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DIALOGUE: THE THREE-BEAT RULE

7 Mar
Image

Amy stroking a Navajo rug at the SW Indian Art Fair

February brought dear visitors who also brought writing questions.  Mariana who’s writing a middle-grade novel, arrived first, and we spent a couple of days dreaming up new jewelry projects at the Tucson Gem Show.  A week later, my daughter Amy came to preach a sermon at the UU church in Sierra Vista.  Of course, she needed to write her sermon, something she’s better at than I am, but on Saturday, we made time for the SW Indian Art Fair on the U of A campus, admiring the rugs, the silver-and-turquoise jewelry, the baskets, and, of course, the frybread.  While enjoying all that Tucson has to offer, Mariana, Amy, and I talked about little things and big — beads, knitting, life and death, plans for the future.  And writing.

Mariana, after reading my last blog post, had reworked her chapter to include more dialogue tags — ones that characterized AND furthered the plot.  Because of her additions, not only could we could see the setting, a most interesting one, but we could also feel the growing tension in her characters.  Adding tags improved the chapter.  But I’m never satisfied and kept wanting more tags, more details of scene, weather, and emotion.  I pointed to line after line.  “What about here?” I asked.  “And here?”

“How do you find a place to insert another tag?”  she asked.  “Are you doing it by ear?”

Partly by ear.  But there’s something easier.  I use the THREE-BEAT RULE.

A few years ago, Cynthia Whitcomb wrote about the “Three-Beat Rule” in her monthly column in “The Willamette Writer Newsletter.”  Her words immensely improved my own dialogue writing.

When we’re talking in real life, we tend to ramble.  Sometimes, we even lapse into rants or lectures.  Just because it happens in real life doesn’t mean we have to repeat these habits in our writing.  No reader wants to be lectured or bored by a character — even if that character is innately boring.  (We can use summarized speech to show boring characters.  He talked on and on about the fiscal cliff is a good example of summarized dialogue.  We know he’s boring; we don’t need to make the reader plod through every sentence.)

What is the three-beat rule?

Give your character three beats of dialogue.  Then, figure out how to interrupt the flow of words.

A beat is a sentence or a phrase.  Consider this passage:  Mother’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in here.  I’ve called you too many times.  You never listen to me.  I’m not telling you again.  I come out here one more time, you’re grounded the rest of the week.”

The real mom probably was frustrated enough to rant like this.  But for better writing, let’s prune these five beats to three.  Remove two of the five sentences — any two.  Something wonderful happens:  What is left packs more wallop, and the mother’s frustration is still clear.

The other thing we can do is interrupt the speech with a tag.  In the above passage, Mom’s repeating herself.  But what if every sentence she says is important.  Count to three and insert a tag.  Count another three beats and insert another tag.  Let’s try it:

Mom’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in the house.  You got homework.  You got chores.”  Under the dim light they saw her lean hard against the porch railing.  Her voice came softer now.    “I can’t do it all.”

Notice how the final sentence takes on importance.  It’s standing alone.  It’s spoken in a different tone of voice and with different body language.  It makes us sympathize with this shrill mother.

Mariana took a look at the novel she was reading.  “This author is doing it,” she said.  “The three beats.”  She hadn’t noticed this technique before and that’s good.  The three-beat rule does great writing work, but it isn’t obvious.  That’s good writing craft — something that does the job and doesn’t call attention to itself.

To do at home:  Take a look at the dialogue in your own story.  Apply the three-beat rule. Prune away the unnecessary words.   Add interruptions in the form of another person speaking, or as a tag.  (Go ahead and add an explosion if it fits!)  Whatever you add should be important to the story, just as the mother showing her fatigue is important.  Remember that any old detail won’t work; make your details significant, concrete, sensory,  — important.

On the health front, chemo sessions continue as the cancer marker goes down.  Jerry and I are planning a trip to Grand Canyon in early April, where I intend to gape at the views from the South Rim.  He, being himself, intends to go down to the canyon floor and back up in one day.

Yes, he can!  He’s been climbing to Romero Pools almost every day since we got to Arizona.  Fit, he is.

RETIRED TEACHERS RISE AGAIN!  We are so excited!

Look ahead to workshops in character, dialogue, plot and first pages taught by Linda Elin Hamner and me in mid-June.  Linda and I have been gleefully planning these since last summer.  Please circle June 15 and 22 on your calendars.  At Imagine Cafe in Corvallis.  More details will come.

