An Interview with Sunday’s Speaker: Laurie Ann Doyle, Dialogue and You

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We caught up with Laurie Ann Doyle before she speaks for the club this Sunday. At our monthly meeting, she’ll be talking all about writing better dialogue. Doyle knows her stuff: she’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award. Her work has been published in The Los Angeles Review, Timber, Jabberwock Review, Road Story, Arroyo Literary Review, Under the Sun Magazine, and many other journals. She teaches creative writing at the San Francisco Writers Grotto and UC Berkeley Extension, where she received the Honored Instructor award. Learn more at her site, LaurieAnnDoyle.com.

We hope you will bring all pressing craft questions to this Sunday’s meeting. Until then, our social media chair Cristina Deptula asked her some questions.


Cristina Deptula: I see your new book, World Gone Missing, is a collection of stories about people who go missing, or disappear from our lives, in one way or another. How did you select that theme?

The truth is I didn’t select that theme as much as it picked me. Before I had even a thought of a book in my brain, my brother-in-law went missing. Decades later, sadly he still hasn’t reappeared. Though the opening story in World Gone Missing—“Bigger Than Life”—has a similar through-line, I completely fictionalized the characters and specific plot points. What remains true to life is the feeling you get when a loved one seems to vanish into thin air. The best way I can describe it is a sinking, helpless sensation. As the years wore on, I began to see my brother-in-law in new ways. I appreciated his subtle kindnesses and sharp wit, along with his sometimes brash and irrational nature. Thought I’m not sure this would have changed anything, I wish I could have been more compassionate.

As I finished the “Bigger Than Life” story and embarked on others, I realized that losing a loved one can trigger many conflicted feelings, and conflict is at the heart of fiction. Sometimes a person’s absence can free up a character to do things they’d never done before, wonderful things. Sometimes they find it almost impossible to move on. This realization got me going and in this book I’ve explored both the loss and liberation that absence can bring. But I had to get a chunk of stories written before that unifying theme floated up.

What makes dialogue good? So many people stumble over their words and not everyone speaks in an interesting way.

I love writing dialogue, and there’s a lot of what I hope is interesting dialogue in World Gone Missing. The tricky thing is that dialogue in fiction and memoir should sound like authentic speech, even though it’s not. Strong dialogue is distilled, rather than transcribed, speech. If you tape record people talking, you’ll hear lots of “filler” words: um, uh, yeah, etc. On the page, this needs to be edited out.

At my October 15 Dialogue Workshop, we’ll talk about the importance of giving the reader only the most dramatic elements of what was said. Usually less is more. Consider keeping your sentences or phrases short. The Russian author Anton Chekhov advised, “A line of dialogue should always leave the sense that more could have been said.” Depending on your character, you don’t have to necessarily be grammatically correct or eloquent. Quirky is great! If within character, use of profanity is also fine.

Consider the difference between “It’s a pleasure to meet you”—vs.—“Hey man, what’s up?” Or “I feel unwell”—vs.—I feel like crap.” Good dialogue accomplishes many things at once; it reveals the character and their relationships, creates tension, advances plot, and modulates the story’s pace.
On fascinating aspect of dialogue is that people often don’t mean what they say, or avoid the “real” subject. Strong dialogue also creates subtext, or the unspoken meaning underneath the words on the pages. Consider what your characters are not saying, where they are not finishing their sentences or falling completely silent. What is the implicit tension, as well as the explicit tension?

If you’re coming to this Sunday’s meeting to meet Laurie Ann Doyle, don’t forget we’re at a new location: Preservation Park.

Your workshop covers dialogue in both fiction and memoir. How do you think the ability to craft good dialogue could benefit the nonfiction author?

Dialogue is every bit as important in memoir as it is in fiction, because it’s vital in creating compelling drama and powerful scenes. In a nonfiction piece, you don’t have to accurately reflect every word that was said. It’s fine to reconstruct the conversation and give us the gist, including the most dramatic elements, as I discuss above. The key is to stay true to the people you are portraying and how they expressed themselves.

If you need more information, consider talking with a relative or friend, or reading old letters. If appropriate, you could even eavesdrop. Base your dialogue on the knowledge of the people you’re portraying. If they swore, include swear words. If they were excessively polite, craft your dialogue to show that. Again, work to stay true to the experience of them and yourself.

On October 15, we’ll go into greater depth on all this, and you’ll have a chance to try out some new dialogue techniques in a free-write exercise yourself.

Join us this Sunday at Preservation Park to meet Laurie Ann Doyle and learn all her tricks for writing terrific dialog.

 

 

 

 

 

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Spotlight on one of the Political Authors Reading at Saturday’s Event: Stephen Cataldo

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Editor’s note: Stephen Cataldo is one of many CWC members who writes about politics. This Saturday, we’re celebrating CWC political writers at An Evening of Political Readings at Laurel Bookstore in Oakland.

Stephen Cataldo is a social entrepreneur with a strong passion in politics. He recently published his first book, Cognitive Politics: a Communications Workbook for Progressives [CognitivePolitics.org]. Before writing this book, Cataldo took on many environmental and social projects, such as founding SpaceShare and the carpool system for the American Holistic Nursing program.

What Is Cognitive Politics?

Stephen Cataldo: “What we really have are certain value sets that we don’t have words for, and when those values intersect with politics, they become ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’” More

Making the Most of Nature in Your Writing: Interview with Featured Member Judith Newton

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A discussion between CWC members Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Memoir Writers Association and Judith Newton, Professor Emerita, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at UC Davis

Editor’s note: Judith Newton is the featured member at next month’s CWC meeting. Catch her reading from her new book, before our keynote speaker LeeAnne Krusemark Sunday May 21st.

