Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Writing Dialogue

Writing good dialogue is hard work. The labor that goes into creating the conversations characters in a story have with one another often sends many a capable writer to their whiskey. Dialogue can fall flat. If there are several characters in a story talking at the same time, it can make for a confusing reading experience. Dialogue can also sound forced or unbelievable. With these reasons and many more it is a wonder why more writers do not write stories with nothing but narration. I’m glad most of us do not. I like to believe that the work of writing good dialogue, while difficult, adds layers of richness to the stories we write.
For those of us who write, there are certain ways we deal with the problem of creating good dialogue. Sometimes we write as little dialogue as possible. Sometimes we write the first draft of the story and during revising and editing we add dialogue to the prose we create. Just like the rest of the writing process, there are few short cuts to crafting dialogue that is effective. Earlier in my writing career, if a line of dialogue worked—it was successful because it made a reader laugh or think—I often contributed that success to dumb luck. Today, as I continue to work on the craft of writing, I no longer want to depend on the faulty foundation of chance to deliver dialogue that reads well. I want to include dialogue in the prose that I write that jumps off the page and gives the reader details about the characters I am writing about.
I subscribe to the thought that dialogue serves two basic purposes in a story: the advancement of a plot and the revelation of a character’s motives and thoughts. Like most writers I understand well the harsh and often unforgiving nature of the short story. The short story is an intense experience. There is not enough time or pages for false starts or digressions. A short story must burn bright with the opening lines and end at the right spot. The short stories I have written before where the dialogue was considered good, but did not advance the story often caused me moments of acute creativity distress. The short story teaches the writer to remove the unnecessary and to articulate the emotions characters feel. Good dialogue also gives the writer the opportunity to reveal of another aspect of a character. The best lines of dialogue I have read always provided me with a truth in the story that narration simply could not. Good dialogue matters because at the end of the day as writers we want to create characters that are so engaging that readers do not want the story to end. Engaging characters invite readers to listen to the words they say.
When I was enrolled in a creative writing class, the professor gave me advice about creating good dialogue. To this day I hold each and every line of dialogue I write to the standard I learned from him. One day we sat in the professor’s office and he answered the endless amounts of questions I had for him. When the subject of dialogue came up, he paused, and smiled. “Good dialogue sounds right to the ear.” And with that sound writing tip, I have found myself writing dialogue more confidently because I have a better understanding of how to write dialogue. Of course I am far from being a master of writing good dialogue, but my creative writing professor’s advice makes creating good dialogue more manageable. Good dialogue that sounds right to the ear is both a special gift and a small miracle.

Devan Burton’s chapbook, In Quiet Hours, will be available on Amazon this December.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Rejection emails

On the first day of summer 2016 I received a rejection email from a literary journal. The publication, which will go nameless, sent me a boilerplate message. I was thanked for my submission, was told that what I submitted would not be used, and was wished the best of luck on all my future writing endeavors. On the longest day of the year I received the shortest of emails. I must confess that there is no magical way to deal with rejection emails. A writer can do one of the following when he or she experiences a rejection of their finished work: give up or write once more. If I am asked for my opinion, I strongly suggest writing once more.
I have been writing in earnest, creatively, for years. I am the guy that waxed floors at Wal-Mart and wrote short stories in a three subject college ruled notebook at two in the morning during my lunch break. When I had a route job delivering magazines and books to various businesses, I arrived long before grocery stores opened their doors to vendors and struggled with a poem’s line breaks in the cab of a truck before sunrise. The passion that I have for writing has been met largely in part with rejections. I know that the life of a writer involves being told that one’s submission “shows promise,” or that publishing is “subjective.” Rejections from agents and editors are a lot gentler than they once were. The kind comments mixed with an outright rejection is confusing. I miss the days when I received a rejection slip from The Paris Review. At least the Review editors let me know with as few words as possible that my work had no place in their publication.
Whenever I face a rejection a process begins. I accept the news of rejection and then I take a moment to question why I write. During a streak of repeated failure to see my name in print, I wonder honestly if I am wasting my time with writing. I also debate with myself if I should continue writing. Let’s face it, at this point of my career, if I was to stop writing NPR would not devote a segment of their morning or evening news program asking where I was and if I was still writing.
Ultimately, the power that a rejection email has over my life ends the moment I write again. If I were to write only after having a poem published I would own a lot of blank sheets of paper. I wish I can possess some Zen perspective about rejections like “a story lives even if no one reads it,” or “in rejection I found my literary voice.” I am not Zen about rejections. I only possess an honest evaluation of rejections: rejections are painful.
Over the years, after every rejection, I find myself writing again. I do not write with a new sense of purpose after a rejection. I do not gain a new perspective after rejections. I simply sit before my laptop or typewriter and fill the page. When a draft is complete, I find the nearest working pen, or sharpest pencil, and begin revising a draft of a work for another submission. The more I write, the less the rejection emails matter. When I write and a first draft is completed, I do not think about the editor that told me no. When I write and a first draft is completed, I think about the creative force that told me yes.

Devan Burton’s chapbook In Quiet Hours will be published on Amazon this December.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Reasons for Writing

I recently had a friend that gave me a writing assignment (yes, I have those types of friends). She wanted me to explain why I write. Of course a writer writing about their writing tends to lead to pretentious comments such as, “I write because I feel greatness on my fingertips,” or “I write because my fans need me to.” My personal favorite response is, “Writing reminds me of how superior I am to other people.” Give me a break.

Since I am venturing into the world of self-publishing, now will be a good time to give a voice to that which is often voiceless. In this moment I want to take something that routinely remains abstract and turn it into something concrete: the reasons for why I write. I write because it is a family business. During the summers of my youth, my grandmother had a routine. When the Tennessee thunderstorms rolled in, my grandmother would direct my brother and me outside. The three of us sat on our front porch and listened as she told us stories. I had heard the stories so many times that I could tell them myself, but I could never recite the tales like she did. Years later, after her death, I found journals where she wrote her most inner thoughts: prayers to Jesus Christ, how she missed her mother, and the regrets she had raising her grandchildren.

My mother wrote a lot when she was alive. When I was nine or ten, I found a journal she had written in after she walked out on me. The content of her writings would have been disturbing for many sons—the articulation of womanhood—but my mother had such a command for language, she wrote with such clarity and honesty, that while I read her entries it felt like I was reading stories. When my grandmother took my mother’s journal away from me, it felt like she left me again.

I write because I have this need to respond to events I have experienced: the birth of a child, the end of a marriage, the car wreck that took place on Christmas night, the woman that sits in the cafe and reads The New York Times. Inspiration is a peculiar transaction; a rush of creative energy given from the world unseen to an artist. I write because I have questions I need answered. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What should I do with my life? Whenever I sit before my Smith Corona, I insert a blank sheet of paper, and I type. Of course the answers to these questions will not come all at once, but with every line that I write and every faint ding of the typewriter’s bell I know I am advancing closer to the revelation that I need.

While working on my chapbook of poetry, I am also working on two manuscripts I hope to turn into novels someday. Some days I write a lot and some days I do well just to ink out two hundred and fifty words, but I write. The work of writing is never simple. Even writers who have written for years still struggle with the craft. “If writing is so tough then why keep doing it?” When I have a good answer for that question I will write about it.

Devan Burton’s chapbook In Quiet Hours will be available in December on Amazon.