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Apr 19, 2012; William Asks:

Hi Stacey. What advice can you give for writing dialogue and for writing in first person.

Stacey answers:

Good question, William. Dialogue is strangely hard to write, especially considering that we speak and listen to each other all day and often continue into our dreams. Most of this talk isn't memorable, but occasionally it is, and these locutions are the ones worthy of dialogue. You can probably remember three or four things your father once said to you, or your ex-girlfriend or history teacher, and the reason you remember is because these utterances were shocking, funny, unexpected, or puzzling. Some were probably lies; others were revelations; probably none were exposition (unless it was of the barest, most life-changing kind: "Your mother and I are getting divorced, sugarpie").

Here are some rules (which you can break, but they're good to know): in literary fiction, dialogue should reveal character, not forward the plot. The exposition goes in the narration (a little can go in the dialogue, but just a smidge). No planning! There's nothing worse than suffering through a discussion of what to have for dinner. Also: do not make your characters endlessly address each other by name. (In real life, people only call each other by name when they're echolocating or want something). Don't put in introductory clauses: "Oh, I was just thinking that maybe it would be a good idea if..." Or: "Hello. How are you? Gee, really?" Don't put that stuff in. In fact, you can usually take off the first four words of each sentence of dialogue and it will still make sense, but it can get a bit Hemingway-macho if you do a lot of that. "Said" is a good word. Use it a lot. Hardly ever use competing words like "replied," "interjected," "exclaimed," or "repeated." If this drives you crazy, an alternate way of attributing dialogue to a character is to precede or follow it with a physical description. This works better in the middle of a run of dialogue than at the beginning: Sheila stanched the wound with a tea towel. "I've always hated that damn cutlass." I know, it seems like a "said" would be nice, but in the middle of a conversation, you won't miss it.

You can listen to how people actually talk in order to get a lifelike feel to you dialogue, but you still have to try to make it interesting. What people actually say is boring unto death; a little exaggeration and a sense of drama is better than authenticity. John Cheever was a master at this, though part of what he was doing was contrasting his beautiful, mellifluous, erudite narration with blunt, exaggerated dialogue--not a bad strategy. Read authors you like and see if you can figure out their strategy, their pattern of attribution, all that.

First-person narration can get a little talky too, so many of the rules above also apply. The trick is to inhabit your first-person narrator like an actor, but don't get so into her head that you let every stupid thing she thinks flow straight into your prose (or even every quirky, smart, interesting thing). Not enough is always better than too much. Ha ha ha ha. Ha. That's what I say.

Another literary convention (usually dispensed with in genre fiction) is to NOT include a physical description of a first-person narrator. I like this convention and command you to use it. That means no mirror passages, you know, where the character looks at himself in the hall mirror and riffs about his hair, etc. No passages where the narrator studies/describes his graduation photo, musing on the passage of time. (This is because it's artificial and therefore distracting and also, the more genre conventions you put in your work, the harder it is to get a Guggenheim, even though it may not necessarily make your work any better or worse. Also, no happy endings. Sad and ambiguous is the name of the game.) You have to be a psychologist, or at least a student of human nature and your own inner dialogue. People think about how they look a lot; they just don't think, of themselves: "I am a portly fellow with a belly like a half-inflated beach ball." Rather, they think: "I feel fat."

Traditionally, first-person narrators are liars, half-crazy (Eli Sisters), demented/sick(Humbert Humbert), or articulate observers who are almost entirely separate from the action of the story (Ishmael). Either that or else they are really nice ladies. Or flawed teenagers. Food for thought.

Apr 12, 2012; Kayla Barbour Asks:

Hi Stacey, I'm a freshman at the College of Charleston, currently majoring in Theatre and I was just wondering if you had ever read any plays that you found interesting? Do you happen to have a favorite play/playwright?

Stacey answers:

Hi Kayla. I'm ashamed to say that I hardly ever read plays. You've probably heard of the ones I've read, like No Exit and Hamlet. I'm so retarded that it's never even occurred to me to read any. Do they have a special section in the book store? I bet they do. Sorry.

