Write Better Dialogue

If stock photography has taught us anything, it’s that writing cannot occur unless there’s a cup of coffee within a 1-foot radius of the writing device. And also golden pineapples.

A big complaint I’m seeing in the reviews for a lot of books is that the dialogue seems unrealistic (for any number of reasons) and therefore takes away from the pleasure of reading the story.

I remember having this same thought years ago when I actually had the time to consume mass market paperbacks by the pound. These were bestselling novels from popular authors, but it sounded like all the characters had been swapped for robots. I guess if they can get away with it, there’s no reason to complain. Just keep on truckin’ and don’t stop to improve your dialogue, right?

Wrong.

Just because a bestselling book has crap dialogue doesn’t mean we should be okay with it in our own writing.

So, what can we do about it?

Continue reading Write Better Dialogue

Discovery Through Story Research

They say to write what you know…

…but if all of us only ever wrote what we knew, there would only be about seven interesting books on the planet.

If I only wrote what I knew, instead of what I thought was interesting, I would never have learned about two awesome little creatures called the tardigrade and the Pompeii worm.

Tardigrade

Pompeii Worm

These two little guys are extremophiles, which means they have unusually high tolerances for temperature.

In the case of the tardigrade, it can survive just about anything you throw at it, including a decade of dehydration, freezing to one degree above absolute zero, and the vacuum of space. Oh, and they can also survive direct, unfiltered radiation from the sun — a radiation that would cook a human alive.

One of the characters in my book Genesis Plague is an evolutionary microbiologist. It’s my job as a writer to create a passable facsimile of a person in said profession, or at least one that doesn’t ring abnormally false, even after a bit of scrutiny.

If I wrote what I knew, that character would have been a risk-averse claustrophobe with a four year associates degree instead of a globetrotting evolutionary microbiologist. Which of these sounds more fun?

Enter the internet…

…that vast trove of everything that could either accelerate one’s destruction or open up a world of possibilities that before could only be uncovered with laborious trips to the local library or university. And to get to those places, we actually had to go…outside (dun dun DUNNNNN!).

Well, no longer. Now I can wear pajamas and read about extremophiles like the uber-resilient tardigrade with peanut butter smeared on my face without suffering the disapproving looks of a librarian.

I also think writing is more enjoyable when it’s a process of discovery, because a lot of that enjoyment will (should) transfer to the reader.

However, using what you know to influence your writing can certainly imbue your story with authenticity. It comes from a place of true knowledge that pure narrative invention can’t touch.

Story research can also guide the plot in new directions.

What a writer thinks should happen and what real-life nature makes happen are two entirely different things. Certain facts and details about the way plants and animals behave (for example) can have a tangible impact on how a scene plays out in a book.

While writing Mission One, I did plenty of research about space travel. It turns out I had very different (read: uninformed) ideas about how the crew would get to Titan compared with what could actually happen.

Discovering the limitations and possibilities of space flight sculpted that portion of my book, and made it a little more authentic.

I still took some liberties, sure. If I was ever faced with a scenario where I could have been technically accurate or I could have written a crowd-pleasing scene, I appealed to the crowd.

That’s just good policy, and it’s also a whole lot more fun.


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The Last Thing Ray Bradbury Wrote

Ray Bradbury dictated this short essay to his official biographer, Sam Weller, who confirms it is the last thing the science fiction author wrote. It is entitled “The Book and The Butterfly”, and it is about Bradbury’s great love of books and his discovery of the worlds they opened.

Here is the first part:

“When I was seven years old, I started going to the library and I took out ten books a week. The librarian looked at me and asked, “What are you doing?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

And she said, “You can’t possibly read all of those before they are due back.”

I said, “Yes, I can.”

And I came back the next week for ten more books.

In doing so, I told that librarian, politely, to get out of my way and let me happen. That’s what books do. They are the building blocks, the DNA, if you will, of you.

Think of everything you have ever read, everything you have ever learned from holding a book in your hands and how that knowledge shaped you and made you who you are today.

Looking back now on all those years, to when I first discovered books at the library, I see that I was simply falling in love. Day, after day, after glorious day, I was falling in love with books.”

The rest can be found here, and it’s definitely worth a read.

Whatever Happened to Holden Caulfield?

