Why people can’t hear you OR how to write wicked dialogue

Marie Forleo’s video, 5 Reasons People Don’t Take You Seriously, shows how we get in the way of our message, and what to do about it.

My writer-mind couldn’t help thinking how to use these tips in reverse. Inside a novel, conflict built on miscommunication is quite fun.

Here are Marie Forleo’s tips for clear communication and how to use them backwards in fiction:

  1. Fancy words obscure your message. I hadn’t thought about the way verbal playfulness could be misinterpreted and her example makes it deliciously opaque, I mean, clear: Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.47.58 AM

Shakespeare gives fancy words to characters who don’t understand them. Now I’d like to add a malaprop-prone character to my work-in-progress.

Taking the opposite approach, Dorothy Dunnett’s character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, uses complicated words and obscure Latin quotes as weapons, tools for seduction, or as a dazzling smoke-screen.

Maybe, the more delightful the language is in a story world, the less useful it is for getting your point across in the real world. And vice versa.

2. Lose the “dumb” disclaimer. Instead say: “What about this?” I’ve seen this speech habit associated with women and girls. Imagine a villain who suggests ideas with disclaimers that turn out to be clues.

P.G. Wodehouse’s character Wooster combines “dumb” disclaimers with fancy words in an endearing way. [If you like Wodehouse, you have to read his lovely interview about the art of fiction.

3. Use “Yes, and” instead of “Yeah, but.” I’m not good at this one, but 🙂 I’ve heard it before. My current heroine could get into a lot of trouble with “Yeah, but” and if I gave her this trait, I might learn it myself. I love the idea of a character trying to get a seat at a table, round or otherwise.

“If you haven’t been invited to give feedback and you really want a seat at the table, “Yes, and” will help you get one.” –Marie Forleo

4. Instead of blasting people with your ideas, get people intrigued first.

Remembering to breathe is key, both in fiction and in real life. This is also the way to pitch a book idea at a writing conference.

The natural tendency is to blast listeners with everything you know and love about your story, to try to anticipate everything that people would want to know, or to list every detail that could entice them into wanting to know about the story. (Did you fall asleep during that sentence?)

The most powerful way to catch someone’s interest is to tell part of a story. And then shut up.

This is called a “hook.” 🙂

5. Follow-up. Don’t apologize and be mousy. Try language like this:  Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.55.17 AM

Good advice to follow for query letters.

“Mousy-ness” is the reverse of the character trait in tip #1. It’s another kind of smoke-screen that says: “Don’t look at me too closely.”

What do you think about Marie Forleo’s tips? Do you have favorite fictional characters with confusing speech habits? I’d love to hear about them.


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7 Reasons Why “There’s not a moment to be lost”

Patrick O’Brian’s sea adventure novel, MASTER AND COMMANDER, is an action-packed story about the friendship between two very different men.

Jack Aubrey is an ambitious Captain in the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin is the ship’s physician and a devoted naturalist.

Stephen’s nirvana is anteaters, platypuses, or a rare liana. He’s always longing for a few days to explore an exotic shore.

But, the tide turns, the wind comes up, and Jack tells him: “There is not a moment to be lost.” Stephen looks longingly at shore, but he’s swept away to the opposite side of the ocean. Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity disappears over the horizon.

Sometimes the wind fails. The two friends retreat to Jack’s cabin and play duets on their violin and cello until the doldrums are over.

A few years ago, I crossed the ocean—by plane—to visit the British Library. The many floors of the open stacks are filled with books, white like Oreo filling, and just as delicious.

The Sir John Ritbalt Gallery houses the Treasures of the British Library.

I saw Jane Austen’s lap desk and her steady, even handwriting; Shakespeare’s scripts, written without any flourishes; Thomas Hardy’s revisions, and Handel’s closely-written music scores. You can scroll through some of them here.

What did all of these writers and composers have in common? Their handwriting was small, even, and consistent, as if they were sawing wood, driving across Nebraska, or crossing the ocean in a 19th century frigate.

  1. The creative journey is long. You can’t dawdle or rush. You have to pace yourself.

But all this industry, this dedicated effort, makes you wonder why anyone would work this hard to make something no one wanted, yet. Sheer stubbornness?

