Spy Flash – Week 18

Week 18 was last week, so I’m a little late. I spent the weekend at a writer’s conference (more about that tomorrow) in Winston-Salem, NC, so I’ll use that for an excuse. That and the teepee. (See below.)

Here’s the roll of the cubes for week 18:

Here’s what I saw: l. to r. – bee; the letter L; striking a match; fork in the road; teepee; digging; walking; crying/weeping; house/home.

There, dead center, is what threw me for days. Yes, a teepee.

I’m using these prompts to write espionage flash fiction, so how on earth was I going to connect that to spies?

Since one of the characters I write about was originally born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, I even researched whether the Scythians, a tribe from the east that conquered most of what became Ukraine, had used yurts (large, well-furnished, collapsible tents moved from campsite to campsite), but I couldn’t confirm it to my satisfaction. (Turns out the Scythians may have been the origin of the Finnish sauna, but that’s another story.)

Then, after an unsuccessful attempt on Monday, I decided that wasn’t a teepee, but a tent. Hey, it’s all about how each person interprets the cubes after all.

The lesson here is sometimes we writers get hung up on a scene, a sentence, a word, which blocks everything else. Once we let go of the hang-up, creativity has room to grow.

This story, “Patience,” is a prequel of sorts to an earlier story, “Here, There be Dragons.”

If you don’t see the link on either title, click on the Spy Flash tab above and select them from the drop-down list. If you want to take the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge, use the photo above and write a story of any length, then post a link to it on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.


“What do You Mean?” she asked.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately as I read material for my critique group, in my capacity as a submissions reader for eFiction Noir and eFiction Sci-Fi magazines, and in reading books to review. Well, it’s disturbing to me, the Punctuation Queen. Most likely, the rest of you don’t particularly care–but you should, if not for the reason that, perhaps, one day I’ll be reading your work. [Insert evil laugh here.]

No, seriously, I’m finding that a surprising number of people don’t know how to punctuate dialogue. Here are a few examples of the incorrect punctuation; the sentences themselves I made up:

“What do you mean,” she asked with a frown?

“What do you mean?,” she asked, with a frown.

“What do you mean?” she asked? With a frown.

“What do you mean?” asked, Jane, frowning?

“I know what you mean” said, Jane.

“I know what you mean.” said Jane.

I hope you see where each of the above needs to be corrected. If not, here’s how you punctuate a question and a statement in dialogue (in most instances):

“What do you mean?” she asked, with a frown.

“That’s what I meant,” she said, with a smile.

Or a variation:

With a frown, she asked, “What do you mean?”

With a smile, she said, “That’s what I meant.”

The latter correction also employs a little variety in your dialogue structure. You can get a little tired of a constant string of “she said” “he said” and so on. Flipping the tag to the beginning is a good way to break up a chunk of dialogue.

“What’s a tag?” you ask.

A dialogue tag is what you put after the line of dialogue: “said” or “asked” plus the noun or pronoun–like a mini-sentence. And, trust me, “said” or “asked” are your dialogue tag friends. Use them well and frequently, but don’t substitute things that aren’t dialogue tags.

“What do you mean?” he frowned.

Exactly that–“frowned” is not a dialogue tag. You say words, you ask words, but you don’t frown words. You may say or ask as you frown, but some verbs just aren’t dialogue tags. And if you limit yourself to the simple tags of “said” or “asked,” that frees you up to do some showing and not telling.

For example, you could write: “You don’t love me,” she pouted.

Any of us who have children or grandchildren know what a pout looks like, but why not “show” us the pout by describing it. Is it joking, how sincere is it, it is coy?

Her lower lip protruded as she frowned and blinked away non-existent tears. “You don’t love me,” she said.

See how much more we learned about the dynamic between the two speakers with a description of the pout?

Anyway, I digressed a bit from punctuating dialogue, but, well, these things needed to be said. Because most of my previous experience was as an editor, I often get bogged down in the bad or lack of punctuation. That means the story drops a few notches in quality for me.

Now, if I see one comma out-of-place, I won’t quibble, but when bad punctuation, especially for something as fundamental to writing as dialogue, is consistent, that tells me the writer doesn’t really care about his or her work, that the concept of “getting published fast” has won out over good writing.

