Tag Archives: Texas fiction

An Interview with Kelli Jo Ford

28 Apr
Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford has held the prestigious Dobie Paisano fellowship and recently won an Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford’s fiction has appeared in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, New Delta ReviewDrunken Boat, and Virginia Quarterly Review. A Dobie Paisano Fellow and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient, she holds an MFA from George Mason University. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation. She currently lives in Virginia and putting the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories about a mixed-blood Cherokee mother and daughter who move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country to North Texas to start life anew amidst the oil bust of the 1980s.

To read an exercise on describing characters without relying on mirrors and Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” click here.

In this interview, Ford discusses the revision advice of Alan Cheuse, the challenge of portraying characters both as they are and as they’re viewed by others, and resolving (or not) plot threads in a story.

Michael Noll

Your character descriptions are so good. I love this passage: 

I called for him again, and he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.
“You’ll break the back of your boot like that,” I said, but you can’t tell that boy nothing. I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air. With his head tilted back like that, I could see where my boy was losing the hair on his head, and I felt proud to have a full head of my own, proud I didn’t work indoors under fake lighting on another man’s schedule. But it got me antsy.

I love how the passage has multiple things happening at once: the narrator telling his son what to do, the boy ignoring him, the action (throwing the food, drinking the Dr. Pepper), physical description (baldness), and emotion (the narrator’s various reasons for feeling proud). Do all these things land on the page as you write, or do you start with one or two and build the rest in gradually?

Kelli Jo Ford

Thank you, Michael! Sometimes a passage will come in a glorious chunk that sticks around in its God-given form. Usually though, it’s a matter of writing and rewriting. I retype my drafts a lot, something I think I picked up from Alan Cheuse back at George Mason, who felt rewriting (or retyping) a draft allows you let go of what’s there and truly revise instead of tweak. It’s slow work, especially for a plodder like me, but I find it so helpful. I’m constantly adding new stuff, layers or descriptions, which lately has created the problem of what to cull.

I couldn’t remember how that bit came to be until I found an old draft of the story. It looks like most of the descriptions were there but sort of spread out in the narrator’s rambling, which I condensed a good bit. In addition to Paul Reyes’s keen eye at VQR, I’m sure the final product came about with great help from my husband, Scott Weaver, who’s a poet and really helps me 1) see what a story is trying to be about (for lack of a better word) and 2) tighten my language and descriptions.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the son’s wife—the Indian, as the narrator calls her. I don’t think we ever learn her actual name. She’s just, “the Indian” or “that Indian daughter-in-law.” What was your approach to this character—and to the narrator’s view of her?

Kelli Jo Ford

Kelli Jo Ford's story, "You Will Miss Me When I Burn," was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Justine is actually one of the main characters in the collection I’m working on. She and Ferrell have a sort of lovingly contentious relationship, though it doesn’t come through in this stand-alone piece. She’s a truth-teller and doesn’t let him get away with much. During the time period when this story takes place, they are going through a pretty contentious time, but of course, there’s more to it than that.

As we went through final edits, I began to feel a little uncomfortable with the narrator’s portrayal of Justine, to be honest. Justine’s the hero of the collection! In the end, I was comfortable enough, I guess, with what Ferrell’s portrayal of Justine says about him. “Lovingly contentious” is where I started, but doesn’t cover enough ground. Ferrell’s story grounds us in the culture Justine and Reney, the “little girl already in tow,” confront in North Texas. Through Ferrell we see the casual racism they face. The story is told from his perspective, so there’s no filter. I could go on more here, but that would probably be more relevant to the collection than this particular story.

At the same time, there is love and respect between the two. From Ferrell’s perspective, calling Justine “the Indian” is probably no different from the banter (or what he might call “good-natured ribbing”) that takes place at the D.Q., but that doesn’t make it any less racist or potentially hurtful. I’m out of my depth, but I’m thinking about micro-aggressions and the way that something Ferrell perceives as banter could quickly become straight-up aggressive, hurtful, and racist.

