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(This is author Linda Urban)
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Athletes call it "getting in the zone."

My mom calls it "focus."

It's a level of concentration that takes you directly into your character and your character's voice. In dialogue the act of getting in the zone is essential.

On Linda Urban’s blog, she recently quoted author Madeline L’Engle: "The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing. A child playing a game, building a sand castle, painting a picture, is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself."

She then quoted L’Engle as saying,

"When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves."

According to L’Engle, "A writer may be self-conscious about his work before and after but not during the writing. If I am self-conscious during the actual writing of a scene, then it ends up in the round file."

I begged Linda to talk to me about these quotes and about dialogue. She did.  Today I'm posting interviews of her and of author (former editor) Micol Ostow. Linda is up first.


Me: When I'm thinking of these L'Engle quotes in the context of dialogue, they seem particularly astute. Have you ever thought of these quotes particularly when trying to get to the core of conversation between characters?

Linda: I’m just now reading the book, so the quotes are new to me – but the sentiment isn’t.  And yes, when I’m really IN the story, IN the writing, I am also “in character” and the dialogue that comes out is honest and often on target for the scene.  If I AM the character, it is impossible for me to make a shy girl say a bold thing just because it would be better for the plot.

Also, if I’m really in there, surprises happen.  In CROOKED, I was surprised when one character, Wheeler Diggs, first called the main character Zoe “Goober”.  Goober was a teasing name that my brother sometimes called people.  It wasn’t cruel, exactly, it was almost affectionate, but at the same time it usually brought the addressee down a peg.  That one beautiful word, Goober, came out in play – and it allowed me to develop a shorthand way for readers to track the progression of Zoe and Wheeler’s friendship.  It also allowed me to understand the guardedly soft side of Wheeler in a way that I never would have if I’d have just been filling out lines in a character worksheet.  And it would not have happened if I had been all author-y and self-conscious.  

Me: Your dialogue is absolutely charming and focused, 100 percent in character and it's part of what makes your first book such a keeper. Do you approach dialogue crafting differently than description crafting or when you create action?

Linda: First of all, thanks.  That means a lot coming from you.

Dialogue is easier for me to slip into than, say, action.  I talk a lot.  And a lot of my talking is about what other people have said.  I talk about talk.  What I don’t do is describe action.  Never was I the kid shooting hoops in the driveway, doing play-by-play on my every move.  So, when I need to get a character up a ladder and onto an elephant, I labor over every footfall, every waver in balance, every handhold on the elephant’s reins.  (Do riding elephants have reins?  How do you hold them?  Where do you put your hands?) I live in my head. I don’t instinctively know the language of motion. More importantly, I haven’t developed an eye for editing action down to the gesture that implies the whole.  Does that make sense?  And when I write action, I feel as though I am looking AT it and attempting to describe what I see.  That is a step removed from my best writing.

Dialogue is often my best writing, because I am not listening to it, I am speaking it.  I feel it.  There is no remove.  In the case of the major characters, I AM those characters while I write.  It is being, not observing.  And minor characters I experience through one of my characters.  It doesn’t really matter what a salesgirl at The Gap would say.  What matters is what my MC would hear her saying. 

Me: Do you have any tips about writing conversations?

Linda: I think that the worst thing we can do when we write dialogue is forget that our characters have a history.  I’ve read (and written) many a scene of dialogue in which two longtime friends have a perfectly generic conversation about some plot point or other.  Longtime friends have a shorthand for things.  They speak in private jokes.  They tease.  They sidestep.  They shield.  We don’t want to write dialogue in which every sentence needs to be decoded for readers, but we also do ourselves a terrible disservice if we spend a paragraph talking about how Celia and Bix have been best friends since kindergarten and then have one say to the other “Hello, Bix.  How was your big date last night?”  “It was okay.  He wasn’t my dream guy.”   Anyone could say that.  And Celia and Bix wouldn’t – unless it is their own private joke to discuss difficult topics as if they were characters out of 50s sitcoms.  Which would be pretty cool, actually. 

I also try to remember that actions may tell us more about who a character is, but the words they use tell us who a character wants to be – or at least, who they want you to think they are. 

The last thing I want to mention is that dialogue not only allows us an opportunity to see how people connect, it is a great way to illuminate the disconnects between us.  We misunderstand each other.  We need things repeated.  We talk over and past one another.  And we hear what we want to hear.  Remembering this can add complexity to the structure of dialogue and – if used sparingly – is one more tool for underscoring the importance of a particular moment or theme.

Me: Where you always brilliant? 

Linda: I have not felt brilliant since I was a child.  As an adult, I have felt shiny from time to time.  I think I need to try a different moisturizer.

Me: When you read a book what is it that you want to see in dialogue?

Linda: I don’t want to see dialogue when I read.  I want it to be so much in keeping with the character and the mood and the narrative that I am unaware of it as that function of literary expression which we call dialogue.

But when I reread, I love watching how economical the best writers are with dialogue.  I love how they can move the plot, deepen the characters, establish a mood, underscore a theme and still craft a conversation that seems real and honest, never once making you aware of the author behind it all.



I was thinking about how Linda says that she becomes the character when she writes and equating that to how actors become the characters they portray.
"When character acting, that means you become the person but to do that, you must learn that character's mind, actions, education, history, societal background, feelings, emotions, and so on. One of the problems we see in Hollywood is that fans confuse actors with characters. They see people on the big screen portraying a "character" and assume the actor lives the same life. In reality, actors and characters are seldom similar," says the website topacting classes.

Just like actors have to live and breathe and become the character they are playing, we writers have to live and breathe and become the character we are writing/creating. We have to let go of who we are and become.

