Monday, February 22, 2010

When Life is Like Seinfeld

I've often joked with my friends and family that our lives—my husband's and mine—are like a Seinfeld episode. Wacky things happening, weird bizarre luck shaping our day—and hysterical dialogue that seems to pour forth from the people around us. This week, the Wicked Writers are going to discuss what we do to create believable dialogue within our work, and trust me, it's not always easy.

Sometimes, the best lines are too well crafted.  You can only have so many sharp comebacks in one chapter. After that, it becomes contrived and forced.  I mean, after all, people aren't "on" 24/7, are they?

The best way I've found to interject realistic dialogue into my stories is to listen. I will listen in on to three and four conversations circulating around me at once.  And keep track of all the pertinent information in each one at the same time.  Was I trained as a spy?  No.  I have a gift and a curse of never being able to turn my mind off.

At it's worst, this gift causes me to lose sleep and I toss and turn at night, waiting for the peaceful oblivion of nothingness to finally arrive.  At other times, this high level of awareness enables me to steal excellent dialogue and interweave it into my story.  The heart of this gift is a young woman who would always think up snappy comebacks after the person who insulted her had walked away.

Isn't that essentially what writing is?  I get a chance to think up snappy, funny lines and have no pressure to do it in front of a group at the drop of a hat.

One thing I've noticed from all my eavesdropping, excellent hearing in a crowded restaurant, and retelling of funny stories in front of drunks at a party is this—people do not always speak in grammatically correct sentences.  Lots of fragments are used.  Sometimes nouns and verbs are implied. No one speaks in this day and age without using a lot of contractions—unless they're angry and trying to make a point (or maybe speaking to children or trying to calm an animal).

Above all—to write the best dialogue you must listen, listen and listen some more. How do you know when you've succeeded? You read your lines out loud and see if it sounds real or fake.  Great writing needs the dialogue to convey pertinent information in as little words as possible, but it also needs to be appropriate. Don't have your ten-year-old character sound like an English professor. Neither should your lovestruck hero sound like a sniveling sap spouting romantic drivel.

If you didn't hear the kid at the grocery store say it, your own husband would never utter the words, or your last cab driver didn't quote Socrates—then don't do it in your writing.

Publishing Update: Last week I filed a "doing business as" under my existing business license as a publisher with the county (state filing will be this week), bought a block of ten ISBN numbers, filled out documentation to get an account with a printer, played around with fonts on a 400 dpi cover image, and began laying out the interior of the book for pricing purposes. In addition, this weekend, I received news that Vampire Vacation won first place in the 2009 Beacon Unpublished division—it's my very first contest win. Yay!!


  1. Awesome, C.J., on the contest!! Now that VV has done so well in two contests and you've started to self publish, the agents and publishers will come out of the woodwork. Murphy's Law, right?

    I can relate to the brain that doesn't turn off. When the everyday life distractions end, my mind naturally wants to write. I've got to get up in the middle of the night and get it on paper or on the computer if I want to finally fall asleep. I even took meditation classes to try to learn to relax and sleep better. All it did was open me up more to channel story ideas and new parts to stories.

  2. Sisters under the skin, eh? You may want to keep a notebook next to the bed with a pencil instead of getting up to go to the computer. Helps to get some of the distractions out without actually leaving the warmth of the covers ;-)

    Thanks for the kind words! V V has actually placed in four out of six contests - one first and three runner ups. The next one I hear on is the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest - Greg, Steve and I will find out if we make the first round of cuts on the 25th. I'm hopeful you're right on the Murphy's Law idea. I'm excited about self-publishing but would never turn down a NY contract or an agent!

  3. Congrats on the contest win!


  4. Thanks! I feel like "Wow, finally!!"

  5. Great post, though I'm not sure you want to relate to "Seinfeld." I mean that show was about nothing and you sound like you have a lot of something going on.

    Anyway, I agree with the snappy comebacks that come back an hour too late. Too bad we couldn't be like Gabe Kotter or the Sweathogs. They always had a sharp retort (and great writers).

    And congrats on the win. You inspire the rest of us. Oh and can you tell Wendy to put a space between the "V's" when referring to "Vampire Vacation" in her blogs? I keep thinking she's referring to a title beginning with "W."

  6. Assuming she reads the comments, let's take it like you just told her ;-) Lots of people abbreviate with the letters when referring to a title. Unfortunately, my title looks weird when you do it like that!

    Thanks for the congrats! I'll be more excited when the book makes some real sales. Time will tell.