Back to the library for answers.

Jane Austen folded her manuscripts in quarters so she could tuck away her work if disturbed while working. I don’t think it was shyness or insecurity, because the Gallery’s folded manuscript is PERSUASION: Austen’s last novel, not her first. Outside help is dangerous until the story finds its shape.

2. Before an imagined story is fixed on the page, it is indescribably fragile.

But that still doesn’t answer why people do these things. What makes the pursuit worth it?

Jason Fried’s REWORK says inspiration is perishable. If we don’t capture what we see, embark on the adventure, plant the garden, or record the music, it will disappear behind the horizon.

Snowflake Bentley explains why he kept making photographs of snowflakes: “I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.”

3. The payoff is when beauty takes us out of ourselves.

This is why using your imagination is so addictive. It’s restful and exhausting. It uses everything we have and immerses us completely in the other.

The common question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” is really asking

“How do you get beauty to visit you?”

There are two answers:

4. Inspiration is everywhere. Those things you recognize, that give you shocks or thrills or chills, that’s your beauty.

In CROSSING UNMARKED SNOW, William Stafford writes:
And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are
why you are in the world.

5. I have no idea–but be ready. Always carry a pen and paper.

Inspiration isn’t under our control. Ringo Starr must have been struck unexpectedly, because he wrote the lyrics to “It’s been a hard day’s night” on the back of his son’s 1st birthday card.

6. We bear witness by our continued efforts that there is something worth seeing.

Handel’s manuscript book is full from edge to edge. He worked steadily until he created THE MESSIAH. Snowflake Bentley went out in every snowstorm. Jane Austen’s quartos must have been convenient for whipping out work when she had unexpected moments to write.

If we want treasures collected in the Sir John Ritbalt Gallery, we have to DO THE WORK.

Persistence and steady labor work well. Until the day comes when the muse gives you something much better than you are capable of. Just because the muse visits you once, doesn’t mean she’s coming back.

As Elizabeth Gilbert points out, the muse isn’t under your control and you’re not to blame if it goes away again.

7. Sometimes the wind fails. Once you do your best work, you have a choice: stop working or start as a beginner all over again.

We make art and seek discoveries in the world around us out of a desire to be moved out of ourselves and a desire to share what we are with others. A story about a friendship between very different people, like Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey, can be the seed of many friendships. A story is a created experience, but it’s also a question: “Can you see it?”

Beauty is as ephemeral as life. We need our whole lives to find our way through or around the obstacles that separate us.

What we make is imperfect, but we have a chance at butterflies and lightning bolts. Keep your nets open. Keep your pen moving. Capture the snowflakes.

As Captain Aubrey says: “There is not a moment to be lost.”


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What Do You Do for Fifteen Minutes a Day?

Diagonal beams of sunlight pierce a shady deciduous forest. Germany 2016.
A few moments of light change the whole forest. Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

When we’re overcome by life and can’t get to the things and the people that matter to us, we get frustrated. How often do we think it’s all or nothing?

Do you ever think. . .

. . .If we don’t have a 3-hour block, it’s not worth getting started.

. . .If I can’t get away for a weekend-long retreat, I might give up on this hobby.

. . .If we can’t go for a real hike, there’s no point.

Or my favorite nostalgic worries when my brother and I watched the Olympics as 10-/11-year-old kids:

. . .We’re too old. All the champions started much younger.

Of course, there’s value in 3-hour blocks, weekend-long retreats, hiking the Long Trail, and pursuing interests you’ve had since you were a kid.

But sometimes our dream is so overwhelming, we don’t feel like it anymore. That’s when the “give-it-fifteen-minutes” way can bring joy into our lives.

Other things we do have natural limits and use rules of thumb. (RULE OF THUMBS would be such a lovely spoof on GAME OF THRONES, but I digress.)

. . .My eldest visited us recently from Italy and taught me how much pasta to cook. “100 g per person, but I like 200g.”

. . .My husband gave a slide show last night. “200 slides is the right number.”

. . .The Centers for Disease Control recommends 5- 30 minute episodes of exercise a week. But I took a brisk walk at lunch with a Health Department colleague who was participating in a study on physical activity. She said, “10 minutes counts.” In other words, ten minutes is enough to get the metabolism going, to get the engine started.

