Now just bear with me on this . . .

Hi everyone,

In the past few days I’ve given myself a good talking to about bragging too much, and I took wise advice from trusted friends, including suggestions about my propensity to talk about turtles and spiders and such. I think all this helped me quite a bit, more or less.

But here’s the thing about spiders. Let’s say that spiders make you shiver with disgust and you want to smash every one you see with your foot. That’s fair, except to the spider of course. I understand. BUT. Let’s say further that you also are a writer. And one day, no matter how much you despise it, you find yourself having to write something that has a spider in it. Now you’re in a fix. The only spiders you’ve ever studied were attached to the bottom of your shoe, and they weren’t really giving you their best face.

Let’s imagine that E. B. White felt the same as you about spiders. What a fix he would have been in when his pig picked out a spider to be his best friend. But he didn’t cower and utter rude remarks about his pig’s poor judgment and deplorable taste in friends. He did not change the story and insist that Wilbur choose a butterfly or a June bug or a chipmunk as his pal, confidant, and role model. NO! He soldiered on and wrote quite charmingly about a spider named Charlotte. “First,” she said to her little pig pal, explaining how to properly dispatch a fly that had just blundered into her web, “I dive at him . . . Next I wrap him up . . .and knock him out so he’ll be more comfortable.” She then proceeds to wrap the fly in silk and set it aside for her breakfast. “I am not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs,” Charlotte clarifies, “but it’s the way I’m made. A spider has to pick up a living somehow or other.”

You think White made up the life of a spider or read descriptions in a book, or did he really look at spiders and observe them going about their stealthy, deadly business of eating flies and, sometimes, one another? Me? I think he knows too much to have Googled it. He tells it too well to have imagined it. I think E. B. White was an observer who wrote about what he saw and came to understand the world around him.

So back to me and my blog and these spiders I keep watching. Last week we had two new ones move in about ten feet apart. One, a filmy dome spider (that’s its name I swear) showed up at the upper corner of the window that separates our dining and living rooms. It hung out for a couple of days checking out the place for a potential corner office.
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The other, a large funnel web spider, took up residence outside the kitchen window between the glass and the frame. My first clue was a small leaf that blew into an otherwise hard to see web. 20160902_203542_resized
Before long, a bee hung suspended near the leaf, and this was interesting enough to get the spider up and out of its hideaway.
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Meanwhile Miss Filmy Dome had hung her own web out for business and was as busy as a, uh, seven-legged spider. She had two gift packages already wrapped and waiting when she had time to stop for a bite.

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But then fate stepped in. Our big hairy scary funnel webber made a mistake. She set out to pay a neighborly visit and got caught up in the conversation. Next thing she knew, she was dinner.
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She hung overnight next to the small plate specials like a beef in the window. Yesterday morning the feast began as I watched. The hostess, several times smaller than her guest, was at all times polite as she picked away over much of the day. When at last she’d finished with the main course, she tossed the remains from her nest like any tidy homemaker might. Somewhere in the weeds below the denizens of the underworld must have rejoiced and yelled, “Food fight!”
20160917_123348_resizedWhen I stopped taking pictures, Miss Filmy was daintily finishing her meal and, I would think, be preparing for a nice long rest to aid her digestion.

Next time you have to write about a spider, find a web or two and settle down for a good watch. No major actors in these dramas, but dramas they are nevertheless.

P.S. I just stomped on a spider crawling across my floor. Man I hate those things!

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Let’s talk dialogue

David giving brief remarks

Hi everyone,

I had two reasons for the chats I reported having with Mama G. One was to have a little fun change of pace and the other was to play with dialogue. I think I’ve only talked about dialogue once before, on September 8, 2013.

Today I’d like to dig a little deeper and use “The Mother Goose Dialogues” as examples. I’ll begin by quoting myself from WRITING STORIES, FANTASTIC FICTION FROM START TO FINISH, a Scholastic Guides book that came out in 2004.

“Characters need to sound natural. How does a writer learn to write good dialogue? Two words: Listen. Practice. Listen to conversations around you. Everyone talks differently. Dialogue is not just about how high or deep our voices are, how loud or soft. Each of us has a rhythm to the way we speak.

