Throwback Thursday Poetry: A Grateful Dead Christmas

tis merry and bright
all through the night
everyone sleeps without cares
dreams of happiness
none are restless
the dwelling is a calm lair
upon arrival
in such style
make for the dancing bear
he’s down the chimney
it’s all empty
except a fat man who stares
“Not again!”, he sighs
shame in his eyes
“You can’t be me again, Jer!
People think you’re dead,”
the fat man said,
“you can’t be seen anymore.
I understand man,
I am a fan,
but too many people get scared!
Jerry Garcia,
nice to see ya’!
Now catch a ride on a Reindeer!”

Early poetry from James. From the poetry collection Pariah Bound: The Lonesome Poetry.

Write Prose Like the Pros: Beats in the Dialogue

What are beats? Beats are bits of action narrated during dialogue. This would be called stage business or blocking when reading a stage play. There are also internal beats where a character has a short passage of interior monologue. Beats can help change the pace and tension of a scene depending on how many are used. Fewer beats give a faster pace and can help build tension in an argument scene. Too many beats can stop the pace of the story and move at the same speed as an entire page of narrative summary.

Don’t use too many beats and don’t use too few. What’s the right amount? It depends on the scene. Use fewer beats to build tension. Use more beats to slow things down and give the reader some time to breath. Peaks and valleys. In most cases, there only needs to be enough to keep the reader in the scene. If the scene takes place in a machine shop, an occasional commentary on noise being heard will remind the reader where the characters are speaking. Beats are also important for showing body language to the reader. This is as important as what the character says.

Beats help break up the page making it more engaging. A full page of a one paragraph narrative summary may look boring on the page. That narrative may be important but it’s easy to break it up with beats or internal beats. Through a couple internal beats into the paragraph and now there’s several paragraph on one page and some short internal monologue. But don’t overdo it. If it isn’t important to the story or plot and doesn’t help move the story or plot along its path, it isn’t needed. Do what’s right for the scene and the story overall.

The best place to learn how to improve one’s writing is with Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.” If I were teaching a class on fiction writing, this is the book I would use as the course textbook.

Write Prose Like the Pros: Dialogue

Dialogue is the best tool at a writer’s disposal. More can be shown through dialogue as opposed to telling through narrative summary. There’s less work for the writer if the characters tell the story or share the exposition. Showing versus telling through dialogue is also important when conveying character emotion. The characters should tell the reader how they feel instead of the writer telling the reader about the characters. There is also some freedom when writing dialogue. Characters can use informal idioms pronounce things incorrectly so long as it fits with their character. 

The narrative around the dialogue is as important as the dialogue itself. When detailing which character said what, it’s important not to describe any feelings. Search for -ly adverbs describing emotions and remove them. Don’t tell the reader “He said angrily.” Show the reader the character is angry with what they say in their dialogue. Remember to read aloud the dialogue. Sometimes reading dialogue sounds different than saying dialogue. If dialogue doesn’t sound natural or realistic, the reader will notice. Most people don’t use big words when they speak. Unless it fits with that character, keep the words simple. Use ‘think’ instead of ‘conclude’ or ‘get’ instead of ‘retrieve.’

Speaker attributions can be tricky business for some writers. They’re important so the reader knows who’s speaking. Some writers will use words like grunted, spat, exclaimed, blurted, retorted. They may think they’re giving their writing more flare, but people don’t often grunt words. And if they do, they’re intelligible. Stick with said. If the dialogue ends with a question mark, everyone knows it’s a question so why follow it with ‘she asked?’ One thing that helps me is having only two people speaking at a time. It’s easier to go back and forth instead of bouncing all over the place. And always put the name or pronoun first in the speaker attribution. ‘He said’ sounds more professional than ‘said he.’

The best place to learn how to improve one’s writing is with Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.” If I were teaching a class on fiction writing, this is the book I would use as the course textbook.