. . .Recovering from a hospital stay a few years ago, I complained that I wouldn’t get to my vegetable garden at all that year. My husband helped me outside, put a basil plant next to me, handed me a trowel, and let me transplant it. When your hands do something, your mind believes it.

. . .It’s not hard to write 1,000 words in a week. 1,000 words a week is 52,000 words. A middle grade novel. 1,000 words a week-day is 260,000 words. Two adult novels.

Fifteen minutes a day feels amateurish, meaningless, and unimportant, but it’s how you get your life back. When you do something for fifteen minutes, your subconscious believes you mean it. The internal editor stops talking about imposters. It’s a chance to be playful, because everyone knows you can’t do anything real in that time.

What do you want more of in your life?

Do you do ever use short blocks of time for it?

How does it work for you?

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Hope for February: ESPERANZA RISING and Esperanza Spalding

Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves and a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany © Laurel Decher, 2016
Hopeful signs: Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves under a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Hope keeps cropping up. This weekend, hope took the form of an audio book, a YouTube video, a walk under gray skies, a skit, and a newspaper article.

Last night I listened to the first part of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s ESPERANZA RISING with Trini Alvarado as narrator. I’m looking forward to the rest!

ESPERANZA RISING the kind of story I like: the 13-year-old Esperanza has to find courage to take a big risk, to make a new life in a new place with her family.

She has a big challenge in front of her because it’s 1930 and the Great Depression is coming.

While I listened, the relationships between the characters gave me hope. Early in the story, Miguel and Alfonso and Hortensia demonstrate their friendship with Esperanza’s family.

In Mexico there’s a big divide between Esperanza and Miguel, but what will happen when they get to California?

My eldest sent me Esperanza Spalding’s 2016 performance at the White House. Esperanza sang about choosing hope with Louis Armstrong’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.

At the YMCA last night, there was a skit about the exiled tribes of Israel returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. When they got to Jerusalem, things weren’t quite the way they’d hoped. They experienced hardship in their new life.

Many people are making a new life in Germany right now and many are facing unexpected hardship. Many others are helping. It’s an adjustment for everyone.

The choice to hope has to be made again and again. In January, we learned about a shocking incident in the Cologne main train station. I found hope in the courage shown by refugees in this article (sent to me by my friend Jane Joo Park).

The U.S. Declaration of Independence describes the unalienable rights given to all of us: the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

We aren’t promised happiness, only the right to pursue it.

We have the right to choose hope, if we’re brave enough to do it. Let’s help each other to hope.

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Noblesse oblige, libraries, trees, and cyberbullying prevention

Castle with towers and moat and red and white patterned shutters. Burg Satzvey, Germany.
What can you do with your heritage? Noblesse oblige for the modern age. Burg Satzvey, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, I visited a nearby village and strolled through the public part of the castle grounds of the lovely Burg Satzvey. It was built in the early 1300’s and now hosts jousting and other medieval-sounding shows for the entertainment of the populace. Half-timbered houses cluster around the castle and a large church stands just up the hill.

How do you decide what to do with a castle, if you inherit one? In medieval times, the castle protected the village folk and probably provided a secure marketplace for trading. The size of the modern parking lot and the shops (now closed for the winter) inside the castle say that some things don’t change. Using your inheritance in this way probably has pros and cons. We also saw a bench securely chained down in front of a village house. The tourists around here must be eager for souvenirs.

But the noble family could have made a different choice: they could have left the castle to fall down into a romantic ruin. For example, the abandoned vineyards on the Mosel are called “Brazils” because so many vintners left the area for warmer climes.

One person’s decision can influence a whole village.

My own experience is that people move around much more in the United States. Many people volunteer and serve their communities in all kinds of ways. Some give to their communities in large-scale ways. Andrew Carnegie gave us libraries. I just found a new book I want to read about him.

Wangari Maathai of Kenya planted a tree, and another and another, and eventually won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Read about her story in the picture book PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA.

Or what about teen Trisha Prabhu’s app to prevent cyberbullying? Listen to her TED talk here.

