Tag Archives: writing dialogue

Gustave Flaubert and the madness of writing

I found the following passage from Flaubert’s letter to Louis Colet in John Updike’s “Picked up Pieces.” I am sure very writer can relate to what Flaubert wrote.

“I love my work with a love that is frenzied and perverted . . . Sometimes, when I am empty, when words don’t come, when I find I haven’t written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie there dazed, bogged in a swamp of despair, hating myself and blaming myself for this demented pride which makes me pant after a chimera. A quarter of an hour later everything changes; my heart is pounding for joy. Last Wednesday I had to get up and fetch my handkerchief; tears were streaming down my face. I had been  moved by my own writing; the emotion I had conceived, the phrase that rendered it, and satisfaction of having found the phrase-all were causing me to experience the most exquisite pleasure.”

Flaubert’s passage  is passionate and though I find phrases like “bogged in a swamp of despair” a bit florid, his point is identifiable to all writers. A writer does become frustrated when he can’t get his wording right, but I have not despaired. I will concede getting bogged down. And like Flaubert I have taken pride finding my writing flowing with the right words, the right phrase. It can be exhilarating. But I didn’t cry with joy. I save crying for Lassie movies.

Something else that caught my attention in Flaubert’s passage was though he was frustrated and in despair with his writing, it took only 15 minutes before his “heart is pounding for joy” (another florid phrase). At the risk of profiling, to go from despair to joy in 15 minutes seems like a manic depressive. I think he is compressing the passion, the mania, the madness of the writing experience.

Whether you are in despair or your heart is pounding for joy (again a Lassie movie) I am sure you writers out there feel closer to the brotherhood of our calling, and closer to old Gustave as well.


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Sneak peek at novel in progress and what it means to writers

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Books a writer should have at hand

Besides a dictionary and thesaurus, there are many books a writer can avail himself of.

On the shelf at my computer desk are: “Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions,”  “Which Word When,” “All about Words,” and “Fowler’s Modern English Usage.” The titles are self explanatory. Not only do they clarify all those questions you have about words and grammar, they tell you things you never knew-and should know. Your writing will be better for it.

And don’t forget “The Elements of Style” and Aristotle’s “Poetics.” They are both thin and take up little room.

Carl Jung’s “Man And His Symbols” and Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” to give your fiction deep underlying meaning that impress critics. They love metaphoric symbolism; in fact that is all they like. 

“Games People Play” by Eric Berne is great for creating characters. You can read and understand what and why certain types do what they do. It will make your characters come alive with realism.

Richard Mitchell’s “The Gift of Fire,” just because.

“The Elements of Editing” by Arthur Plotnik. Mostly for Journalists, but you can learn a lot from it.

The classic “The Art of Creative Writing” by Lajos Egri  and “Writing the Natural Way” by Gabriele Lusser Rico  for clustering, image, metaphor, creative tension, and other fun things.

A book on character naming is also a must.

It also helps to have “A Whack on the Side of the Head” to get your juices flowing.

Keep in mind I said these are books you should have on your shelf near where you write. You need not read them, in fact it is best to find used copies that have been well thumbed through. When your friends come over they will be impressed by the seriousness you are taking towards your writing. And making a good impression is what counts.

I have had these books since my college days at Princeton with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He wasn’t impressed. He didn’t need them. I do. And if you’re not F. Scott Fitzgerald-and you’re not-then you should consider these books. They can fill your shelf.


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An unlikely tool to help your fictional character’s development

Have you ever said or heard the phrase, “He (or she) is playing games with you.” Game playing is more prevalent than you think, and not always obvious. And the person making that statement is probably playing a game themselves.

I submit as a tool for character fine tuning the book “Games People Play,” published by Eric Berne in 1964. The book can be used to insure your characters are believable and that readers can relate to their actions. 