Letting go can be a scary thing, but when we do it... it creates that very truth that Rita Williams Garcia talked about in yesterday's post. When we do it... we create stories that are worth reading and our dialogue worries? They disappear.


This is author Micol Ostow.

When you write dialogue on the page do you hear it in your head?

Yes, absolutely. I can see and hear the characters very clearly, to the point that if someone is saying something funny, or smiling, or grimacing, I usually am, too (this is why it is a good thing that I mostly work from home). Obviously book dialogue, like movie dialogue, needs to be dramatic and pointed, but if you can't imagine someone saying it out loud, it doesn't belong in your book. That's always been my rule of thumb.  

 Is there something that writers make dialogue do that they shouldn't?

A huge rookie mistake (that I have been guilty of myself) is to "over-tag" dialogue: "he retorted angrily," "she snapped thoughtfully," and etc., etc., etc. I always tell my students that 90% of dialogue tags should simply be "said," as it's the ultimate invisible tag. Save your retorts and snaps and yells and squawks for special occasions. Further to that, if you're doing your job, it should be clear via language and *body* language how someone is feeling--so be wary of excessive adverbs (which I think is true of non-dialogue writing, as well).  

Oh! Another thing I tell my students to watch came to me from the brilliant Tim Wynne-Jones, which is to avoid over-using dialogue as a means of "information dumping," ie: "hello, brother of my father's sister who went to college for veterinary medicine but dropped out after developing a gambling problem...."

There's always a temptation to cram exposition into dialogue but to do so is to give in to lazy impulses

Do you have any tips on how to be better at writing conversations?

Watch a lot of tv! Seriously. You can see what a good, concise back-and-forth is via most television (even reality tv, where the sound bite is king). Listen in on conversations around you. 

Resist the urge to over-write--dialogue should serve a purpose, either to forward the narrative, provide *some* exposition, or illustrate characterization. Don't let conversations go on just because you've fallen into a nice rhythm of writing. Or rather, have fun with it--but be willing to cut afterward.  

In your books how do you use dialogue? Is it to propel plot? To influence readers? To show character? Create conflict or humor? All of the above?

I suspect I accidentally answered that question above. Dialogue should definitely do all of those things. Each scene needs to take you somewhere in the story (or inside your characters' emotional journey), and  dialogue should reinforce that. I also love the idea of creating a character through his or her dialogue, ie: specifically the language that he or she uses. I definitely feel like I've gotten to a place of extreme comfort within a project when I can look at a line of dialogue I've written and think, "Oh, [Ari] would never say that." You should know what your characters would and would not say, I think, if you're grounded in your work.  

Do you like writing it or dislike writing it?

I do like writing it, although when I have to write an emotionally charged scene my mass-market roots tend to show--I'm quick to fall into melodrama. A lot of voices trembling and faces white with anger. I always have to go back and pare those exchanges down once the scene is complete.  

Philip Roth wrote: "My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn't just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you've got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren't only bombs and bullets / no, they're little gifts, containing meanings!" Do you think this is true? Do you think that writers think this is true?

I think this is true--that words are weapons but also gifts. Being as articulate as possible at all times has always been very important to me--it just about *kills* me if I can't come up with exactly the word that I'm looking for in a given situation. And yes, some stories are much more plot-driven than language-driven (many of my own), but I think all in all that writers are interested in communicating precisely via the written word. I am always urging my students to strive for specificity of language: it adds depth, complexity, humor, emotion, nuance--all the good stuff you're looking for no matter what genre one writes. 


Micol Ostow worked as an editor at several major New York City publishers before leaving two years ago to pursue her writing full-time. Her novel, EMILY GOLDBERG LEARNS TO SALSA, was named a NYPL Book for the Teen Age, and she has a busy year coming up: her "election chick-lit" novel, POPULAR VOTE, releases from Scholastic Point in September, and her new paperback series, a private school story story told in blog format and utilizing innovative web content, THE BRADFORD BLOGS, launches in spring '09. Oh--she's also got a hybrid graphic-novel project called I'M WITH THE TRIBE: A GUY, A GUITAR, AND A DATE WITH (NON-DENOMINATIONAL DESTINY) coming out from Flux/Llewellyn in summer '09. 

When she is not writing, Micol is pursuing her MFA in writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of the Fine Arts, and teaching YA writing through Media Bistro, Miami Dade College, and anyone else who'll pay her to natter on. She lives in NYC with her Emmy-nominated (!) producer boyfriend, Noah Harlan, and the most adorable French Bulldog in the world. 

 Linda Urban was a bookseller and marketing director for many years before embarking on the writing journey. Her first middle grade novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, was named a Junior Library Guild selection. Her picture book MOUSE WAS MAD is set to be released in 2009.




( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 9th, 2008 01:12 pm (UTC)
Great stuff, Carrie!
Thanks for doing this!
May. 9th, 2008 02:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading it and commenting, Julie. Linda and Micol are great writers and thinkers, aren't they?
May. 9th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
C'mon, Linda. You are brilliant. Shiny or not, definately brilliant. Love these interviews, Carrie! Thanks...
May. 9th, 2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
A great way to end the week of thought provoking discussion. Thank you!
May. 9th, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Carrie. This has been such a helpful series of posts. :D
May. 10th, 2008 02:03 am (UTC)
It doesn’t really matter what a salesgirl at The Gap would say. What matters is what my MC would hear her saying.

Wow, insightful stuff! That really makes me think about my perceptions of the purpose of dialog. Thanks for doing such great interviews!
May. 10th, 2008 06:17 am (UTC)
Yet another entertaining but informative post. It's given me a lot to think about how I handle dialogue. I'll definitely be re-reading these in the future.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )