A Day In The Life Of A Writer: Jane Eastwood

My biggest issues with my writing are DISCIPLINE and CONFUSION! 

I have so many ideas/projects swimming about it my head that I tend to let them do just that – “swim” and postpone “I will do it tomorrow”.

This is a BIG mistake on my part.  I write better first thing in the morning. That’s okay you might say but if I go to my solitary confinement room (which is essential to me, I can’t cope with interruptions OF ANY KIND when writing) at that time I end up being there sometimes all day long and nothing else gets done.

Consequently – I have an additional“guilt” factor running around in my mind too.

I think “Must get the hovering/washing/ironing” done BEFORE I write which is FATAL as by the time I have done all the menial tasks I am way beyond wanting to write anything at all.

During household chores I try to simplify the confusion of “where to start” and “categorise” these projects – I want to write a book about my disability which is profound deafness. I am also currently “blogging”.  My youngest son will be forty soon, I have had a family tree made so imminently the PRIORITY is that I MUST write an accompanying history of the family to complete the birthday gift.

I tend to work much better with this kind of “deadline” which comes back to “discipline.”  I know I will discipline myself to complete that project because in my mind I “have to do it”.  I get lazy about the blog and don’t keep up with it regularly enough so when I update that it tends to be an all day project.  That leaves little time for my book on disability.

I benefitted so much from working with Bridget on courses exactly because there were deadlines to fulfil.

I need to make rules and I need to adhere to them for example, I could set aside certain days of the week for writing.

That said I find “spontaneity” is an essential tool for my writing so once again I am confronted with another dilemma, discipline and rules versus spontaneity.  Tricky.

The strangest phenomenon of all is totally inexplicable to me. Writing is the EASIEST PART! When I write it just “flows” and all gets poured on to the page with ease.  Getting my head around all these other challenges is what “blocks” me. 

A Storyteller's Process: Vanessa Horn

With ‘Tints and Tinges’, I wanted to explore the theme of communication without words;

if someone was let down badly by the spoken exchange, was it possible that they might look to another form of perception as an alternative? In the case of the protagonist, she substitute words for colours. However, she eventually trusts these to such an extent that they begin to dominate the way she feels and thinks, eventually leading her to rely purely on them and refusing to speak.  

I like to write at my desk in the music room, as it is at the front of the house, enabling me to ‘people watch’. However, this summer I am having a log cabin built in my garden and I am expecting this to become my new writing sanctuary, where I will hopefully be visited by the hedgehogs and foxes which frequent the area.     

Vanessa Horn,  one of the three runners-up in the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2016, with 'Tints and Tinges'. This is her winning story:

Tints and Tinges

I was about eight years old when I realised that words couldn’t be trusted. It was first thing on a bright June morning when my mother, limited in pleasantries and cavalier in manner, announced, “Your father has moved out.” The language itself was simple – comprehensive - but the sensations I received from her were not. No, these took the form of colour: pulsating, vibrant shades of red which were as blistering as the centre of our hearth fire, flames licking at log-edges, waiting to erupt and scald any innocent passer-by. Communicative. Dramatic. It was then that I recognised it was colour which expressed the truth. Not words.

With colour, there was just enough shade-range to gauge every nuance and sensation that you needed. No more, no less. Example: next doors terrier, Lucy. The russet brown which shone from her told me she was ready to play. And from Smokey-Smudge, my lop-eared rabbit; when I sensed his delicate shade of blue, I knew that he was hungry or lonely. Animals were easy. My peers, too, really, once they’d established I wasn’t going to interrupt or argue with them anymore. Their fickle flashes of sense-colours allowed me to quickly assess their moods, their auras. Inevitably, I became more popular, the girl who complied. Albeit silently.

Of course, the adults made the most fuss about my elective mutism. My teachers correctly – but perhaps not for the reasons they perceived - blamed my silence on the abrupt departure of my father. Immediately, they went all out, hauling in the Ed Psych and every other official they could lay their hands on, to ‘cure’ me. Considering how many times I’d previously been reprimanded for chatting, you’d think they’d have appreciated the sudden silence. Encouraged it, even. But no, they had to investigate. To attempt a resolution. Looking back, I suppose, in a strange sort of way, I appreciated this intense attention, quite enjoying my mysterious status.