Making the Most of Nature in Your Writing

Linda: We both have new books coming out this spring. My book, Song of the Plains is a memoir about a family of women who abandon their daughters and about the ways their history contributed to this. Your book, Oink, is a mystery about the struggle between corporate and communal values in the university. I think it’s striking that we both chose elements of the natural world for our titles. What does it mean that you chose “Oink” for a title?

Judith: In writing Oink, a send up of the university for its increasing devotion to self-interest, competition, and profit, I also wanted to emphasize a counter perspective on life: a belief in the importance of values that are more about the common good. I planned to do this, in part, through my positive characterization of the protagonist’s campus community. It is comprised of faculty in women’s and ethnic studies who have come together to support each other and to resist having their programs defunded by an increasingly More

Writing Tips from our April Featured Member, Karma Bennett

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Editor’s note: Today we start a new series that presents interviews with Berkeley CWC members who are to be featured at our events. These interviews are presented by Jason Yiu. Our first featured member is Karma Bennett, who is not only the featured member at this Sunday’s meeting, she’s also our Berkeley branch president. Now I turn it over to Jason. 

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAKarma Bennett has experience in many fields of writing: poetry, writing content for businesses, novels, even in publishing and publicity. She has been working in publicity and marketing since 2007, specifically in book publicity and digital marketing, and now she runs her own business in that field, at www.karmabennett.com. Bennett’s forte is in increasing publicity in social media, creating Google search keywords for blogs, and overall making sure her clients get more attention online. She enjoys writing about music, politics, feminism, and philosophy, and she blogs about them in www.futureisfiction.com. She is one of the top ten most-popular blogger on blip.fm, with over 42,000 followers. Although she has no published work yet, in the past decade, she has been working on a novel.

Bennett’s intention for writing is unequivocal: writing is what fulfills her the most. “It’s natural. It’s what I’m good at,” she said. “It’s the question of ‘What did you do while you’re on Earth?’ Writing’s the only answer that makes me satisfied.”  She started off writing poetry, but realized that poetry can’t build a career, so she pivoted into writing novels. 

JY: Can you tell me a little about the novel you’ve been working on?

KB: The novel is about an artist who has recurring dreams about the Garden of Eden. She is trapped within the ambiguity of whether she is going insane, or if she is in fact called to save the world.

Bennett compares the novel to Pan’s Labyrinth, by Mar Diestro‑Dópido, where the ending could be interpreted in different ways, depending on the perspective of the reader. While writing, Bennett had the objective to construct this ambiguous ending, empowering the reader to perceive an ending in his or her own head. Is it fantastical, or is it real?

JY: As an experienced writer, are there any tips you would like to give to other writers?

KB: Don’t self publish.

As someone who worked in marketing and publicity for many years, the first suggestion Bennett would give to other writers is a practical one: don’t self-publish. She’s talked to many writers over the years who are gung-ho about self-publishing in order to put their work out there, but she doesn’t recommend it if the author wants to get their books in the bookstores. From her experience, “buyers will only look at books from traditional publishers,” she said.

KB: Join a writer’s group!

Bennett has been part of three writer’s groups, and she says that it helps her grow as a writer. She learns from the critiques they give her on her writing and absorb their point of view. She also mentioned the essentiality for writers to collaborate, especially for blogs. Speaking from her own blogging experience, she knows what the readers want is more content in the blogs. Being the only blogger on her website, she was only able to post monthly posts given her time restraints with her business. To tackle this issue, Bennett has been thinking about collaborating with a few other writers so they could each contribute to the blog to drive more frequent content.

KB: Most importantly, write everyday.

This was the last point Bennett added, but stressed with most gravity. “If you look at runners, they don’t hit their best times every practice. Writers have to be like runners and basketball players, to continue practicing,” she said, “Even if it’s writing journal entries that won’t be seen by anybody else.” Bennett emphasized the importance of keeping up with the daily writing, and, comparing writers to athletes once more, “don’t be too hard on yourself if your writing doesn’t meet your standard. Keep writing.”

JY: What motivates you in writing?

“The news, and ignorance,” she answered, but clarifies that she doesn’t mean that in a judgmental way. There would be instances where she comes across people saying things that are politically incorrect that makes her perplexed. She, then, realized that it’s because many people don’t have the a background or frequent exposure to politics and sociology. Thus, one of her strongest objectives in writing would be to raise awareness for views she doesn’t think are talked about enough, or to edify her readers on political views that are often misunderstood from an unbiased point of view.  

JY: Lastly, do you want to leave us with some of your favorite authors and books?

Bennett has recently been reading Joseph Campbell’s work as well, on account of her research for her recent novel. Referring to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, she is intrigued by his theory of monomyths, how he pointed out the common denominator for all religions share archetypal similarities. Although Bennett had her qualms with many religious practices in the past, she said Joseph Campbell made her understand what we see a lot of times are results of culture changes, but not in the idea of the religion itself.

Bennett has read numerous books in her life, but the two authors she could think of from the top of her head were Kurt Vonnegut and Catherynne M. Valente. She indicates that she likes how Kurt Vonnegut triggered the question of “am I who I am, or am I who I pretend to be?” She referenced her favorite book by Vonnegut, Mother Night, and explained that the split identity of the protagonist, and the conflict of those two identities, shifted her perspective on who we really are. Bennett likes Valente for her imaginative fantasy novels. “[Her] descriptions are so engaging, she creates a world that only exists in her own head,” Bennett said.

Karma Bennett will be reading a short passage from her work at our meeting this Sunday. Come out and say hello, and be sure to look out for the hidden Easter eggs! They contain a coupons for discounts from publishing professionals in our club, including several from Bennett too. 


Jason Yiu