Dialog: “What on earth is that?” she said.

I have been working on my Work In Progress (yes! my next book!) and I truly love drafting dialog between my characters. I think dialog is where the characters really show their personalities to me. And that put me in mind of a blog post I wrote on dialog back in June for Edits That Rock (a venture in which I am co-founder, along with fabulous editor, Rochelle French).

Dialog is what the characters say to each other. However, it is not JUST that. Every bit of dialog should either add information about the characters OR push the story forward by providing information about the plot OR both these things.

For example, this talk between two characters does none of the above:

“How is the soup?” Lynn asked.

“Wonderful. The leeks are the best I have ever tasted. How is your steak?” Amy asked.

“Very good,” Lynn replied.

This is conversation, perhaps, but it is not dialog. Besides being boring, this little chat doesn’t tell us anything about the story question, or how the characters might be in CONFLICT. (Unless, perhaps, Amy is a vegetarian…)

Compare the above conversation to the following dialog between characters from the FBI thriller Got the Look by James Grippando:

“… if I’m not mistaken, the police never recovered a body, did they?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know your sister is dead?”

“Because we’re sisters. Family.” She leaned closer to the old woman. “We look after our family.”

Grippando uses dialog here to tell us something about the character whose sister is dead—she values family. He also gives the reader something to wonder about. Is the sister dead? There is also conflict. The questioning is personal, and the answers ratchet up the tension.

Dialog needs to do a lot of the heavy lifting of moving the story forward in a novel. Character conversation should never be just about the weather, for example, unless a cloudy day or a sweltering night is important to the story.

So, if we add some conflict and character development to Lynn and Amy’s conversation above, it might go more like this:

Lynn cut into her medium rare filet and sighed at its perfect blood-red center. She cast a quick glance at Amy’s bowl. “Is that the same green stuff you ate the other night?”

Amy dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “Yes. These leeks are the best I’ve ever tasted. How’s that bit of charred animal flesh you’re sawing on?”

Lynn grinned around a large bite. “Delicious.”

Now that we’ve established tension between Lynn and Amy, we’ve also established a reader expectation that this conflict is somehow important to the story. The reader now will anticipate that Lynn and Amy will butt heads again over food choices or other choices they might make.

Dialog is often easy to write, but more difficult to edit. The key is to make sure your characters are revealing themselves and forwarding the motion of the story, not simply chatting up a storm.

What about you? What makes you connect with your story? An image, a character, a snippet of song? Do you like to write dialog? How about vegetables? 🙂

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Expectations

Even coming back from a wonderful ski vacation in Colorado with my family, I struggle with lingering disappointment regarding various aspects of the trip: mediocre accommodations, icy snow conditions, and the feeling of opening your wallet and letting the money pour out. Could the trip have been better? Was my expectation (based on last year’s fab trip) getting in the way of full enjoyment? Why is it that we have trouble letting go of expectations? Should we even try?

The climax of the movie 500 (Days of Summer) portrayed the expectation versus reality dissonance with almost painful-to-watch accuracy. Here’s the video clip [could be a spoiler if you haven’t seen the movie!] with the now much-copied split screen depiction.

And the chasm between the two can be funny as in this series of comparisons from the blog Pleated Jeans [the picture above is courtesy Pleated Jeans too].

In his post, Why We Cannot Perceive the World Objectively on the Psychology Today blog, Michael Michalko discusses how people “construct their own version of reality.”

“One classic experiment to demonstrate the influence of expectations on perception used playing cards, some of which were gimmicked so the spades were red and the hearts black. Pictures of the cards were flashed briefly on a screen and, needless to say, the test subjects identified the normal cards more quickly and accurately than the anomalous ones. After test subjects became aware of the existence of red spades and black hearts, their performance with the gimmicked cards improved but still did not approach the speed or accuracy with which normal cards could be identified.
This experiment shows that patterns of expectation become so deeply embedded that they continue to influence perceptions even when people are alerted to and try to take account of the existence of data that do not fit their preconceptions. Trying to be objective does not ensure accurate perception.”