Being wordless had other advantages too. At home each day, when Mother had finally exhausted her freshly-found cleaning regime, we got used to sitting together companionably, watching TV (me: pale blue) and staring into the fire (Mother: a simmering brown). Now that I wasn’t talking, she didn’t seem to feel the need – as previously - to talk at me, either. We seemed to have a new understanding. It was undemanding. Peaceful. Did that mean my father had been the instigator of all previous arguments and rows? Well, probably not; looking back, it was probably the combination of the two of them – mismatched personalities, most likely. Maybe I had my part to play as well. Who knew? But, regardless, I valued the new serenity, all the same. 

Communicating wasn’t a problem. Not while I used my colour palette. I thought in colours, dreamt in colours. Expressed myself by using colours, not just in my painting (although I did actually do this on a daily basis) but in my head as well. It was a new life. One which worked for me: it didn’t let me down.

Until one day, some months later. Again, it was in the morning, but this time I had already left the house and was ambling my way to school. A little less popular by this stage – after all, I had been mute for over a term now, and the novelty of a silent me had definitely worn off – I was by myself, dawdling, daydreaming. At some point, I noticed the small tabby cat wandering along the pavement. Instantly, I could sense the colours around him, just like when I’d first starting experiencing colours. Shades of red. Danger. Menace. I didn’t recognise exactly why at first; it wasn’t until he neared the edge of the pavement that I realised he was going to cross the road. The heavily traffic-laden road.

I opened my mouth to yell a warning. But my unpractised vocal chords retaliated after so many days of silence, emitting nothing more than squeaking. A pathetic and diluted grey – no use to anyone. Not least a traffic-oblivious cat. My heart pumping even faster now – I had to warn the animal - I tried again. With much more energy. And accompanied by a deep, rich black: anxiety and desperation. This time, although not quite a shout, my voice was louder – “Stop!” This time the cat heard me. Looked around. Then, with a swish of his tail, darted back the way he had come, towards the hedges and away from the traffic. From danger. He was safe. My legs suddenly wobbly, I sank onto the ground by my satchel, watching the animal slink into the distance, oblivious to the hazard he’d so nearly faced.    

After that, I got it. Well, more than I had previously, anyway; most importantly, I understood that I couldn’t change the way things were, and certainly not then, when I was only a child. That my self-enforced silence made no real difference to anyone, least of all me. Seems obvious now, I know. But I didn’t realise then that the world didn’t revolve around me. That what is said isn’t always what’s meant. Why would I?

After I’d used my voice again, there didn’t seem to be any point in continuing to be mute. It may have been due to the cat or perhaps it was just that I had come to terms with my loss; even though I didn’t know at that point that my father had actually left us to live with another woman, maybe I’d realised that lies – black or white – can be how people get through life. So I began to speak again. Initially so softly that only the closest in proximity could hear me. Understand me. But it was a start, I suppose. A re-emerging into humanity. However, even after I’d started talking again, I never did entirely trust words. I still don’t. I continue to rely predominantly on colours for my understanding and intuition. After all, they tell the truth. Always. 

 

From the archive: Wild In The City (Part 1)

I live in rural Southern France, on a mountain. Yesterday I got on a train going to Paris, heading into a throng of 2 million people.

My work is based around the natural environment. It’s about exploring the ‘wilds’ out there, in order to understand how to bring that quality into our words, to find freedom in writing. I’m interested in those parts of ourselves- the spontaneous, intuitive, instinctual- that we’re afraid of. Our fear is such, that instead of acknowledging these aspects within ourselves, we project them outwards, saying they’re out there ‘in the wilds’ , in the ‘wild animals’.

On my mountain it’s clear where ‘wild’ resides. In the badger, the deer, the wild boar. But where those disowned aspects go when we live in, or visit a city? Where do we see ‘wild’? I’ve been feeling excited by the challenge of tracking it down.

So, this morning I went walking beside the Seine in central Paris, that mission on my mind.  I was swept along the pavement by a river of people. The noise of feet and cars swirled in my ears. I found places where the city had replicated the wild. There were garden shops with fountains shaped like elephants.

When it hadn’t replicated wild, the city had tried to tame it, contain it, to take a moment of its beauty and fix it in time. There were posters of big cats, and plants in pots. But best of all, on sale for 90 euros in Centre Pompidou, I found green grass, neat as a lawn, growing in a frame, a living picture.

This was all fascinating, but I wasn’t seeking castrated nature. No, what I wanted to find was the places where wild was living free in the city. Then I wanted to see how people responded to it. The search continued…

First Published November 30th 2012

We're Going On A Bear Hunt

I’ve been buying Christmas presents. In trawling the online bookshops for children’s books that my nephew and niece don’t already have, I came across one that I am already familiar with.

You can find it on the edge of the clearing in the forest where I hold the Wild Words workshop days here in France. It sits, alongside much heavier adult-oriented texts on psychology and writing, on the improvised outdoor bookshelf that is constructed from the thoughtfully angled branches of the grandest oak tree around. The book is ‘We’re Going On a Bear Hunt’, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. It’s a skilfully crafted story. As you read, the words fall like the rhythmic footsteps you make as you walk alongside the fictional family, in their quest to locate the bear.

“We’re going on a bear hunt.  We’re going to catch a big one.  What a beautiful day!  We’re not scared”. 

That optimistic tone is often what I hear from workshop participants at the start of a Wild Words day, often accompanied by a little nervousness.

In the book, as we journey deeper, and the explorers draw closer to the bear cave, the obstacles are increasingly foreboding, and frightening.

“Uh-oh! … a snowstorm, a swirling, whirling, snowstorm. We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  Oh, no!  We’ve got to go through it!”. 

In our search for the Wild Words, as in any hunt for a wild animal, it’s true that unconsciously we’d do anything rather than come face to face with the void that is freedom of expression.

But, in the end, if we want to find flow in our writing, there’s nothing for it but to look those Wild Words in the face.

‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ is inspiring in this respect. This is especially true if, rather than head straight for the book, you watch Michael Rosen perform his own story.

The humour, the rhythm, the life of it. It’s a joy.

The Weekly Prompt

Imagine that your quest to free up your writing, or to be a better writer, is a physical journey in the real world. Write the story of this journey, in prose or poetry. What is the landscape like? What are the obstacles in your path? What do the Wild Words look like when you find them?

If you’d like to send me what you come up with, I’d be delighted to read it.

This article was first published on December 16th 2013

A Storyteller's Process: Karen Lethlean

Organic came about as a result of my avid habit of walking trails in the Royal National Park near my home in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney.

I also belong to a running group infamous in the area – Billies Bushies, who run these trails, as well as getting out on a Mountain bike.

Being aware of the problems to do with invasive and feral species also assisted in writing Organic. I wanted to deal with the universal struggle of Man versus Nature from a different aspect.  Back in 1980s I also spent an extended period tramping, bike touring, back-packing and working as picker in New Zealand, which is were I imagine these events unfolded.

Somewhere in my reading I am sure I encountered a snipped that informed the story Organic, perhaps it was the actual detail that the feral cat scratched the human victim, or purred as it ate. I loved this image, and it stayed with me so much that I had to build more into the exchange.

Organic has been worked on, edited through several processes and a few sets of eyes, which helped the end product.  One of the most significant points given to me was to think about the quality of noises the protagonist encountered, and also to be very specific on elements of his trip into the mountains.

Having a word limit from Wild Words meant that I had to re-think the necessity of some sections, always a good process.

Not that I destroyed the longer version, you never know when there will be other opportunities.

I would advise all writers not to take editing input on their stories personally, try to avoid letting someone’s comments hurt, even though they might be meant to be helpful. Ultimately comments from others are only one person’s opinion. Someone thought the title was too ambiguous! In the case of Organic I was also told that in the closing scene the boat on the harbour should be more important than the wake in the water, but I disagree – ultimately I wanted nature to be more powerful than the things mankind has build and placed into the natural world.

Someone once said to me, “Listen to everyone, and then take from all this advice only what you need…” 

Karen was a runner up in the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2017. This is her winning story...

Organic

Five burley fishermen lugging rods and a huge esky came into view. They smiled and waved, ‘You right mate?’ 

‘Perfectly fine,’ Garry answered.

‘Severe weather warning, bro. Came over the radio.’

Garry shook his head, refused to believe. ‘Thanks. But I only just got here.’

Younger members of the group had gone on, carrying the esky between them slipping, sliding and laughing, so the harbinger of doom bade farewell and went too, unhurried.

Harbinger. Hard bringer. Harp binger. Where had that word come from? If Garry had his phone he could find out. It was odd, not being able to sate his curiosity immediately. But he felt healthy, disciplined; like refusing a beer.  

It was less windy up here than on the beach. Yet the trail was littered with broken saplings and crushed scrubs where the fishermen had skidded with the esky’s weight. Even Garry slipped, came down hard on one knee. Onward, Garry told himself. Despite the throbbing and bleeding. First-aid kit; should have packed one.