Berne was a psychiatrist whose best selling book delved into social interactions, and the games we play, and why they are important. The book is about transactional analysis, meaning everyday encounters. To simplify I quote from the book, “If two or more people encounter each other. . . sooner or later one of them will speak, or give some other indication of acknowledging the presence of the other.” This is transactional stimulus and when the other person responds we have transactional response.  A game would be, if a child knows his mother is nurturing,  and plays on that nurturing by saying he is sick and the mother lets him stay home from school. I am ashamed to say I played this game. Sorry mom. It was a good way to receive nurturing cookies.

We play games everyday, in all conversations, whether you think so or not. I do not mean to imply all the games are bad, or that everyone is trying to get an edge on somebody; it is an analysis of human behavior. Berne categorizes transactions into life games, marital games, party games, sex games, underworld games, consulting room games, and good games.

Why this book will work is that it gives examples about behavior, about simple manipulation, about human interactions.  You can create character traits by how the character interacts with people, even strangers. How does the boy cited above use his ability to manipulate nurturing women to his advantage when he is an adult? Does he, as a serial killer, manipulate nurturing, trusting women, to feel safe, then kill them? For the record, I have not done this. But I try to manipulate women into baking cookies for me and I offer no apologies for my cookie game playing.

I hope you understand what the book can do for you and your writing. It will give your characters psychological reality and identification. A writer often uses a characters body language to give the impression of a character, so why not delve into mind games. After forty years the book is still available, so the book as stood the test of time. 


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Words a fiction writer should never use

The following is a list of words a writer should never use. It is not my list, it is compiled by scholarly, erudite, professionals, who know more about writing than yours truly. These words are: extremely, totally, especially, very, almost, particularly, absolutely, really, ordinarily, unusually, generally, fairly, rather, nearly, mostly, somewhat, usually. I am sure there are more, but we will use these words for my discussion.

 I totally agree with ‘totally’, but I am somewhat peeved at ordinarily fine words being generally blackballed by grammarians. Is there not a place for these words? Are there not exceptions where very fine words can be used in a clear, concise manner, in which readers know and really understand?

I think it fairly obvious these words were intended for writers of non-fiction, particularly journalists. I am also absolutely sure this list is not intended for fiction writers. The reason being fictional characters, especially blue collar ordinary folk, should talk like people usually talk. When you look at the above list you recognize words you probably use when speaking, though of course the word ‘totally’ is only used by teen girls from the 90’s. Nearly all the other words you say at one time or another are on the list. As for myself I would rather (a perfectly good word) write my characters dialogue like normal people, in conversational tone.

Bear with me I am almost done.

I find it unusually anti-Oxfordian to list perfectly fine words that writers are told to avoid. It is akin to word banning and once you start banning words, will not book banning be far behind. I find this extremely unsettling, so much so, I feel the need to defend those words, for someone must speak for them. These words we are told not to use are intensifiers and qualifiers.

As you can see-if you were paying attention- I have used every word on the list and I think I was mostly clear in my grammar though I was using those  words. I am just a rebel grammarian. And extremely proud of it. And I am sure that is rather obvious to you. Okay, now I am absolutely done.


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Why you should forget grammar when writing fictional dialogue

There are rules of grammar as we all know. I say we know there are rules, but not many of us know all the rules, many of which are confusing and there of course exceptions to rules. There are rules for using ‘which’ instead of ‘that’ and rules for using ‘that’ instead of which’ and if I bothered to look it up I could tell you, provided I understood what they were.

But in writing dialogue that characters speak, should you follow the rule?

No. And I will give you one example. Just a few minutes ago I finished todays work on the second chapter of my new murder mystery. Here are lines of dialogue. See if you can spot a grammatical error. (I am hoping you only spot one, but here goes): “It looks like Bachmann was trying to write something. It says ‘act.’ Three letters and shakily written at that. Must have been near death. Mean anything to you?”