As for how his use of “the Indian” functions in the story, I think it allows readers to see Ferrell better than he sees himself. I hope readers pick up on some of Ferrell’s self-delusion and see that probably everything Justine tells him is spot-on—and that despite his hoo-hawing, he has heard every word.

In earlier drafts, the only female characters he called by name were Liza Blue and Elsie from the DQ, so the most important women in his life—his wife, the girl from Wyoming, and the Indian—didn’t get names. In the end, it got a little tedious and confusing to refer to his wife as “my wife” over and over. So having him name her was a technical decision that may make his usage of “the Indian” stand out a little more.

Michael Noll

In seems that a crucial question in this story is how we feel about the narrator’s actions with the Wyoming girl. But, frankly, I have no idea how I feel about it. What happens is, on one hand, part of the great tradition of “loving someone you’re not married to” stories. But it also cuts against the usual storyline in such unexpected ways that I’m don’t know wha to feel. When you finished the story, did you have a particular way you wanted the reader to react and feel?

Kelli Jo Ford

Good question! I don’t think I was going for a particular reaction or feeling. I think I only hoped to put readers right there with him and to, perhaps, help them see him better than he sees himself.

In some ways, the story for me started with that scene. Well, that scene and the magic horse. So the trick, if there was one, was to somehow get readers to want to keep reading and caring about the story, despite the character’s pretty despicable actions.

Michael Noll

The story starts with the threat of fire, and while we get the fire of passion, the actual fire never arrives. Was this always the case? It’s an interesting structure. You go back and forth between past and present, and I expected the present to be resolved one way or another. When it wasn’t, I felt relieved. If the fire had come through and burned everything–a kind of thematic burning–it would have felt cheap, I think. Were you ever tempted to do that?

Kelli Jo Ford

I don’t think I was ever tempted to resolve the question of whether the fire arrives, not in this story, at least. In “Bonita,” a companion piece of sorts, we learn that the fire does destroy Ferrell’s house, but that didn’t seem important to Ferrell’s story, somehow. Though he has some misgivings at the end, the house is the least important thing to him that day. Later, he may realize he was wrong to toss aside a life’s worth of memories, as well as a family that clearly cares for him. But as far as the confines of this story, (he thinks) he’s all forward motion

Maybe the past and present structure reflects how much the past is present for him. If he slowed down to think about it much, he might make a different decision.

April 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Amanda Eyre Ward

29 Jan
Amanda Eyre Ward's new novel, The Same Sky, has been called "the timeliest book you will read this year."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s new novel, The Same Sky, has been called “the timeliest book you will read this year.”

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of six novels. Her most recent, The Same Sky, follows two Honduran children who migrate to Texas in order to escape the violence of her home. She spent much of 2014 visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children, and hearing their stories. Ward was born in New York City and has traveled in Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Greece, and Central America and worked as a journalist, librarian, and teacher. She earned her MFA at the University of Montana and now lives in Austin, TX.

To read an excerpt from The Same Sky and an exercise on writing understated violence, click here.

In this interview, Ward discusses traveling to research her novels, the challenge of writing about places you haven’t visited, and writing novels that cause people to yell during readings and prisoners to write letters.

Michael Noll

I love that the first paragraph of the novel ends with “Old Navy.” On one hand, it makes sense since the store is so essentially American—the style of its clothes, the interior of the store. But on the other hand, the choice of that store seems to carry with it a choice in tone. You didn’t choose Wal-Mart or Target or Banana Republic. Did you ever consider other stores or other ways to establish the tone so quickly? How did you happen upon Old Navy? 

Amanda Eyre Ward

That’s a great question with a simple (not so insightful) answer. The dress I chose for Carla’s mother to send to her daughter in Honduras is a tiny dress with the figure of an ice skater on it (Carla has never seen ice). My own daughter owns the dress, and it’s from Old Navy.

Michael Noll

Some of the novel takes place in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and along the migrant trail in Mexico. How did you approach writing about these places? Did you visit them? The other major setting of the novel is Austin, TX, where you live in real life. Did you ever worry that the details you know so well about Austin would outweigh or overwhelm the details about the places you knew less well?

