Your Weekly Writing Exercise
 My latest writing exercise to inspire and encourage your creativity.

October 11, 2013

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Mary Carroll Moore

Grub Street Writing School in Boston

How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book
Saturday, November 2

the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis

Dialogue Skills to Bring Characters to Life
 October 18  

"Finally, a great overview on how dialogue works in story!  One of the best classes I've taken with Mary."
-past attendee
 How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book
two-day workshop,  Friday/Saturday, December 6-7

Writer's Wheel of Ten

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December 8

"How to bake a book:
Start with a big love of words, add a generous helping of  
Mary Carroll Moore,  
mix with leavening from your peers, knead vigorously
for twelve weeks,
and voila!  
Your book has risen!" 

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Utne Reader and past participant in Mary's online classes

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Your Book Starts Here 
begin January 20, 2014. 

More Posts on Book Writing 

 Five Major Turning Points on the Road to Finishing a Book
"The best writing book I've ever used."  --P.W. ,CA


Buy a copy now 


Dialogue Do's and Don'ts:  Crafting Lively and Believable Back-and-Forth on the Pages of Your Book

Writing dialogue should be easy, right?  Most of us talk.  We text, we email, we use words in conversation all the time.  We listen (sometimes) to other people talking.  Dialogue runs through our thoughts all day, every day.  So why isn't dialogue on the page just a matter of listening well and copying down what we hear? 


Literature has different rules than real life--obviously.  Dialogue on the page has different rules than spoken dialogue.  It makes sense.  What we read must present high stakes, tension, and not give it all away--otherwise, why would we keep reading?  


Each fall, I teach an all-day workshop in dialogue at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  I divide the workshop into two parts.  First we study the mechanics of dialogue--how dialogue is created, crafted, and used.  When it's not used (there are real rules about this!) and when it's most effective in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction books.  Second, we look at placement.  Dialogue speeds up the pace.  It's faster than description, for instance.  But too much dialogue in a chunk creates the fast-train-ride that you may not want just then.  So dialogue needs to become a conscious tool in the writer's hands.


Listening First

In some of my dialogue workshops I ask the writers to listen to an improv.  Or, during lunch, they're assigned an eavesdropping activity.  Both train us in listening for something called "subtext."   


Subtext is present in all good dialogue.  It's the undercurrent, what's not being said, and it usually carries the primary emotional punch.  If you "reveal" too much you don't have subtext.   


So "reveal" dialogue (where people really say what they mean) is reserved for special times in the scene.


When you get good at listening for subtext, you can begin to write it into your dialogue.  Train yourself to eavesdrop well:  at a caf´┐Ż or a bus station or the gym or a doctor's office--often the best overheard dialogue comes from these really ordinary places.


To train yourself even more, begin to write down the dialogue you hear.  Pay attention to "beats"--where people pause, interrupt, change the subject.  That's usually where there's an emotional shift.  Maybe the subject is getting too hot and the speaker shifts away from it abruptly.  Ever have this happen in a real-life conversation?  It's used a lot by novelists and memoirists to show the subtext.


Text and Subtext:  How Dialogue Works on the Page  

Really well-crafted dialogue gives me goosebumps as a reader.  Have you ever read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants?"   It's one of my favorite examples of stellar dialogue.  Hemingway's sparseness may not be your style, but the dialogue is brilliant.  It reveals, through what's not being said, the intense undercurrents that pass between people in a struggle neither can really talk about directly.

In the story, a man and a woman are sitting in a cafe in a train station somewhere in Spain.  They have drinks and wait, and the woman remarks that the distant hills look like white elephants.  They talk about the heat and the train and their plans.  The subject that's not being discussed, a subject that's quite profound, is that the woman is pregnant and man wants her to have an abortion.  She resists.  In that resistance is the whole of their relationship. 


So Hemingway allows us to see two levels within the story, primary through the dialogue.  The real conversation is about what can't be discussed--whether she is truly loved and whether he is seeing her beneath everything that is happening in their lives.  It's a situation that speaks of profound despair, in my mind.

As you study Hemingway's dialogue in this story, see how the layers peel off as the conversation moves along.  More truth is revealed.  But at first, neither speaker touches the real topic.  They talk about ordering drinks, how the drink tastes like anise, how the hills are like elephants seen faintly through the trees.  Slowly they circle to the more important discussion--an abortion the man is advocating.   


But we're not to the real emotion yet.   


Hemingway holds back the "reveal" until the very last lines:  the despair over what's not fixable about us humans, about people's twists and turns and their basic unhappiness with what they end up with. 


So good dialogue always has at least these two levels of text, the words on the page, and subtext, the undercurrent that we sense through gesture, beats (pauses), expressions, and setting (container of the story).  There's the obvious level and the subtle level.


Rough-Draft to Fine-Tuned Dialogue  

In early drafts of a scene, we often work with the just obvious level:  text.  We're still telling ourselves the story, rather than bringing in the subtle layers.  The dialogue will often contain too much "revealed" information, at that early stage.  In revision, we begin to craft it.  We get more subtle and we look at placement for the "reveal."


I find it's helpful during this crafting stage to find a published book or story in your genre.  Turn to a page or two of dialogue that you admire.  Study where the "reveal" is placed, how much subtext you perceive, what kind of beats are present and where.  What's the placement of this dialogue in the overall chapter?   

The exercise this week takes you from rough to fine-tuned dialogue.  It helps you build your listening and writing skills, but it takes time and practice.  Try it more than once, if you can.   


Your dialogue will begin to explore what's not being said--and that's where the true literary conversations take place.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Find a busy place to sit for a while with your writer's notebook and take notes.  Cafes are good.  Or bus stations or doctor's offices or airports.

2.  Eavesdrop.  Take notes on how people talk.  Write down all the jigs and jags of human speech.

3.  Pay attention to the rhythms you're hearing, how many times people interrupt or talk around the topic or use partial sentences.

4.  After an hour or so, or however much time you can spend, take what you've written and read it over.  Underline the best three lines, the ones that speak about something that not's being said.

5.  Using one of these, begin a freewrite for 20 minutes (no editing) for a scene from your book.  Write the overheard line of dialogue at the top of your page and start adding responses until you've crafted a conversation.

6.  Look it over.  Decide what's not being said (the subtext).  Is it a strong current under your characters' words?  


If you're interested in joining me for an all-day dialogue workshop, my fall session is Friday, October 18, at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  Cost is $99 (discount for Loft members), and the link to register is here.  We'll go through dialogue mechanics and placement in great detail and I promise you a very rewarding day. 




Last week's writing post

If You Want to Quit Your Day Job and Be a Full-Time Writer . . . Is It Possible?

In 2004, I decided to leave my full-time editing job at a small publishing company in the Midwest, move to New England and go back to school for my MFA degree in fiction.  I'd been at my job for eighteen years, and it was a good job, with great people and tasks I enjoyed.  I'd learned so much working with the editing team, but I'd come to a place where I wanted very much to test the waters, see if I could create/write full-time, have as much space and energy as I wanted.

A collection of short stories and a couple of novels were simmering.  I also needed more advanced skills, so the MFA program felt like the next step.

Wonderful dream.  Instant upheaval.  Not only did I immediately lose benefits and salary, I had too much time on my hands.  That totally astonished me--that, left to my own devices with unlimited time, I fell into a rather uncomfortable state. 

Read more 

Last week's writing post


 Never Give Up!  A Winner Tells You Why:

A Guest Post by Memoirist Elizabeth diGrazia 


I was a Loft Mentor Series finalist four times.

This doesn't count the many times that I submitted to the Loft Mentor Series and wasn't a finalist.


Because I had been in the finalist circle I knew that I had 'something' readers liked. And, that gave me the gumption to keep submitting. I also believed in the Loft Mentor Series and the possibilities that came with winning. (The Loft Mentor Series in Poetry and Creative Prose offers twelve emerging Minnesota writers the opportunity to work intensively with six nationally acclaimed writers of prose and poetry.)


I graduated from Hamline University with an MFA in 2003, the same year that Antonio and Crystel came home. To have the infants at my graduation was important to me. I was birthing an MFA and a created family.


In 2003, I was a Loft Mentor Series finalist in poetry and nonfiction. Ten years later, I've become a winner.


Read more

 Past week's writing post


Some Notes from Bestselling Author Cheryl Strayed about Writing Wild


Bestsellers make me curious.  Sometimes they are worth attention, sometimes they are all hype and bad taste--a great example of the latter is 50 Shades of Grey, which sold 700 million copies for content instead of good writing.   


Then there are books that make it big and deserve it.  One of these is the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild.


I read Strayed's Wild and her compilation of advice from "The Rumpus" column, Tiny Beautiful Things.  Both books were so well crafted, so engaging, I've become one of those readers who are eager to know more about Strayed's writing practice, her ideas, and her book structure techniques--anything I can absorb.


I heard she was speaking at the August 23 Breadloaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and almost broke up my vacation week to attend.  I couldn't.  But luckily one of my students in the advanced online class did and she took good notes.

Here are Susan's notes from "Rules to Write By," a talk given by Cheryl Strayed at Breadloaf.  Hopefully, you'll enjoy them and get some ideas for your own book.  Thank you, Susan!

Being Brave
Cheryl Strayed spoke about the importance of being "more than a little bit brave." Craft is essential, yes, but being a brave soldier is also important.  She says this is advice given by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to a Radcliffe student about a short story she'd send to him in 1938.

Write big even if your life is small.  

Read more 


Past week's writing post


Writing Hopeful, Inspirational Books--The Story behind Nancy McMillan's March Farm


Nancy McMillan had already fallen in love with the

beautiful March Farm in Bethlehem, Connecticut, by the time she decided to write a book about it.  She'd met an author at a farm event who had written about a dairy farm in Eastern Connecticut, using photographs and narratives to document a year in its life.  Nancy kept saying to herself, "Someone should do that for March Farm here in Bethlehem."     


"You know what happens when you start saying that: you're that someone," she says.  


Read more


Past week's writing post 


I Did Everything Wrong at First--An Interview with Award-Winning Novelist Lynne Spreen


After a lifetime as a corporate suit, putting all her creativity into keeping employees from fighting with each other, Lynne Spreen, author of the debut novel, Dakota Blues, was finally able to cut back to part-time and write. Unfortunately Lynne discovered that, for all her brilliance in composing corporate memos, she knew almost nothing about constructing a novel.  


She says, "Dakota Blues was my first novel and I did everything wrong at first, which necessitated having to go back and rethink everything a million times. Or at least it seemed like a million. Maybe only a thousand.  I spent years learning--attending classes, conferences, and reading books and articles." 


Dakota Blues went on to receive the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Finalist Award for Women's Issues.


Read more 


Past week's writing exercise

Are You Getting Enough Listening Time in Your Life?  The Value of Silence for Book Writers

I've been reading a wonderful book this week, by writer Terry Tempest Williams, called When Women Were Birds:  Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. 

When Terry's mother died, she left the legacy of several shelves of journals, and she asked Terry to read them after her death.  Terry was astonished when she opened the first, the second, each journal, to find the pages were completely blank.  When Women Were Birds is a meditation on the meaning of this extraordinary experience--and also on the value of silence, the blank page, in the life of a writer.

I'm reading this amazing book while retreating at a cabin in the mountains.  I give myself this retreat time each August.  I allow myself as much silence as possible. 

Read more
Past week's writing post

Guerrilla Marketing for Book Writers:  Winning Ideas from Mystery Author Nancy Wood

It's been over a year since Nancy Wood's novel, Due Date, was published. It's been quite a journey for this first-time author, trying to figure out book marketing. 

If someone had told Nancy that she'd be spending as much time on marketing as she spent on writing, she says, "I wouldn't have believed them. But it's true. And, if someone had told me that I would enjoy book marketing, I would have looked at them as if they had a screw loose!"


But Nancy says that's true too, and an unexpected gift.  


Book marketing has been a lot of fun. She's met many, many authors, writing in a variety of genres, and has read dozens of amazing books. She's had the opportunity to cross-promote, helping other authors promote their books and be promoted in return. And she's been able to connect with readers as well.  


This week Nancy shares her tips, techniques, and hard-earned wisdom on how authors can get their novels, memoirs, and nonfiction books out to readers in today's competitive marketplace.



Past week's writing exercise

Finding a Balance between Acceptance and Rejection--Seesaws in the Writer's Life

At a writer's conference recently, I sat in the audience and listened to a panel of four agents.  They fielded questions and then began to speak about the of-so-difficult process of acceptance and rejection.  Expect rejection as part of the journey, they said, in many different ways. 

Why does an agent "fall in love" with a book?  Why doesn't she or he?  What is the magic that makes the process work for everyone?

Most writers dream of "being picked," as Seth Godin would call it.  Someone will read their book manuscript and recognize its potential, make them rich and famous and able to return home with awards.  Most beginning book writers obsess about this--they see the golden road to fame and fortune and not the hard work that book-writing takes.

Agents are always quick to remind writers of the hard work, the years of craft building and refining that come before the magic happens. 

I would add that craft building is only one half of the equation.  A writer who is going to hang in for the long haul also needs stamina with acceptance and rejection.

Read more
Past week's writing exercise

Complex Structures and Multiple Storylines--Authors Are Experimenting with Next Steps for Their Books

Have you noticed the trend?  Books are getting more complex--not just in their storylines but also in their structures.  Could be a reflection of how our brains are changing (see The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr).  Or our desire to reinvent literature once more.

But what's best for your book?  Are you eager for the edge in structure or storyline?  Here's a short history of where we've been and a forecast of where we might be going, with some ways to analyze where your book fits into it all.

Multiple Narrators Become Woven Structures
Only fifteen years ago, when Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible was published, we were awed by a story told from six or seven viewpoints.  Each member of the Price family contributed their own version of the voyage from Georgia to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. 

Read more 
Past week's writing post
Famous Writers' Desks and Workspaces-- The Importance of Having Your Own and What It Means to Your Book Project  
Writers can write anywhere--right?

If you're really creative, you don't need a specific space, a writing room, or even a desk of your own.  With our iPads and smart phones and laptops, our writing can be truly portable. 

We don't need to worry about finding a special spot to grow our books.

Right?  For me . . . Wrong.

Maybe when we're dabbling, maybe when we're still in the exploring phase, we can disregard the idea of having a "room of one's own," as Virginia Woolf famously said. 

But like the difference between a date and a marriage, books are a long-term commitment to our creativity, and they will thrive if we give them a sacred space to grow.  This is something I've known for a long time, but I had to relearn it recently.

Read more  

Past Week's Writing Exercise

Publishing Excerpts from Your Book to Build a Platform:  An Interview with Memoirist Mary Collins

I met Mary Collins in a workshop I taught at Grub Street writing school in Boston a few years ago.  Her writing--and her enthusiasm--stayed with me.  I was fortunate to have Mary join me again in an online class later that year and a weeklong retreat on Madeline Island in the summer.   


I watched her memoir take shape, change, and grow.  She is writing about her childhood in England, and her brother's untimely death.


Recently, Mary was honored by the illustrious Brevity  magazine when "Leap," an excerpt from her manuscript, won second-place and was published by Brevity.  You can read it here.  


I knew Mary was keenly interested in getting her work out there, to build name recognition and a platform before her memoir is finished.  
Here's an interview with Mary, explaining her unique way of approaching memoir and how she won the Brevity contest.


When did you first start writing your memoir?

I began about four years ago, once my son was in kindergarten and I had some time to get quiet enough to dig deep.  


I'm not sure that I thought of what I was doing as writing a memoir. I started to write simply as a means of creating order from the jumble of memories I found arising in the years after my brother Daniel's death.  


What began as a means of getting the memories straight evolved into an exploration of some key themes, mostly around the impact of the stories we hear as children, and how those stories come to shape who we think we are, and the expectations we have and choices we make as we mature through adulthood (or don't).  


Read more



Past Week's Writing Exercise 


Five Common Obstacles to Finishing and Publishing Your Book

Choosing vulnerability in your writing. Always being open to learning more.  Embracing the support of a writing community.  Being willing for writing to be a priority.  Knowing how to break a project into steps to keep from being overwhelmed.

Sounds like a magic formula?  It is.  But more, it's a toolbox of skills and choices that professional, published writers use to get a book project finished. 

They're not the same skills as writing great dialogue or crafting a strong plot.  But without them, there's little hope that your book will be published today.

Obstacles to these skills are below.  Read on.

Past Week's Writing Exercise

Lesson from Argo:  Why Storyboards Are Great Tools for Building Great Books-- And How You Can Make Yours Unique

I recently watched the movie Argo, which was just released on DVD.  Movies like these I prefer seeing at home, so I can study their structure.  This one was amazing.  As most people know, it's about a classified mission that took place during the Iran hostage crisis, where six Americans were secreted out of Iran on the pretense that they were part of a film crew scouting locations.

At one point in the movie--and I won't give any more away, in case you haven't seen it--there's a great episode with storyboards.  In Argo, these are half-sheet sized poster board, with drawn-in scenes.  Each shows a different pivotal moment in the movie, what the outer story (action) is, where it takes place, and who is acting in the scene.

Put together, these boards give us the "essence" of the movie's high spots.  Which is exactly what a storyboard is designed to do. 

And these small boards, surprisingly, help win the happy ending for Argo.

 Read more
Last week's writing exercise

What Genre Is Your Book?  A Look at the New Hybrids in Creative Nonfiction
A January 18 essay in the  New York Times Sunday Book Review, "I Change, You Change," by writer Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, discusses a new genre called the memoir/self-help hybrid.  More than just traditional memoir, this kind of book also addresses the reader directly, offering advice, examples, even exercises to spur change.

I enjoyed the essay very much--and I am glad all sorts of hybrids are being discussed in the New York Times.  But, hey, folks:  this genre isn't new.  There have been writers and readers preferring it for decades--because it solves a conundrum.

A personal example:  When I published my second memoir in 1997, I debated its genre.  The book was a combination of my stories of loss and change, and good advice I'd received over the decade I went through cancer, bankruptcy, divorce, marriage, and other such upheavals.

Read more  
Last week's writing exercise

The Five-Day, 17,000  E-Book Download--A Self-Publishing Success Story

July 2010.  I'm sitting next to Therese Pautz, a woman in my Madeline Island book-writing retreat.  It's midsummer and outside the fields are beautiful with grasses and wildflowers.  Beyond the fields is the blue expanse of Lake Superior, where this island is located. 

Therese has been for a six-mile bike ride that morning and looks ready for our first class session.

We share a little about ourselves, and I learn she is a lawyer and marathoner, writing her first mystery.  I'm impressed by her determination to learn a creative skill she has no experience with.  I've read an early draft of her story--it's set in Ireland and has a fiesty young woman as its main character. 

There's loads of local color in the narrative--Therese loves Ireland--but the story isn't really holding together.

Read more