Enjoying the Forest

Spruce Bay old growth forest, April 10, 2010 - bruce witzel photo

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. (Stephen King)

Forest trail - Guenette photo

Stephen King’s words caught my eye this morning. I’m gearing up for life after the completion of my latest novel and I feel plagued by all the emotions that go along with the ending of any major project. I brought a ragtag and often chaotic assortment of threads, ideas and character voices into being through writing, rewriting, editing, proofing and formatting. I produced a book that I feel confident to launch into the world. Finishing such an endeavour is cause for celebration and, at the same time, leaves me feeling at loose ends. It is indeed time to step back from scanning and identifying the trees to look at the forest.

View from the repeater tower (2)- Bruce Witzel photo

Time to enjoy the fruits of my labour, celebrate the accomplishments and move on! Sounds like a plan.

Crater Lake Series promo photo

How do you cope with the ending of a major project? Jubilation, conflicted emotions, uplifted, let down?

Give it all, Give it Now

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”


I was grateful to come across Annie Dillard’s quote this morning. As I work on The Light Never Lies, now and then I glance down at the word count and number of pages. I start a series of mental calculations related to how much is left to write, how many words that will amount to, and then add that to what I already have. This sends me into a tailspin. My fingers freeze over the keyboard. Due, I’m sure, as much to the problems I have with doing math in my head as to the final word count.

Writing a second novel is a new experience. I know how long Disappearing in Plain Sight was in manuscript form and the size of the printed book that ensued. Having that measuring stick in mind is difficult. I keep thinking that this next book should end up the same size and it doesn’t seem to want to play ball with me on that issue – it seems determined to be longer.  

I comfort myself with the fact that J.K. Rowlings’ last two Harry Potter books were massive compared to her first two. That doesn’t help. I suspect that it was the popularity of the first books that allowed her free rein to make the last two so much longer.

I start down the road of thinking I must cut characters and storylines immediately. That makes sense. If I keep on writing things that need to be cut, it will be so much more work to dig around and get it all out later.

Then I flip-flop to the other side of the case, and say to hell with this type of thinking. I curse the editing hat as it attempts to squish itself atop my creative hat. At its most innocent, this is bad fashion sense, at its worst, chaos.

Annie Dillard’s words set me back on the right course. The first time through, I’ll write the story that I want to write. I’ll allow characters to push themselves into the story, gaining a prominence that wasn’t outlined. I’ll allow storylines to come out that I never expected. I’ll include dialogue that shocks even me. I’ll stop worrying about being maudlin or cracking jokes that don’t seem funny to anyone but me. I’ll give it, give it all, and give it now.

Stephen King tells us that the first draft is for the writer, the following drafts are for the reader. I have learned the truth of that statement. I need the first draft. It is there that I find themes I didn’t recognize as I wrote. I find the tiny gems I want to tweak or subtly twist. Without the freedom of expression in this first draft, the further drafts will be crippled. 

I’ll end with a gardening analogy. If you radically weed too early in the year, you risk pulling out the tiny new plants right along with the weeds.


Writing Dialogue isn’t Easy

Today, I struggled with the edits in Disappearing in Plain Sight as if I were wrestling with a snake-headed Medusa. This knock-down-drag-out battle was about trying to reconcile my editor’s request for clarity – in a certain piece of dialogue – with how that particular character’s voice sounded in my head. I was convinced that this character would be vague. I could hear her saying exactly what I had her saying. My editor commented that if my intent was to be confusing it wasn’t really effective. I made some compromises that I feel OK about – more than I wanted but less than what would have probably satisfied my editor.

Writing dialogue is tricky. The dialogue that appears in a novel is a construct. It isn’t exactly how people talk – it couldn’t be. No one would wade through pages that read like the transcript of an actual conversation. Believe me – I’ve transcribed and read through enough research interviews to be sure of that. Most spoken conversation sounds OK when you’re present for it – otherwise not so much.

As fiction writers we work to ensure that every word serves a purpose. Dialogue moves the story along. The words we put in a character’s mouth give the reader important information. How do characters express themselves? What words are chosen – what words are left out or implied? Why does a character choose to talk at a particular time? Why has the choice been made to have a character speak certain words to one character rather than another? Dialogue does all kinds of things, but each thing it does must move the story along.


I’ve written chunks of dialogue that were thinly veiled attempts to get pieces of information across to the reader by putting them in the mouths of characters who would never actually say the things I’m attributing to them.  DELETE. I’ve written other dialogue that ended up being my voice and not the voice of the character. DELETE. I’ve written dialogue that is misplaced – how often does someone decide to talk about a painful event in their past in an aside to a colleague during a staff meeting. DELETE. And I’ve written dialogue that suffered so much from colloquialisms and slang – well, it was literally painful to read. DELETE. Dialogue is not easy.

Let’s take a look at what some of the reference books say about dialogue.