Garry turned at the first fork the track offered and went along for half an hour or so. His knee pinging and back straining with the weight of his bag. The track narrowed and dropped again into a small clearing. Perfect. Even a stream and blackened fire spot

His shelter was less complicated than the tents he’d erected on surf beaches with his stepfather. An action accompanied caustic comments, while sand stung Garry’s face. All that effort for something that would be dismounted mere moments later.

There were enough twigs lying about for a small fire. Garry sat on the ground, pulled the joint from his pocket and took a deep drag. And another, until he felt the warmth seep into his brain. Night was falling and so was the rain. Heavy drops plunking on leaves. Base tones pattered on the clearing floor. On the humus. Hummus. Humans. Hubris

Garry stood, stiff legged. He felt his head spin as if he was going to topple forward.

Just him and his thoughts. His chance to do what he’d come here to do. Think about his relationship. Deprive himself of company, see what was addictive, habitual, and what wasn’t. Fifty ways to leave your lover…Recognizing those words Garry was filled with joy and regret.

Then he realised he was stoned.

A nearby bird called out mournfully, a single downward cry, as if it too resented the rain. Inside the tent, spread out his sleeping bag on the bumpy groundsheet and lay down. Almost immediately, as if it had suffered sudden death, the bird stopped mid cry. There was a scuffle in the leaf mould outside; a low growl, and the tent wall bulged suddenly against his head – solid, animal, alive – and then gone again. He was up and out of his tent and into the clearing, working his cigarette lighter to a flame. The flash showed him two reflective eyes the size of golf balls and a dark, muscled shape hunched over a feathered mess.

A fucking huge wild cat. A super cat. He’d read about them. How feral cats were evolving after nearly two hundred years of going wild in the bush.

The flame died the same instant that Garry realised his finger was burnt.  He waited for his senses to adjust. The cat’s eyes reflected dully. The beast moved. And vanished. Into the tent. He was sure that had been fur against the opening.

Packaging was being ripped open, like Christmas morning. The salami? The cat was quieter now. Difficult to hear over wind and rain. Then Garry could hear another sound. A low rumble, which took a moment to identify as purring. Monster hadn’t purred when it ate the bird.

‘Puss, puss!’ he called like his mother summoning the family moggie. ‘Here pussy, puss.’ Falsetto.

Ridiculous. ‘Be a man!’ Penny would have said.

‘Right.’ Garry said to the listening forest. ‘I’m coming in.’

The cigarette lighter gave one last wavering flame, enough to see the way to his bed and observe a damp-furred scavenger hunched in a corner. Garry climbed into his sleeping bag and spent the night in a wet tent alone except for an apex predator that permeated a sharp, gut-wrenching stink. No neat scratching in a tray for this beast.

In the morning, when he woke, the cat was curled up against him, the tent floor a wasteland of greasy paper and plastic wrappings. The cat woke too and for one long moment met Garry’s sleepy gaze. With no warning, the animal extended a long hairy paw and scratched a deep incision into Garry’s brow and cheek, narrowly missing his eye. Then it was gone, a swift tumbling backwards movement which leapt through the tent flaps. He heard drumming paws, then shifting and refolding of enclosing bush.

At the bus stop Garry endured curious stares from locals. His foul smelling tent had refused to pack neatly. Gagging from the stink and half blind with pain he’d stuffed the bloody thing as best he could, but still had to carry the segmented rods loose in one hand.

After the night’s rain, parts of the track had been washed away. Garry had fallen, slipped, skidded, scraped his arms, and knocked his head on a low branch. His clothes were thick with mud, drying now but still likely to besmirch the seats of the bus when it finally arrived.

‘Rough night, mate?’ was all the driver said as he took the fare.

They wound up over the hills until the city spread below. The distant harbour had a sheen. Grey moody skies with the sea crossed by white wakes of boats and ferries.

Deep contentment welled, satisfaction as unheralded as the sudden claw of the cat. He’d confronted the wilderness, he’d not taken his phone.

Ahead Garry saw a future with his arm around Penny’s tattooed shoulder. He would not abandon her like his father had done.

 

Point of View

Wild words are tense and dramatic. This tension is partly constructed by the storyteller’s choices around point-of-view. 

Wild words only reveal as much information as the listener or reader needs to get to the next step of the story. They play with the gap between the narrator’s/ character’s understanding and the reader’s understanding. They dangle the mysteries in front of the receiver like a carrot. Sometimes third person point-of-view is used, sometimes first person, and less frequently, second person. Whatever point-of-view the story is seen from, it is consistent through the narrative, a rhythm is set up for the listener or reader. When point of view changes unexpectedly, it is for specific dramatic effect, or to move the reader in a specific way. Wild words are courageous. They strive to enable the reader to feel deeply the experience of the characters.

Below is an example of effective use of point-of-view. Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ is told from the point-of-view of the central character, an amateur hunter in Africa in the 1930’s. That is, until the showdown with his prey, the lion. At that point, we see through the lion’s eyes.

Macomber stepped out of the curved opening at the side of the front seat, onto the step and down onto the ground. The lion still stood looking majestically and coolly toward this object that his eyes only showed in silhouette, bulking like some super-rhino. There was no man smell carried toward him and he watched the object, moving his great head a little from side to side. Then watching the object, not afraid, but hesitating before going down the bank to drink with such a thing opposite him, he saw a man figure detach itself from it and he turned his heavy head and swung away toward the cover of the trees as he heard a cracking crash and felt the slam of a 30-06 220-grain solid bullet that bit his flank and ripped in sudden hot scalding nausea through his stomach. He trotted, heavy, big-footed, swinging wounded full-bellied, through the trees toward the tall grass and cover, and the crash came again to go past him ripping the air apart. Then it crashed again and he felt the blow as it hit his lower ribs and ripped on through, blood sudden hot and frothy in his mouth, and he galloped toward the high grass where he could crouch and not be seen and make them bring the crashing thing close enough so he could make a rush and get the man that held it.
Hemingway makes a brave decision here, and it works. He’s a wild writer, not just because of his subject matter, but because of his ability to touch into the evolving nature of his story, and to be brave in his choices around where to tell the story from. To risk.

Tracking The Wild Words

Point-of-view in storytelling and writing is the position that we, as the speaker or author, choose to tell the story from.

Most books these days are written by a narrator that sees inside one character’s head only, and reports other characters’ behaviour. This is limited third person point-of-view.  You can also choose to write as an omniscient third-person narrator, one who has God-like powers to move at will, and see the activities as well as inner lives of every character. In dramatic third-person narration, only external events are described. The narrator never comments on the characters thoughts. The final type of third-person narrator is the ‘unreliable’ narrator. This character makes mistakes or misinterpretations. Once the reader realises they have ben fooled into believing incorrect versions of events, they often also considers the character foolish. Nelly, in Wuthering Heights is a classic example. It’s a useful technique to employ in detective stories.

The major alternative to third person narration is to use first person narration, where the voice of narration is one of the characters, and they speak as ‘I’.

You might also consider using second person point-of-view, where the protagonist of other main character is referred to as ‘you’. This is more frequently used in non-fiction than in fiction, but can be a useful stylistic device in all genres.

The wild storyteller always considers how the choice of point-of-view will be received by the listener or reader. In general, a first person narrative will feel more intimate than a third person narrative. However, in first person narration the reader does not have as much perspective on events, and as a writer it can feel limiting. A good part of the tension in stories comes from how and when we hide and reveal information. We only want to reveal as much information as the reader needs to get to the next step of the story. Choices around the revealing of information will determine our choices of point of view, and vice versa.

When the lead character knows more than the reader, the reader will admire their cleverness (think of Sherlock Holmes). But if the balance is tipped too far that way, the reader can end up feeling humiliated. Conversely, when the reader knows more than the lead character, they feel clever. However, if the balance is tipped too far in that direction the reader can end up despising the lead character for their stupidity. We’re playing with fine lines here.

When you tell stories on the page, or in conversation, it may be helpful to bear the following questions in mind:

-Which channels of information will the narrator use to convey the story to the listener or reader?

 This might include:

-The speaker/author’s words, thoughts, perceptions, feelings

 -The characters’ words and actions

 -The characters’ thoughts, perceptions and feelings?

-How close, or distant from the action, will the narrator be?

- How close or distant from the story do you want the listener or reader to feel?

When we tell a story from a certain point of view, we need to drop down into the physical experience of how it is to live in the body of that character. It’s here that we draw on our embodied experience as writers-in-the-wild. For example, if you write from the perspective of a five-year old child, use the language they would use. How would that child speak? How would they see the world? Probably their vocabulary is limited. When you’re five years old and three foot high, you mostly have a view of feet, legs, and dangling hands. At that time in a person’s life immediate experience predominates over thinking and reasoning capacities. Smells, sounds, tastes, and how things feel when you touch them will feature strongly in your narrative.  Equally if a wild storyteller speaks in the voice of an eagle, she climbs the mountain and observes the world from that place. She researches in order to understand a point-of-view that she is not familiar with. The wild writer is not afraid to become another, to experience another’s perspective, their emotional, and psychological worlds.

The Fears

Think of a captive tiger. He has no choice of point-of-view. There is barely room to turn around in his change. Neither does he have the physical space to vary the distance he has from real, and/or imagined threats. This leaves him exposed, and frightened. He feels he is always visible and vulnerable to attack. In his fear he either cowers rigid in the corner of the cage, or paces relentlessly and without purpose. As caged storytellers and writers, we are not much different.

It’s frightening to take another point-of-view, to put ourselves inside another body and mind. When we do this we have to experience what they experience, feel how they feel, think how they think. That makes us vulnerable.  We fear making a mistake and our story being ridiculed. To deal with the fear we often firstly absolve ourselves from responsibility for our storytelling process and decide to follow the advice of a writing tutor, or other expert, or a book on technique. We also often do one of the following things:

-We stick rigidly with the same point of view, regardless of whether it’s appropriate at that moment in our story or not. In doing this we close down to tunnel vision. We cling to the security seemingly (but falsely) offered by the single view.

-The other strategy to avoid the fear is to flip randomly between many points-of-view, without being clear why we are doing it.  

Fear On The Page

Below is an example of inconsistent point-of-view. It’s a student’s poem about being on holiday, where romance, good food and sun come together and make her feel utterly complete. It includes a section about the sunflowers in the field raising their heads in the morning, and following the movement of the sun. It’s a long poem, so I won’t put it all down here, but here are three key lines:

‘I raised my head to the light.’
‘The sun looked down benevolently on the audience of open faces below.’
‘The mouse moved with the shifting shadow, staying cool under his parasol.’

There are three points-of-view here. They are those of the sunflower, the sun, and the mouse. By changing point-of-view three times in twenty-five lines, the reader ends up completely disorientated. Similar to a camera that keeps whizzing from one point of view to another, the viewer becomes dizzy with the movement. Here, the writer couldn’t stay with the strength of the emotions surrounding the memories of the time described. Thus, she changes point-of-view, to avoid overwhelming feelings.

The caged storyteller’s fear of entering wholeheartedly into the point of view of another, and of playing with different points of view to find the most effective, negatively impacts the storytelling. Information is revealed weakly. The listener or reader misses key dramatic moments. They never touch the emotional heart of the story. It’s often when we hesitate as we take another point-of-view, that it doesn’t sound credible and believable. If we throw ourselves wholeheartedly in, it usually works. Our choices around point-of-view, must be fuelled by creative inspiration, not by fear.

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Writing Resolutions

What if, when I wrote, I was to infuse the sheet of paper with the star freckled galaxy? What if I poured the seas into my pen? And made every mark on the page, the scratch of a lion’s claw?

What if, in the capital letter, was the howling of wolves? In the underline the mole tunnelling? In the flow of words the swimming of dolphins? In the comma the river whirling round rocks? In the speech marks the tweeting of birds? In the full stop the grunt of a boar?

And in the turning of the page the wind hurtling through mountains?

What if, in the exclamation mark, was the cormorant diving? In the brackets the eagle ruffled his plumage? In the question mark the hare was up on his back legs, sniffing? And in the blot I make because I write with my left hand, I found the walrus sunning himself on a rock?

Today, with my first A I will make an assault on Everest. With my last Z I will skate on frozen Lake Superior and between them I will dive deep in the vast oceans with the spirit of a pioneer, I will traverse the globe.

First published November 22nd 2012

The Way People Speak

The way people speak. Even if your words are passing directly from your internal world on to the page, you'll still have heard them in your head first.

Even if your reader never speaks them out loud, they too will be hearing them in their heads. We never get away from the live word. Thank goodness. 

And when we do speak out loud?

It all starts with a feeling in the body. As Darwin first noted, and has been evidenced consistently since (e.g. Ekman, 1980; Carlson, 1994), the facial expression we make as the result of any basic emotion, is innate and universal. The sounds we make are partly determined by the movement of muscles making up that facial expression, and therefore by the emotion felt. Therefore, they too are innate and universal. 