So if we can’t really TRY to be objective, how do we let go of expectations? Well, a Google search brought up about a zillion posts about “letting go of expectations,” including Buddist and Mindfulness philosophies, but I liked what Rachel’s Musings blog said: “Talk about a tautology! To let go of expectations, let go of your expectations. Well, duh!”

But then she then offers a fairly simple way to separate the expectation (and the disappointment) from the need that fosters it:

“Expectations are tied to a demand of how someone or something should be. Needs are just there. Needs ground us to the present. Expectations take us to the future or into the past. Expectations also tie us to a specific strategy: If a specific person would just act differently, our expectation would be met. If a situation would just be different than it is, our expectation would be met. So, once we notice our anger, we can look at our unmet needs and the expectations that arise with them. Expectations can certainly reveal an underlying need. For example, when i expect a person to respond to a note i left, i have a need for connection. The difference is that a need for connection is independent of the strategy to get it met by that particular person. My need for connection can be met by someone else. My expectation cannot. We are locked into a strategy.”

In the case of my ski vacation, the need behind the expectation is probably a people-pleasing one. I feel responsible not only for my enjoyment, but everyone else’s too. Talk about unrealistic! But now that I see that need, I can foster it separately from my expectations for a ski adventure.

The truth is, I had a really fun vacation. I got to ski on new powder with my husband and two daughters, as well as with some really cool extended family members. I was outdoors in the winter. And I would go back tomorrow (today even!) if it were possible…and that IS reality. 

What about you? Do you struggle with expectations? Do you have a good way to let expectation go so you can live more “in the moment?”

On Goals, Dreams, and Meryl Streep

I have always been fascinated by Meryl Streep because she is the celebrity I probably resemble the closest, right? Here are Meryl and me in our younger days…

Uncanny, isn’t it? 😉 And thank you to all the friends and aquaintances over the years who have pointed out the resemblance to me. Brownie points to you all!
Ms. Streep’s latest oeuvre is the bio pic of Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady. A woman with big ambitions and the iron will to carry them out.

So how are Meryl and Margaret and Me related (other than a slight resemblance)? Well, here’s my point: I have seen some of my fellow bloggers’ fantastic goals for 2012, but frankly, resolution making and goal setting in the New Year give me a rash. I do believe in a vague notion of writing down goals because how will you know if you’ve accomplished what you set out to do if you don’t write it down first? One’s perception changes so much as time moves along, and it is always interesting to see what your intentions were compared to your results, but I truly balk at writing down specific tasks to get from here, at the beginning of 2012, to there, which is wherever I want to be next year at this time. Maybe that’s not productive of me, but there it is.

I love this quote from the recent Vogue interview with Meryl Streep:

“With any character I play, where she is me is where I meet her. It’s very easy to set people at arm’s length and judge them. Yes, you can judge the policies and the actions and the shortcomings—but to live inside that body is another thing entirely. And it’s humbling on a certain level and infuriating, just like it is to live in your own body. Because you recognize your own failings, and I have no doubt that she recognized hers.”

So in the interest of recognizing my failings (reluctance to write down goals) and inspired by these two great ladies, Meryl and Margaret, I am publishing a list of wants this year. Wants that in some way resemble goals. To get the ball rolling for me I admit to a little AhHA! moment reading Kristen Lamb’s blog post yesterday when she asked the question, what kind of writer do you want to be? And this post What’s Your Dream? from Ingrid Schaffenburg’s blog Threadbare Gypsy Soul inspired me too.

So, my wants:
I want to be the kind of writer who touches people with her words, in my blog, in my books. I want to support causes I believe in, like the National Womens History Museum that Meryl Streep has put her name to. I want to give the world to my daughters. I want to feel strong physically and stimulated mentally. I want to get quiet every so often, because it’s OK to do that, and it’s my nature.

And that’s all for now. Do those things qualify as goals? Yes? Maybe? At least it’s a place to start.

And what about you? Do you balk at goal setting and need to trick yourself into it? Who inspires you? Who do you want to play YOU in the movie version of your life? Why?