Some of us speak like we’re in a hurry.
Some of us go slowly and choose words with care.
Some of us use worn-out expressions.
Some of us change subjects in the middle of a sentence.
Some of us interrupt others before they finish speaking.

We overhear bits of conversation all the time — in restaurants, parks, stores, at parties.

“So I told her it was none of her . . . “
“I freaked out man like I was like so totally like you know I thought I’d like totally like lose it!”
“He won’t understand. He never under- . . . ”
“I can’t even think about that now!”
“He’s so cuuuuute!!!”

One of the first lessons that budding writers are taught is to show, not tell. It’s a hard lesson to learn, remember, and practice. Our tendency is to assume that our reader won’t get our meaning if we don’t s-p-e-l-l out our characters’ every thought. Without realizing it or meaning to we write down to our reader as though he or she is not capable of reading the situation with understanding.

We tend to tell too much.

One reason I like dialogue is that it can be used effectively to show rather than tell and it can cut through yards of narrative during moments when the story’s action needs to move along.

E. B. White’s famous opening line of CHARLOTTE’S WEB could not have captured the reader’s interest any faster or more thoroughly any other way.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Those first six words are magic. The remaining thirteen words in the sentence tell us the facts necessary to put the fist six into perspective.

The second sentence provides the answer. “Some pigs were born last night.” We don’t need to know what Mrs. Arable is thinking when she tells her daughter so White keeps his opening moving without further ado.

The third sentence sets the scene for the insight that’s soon to follow. “I don’t see why he needs an ax.” We can see trouble coming and we’re still in the top half of page one.

When Fern learns that her papa is going to destroy the runt pig in the litter, she shrieks. That’s it. She doesn’t shriek loudly. She doesn’t shriek as if her heart is breaking. She doesn’t shriek from deep in her throat. She shrieks. And we understand.

Her mother’s response? “Don’t yell, Fern.” Not, “Don’t yell, Fern, sighed her mother.” Not, “Don’t yell, Fern, her mother said sternly.” Just short and un-accessorized: “Don’t yell.” We can take it from there.

So lately I’ve been talking to a goose who has pitched her camp on the landing at the bottom of the steps that lead down to the lake. I didn’t spend much time perfecting these reports but to keep them brief I found it helpful to use dialogue where narrative might have been too slow.
Here’s how I might have described part of the first chat using all narrative:

“I asked Mother Goose why she had a chip on her wing. She snorted and asked me what difference it made to me. I told her that it mattered because I cared about her.

She told me I’d just used the oldest pickup line in the world and that she wasn’t about to fall for that one again. I assumed that her would-be mate must have said something similar during their courting days.

She said he cared about her only until he had his way with her.

I guessed that she meant until he got her in a motherly way with fertilized eggs.

Her glare told me that she considered me to be an idiot.”

This is only a quick first draft. With some work I’m sure I could make it more interesting prose but I would still have to cover the same ground. This draft required 115 words.

Here’s the same passage using dialogue to carry most of the action. One nice thing about dialogue is that once you set up a conversation between two characters, you reach a point where you can often dispense with he said/she said, which reduces unnecessary verbiage.

“Hey, it’s only me,” I called. “What’s with the chip on your wing?”

“What’s it to you?” she honked.

“Because I care about you,” I said.

“That’s the oldest line in the world,” she said, bobbing her head in agreement with herself. “I’ll never fall for that one again.”

“You mean . . . “

“Yep. Until he got his way with me.”

“And made you preggers?”

“Duh!”

In this case using dialogue rather than narrative took 64 words, and it features more showing and less telling.
If you’d like to pursue this further in my second report, there are additional examples of sticking to the action, doing without he said/she said in a number of cases, and rounding out the main character – all in fewer words than prose would require to address the same elements.

In closing, I wanted Mama G to come off being in a better mood but still with an edge.

“I can do the math,” she said. “I didn’t exactly flunk flight school.”

“Uh . . .”

“But I’m better now. I’ve been making up stories and telling them to my eggs. My goslings will pop out loving my stories!”

“Fantastic!” I said. “Do you have a name for your stories?”

“Really?” she said. “Really?”

“Not thinking,” I mumbled.

“Don’t you have work you need to be doing?” she suggested.