What’s a good punctuation reference? The Chicago Manual of Style covers just about everything you need for writing. If you’re an AP Manual fan, switch. The AP Manual is for magazine or newspaper writing, where the punctuation, in particular, is different. The CMS is what most editors of literary magazines prefer. Otherwise, a decent college grammar handbook will do. Many writers I know like Garner’s Modern American Usage, which may be more up-to-date than an old college handbook. Usage and preferred punctuation do change, after all.

Pull out something you’ve been working on, and take a look at your dialogue. Is it punctuated correctly? Are your dialogue tags really tags? Are there opportunities to show more and tell less?

Say What?

One of the key skills in writing fiction is mastering dialogue, i.e., making dialogue true to life. Sometimes what sounds perfectly normal in our heads becomes stilted when we read it aloud. Reading your work aloud is an excellent tool for spotting missing words, dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, bad dialogue, etc. (I’d advise against doing that in public places, however, unless you don’t mind explaining yourself to the cop someone will inevitably call.)

You’d think dialogue would be easy given the fact that, well, you engage in it on a daily basis, but, for me, there’s nothing more story-killing than reading dialogue that doesn’t sound “right.”

I recently started reading a series by Kevin Hearne featuring a 2,000-year-old Druid (the last one in existence) who can carry on a conversation with his Irish wolfhound. Oh dear, I thought, this could be bad, really bad. I love it when I’m fooled. Hearne’s conversations between the Druid Atticus and his wolfhound Oberon are engaging enough to advance the story and comical at the right moments. You realize if you could converse with your dog, these are exactly the conversations you would have. It’s great stuff–not for the literary types, of course, but great entertainment.

One way to improve your dialogue is to take a real exchange you’ve had and rewrite it from different viewpoints, e.g., switch places in the conversation or respond the way you would have liked to at the time. And if you want your dialogue to be as true to life as possible, keep a notebook with you and jot down real conversations you overhear at the supermarket, a coffee shop, or a bar. Bars are the best because liquor loosens the inhibitions, and people say things they wouldn’t normally say. Supermarkets are good because most of what you hear is one side of a telephone conversation, and those are intriguing enough, as a writer, you can’t help but supply the other side in your head.

A few months ago I was in the coffee shop that was my regular hangout when I lived in Northern Virginia, and the three young baristas in goth mode were discussing zombie apocalypses in an everyday, commonplace way. I mean, when talking about where zombies come from, you can’t make stuff this good up:

“Voodoo, you know,” one says. “Like, in Africa.”

“Oh, yeah, Africa,” the other agrees.

The only male among them gave a short bark of laughter, a snort really, and said, “Africa. That’s stupid. Zombies come from China.”

“How do you know?” the first one asked.

“Duh, I’m in a bookstore. I read World War Z.

“Dude, that was, like, fiction.”

“Uh, no. It’s an ‘oral history of the zombie war.’ Go look if you don’t believe me.”

“Yeah, right. It’s in the science fiction section.”

“No, it’s not. On my break, I, like, move them all to the history section.”

See, I never would have come up with that on my own. If the story I wrote around that conversation ever gets published, I’ll go back and thank them, provided, of course, they have been changed into zombies. In that case, I’ll thank them before decapitating them.

Listening in on other people’s conversations can be touchy. You have to be surreptitious about it because if someone suspects you’re listening in on their “private” conversation in a public place, they can get upset. (Not that it’s happened to me, of course.) That’s why I prefer capturing snippets of real conversations on a computer or my iPhone. People expect you to have a computer anywhere there’s free wi-fi, so they don’t look twice, and almost everybody texts nowadays.

A caveat here: Don’t be tempted to use the “Record” attributes of your computer or smart phone. Yes, you can capture real dialogue word for word, but if you’re in a state that doesn’t allow taping of third-party conversations without the participants’ permission, you could be in trouble. I mean, who would know, unless you got caught, but there’s the whole ethics thing for me.

If you doubt this can be useful, I’d say just give it a try. Sometimes you might overhear something that clarifies a character for you or puts words in a character’s mouth. Other times you can get a fully developed character dumped in your lap. People are bloody interesting, and their real conversations can take on more meaning rendered in fiction. And how lucky are we that people feel as if public venues are their personal confessionals?

Seeing as how I’ve had very interesting conversations of my own in public places, I’m waiting for the day when I read a story or novel and go, “Hey, that’s me! I said that!”

What about you? Is dialogue easy or difficult for you? Where do you go to hear those jewels of dialogue?