Amanda Eyre Ward

Uh oh, now I am worried they did! Writing about Tegucigalpa was very hard. I have not been there, though I’ve traveled a lot all over Mexico and Central America. I wanted to go, but I didn’t. Here’s how I wrote about Tegu: I took a pile of my sister’s snapshots from when she built a school in rural Honduras and I lay them all over my desk. I printed maps and watched YouTube videos from Tegu and Honduras in general, and the migrant trail, and even Mexico City. (One two or three-day rabbit hole involved watching Mexican gang videos, but I digress.) I read everything I could find.

I closed my eyes and listened for Carla’s voice and wrote. Later, I found (via Facebook) two or three people who lived in Tegu and I sent them all the sections set there. It turns out I was wrong about some things, so I changed them. I could never pin down where Carla’s EXACT village would be, so in the final draft I made up the name of a fictional village rather than changing details of her home that were important to me and to Carla’s voice in my head.

When I wrote about Khayelitsha Township outside Cape Town, South Africa, I went there and it changed the entire book. It was also pretty dangerous and changed me. So I’m still wrestling with these issues. My sister, who often comes with me on research trips as a photographer and bon vivant, has asked that I try—just try—to set a novel somewhere luxurious, like a spa.

The new book is set in Houston, New Orleans, and Grand Isle, LA…so at least that’s closer to home.

Amanda Eyre Ward's novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, "This one's going to haunt me for a long time."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, “This one’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

I also did a huge amount of research on East Austin and even BBQ towns like Lockhart, TX. I wanted to know both where Jake came from and where Carla was headed. I drove around taking notes on East Austin immigrant communities: high schools, motels, supermarkets, parks, etc. Then I spent most of a year in these places, sometimes bringing along a friend who spoke Spanish to translate the goings on. I went to the East Side College Prep homecoming football game and dance, sitting in the corner of the gym like a nut job, and sent Stacy Franklin about a thousand emails. Just for research, I ate at most restaurants in the area, and my kids played at Metz Park for a summer.

In the end, though, I try to trust the voices in the novel (whether first or third); trust what they need to mention and know and understand. Too much research can drag a book down, as can too much detail. I’m a complete cynic in every part of my life except writing—a novel coming together is absolute magic and a gift. I just try to make my brain ready, give it details and slow-smoked brisket and hope for the best.

Lastly, I find that immersive research is great for a parent. There’s a lot of down time when I want to be writing but can’t, and that furious feeling of words trapped in my body on a Saturday when I’m in charge of the kids (like literally right now when my family headed out to take Nora to ballet class and give me an hour by myself and she threw up in the car and now they’re not only back but standing next to me AT MY DESK) can be eased by taking them to a place I’m researching, or eating a food I’m researching, or sitting at a neighborhood park staring into space and daydreaming.

Michael Noll

Who would you guess the audience is for this book? Immigration into the United States is such a politically charged topic. Did you assume anything about your readers’ beliefs—that they were sympathetic to the stories of these children or that you needed to pay special attention to justifying the immigrants’ actions? How does the larger political debate factor into the writing of such a novel?

Amanda Eyre Ward

I try not to think about this at all (though of course I do). I read a lot and buy novels and I try to write the kind of book I’d want to read: smart, funny, thoughtful, dark, carefully crafted, and filled with rich characters. When I came to the topic of unaccompanied minors, they were not yet in the news. When I told my friends and family what I was researching, it was the first time most of them had heard about these kids.

(At the border, it was another story—everyone knew the issue was about to blow up because the numbers of minors were rising alarmingly and the stories the kids were telling were getting worse. The worst part is that the numbers of kids are going way down and no one yet is certain why. Oscar Martinez has done some reporting on this and it’s truly terrible…kids are being pulled off trains by both immigration authorities and gangs and they are not reaching the US. They are leaving their homes…and then they are disappearing.)