I would like to believe that one of my favorite characters of all time (from one of my favorite books of all time) remained in the exact state as he was depicted throughout the novel. His was a rebellion of a young person well past the Peter and the Lost Boys stage of life and entering the realm where things are ordered to start making sense.

It’s clear from the outset that Holden has no interest in the world around him. Some call him a sociopath because of it but I think his personality is defined by the extreme version of one aspect that all people on the cusp of adulthood experience: lack of place.

Continue reading Whatever Happened to Holden Caulfield?

Yes, we are monsters.

A procession of small bronze sculptures lines the east bank of the Danube in Budapest.

If you keep your eyes on the city’s impressive architecture and hardly ever look down, you’ll miss them. If you’re both lucky and unlucky, one might catch your eye and draw you in for a better look.

As you get closer, you realize they’re shoes of all shapes and sizes. Empty shoes.

Welcome to the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a holocaust memorial.

Continue reading Yes, we are monsters.

Action Openers and the Element of Mystery

Photo by Aaron Mello on Unsplash

Crime writer Jim Thompson may have said it best:

“There is only one plot — nothing is what it seems.”

Yet I’ll go one further and say there’s only one genre: mystery.

I’m not referring to Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes — not to the established Mystery institution unto itself (with a big fat capital M). I’m referring to the most basic form of mystery: a question that needs to be answered; a problem that needs to be solved.

Mystery is the one thread woven into the fabric of every story.

The good ones, anyway. However the plots and styles and mundanities may vary, an element of mystery is always present. It drives discovery and exploration in all realms of life, so why not in writing?

Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

At its core, mystery compels you to keep reading.

Continue reading Action Openers and the Element of Mystery

Notes from the Road

I’ve missed out on three years of storytelling.

Three years of traveling the world with my wife, a few months of that with my son in tow, and I really didn’t write much about it. Even if it was only for myself, I should have been jotting some of it down.

The truth is I was mostly dormant the whole time. I managed to get one book published, and to write a couple of short stories.

But on the whole, I was focused on the experience.

I saw wonderful things and met amazing people. At different times (and sometimes all at once) I was stressed, broke, depressed, lost, angry, elated, and filled with unrivaled awe.

I hope to write some of those stories down before I forget them forever. That means the timeline of my blog posts won’t make any kind of real sense. For example, right now I’m in Munich, but I just posted about a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. Tomorrow I may write about a village in the mountains of Vietnam. Or about my favorite movies. Or maybe I’ll chuck a writing tip out there and see if anyone picks it up.

It’s a fractured diary, I suppose. Or a schizophrenic chronicle, if bigger words are preferred.

Either way, it should be interesting.

Thanks for reading.

Finding Truth in the Wild

Blood or blisters.

Either of those on my hands at the end of the day means I’ve earned it.

Earned my sleep. Earned the right to call myself a man. It sounds like macho posturing. I guess everything needs a label. So be it.

The feeling is primal and deep, pure and unfiltered.

It is not an emotion I gleaned from reality television or the newest lifestyle magazine. It cuts through the everyday bullshit and reminds me that I did something today. Something real. Something that will leave a scar.

I’ve worked in offices. I’ve made phone calls and balanced spreadsheets.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

But I’ve also ripped tree stumps out of the ground with my bare hands.

I’ve helped carry the bloated carcass of a twelve foot alligator, the scales sloughing off in my hands with each step.

I’ve moved boulders.

After which of these do you think I felt the most alive? Continue reading Finding Truth in the Wild

Mapping A Mental Frontier

The idea of a true frontier has always been romanticized and is almost always a false notion.

What was a frontier to the American settler was actually home to the Tribes. They knew what it meant to walk a true frontier — a blank canvas.

They didn’t paint all over it like we did, though. We painted the hell out of it.

The world is a busy place.

What used to be empty wilderness is now mapped and trod, lined with the litter of the ignorant to prove it. There must be a clear separation between what is and what you wish to see in order to conjure images of a land untamed; of a time before cars, before electronics, before pop culture.

Not everyone can do that, and it’s not because they lack imagination. It’s because they have invisible tethers pulling them back to the real world should they stray too far from their responsibilities. Continue reading Mapping A Mental Frontier