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TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL

3 Sep

Too soon to sit on

Is everyone’s life like mine?  Full of half-finished projects?  This chair was in my childhood home.  When the seat fell apart and had to be ripped out,  I ordered a kit of directions and new cane and started in.  That was July.  It’s slow going.  No sitting on that chair for a while!  

And then there’s the necklace I’m beading for my daughter’s October wedding.  After I make three more leaves, it will be pretty, won’t it?  Ah yes.  All good things take time. 

Also not done: Last Monday, I printed out submission guidelines for five literary journals that accept  memoir.  However, according to my critique readers, the essay about artichokes and getting to the heart of things isn’t ready to send.  Years of writing on that essay, and it’s getting close.  But it’s not quite done.

On Wednesday, my latest book, Second-Chance Summer, was rejected by Albert Whitman.  My very nice editor says she STRONGLY objects to this decision  (Thank you, Wendy, for saying that.) because this is the very book the editors asked me to revise for them in February and I mailed to them in April.  It was to have been the fourth in the Katie Jordan series.  No chance another publisher will be interested, so do I drop it into the drawer with other books in progress?  Wendy suggests I rewrite it with a different protagonist.  Do I want to do that?   Whatever I decide, the book is not yet done.

Well first, I need time to grieve about this.  I love that book.  Kids have asked for more Katie books, and this one, in my opinion, is the best of the four.  Deeper, more developed, more important! than the first three.  I’m biased, heh, heh, but I’m right!

On the other hand, I no longer believe what I learned in Girl Scouts –  that we must always finish what we begin.   I’m now capable of starting to read a book and slamming it closed after fifty pages because it doesn’t hold my interest.   I’ve begun quilting or stitching embroidery projects that for some reason I lost passion for and then gave away — unfinished.  Living with cancer, knowing that my life may not go on forever (true for everyone, but ominously true for those of us who have cancer), I’ve lost patience with that old rule of finishing everything I begin.  “Off with their heads,” the Red Queen shouted when something annoyed her.  Forgive me.  I seem to be turning into a red queen.  

Do I decapitate Second-Chance Summer?

I grieved for my novel through the week, but now that it’s Monday, a new plan is creeping into my brain.   THIS book is surely the perfect candidate for self-publishing.   I don’t yet know how to do that – to create an e-book or one that is Print-on-Demand.  It’s time to learn.  Linda and Liz recommend Amazon’s Create Space, and the Kindle e-book.  The cover will be important, so I’ll contact the illustrator who drew the sweet covers for the three paperbacks.  Will she say yes?  Can I afford her?  Hope so.  

So I’ve decided.  Second-Chance Summer gets its own second chance.  And once it’s published, I’m hoping the other three books will carry the news of it to readers.  

The chair seat, however, may be in danger.  My arthritic fingers are finding that those canes resist more as they tighten and as I move to the later stages of weaving them.   Besides, unlike the essay and the novel, I didn’t build the chair from scratch; it didn’t grow from the tiniest idea into thousands of words, thousands of ideas that needed to be crushed and blended, molded and shaped into coherence.  

Still unwearable

September is the deadline for another unfinished project – this little vest that needs seams and ribbed edges with buttons and buttonholes before the child can wear it.  October 6 is the deadline for the wedding necklace.  As I bead and knit, I’ll puzzle over how to take my essay and my book to the next levels.

Any words of wisdom about self-publishing? 

Are you out there?  I’m listening. 

WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE!

27 Jun

Signing books at the Florence (OR) Festival of Books, September, 2011.

July 14, 2012

My blog aims to help YOU get excited about writing prose — fiction or memoir.  I plan to set writing deadlines while sharing tips.  I’ll also present an ever-growing list of writing prompts, just in case you’re feeling blocked.   I’ll answer all the questions I can.   You’ll also find links to the sites that I like — ones that will help in your writing journey.

My other blogging  goal is for me.  I want keep feeling the teaching energy that has filled me up for more than 25 years.  As I write, I’ll imagine myself talking to you (trying my darndest to SEE and HEAR all of you).

A blog won’t have the classroom or the tables we sat around but your faces will live in my imagination.  Since my teaching  style has always been a matter of give and take, I’m counting on interacting WITH you, much as we did in my classes.  The more you speak up, the more fun we’ll have. 

Check my website for more info about me.

The strip photo shows me reading to kids at the OSU Bookstore when Tails of Spring Break was published in hardback.  In the lower one I’m signing books at the Florence (OR) Festival of Books, 2011.  This year’s festival will be on September 29, and I’ll be there.  A good month for Turkey Monster Thanksgiving.  A good time to meet my middle-grade readers.