An Interview with Sunday’s Speaker, Jacqueline Luckett

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Jacqueline LuckettJacqueline Luckett Gives Us a Preview on Writing Great Characters Grounded in Reality

This Sunday in Preservation Park, Jacqueline Luckett will speak to the club on writing stronger characters. Luckett’s two novels are Passing Love and Searching for Tina Turner, and she writes essays in the Huffington Post and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011.

CWC member and journalist Cristina Deptula asked her some questions so we can get to know her better.

CD: You talked about living authentically in an old blog post on your website, about having personal values even if you don’t consciously think about them a lot. Did developing and articulating your own values help you do the same for your characters, or vice versa?

JL: My characters are people with values, that may or may not parallel my own. I try to include characters, male and female, with values and action that are the opposite of my own.

CD: What are some examples of grounded, developed characters in contemporary or classic fiction?

JL: Pecola, in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye believes that having blue eyes will make her happy. Every action she takes grounds her to this belief. Lotto and Mathilde, husband and wife in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, steadfastly hold on to their perceptions of themselves and each other. My own character, Ruby, in Passing Love, believes her life will be better in Paris, no matter the personal cost. She’s dogged, persistent, and focused.

Every action these characters take is a result of his/her character development, physically and emotionally.

CD: How can you learn to write about a character unlike yourself without falling into stereotypes?

I took a class from Junot Diaz years ago. He suggested trying to write yourself as a character with a scar or disfiguration. How that character approaches the world will create a new character different from self.

I’m a black woman over fifty. Does that mean that I can only write characters who are black women over 50? Of course, not. It’s our job as writers to observe, to dig into our memories and to write past the first idea that comes to mind. That’s where being a great observer of people comes in. If your mother called father to dinner many times before he finally came to the table, what does this characteristic say about your mother? How does the father’s response distinguish him? The traits aren’t gender specific. They’re great traits that distinguish and deepen a character. We can twist those traits into characteristics that, alone or in combination, can avoid stereotyping. Mix things up.

Preservation Park

Preservation Park, where Jacqueline Luckett will speak this Sunday

CD: Does every characteristic you give a character have to relate somehow to the plot, or can it work to develop a character just for the sake of having them be more well rounded or letting the readers get to know them better?

Not necessarily. Just as in life, we run into people who are interesting, but irrelevant to whatever we’re doing at the moment, so too are incidental characters in a story who pop up on a protagonist’s journey. They hold our interest, enliven our stories, and create a three-dimensional world.

Right now, I’m reading Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane. In a party scene, he lists the names of five or six attendees who may be important to the main character’s enjoyment of the celebration. We only know their names. The guests blend together and probably won’t be seen again. There’s one character, in the scene a woman, who’s described in a couple of sentences. She holds a baby on her hip, she’s striking, and, the characteristic that really stands out for me, she struggles with her newly adopted English language. This character stands out.

CD: I’ve heard talks on how to create unique and individual characters before. Is creating a character who’s grounded in reality kind of the same idea? Will a character who’s grounded in the reality of an actual and realistic person be more likely to be interesting?

Not if the actual person isn’t interesting. Even if they’re real, a writer may have to give him/her characteristics to make them engaging, appealing and give readers a reason to stick with a story.

When I speak of characters grounded in reality, I don’t mean the everyday reality of incidents. I’m talking about characteristics that make people real and credible: a person who itches all the time, a man who sings in the BART station but nowhere else, a person who cannot look another in the eye, someone who voices the same complaint every day of her life.


Jacqueline Luckett has an MFA in Screenwriting from the University of California, Riverside. Luckett frequently speaks to various organizations about discovering her passion, her path to successful publication, and advice for new writers seeking to move forward in their careers. The Bay Area native lives in Oakland and travels frequently to nurture her passion for photography, exotic foods, and in search of another city that mesmerizes her as much as Paris. Learn more about her at JacquelineLuckett.com, or come to this Sunday’s meeting.

Luckett is the highlight of our schedule, but be sure to get to the meeting early to take advantage of our group discussions on craft and marketing. Coffee and snacks are included.

See the full schedule for Sunday’s meeting here.

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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.