Having the issue become a huge one this summer was bizarre and I can only hope will inspire more people to help these kids.

In summation, I write about what obsesses me. That’s the best part about being 42 and a few books in—I trust that my obsessions will lead me somewhere good. I often don’t have a political opinion before I start. I’ve had audiences yell at me during readings (Sleep Toward Heaven and Forgive Me) and I’ve gotten letters from prison inmates (Close Your Eyes) and teenagers (How to Be Lost). So I’m happy.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the way you approach the inherent violence in the story. The murder of Carla’s teacher is handled quickly, without much emotion or drama—almost as if Carla is numb or accustomed to such things. I can imagine another writer really stretching out the discovery of the bodies. Was this an approach that you always use, or was there a particular reason for it in this particular scene and novel?

Amanda Eyre Ward

I’m so glad you noticed this. It’s exactly the way the kids I interviewed at the border spoke. They looked at me, and sometimes at their hands, and they told me the most awful things I’d ever heard. Some of them had eyes that were just…blank and dull. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or what, but it was chilling. That said, they had so much hope, too. And they played just like…kids. I think about them all the time.

January 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Understated Violence

27 Jan
Amanda Eyre Ward's novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, "This one's going to haunt me for a long time."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, “This one’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

In stories, violence has a way of dominating the scene, elbowing out character and setting so that the violence is all that you can see or remember. This is fine for some stories—sometimes violence does take over—but for other stories, it distracts from more important things.

So how do you keep violence in the background? A great way to learn would be to read Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky, which begins with a murder and a reaction that is noteworthy in its understatement. You can read the opening chapters here.

How the Novel Works

The novel begins with Carla, a young girl living in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Her teacher has gone missing, and so she sets out to visit his house along with her friend, Humberto. The scene that follows immediately introduces us to a discovery of disturbing violence:

The front door was open. Our teacher and his wife were dead, lying next to each other on the kitchen floor.

Imagine the range of sentences and details that could follow this discovery. It would be natural for the characters and us, the readers, to dwell on the bodies, to become fixated on them, noticing and remembering particular details: some gruesome and some strikingly normal. But this isn’t what Ward does. Notice how she makes something else the focus of the scene:

The robbers had taken everything in the house. Our teacher, like me, had a mother in America, in Dallas, Texas, a gleaming city we had seen on the television in the window of the PriceSmart electronics store. The point is that our teacher had many things—a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern. Luckily, our teacher did not have any children (as far as we knew). That would have been very sad.

Humberto cried out when he saw the bodies. I did not make a sound. My eyes went to my teacher’s wrist, but his watch was gone. His wife no longer wore her ring or the bracelet our teacher had given her on their one-year anniversary. The robbers had taken our teacher’s shoes, shirt, and pants. It was strange to see our teacher like that. I had never seen his bare legs before. They were hairy.

Instead of grisly details, we’re shown their possessions. In fact, we see the possessions first, through a brief bit of context, and then we see their absence. It is through that absence that the bodies are revealed:  “I had never see his bare legs before. They were hairy.”

This misdirection accomplishes three important things:

  1. It keeps the gore at bay. Remember, this is the opening chapter of the novel. If those first pages contain a high level of uncomfortable detail, it begins to set a tone for the novel as a whole—a tone that might not be appropriate for the story. This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino film.
  2. It reveals the characters’ relationship with violence. Take this same murder and put it Austin, TX, where Carla will eventually end up, and the reaction would become quite different. In fact, Scott Blackwood has just published a novel about just such a murder: See How Small. The emotional resonance in that book is very different. In The Same Sky, the characters have become accustomed to murder and violence. As a result, they’re less visibly jolted when it occurs—whether through numbness or its routine nature.
  3. It gives us a sense for the characters’ real concerns. More important, perhaps, than what they don’t notice is what they do notice: “a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern.” It’s like the line from Sherlock Holmes: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most.” What these characters notice tells us what they value and need, and it is those values and needs that will help shape their decisions in the novel.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write understated violence, using The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward as a model:

  1. Decide on the type of violence. There are many kinds, not all of them physical. Some are emotional and mental. You can even think large scale and consider cultural violence: the aggression that groups enact against each other. An important distinction to consider is the difference between violence suffered by a person and violence witnessed by a person. Someone witnessing violence can, in some cases, turn away. But if that isn’t possible if the violence is being perpetrated against them—or, it’s more difficult and requires, perhaps, an interior numbness or turning away.
  2. Choose the new focus of the scene. Ward has the children focus on their teacher’s possessions. This makes sense because these are things that would be present in the house, along with the bodies, but their children’s familiarity with them allows the scene to step out of the moment and recall how they appeared before the violence occurred. So, think about what is in the room or place along with the violence: room furnishings, plants, cars, colors, sounds, smells.
  3. Create a reason for the character to pay attention to this new focus. What does the new focus (the thing, smell, color, etc) remind the character of? How does it make the character feel before the violence actually occurs? Does it highlight a scarcity or bounty in the character’s life?
  4. Add the violence to this setting. This addition will, of course, create a kind of contrast, a juxtaposition with the thing you’ve focused on. This contrast will create tension: where does the character look? It’s possible that the more severe and disturbing the violence, the more difficult it will be to look away. The more familiar or mundane the violence, the easier it will be to retain the character’s attention on the thing you’ve focused on. The closer you entwine the violence with the new focus, the more heightened the tension will become. This tension is important because only a severely disturbed person could totally ignore a scene of violence. The key, then, is to background the violence and, thus, insert the tension into the character’s thoughts. That tension will likely stay in their thoughts even after they’ve left the scene.

Good luck.

An Interview with Joe Lansdale

5 Sep
Joe Landale is the author of many novels and stories, including the Hap and Leonard mystery novels and the novella Bubba Ho-Tep. His latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10.

Joe Landale latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10. If you’re in Austin, you can see Lansdale in person at BookPeople on September 12.

Joe Lansdale is one of the most versatile and peculiar writers in American literature. He’s written a popular mystery series (Hap and Leonard) whose detectives are a white East Texas rose picker who spent time in prison as a conscientious objector and his best friend, a gay, black veteran. Lansdale has won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association eight times. He’s also written for comic books, television, and movies, and his work has been turned into the films Bubba Ho-Tep (which, if you haven’t seen it, you need to watch tonight) and, coming soon, Cold in July. His latest novel is The Thicket, a suspense novel set in The Big Thicket in East Texas. If you live in Austin, you can see him read from the book in person on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at BookPeople.

In this interview, Lansdale discusses voice, writing “historical” fiction, and what it means to write about East Texas.

(To read an excerpt from Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket and an exercise on voice and first sentences, click here.)

Michael Noll

The first sentence of the novel lists all the things that will happen in the story. I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers try something similar, and the sentences rarely work because they feel manipulative, like the language is trying too hard to get my attention. But this sentence is wonderful. It’s such an absurd list of events, and they’re related so matter-of-factly. How did you approach this sentence?

Joe Lansdale

I’m not overly conscious of it and mostly just try to write something from the subconcious where the story is hidden. But the subconscious mind knows, and I let it be my guide.

Michael Noll

I’m from rural Kansas, where people, especially old farmers, tend to have a colorful way of talking. My siblings and I actually play a game, trying to think of all the crazy lines we’ve heard our dad or grandfather say. So, that’s why I love this line from your novel: “Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back.” That’s maybe the funniest thing I’ve read in a novel in a long time. I’m curious if you made that line up, or if it’s something you’ve heard. In general, you’re so good at writing that rural voice. How much work does it take to maintain it for an entire novel?

Joe Lansdale

It’s a saying I heard growing up. People here, especially generations previous, spoke that way naturally. I’m very comparison-oriented as a writer and speaker. I pay attention even when I don’t know I am. I absorb more than I collect.