Apr 09, 2012; Tom Asks:

Even though you have mentioned in the past that you don't really enjoy music, have you ever been inspired by a song or a lyric to write a story?

Stacey answers:

No Tom, I don't think I have, though I often want to put song lyrics in stories. (This is a bad idea, since song lyrics are copyrighted and you have to get permission to use them). Song lyrics have a way of lodging in people's minds, whether you like music or not. I'm struck by how they sometimes serve as weird harbingers of the unconscious: I can't tell you how often I've found that the song going through my head reflects on what's happening at the moment. More like texture within a story than inspiration for the whole thing.

Apr 07, 2012; Tom Hancock Asks:

Happy Birthday!

Apr 04, 2012; Pickles Asks:

Did you see that news item about the house cat who went feral and tried to snuff it's owner? Does that scenario make you feel more horror, or elation?

Stacey answers:

Elation! Pickles, you're fantastic. That's the best news report ever. My favorite part is when she says, "My husband ripped off his C-pap machine..."

Here's the URL:

Apr 02, 2012; Liam Liam Liam Asks:

What are you doing for your birthday, muffin?

Stacey answers:

Hi Liam! It's been so long! I was sick for my birthday and watched birds and ate food. Are you in France?

Mar 20, 2012; Tom Hancock Asks:

How do you go about selecting the title for a story? At what point in your writing process does it come to you? Have you ever written a story based on an idea for a title? What are your thoughts of the function of a story's title? Thanks for all your answers to date. I agree, the pirates would win. And not just because they have metal. Add to the metal greater mobility and their inherent mania and the poor cave men don't stand a chance.

Stacey answers:

Titles show up for me at different points when I'm writing, but it's nice when they show up fairly early. I like titles that are descriptive (by that I mean obvious) and either add some dimension to the story or guide you toward the place where the meaning is located. At. What I mean to say is the place where the meaning is located at.

I've never started with a title but I'd like to. I have a list somewhere. Ah, found it. My favorite is "Dog at Large," the legal term for an off-leash dog. I picture a legal thriller where all the mayhem starts with one bad doggie.

Mar 13, 2012; Charlton B. Asks:

Hello Stacey, I was wondering what really inspires you when writing your stories. Furthermore, when did you decide that you wanted to become a writer? Were there any other careers or subjects in particular that interested you? I am a history major at the College of Charleston, and I wanted to know if being a history major yourself had anything to do with your career as a writer. Thank you for your time!

Stacey answers:

Hi Charlton B. What really inspires me these days is death, or at least mortality, though that's sort of a general inspiration that doesn't pertain to any particular story. Anger and pain are other big inspirations. This is why being a writer is so fun (at least for me).

The other subject I love is biology, particularly the parts involving evolution, diseases, parasites, repulsive insects, sloths (who are covered with moths who live only on sloths, I'll have you know) and kitty cats. I actually was an art history major, not a history major, which has a lot with being a writer since it's all about making things, meaning, context, and metaphor (or I tried to make it be about that). Thanks for asking!

Mar 01, 2012; Chelsie Asks:

Hi Stacey, I'm a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati's creative writing program, and I just recently came across your story "The Beauty Treatment" in Doubletakes. Having fallen in love with it, I went to our library and swiped out Twin Study and My Date with Satan. I'm about halfway through My Date right now, and I want to buy it, but I'm having a hard time finding any new copies. Is it out of print? I'm kind of obsessive about books I really like. I prefer them to be brand new so that I can break them in. Best, Chelsie P.S. I loved, LOVED, "Rats Eat Cats." As an aspiring cat lady, I can definitely find a little of myself in this character's fear of human interaction :). The epistolary form is wonderful here.

Stacey answers:

That's cool. Thanks for letting me know. I want to be a cat lady too but also a goat lady, a parrot lady, a rat lady, an otter lady, and a dog lady.

Yeah, I guess My Date with Satan is out of print. I have to write a big seller so they'll reissue my previous books too, all with matching covers. Wish me luck.

Feb 29, 2012; Just sayin' Asks:

These kids need to do their own homework, huh?

Stacey answers:

I don't blame them for trying.

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