Renni Brown and Dave King, in Self-Editing for Fiction Writing, point out that our characters come alive – or fail to – when they speak, and it’s no easy matter to put just the right words in their mouths.

Christopher T. Leland, in The Creative Writer’s Style Guide, urges us to be cautious about asking dialogue to do too much narrative work.

Bob Mayer, in The Novel Writer’s Tool Kit, writes that conversation in a novel is not what it would be in real life. We lack the things we would have in real like – all the varied dimensions of nonverbal communication. We must make up for this lack with the words we choose. Written dialogue is more concise than spoken.

And we’ll give the last word to the King. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tell us that dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others . . . many good dialogue writers simply seem to have been born with a well-tuned ear  . . . the key to writing good dialogue is honesty . . . talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut-up.

I love to write dialogue. In some ways I consider it to be the strongest part of my writing. When I start to write a scene it’s always in terms of which characters are going to be talking and what are they going to say. Only later do I flesh out the setting, the beats that pace the whole scene out, and the character attributions that keep the reader on track.

I’ve learned a lot since I began this journey of fiction writing and I know I have so much more to learn. The compass I steer by is my knowledge of the characters I have created – my belief, that after working with these characters for a while, I can actually hear them talking in my head. Having said that, I understand how important an editor’s perspective can be – I have listened to these voices yammering away at me for a long time – it’s quite possible for me to assume that something is obvious, when it is not. An editor or a trusted reader helps snap me out of thinking everything I write is crystal clear. Not a pleasant sort of snap – but very necessary.

The above image was taken at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden – I give you this picture with this post in the hope that you will experience the sheer wonder of this piece of art.

The photos that appear at the beginning of the post were taken at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Peace Garden.


It’s all About the Language

It’s about the language, as Stephen King says in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000). I heartily agree. The craft of writing is certainly about the language – the way in which a few simple words can create understandings or misunderstandings, as the case may be.

Whenever I sit and listen to my granddaughter Emma talk, I become totally fascinated with what kids say and how they use language. There’s a pretty good reason Art Linkletter had a hit TV show on his hands years and years ago.

Emma, who is almost four, is a master at cracking me up with her expressive use of language. She threw three toys up in the air the other day and as they fell to the floor all around her, she asked me, “Did I do it, Grandma? Did I juggle?”

“Well, I think it’s still going to take a bit of practice, sweetie.”

“Daddy can juggle . . . apparently”, she told me.

The way she tagged the word apparently on the end with just the perfect tone to suggest he had said he could but she wasn’t sold – I just burst out laughing. I asked, “Have you ever seen him do it?” and she told me, “Yes – he juggled for me yesterday.”

Hmmm – apparently her Dad can juggle and he did in fact juggle for her. She’s got the expressive quality down to a tee but perhaps the comprehension needs a bit of work.

Language can also evoke powerful images, sights, smells, and atmosphere. Consider this handful of words – He was an enormously fat man who smelled of cats and loneliness. With any luck I have succeeded, with these few words, in plunging you into a total physical and emotional reaction. In a split second the language can put us in touch with the fact that we all know this man – we can actually see him, we can picture what he’s wearing. With a tad of imagination we can smell him. We can even visualize what his house might look like.

Think about those few words. They can take a writer just about anywhere. This character’s life of cats and loneliness is because he spent his best years caring for a dying parent or a crippled sibling. Or maybe it’s not as melodramatic as all that. Maybe it’s just the grindingly sad reality of some people’s lives – spinning out over time along a certain solitary trajectory and no one and nothing came along to change things. He didn’t want to end up enormously fat, alone, smelling like cats. It just sort of snuck up on him. Or maybe being fat and never bathing so he smells like a cat box is his one way of flipping the whole frigging world the finger and he gets a total charge out of every single face pulled in disgust that he encounters. Perhaps he’s not fat at all – maybe the giver of the description is suspect. Maybe he or she is paranoid about weight and has an overly sensitive nose. Maybe this suspect narrator is afraid of ending up alone.

This character could take us into the genre of horror – he has a hidden basement room that is sound-proofed – the story may start with his backyard being dug up by a forensic team. He can take us into the realm of the tragic as we explore just how lonely and stark his life has turned out to be. Or we could have him walk out of his house and somehow have a near death experience that totally changes his life – he gets rid of all the cats, becomes the guy who loses 150 pounds by eating one Subway sandwich a day. He runs into the prom queen from his old high school, gets married and lives happily ever-after. Or perhaps his whole lonely and tragic life might suddenly find meaning as he throws himself under a metro train to save a baby whose stroller has rolled onto the tracks. The possibilities are legion.

It’s all about the words, the language. Give it try – spin a yarn for this man. Or maybe spend some time really listening to how a child makes use of language. I’m betting you’ll end up laughing and appreciating language in a whole new way.

Emma the Thinker

Bloggers note – thanks Matt for being a Dad who can juggle and for overhearing such an excellent little snippet of language in your daily travels.