Michael Noll

The novel is set one hundred years ago–which seems like a risky move as a writer. So many books set in the past are stifling to read. The characters don’t seem like fresh creations, or the writers try to mimic an old-fashioned way of talking. How did you avoid those problems? At one point, I forgot the time period and thought I was reading something set in the present.

Joe Lansdale

I tried to capture the period without it capturing me. I did allow an old style of speaking to seep in, but I never let it own the story. Shorty has a very stylized way of speaking, and even his contemporaries find it odd.

Michael Noll

You’re a Texas writer–born in Texas, live there, and set many of your books there. As a literary setting, Texas often gets used as a platform for big, sweeping sagas about America. Your work doesn’t really do that, though. It’s funny, where often those books aren’t, and the characters are intensely idiosyncratic, rather than symbols for some larger idea–even though, as in the case of The Thicket, the story is set at a time of significant change. Is this because you write about East Texas, which lacks some of the mythic quality of the Old West and West Texas? Or does it have to do with your conception of how to tell a story? What do you think?

Joe Lansdale

I think East Texas is mythic, but more in an Old South way, mixed with some Western, and cajun, black, and more recently, Hispanic culture. I write out of the mythic and tall tale tradition, actually. Love it. Greek myths are a big part of my background.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Using Dialogue to Create Conflict

14 May
Rene S. Perez in The Acentos Review

“Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II first appeared in The Acentos Review and is included in his debut collection, Along These Highways, which won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Prize and was published as part of the Camino del Sol series by the University of Arizona Press.

If you close your eyes and listen to people—your family or friends—you’ll discover that they don’t all talk the same. They use different diction, different cliches, and sentences of different lengths. Yet in fiction, we too often write dialogue as if everyone talks the same.

Not Rene S. Pérez II. In his story, “Lost Days,” he creates characters with distinctive speaking styles, and those style become the center of the conflict. The story is a great example of how character, when fully realized, can drive plot. “Lost Days” is included in Pérez’s collection, Along These Highways, and was first published in The Acentos Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Let’s take a look at a key paragraph from “Lost Days.” In it, you’ll see how Bobby talks differently than his mother and father and how the story comments on this style. Both are important in using character to create plot.

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”

Bobby’s diction (disparage, connotes) and phrasing (which is such that) suggest not only that he is smart but that he’s trying to be smart, that he feels a need to prove his intelligence. His speaking pattern has a whiff of desperation, and so it’s no surprise that he ends up calling his hometown stupid and dull. In life, people generally say what they feel. It’s hard to maintain a true shellac over our inner selves. In fiction, you can use this tendency to create plot by having characters say what they think (in their unique voices) to the people most vulnerable to those opinions. Perez has established in one paragraph an entire family dynamic and conflict.

Perez turns this conflict into a narrative arc by focusing Bobby’s desperation on a single point: Starbucks. At first, he says, “I mean, this town doesn’t even have a Starbucks.” But later in the story, as his mom drives away from the town’s first Starbucks, he’ll say, “Starbucks is the Wal-Mart of coffee shops. I bet the opening was in the news and everything.”

In some ways, this is a story about that old saw, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” All it takes to make the story work is a few words from one character and a cup of coffee.

The Writing Exercise

This exercise is really more of a writing habit. The first part you may have heard before, but the second will likely be new to you.

  1. Begin writing down snippets of dialogue. The speakers can be anyone: people in line at the grocery store, customers at a coffee shop, drinkers at a bar, your kids or spouse or parents, your friends. Try to write down a few sentences verbatim. Don’t worry about capturing an entire conversation. The back-and-forth may sound amazing, but on paper, it will almost always last too long and wander from its point. It’s more important to capture the essence of how the person speaks.
  2. Try to impersonate those people. Say aloud what you have written as they said it. Imagine that you’re an actor on stage. You may find that in order to fully capture the voice, you must delete or add words or change their order. Remember: Dialogue needs to sound lifelike, not be lifelike. Once you’ve captured the person’s voice, write down the dialogue as you speak it. Add attributions (she said) or descriptions (she wiped her nose) to help provide the rhythm of the voice.

Have fun.

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