In humans, Tartter ( 1980) showed that vocalizations made whilst smiling were of a higher mean frequency than those made with neutral expression due to the effect of smiling on altering the shape of the upper vocal tract; smiling increases second formant frequency. Tartter and Braun also showed that vocalizations made whilst frowning had lower formant frequency and longer vowel duration than speech with a neutral expression; listeners were able to discriminate speech made whilst frowning, smiling, and with neutral expression from each other with no visual input. Furthermore, they were able to do so in both vocalized and whispered speech, suggesting that the same effects of facial expression on elements of affect of vocalization would be applicable to vocalizations.

Understanding that basic, embodied functioning, which unconsciously informs our storytelling, must come first. Secondly we can work with the nitty-gritty of how people speak, and what they say. 

What should come out of your characters' mouths?

Here are some guidelines that will help you to write skilful dialogue and direct speech (that’s the stuff in speech marks):

1. Good dialogue gives an illusion of reality rather than being a copy of how we actually speak.

Two examples of this are:

-Less is more.

In ‘real life’ people chat and gossip. Avoid this in your story. Get to the point (in your round-the-houses way). Don’t put in anything that’s not relevant to the central plot. Keep it moving and you’ll keep the listener or reader engaged.

-Avoid accents, slang and dialects.

Your story needs to be easy to read and listen to. By all means set the story wherever is appropriate, but instead of trying to be ‘real’ and use dialect/slang throughout, just put it in a few places to convey the sense of it, whilst keeping it easy to read. If you send the story out to an agent or publisher you can put a note in to explain the dialect/accent/slang. If your story ever becomes an oral story, radio play, stage play, or film the film is shot, the performers will put it back throughout!

2. People only speak to get what they want.

 A good starting point for a piece of dialogue is to think, ‘what is my character trying to get here…?’ It should tie in nicely with the goal for each step of the hero’s journey.

3. (Yet) people rarely ask directly for what they want.

This would risk rejection and be too scary. So, they (and by ‘they’ I of course mean ‘we’) go round the houses. Say you are writing about a middle-aged couple who are full of frustration about many long unresolved issues. Every night they sit down to dinner. The issues have become TOO BIG to address. So, have them argue about the amount of salt in the food, or the fact the butter was left out and has melted away… You can convey their relationship without ever directly mentioning the relationship. This is more subtle and more skilful.

4. In conversation people do not listen to each other much, nor do they answer each other much, nor do they wait until the other person has stopped speaking before starting to give their opinion (!)

5. Dialogue needs tension.

No ‘yes men’ please. Have people disagree with each other, (it doesn’t need to be all out war every time though!)

6. Avoid back-story.

It’s commonly thought that you need to set up the history of your lead character. In general, you don’t. As we’ve discussed, the reader or listener only really care about the hero achieving her goal. You may include a little information about the hero’s past to a) make the story make sense, or, b) help us to understand his emotional landscape, but, you need less than you think you do. So, alarm bells should be going off if you write things like… ‘I remember…’or, ‘when I was young…’. Be tough with yourself. Ask, ‘do I really need this?’

7. Avoid fads and trends.

If you’re specifically setting your story in the 1960’s, that’s fine. The language should reflect that. However, if your script is set now, avoid using words in common usage now that will change. It is quite possible that three years down the line your book will still be doing the rounds of publishers, and if it looks dated it won’t get past the front door.

8. Improve dialogue by doing a read through.

Even if, and especially if, your story is written to be read rather than performed, get a few friends together to read your story aloud. Don’t take part yourself, just listen. Record the read through so you can re-play it and work on the dialogue. As soon as someone says your lines aloud, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t.

9. If you are ever stuck for what your character should say next, think, ‘What is the most obvious thing they could say now?’ Then, take this line and turn it upside down, have them state the opposite.

10. Every group of people has a language of their own.

For example, mechanics use technical words related to their job. We see the world through the metaphor of our work. Do your research, learn the language.

11. And a final word about how to lay out dialogue. Direct speech always used to appear in speech marks. Nowadays, there are many writers doing it differently. Some are using italics. As long as the listener or reader appreciates that it is direct speech, and knows who is speaking, anything goes. In terms of layout, as a general rule, begin a new line and a new paragraph for each new speaker. 

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The photograph this month is of the very talented Beryl The Feral.