WARNING: At the bottom of this post I have retyped the result of a writing exercise I authored an hour ago. My sincerest apologies.
You hold the rejection letter in your hand, wondering why the editor didn’t rush to publish your short story. Your opening was like a bundle of firecrackers. Your plot was written to sink into the reader with a vice-like grip.
How was your dialogue?
Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Nance Van Winckel revealed yesterday at a lecture on dialogue here at our MFA in Writing residency that, as a literary journal editor, she found herself skipping straight for passages of dialogue in the submissions. It was a way to cope with the trash bag of manuscripts she’d take home with her each weekend. (Van Winckel made clear the bag was not symbolic of her view of the manuscripts; the bag was necessary due to the volume of submissions, as well as her desire to keep them physically separate from the student papers she would take home in her briefcase.)
If the dialogue was flat, unbelievable, or inauthentic, she didn’t bother to read that dynamite opening, or expose herself to that compelling plot. She put the manuscript in the “reject” pile and moved on. She then learned that many other editors do the same thing.
Dialogue “needs to be interesting in and of itself,” she said. Getting there can take many revisions, and there are many means to add interest. She noted the standard lessons on dialogue–it can advance plot, develop characters, and convey mood or key information. But she noted other things that speak to her (my pun, not hers) in dialogue.
She likes it when characters don’t stay on track, because in dialogue characters have their own agendas. This “disjunction” can spark with life. She likes it when a writer drops a profound insight or inner-dialogue reveal smack in the middle of a dialogue discourse. She likes it when the dialogue implies much that is not being said.
She also gave some examples of authors with what she called “scintillating” dialogue: Chris Offutt (“Melungeons”), Jane Mendelsohn (“I Was Amelia Earhart”), Alice Elliot (“In the Gloaming Dark”), Richard Ford (“Sweethearts”), Bobbie Ann Mason (“Offerings”), Amy Hempel (“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”), Ray Carver (“Gazeloo”), Ben Marcus (“The Flame Alphabet”), Ron Carlson (“Blazo”), Charles D’ambrosio (“The Point”), and Alice Munro (“The Kids Stay”).
VCFA instructor Abby Frucht gave a follow-up lecture on dialogue the next morning. She added two more authors–Glen Duncan (“The Last Werewolf”) and Gustave Flaubert (“A Sentimental Education”)–but focused her time on a writing exercise. It was brilliant.
I will not replicate the exercise here–as Frucht notes in the handout, “please remember that it is the author’s intellectual property”–but I will note that she encouraged us to find ways to combine crisp passages of dialogue with framing sentences depicting physical details of character and place, and broader emotional contexts.
I am not a big fan of creative writing exercises. I am not sure why. I think it’s because I never really encountered them until recently, as a middle-aged writer who in his past has focused on journalistic prose. I feel disadvantaged, scribbling in my notebook next to writers who devoured creative writing courses in high school and college. They understand the art that is a creative writing exercise. And, I will confess, I considered slipping out of the lecture hall when Frucht said it was time to begin the exercise. But the doors to the College Hall Chapel are solid wood doors that have warped into each other over the decades; there is no way to open one discreetly.
So I reminded myself that I have been a wire reporter and a blogger, expected to turn around copy on short deadlines. I gave the exercise a try, and Frucht was amazing, guiding me to places my muse never would have thought to venture.
And thus, I am inflicting upon you the result of that exercise. I’ve put a dashed line between it and this post, to make it easier for you to skip over it and head straight to the comments.
What priority do you give dialogue in your prose?
I lean back on the the bed against the stack of pillows I have constructed, once again regretting not bringing my own on this trip. This is my chance, I think. Tomorrow morning I will take her to the Savannah airport and send her back home, to her mother, to her teenage life. I will press on, for weeks, alone with my rental car and my regrets.
“You heard what Meghan said. You need to get those grades up.”
Her reply is soft, almost drowned out by the rattling air-conditioning unit that is losing its battle against a muggy Southern summer.
“You think I’m not trying?”
The rumbling of a diesel engine forces its way through the thin motel wall. A beam from a headlight pierces the slit between the window’s blackout curtains, painting ever so briefly an arc of illumination across the faded olive bedspread. The beam passes just over my daughter, curled up on the floor against the side of the bed. The light misses me entirely.
“I think sometimes you allow yourself to fall short of your potential,” I say.
She tosses her head back, a long blue strand of hair flying away to reveal an equally blue left eye, now fixed upon me.
“You sound just like Mom,” she says, her voice louder now. “If I get a C, she wants a B. If I get a B, she wants an A.”
I stand up and walk over to where she is sitting on the stained brown carpet. I look down on her as I lean against the corner of the scratched veneer nightstand.
“When have you ever gotten a B?”