My Shirley Temple Doll from Santa

I don’t really remember what year it was…I was maybe five or six. I do know it was the year that Santa brought me my heart’s desire. A Shirley Temple doll. The Ideal Doll Company had just put out a new version of Shirley Temple. She was in the Montgomery Wards catalog. She was beautiful. And she had clothes. I had even braved sitting on Santa’s lap (always an exercise in terror control for me) at a children’s Christmas party so I could whisper what I wanted in his ear.

How could you not love Shirley? Here she is with Bojangles in my favorite dance sequence from The Little Colonel.

I was a big doll girl. I had a collection, as a matter of fact, that included a Madame Alexander Scarlett O’Hara with green eyes, and a set of handmade Dolls Around the World. Still do, though, maybe ironically, neither of my daughters have any interest in dolls (they find the eyes a bit creepy) so my collection is packed away. And, maybe also ironically, I don’t have that Shirley Temple doll anymore. She was well played with, so well-loved. I loved everything about her: her little red Mary Janes, her knee socks, her curls, her dimples and her frilly dresses. I remember running into the living room where the tree was and seeing Shirley on the fireplace hearth where Santa always left his gifts. I think I cried a little. I wasn’t a big squealer but I probably did that too. I don’t remember anything else I got that year (did I get anything else, Mom?). I just remember thanking Santa over and over in my head: Thank you, Santa. So much. For bringing me Shirley Temple. I love her. Love, Kecia.

What about you? Did you ever get your absolute heart’s desire from Santa? And was it everything you wanted it to be?

The Warrior Class

Four Things the Press Gets Wrong About the Military and One Thing They Get Right

“Rise up, warriors, take your stand at one another’s sides, our feet set wide and rooted like oaks in the ground.”

Tyrtaeus, Spartan poet

I live in a military town, spent thirteen years in the Navy, and am married to a retired Naval Officer who now works in the Defense industry. So when military folks (service members and their spouses and families) get put up on pedestals for their sacrifice and service it makes me uncomfortable because, to me, people in the military are just people. There are good ones and bad ones and boring ones and ones who should be running the world–not because they’re power hungry but because they’re really that organized. But I see why the pedestal thing happens…or I’ve come to see why after reading articles like this one.

There are whole segments of the population who know nothing about the military and have only seen soldiers and sailors on TV.

And of course our military is in the news recently.

Here’s Brig Gen Norman Ham, [quoted in this Associated Press article on Yahoo!] commander of the 440th Airlift Wing, in an interview reflecting on the mixed outcome in Iraq.

“The world isn’t a perfect place. We try to help where we can and do the best we can,” Ham said. “We have limited resources to go everywhere and do everything for everyone, but we do the very best we can and that’s what we’ve done in Iraq — the very best we can.”

I don’t aim to change people’s opinions about any of this, but maybe I can shed a little light on military people in my corner of the world. At the risk of opening up a can of controversy, here are my

Four Things the Press and Popular Culture Get Wrong About the Military:

1. People in the military are not actively seeking the next big conflict. It is our butts on the line any time troops or military might gets committed to combat, plus increased conflict means increased deployments and separations from our loved ones. Corollary: There is an idea floating out there that if you eliminate the military, you eliminate war. To me that’s like saying if you take away the police, you eliminate crime.

2. We are not all Special Forces Operators. Every job is important and can be every bit as dangerous. For example: the deck of an aircraft carrier is considered one of the most hazardous places in the world. Corollary: Spec Ops people are people too. Highly trained, skilled, physically fit people.

3. We do not all come back from conflict with PTSD. This is in no way to invalidate the true pain of service members and their families affected by post traumatic stress. Everyone is affected in some way by combat and military service, but that effect is not always negative. Many young people join the military for an opportunity to see some of the world. Some join for the educational opportunities. All, I think, are changed forever.

4. We do not wear our uniforms all the time. Though sometimes it feels like we do. And sometimes, like during training and conflict scenarios we actually do. But I know I was as fond of girl clothes as anyone else whose job was not the military.