When I wrote that bit of dialogue a green line came up under ‘Must have been near death.’ Clicking on the sentence my helpful (sometimes) digital grammarian questions whether I might be writing an incomplete thought. The little bugger is right. I have no subject. It should be written ‘He must have been near death.’ I also could have written, ‘He must have been near death when he wrote those three letters.’ The problem with the last sentence is that ‘when he wrote those three letters’ does not add anything new, it recaps what we already know. I can use ‘he must have been near death’ and I may, in fact, do so. But the point is, when writing dialogue should not the character talk like a real person?

Let me break down that  bit of dialogue . “It looks like Bachmann was trying to write something.” The character has discovered something. “It says ‘act.” The character is telling us his discovery, as well, of course, to the character he is talking to. “Must have been near death when he wrote those three letters.” Does the character need to say ‘He?’ We already know the corpse is a man. Could not an actual person, perhaps talking even more to himself , simply say ‘must have been near death . . .’ The he is implied in conversational dialogue.

There is a difference in how people write and how they speak and if you are writing how people speak, then write what they would say, not how they would write. A good exercise is to listen to conversations and note any grammatical miscues. When you truly listen to what voices say, your dialogue will flow better.

My website: http://terrynelson.net/

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Why writers need an ear for the music of words

I don’t know if the characters in Charles Dickens novels talked like actual people in Dickens’s London, but people don’t talk like his characters today, and that  is a primary reason not to imitate a period writer. Unless you are writing in that period of course. I have written two novels, one based in 1911 New York, the other in 1922 Los Angeles. One should not assume the English language has not changed. It has. Every era has slang, as well as phrases and words that, for whatever reason, have taken on new meanings decades later. For example the word ‘gay’ in the eras I wrote in had no homosexual connotation. There are also phrases used in the past everyone understood, but today makes no sense to us.

For the 1911 novel I used Irving Lewis Allen’s book “The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech.” For the novel set in 1922 I researched flapper slang and also read and listened to the dialogue of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and watched 1930 and 1940 films, as I wanted that noir sound.

That is where the ear becomes important. If you are writing a contemporary story, characters should talk befitting their profession, class, education, and their social circles. Listen not with your brain to what people around you are saying, but listen with your ear. The tone of the voice, how sentences are strung together-especially if the person is strung out. You never know when you might need a drugged out character.

To oversimplify, if you have seen the TV show, “The Big Bang Theory” you know Penny is a waitress, and as such, has no clue what Sheldon and Leonard talk about when they get into a physics conversation. Consequently you do not write lines for Penny that make her smarter than she actually is. A character must speak to her level of understanding.

Go to coffee shops, lunch counters, bars, airports, malls, sporting events; go anywhere there are people from different walks of life. Listen to their rhythms, their sounds, their words. Some people have an ear for music; as a writer you need an ear for the music of words. (Even when there is no dialogue, a writer still needs to know the music of words for the rhythms of the sentence and the flow from one to the other).

People don’t talk like people write, so don’t write dialogue like it is a sentence in a text book. Dialogue can also, and should, reveal character. If a character is pompous, then put on your pompous face and talk with pomposity. No jokes please, I’m trying to be helpful.

Clancy, my flapper character in “Loonies in Hollywood” was a young, spoiled girl, who lived the flapper life. She had a carpe diem personality and her actions, and certainly her dialogue, reflected who she was. It was odd, but when writing her, I often heard her talk, as if she was whispering in my ear. I listened to her. It also helps to be loony. If you’re not loony, then follow my advice. If you are loony like me, you’ve got problems. But you know dialogue.

Loonies in the Dugout: http://www.amazon.com/Loonies-Dugout-Terry-Nelson-ebook/dp/B00EEN7YNA/ref=la_B00EEVHN38_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1390363318&sr=1-3

Loonies in Hollywood: http://www.amazon.com/Loonies-Hollywood-Terry-Nelson-ebook/dp/B00EHK4OJ2/ref=la_B00EEVHN38_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1390363318&sr=1-1

Cemetery Tales and other Phantasms: http://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Tales-other-Phantasms-Nelson-ebook/dp/B00G9JND9Q/ref=la_B00EEVHN38_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1390363318&sr=1-2


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