that good. Gritty, honest, and true. Every character feels real. And his books are full of sad hope.

After You’d Gone is so complex structurally that I wonder how O’Farrell put it together. The story is rich and textured, the characters believable in all their human failings. I loved this book.

On Sartoris: I have to stop reading minor works by major writers. Faulkner in As I Lay Dying is incredible. Faulkner in his minor “potboilers” is atrocious. Sartoris has so many adverbs, it’s like a creative writing class joke assignment.

I’ll admit that I read The Virgin Suicides with (as the editor/agent Betsy Lerner calls) the author’s competitive reading spirit. The Virgin Suicides earned two starred reviews as a debut novel. I wanted to earn two starred reviews for my debut novel. But the comparisons stopped there. Eugenides’ novel was brilliant and scary satire and my novel Graphic the Valley is neither.

While I read The Bell Jar, I remembered reading On The Road by Jack Kerouac. These books should not be read out of their time period because more is expected of contemporary writers than novelists of the middle 20th century. Kerouac’s writing on jazz makes me want to throw up as does Plath’s over-dramatization and championing of a real-life struggle with depression. While Plath’s imagery is still beautiful, she repeats images in a way that would get a modern novelist rejected by a discerning editor. This novel does not stand up to her incredible poetry, or to time.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is three short novels put together, and the second is the best. I wondered if Porter influenced Hemingway’s career. They had to have read each other, and I like to imagine Ernest on a hunting trip, sitting by the fire, leaning back and reading Porter, thinking, “Damn, she’s pretty good.”

I can’t wait for Patrick deWitt’s next novel. If it’s anything like The Sisters Brothers, I’ll read it in a day. Ablutions was dark and short but when the narrator swallows his own rotten tooth, I laughed out loud. deWitt has the rare ability to make his reader laugh at anything.

The Art of Fielding is one of those long first novels that you never want to end. Harbach makes the reader care about each character, each person’s desire, and the addictions that we justify.

Finally, have you ever heard of Flannery O’Connor? Yeah, you have? David Sedaris once wrote that he would love to iron her clothes while she sat and told him stories. I feel the same way.