And One Thing the Press Actually Gets Right:

Homecoming is as romantic as it looks…for about thirty minutes then readjustment and reality sets in. My oldest daughter was two and a half when my husband left on a deployment and three when he came back. We weren’t really sure how she was going to react to seeing her Daddy again. What did happen: as soon as she saw him she ran up and jumped in his arms. She wouldn’t let him put her down for at least a half hour. And of course he was really OK with that. When we got back to the house, however, she wanted nothing to do with him, she didn’t even want him to read her a bedtime story. We had to slowly work him back into our daily routine.

So I’m not saying you shouldn’t thank military men and women for their service. I’m just saying that when you see someone in uniform in the airport or on TV, recognize that they are not that different from you. Not an alien race or even a warrior class…they’re just people getting the job done. They get on with things so you can too.

(All photos courtesy Navy.com and Navy.mil The ships pictured are the guided missle destroyers USS PORTER and USS COLE.)

Extreme Fitness…Or is it?

As I rounded 50 on my series of 75 reps of Hindu squats this morning, I contemplated not only that my knees were sore but what it takes to be fit in American culture today. The truth is, you have to be a little odd. They don’t call it a fitness “craze” for nothing. We are no longer gathering and hunting, we are no longer walking everywhere we go, we are no longer (most of us) baling hay and milking cows on the family farm. We spend long periods of time just like I am now: sitting in front of some kind of screen. So in order to be physically fit in America today, you have to be a little obsessed. You have to be that person in the office who runs at lunch when everyone else is at the buffet. You have to pack your snacks instead of hitting the vending machine. And you have to get up in the morning when it’s dark and put on your running shoes. And this is all just to be reasonably fit. We’re not talking as fit as G. I. Jane up there (love that movie, would never happen in real life, but love that movie).

Here is what I like about being fit: I rarely get sick; I can lift boxes of Christmas decorations without injuring myself; I can run down the street to chat with my neighbor without getting winded; I can ski, skate, run, bike and swim with my kids. I can fit in an airplane seat. Here is what I don’t like about being fit: well, see, there’s not a whole lot in this column, but I do get irritated that I have to be a little obsessed. Oh, and I miss sleeping in sometimes.

When I was researching for this post, I came across some videos on triathlons. The entering argument for these events is that we are turning to these extreme endurance sports to create the PHYSICAL challenge lacking in our lives. Not satisfied with Ironman Triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run), endurance athletes like Lance Armstrong are turning to the XTERRA, which is all those things done cross country.

You can live Ironman vicariously on NBC Sports this Saturday when they broadcast the Ironman World Championships.

For the record, I have never done an Ironman, XTERRA or otherwise. But that doesn’t mean I never will…

What about you? Have any of you ever done anything extreme to stay fit? Any big fitness goals for 2012?

There’s a Toilet In My Garage: Happy World Toilet Day

In my house we are currently in the middle of painting and sprucing our bathrooms. As a result we have a toilet (two actually, the old one and the new one in a box) in our garage. When you take such an an appliance, used on a daily basis, out of its natural, er, habitat, it looks a little odd. So shiny and pristine, like a sculpture. Since the old one is old enough not to be in working order, it almost makes me want to fill it with dirt and plant some petunias or pansies in it.

As much as I can take my toilets for granted, however, there are many in the world who don’t have that luxury. Interestingly, one of my favorite actors, Matt Damon, has lent his voice, time, and famous face to a crusade to bring toilets to those who need them. Here he is with a sound bite about diarrhea–a leading killer of children under five.

Matt has another couple of great quotes on video at toiletday.org (though what’s with the haircut? 🙂 ) plus a wealth of info on the problem of toilets (or lack of same) globally, and links to water.org , the organization he co-founded with Gary White. The Huffington Post recently covered water.org ‘s innovative methods to bring clean water and toilets to places where even charities have failed to make a difference.

The first step is awareness, hence the celebration of World Toilet Day on November 19th. At toiletday.org you can sign up to lend your voice via Facebook or Twitter. Or as Matt says, you can talk sh*t about toilets…

Because even though my house has a surplus right now, there are many who have no toilet at all. Something to think about…while you’re on the can.