We’re sometimes quick to dismiss our own experiences and education. Burg Satzvey gave me two questions for myself that I pass on to you:

  1. What is our heritage and how will we choose to build on it?
  2. What moves us enough to take a first small step?

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Half a Library: 6 Libraries That Changed My Life

Librarian with hand on bookcase full of books in a new library room with table.
A new library is born. Hard-working librarian who made a half a library into a whole.

In 1775, James Boswell wrote, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” I’ve turned over half a dozen libraries in the service of my current work-in-progress, but library fever started much earlier. After all, where does anyone get the idea to write a book in the first place?

It all starts when you get a library card. I got mine as soon as I could write my first and last name in shaky capital letters. My family name had 9 letters, so it required some study.

The first library I remember vividly was in my elementary school. If I close my eyes, I see the tables and chairs, the built-in bookcases, the expanse of carpet and the steel knob you had to touch, after crossing the carpet, to get out of the library. I learned that the price of reading was shocking, but I paid it willingly, again and again.

The second library was in my Junior High School. Alphabetical fiction covered three walls and branched out into freestanding bookcases. I started with Joan Aiken’s MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE, Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING. . . and worked my way around. The school was overcrowded, troubled with drugs, and plagued by mashed potato shortages. Some days, we ate gravy for lunch. I didn’t mind the gravy, but the other things made me search for, and find, refuge in the library.

The third important library in my life was at the University of Utah. A friend had gotten a job, that paid money, to shelve books.

This was for me.

I filled the job application with volunteer orchestra ‘experience,’ hoping to suggest reliability. The gentle interviewer hired me because I’d rescued cassettes from our family tape recorder on long car trips. In the Audio-Visual Department, I played records and videotapes for people ten hours a week. A side effect came in the form of a dozen roses from a mysterious admirer at carrel #6. The only thing I knew about him—judging from the orange hair on his records—he had a cat. Libraries are full of people to meet.

In my fourth library, the Charles Babbage Institute, I met the inventor of the first hand-held calculator. The Institute needed a graduate student to transcribe an oral history (basically a recorded interview with the questions taken out) for Curt Herzstark. His name describes him perfectly: Herz and stark mean heart + strong.

Imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he somehow got permission to invent things “after hours.” In his Austrian accent, he described the invention of his calculator. He talked about a calculator in the shape of a glorified pepper mill, ten hours a week, for a trimester or more. His voice stopped when I took the headphones off, but I felt the Buchenwald atmosphere for hours afterwards.

The fifth library to capture my imagination is the one belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They have 900 illuminated manuscripts from 300 B.C. to the 19th century. That’s a library. I washed my hands, checked my book bag at the door and promised to use nothing but pencil while I was in the room.

In return, I touched five books that were 1000 years old or more. The corners were soft and wrinkled—like a piece of leather that has been bent back and forth too many times—where the thumbs of the monks must have fit. They probably dripped tallow on them.

In exchange for writing my whole name and enduring the shock of a library door, I found a refuge, got a dozen roses, visited a concentration camp and the 11th century. That library card really paid off.

The sixth library is where it gets interesting. My husband researches bats and other small mammals in West Africa. A few years ago, his work took him to an isolated village in Sierra Leone with no school or library.

Friends have been generous with books of all kinds. In my husband’s office, there was—literally–half a library. The other half has grown over the years. The local field-biologist-turned-librarian built shelves to hold the books and put up a roof to shelter the readers.

Now the village has a little library. How long before some reader turns half of it over and writes a brand-new book?

I can’t wait to check it out.

Young people reading books at a library table in a one-room library in Sierra Leone.
What will come out of this library?

 

References
Boswell, James. LIFE OF JOHNSON. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc. (Oxford World’s Classic Paperback). 1998, pg. 613.

This essay originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 issue of catapult magazine under the title “Half a Library.” The archives don’t seem to work.

Why we need broken things: lowering the risk of creation

Teapot with new wire handle on a round beige teapot with a cracked lid.
Broken things can be an invitation. Image © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Accepting imperfection is part of what makes us human. I’ve watched this video about the beauty of mistakes about five times already. I first saw it in a great Coursera course about creativity. Neil Gaiman’s commencement address says something similar: make mistakes and make good art.

Moving from one country to another with my family, I’ve thought a lot about the broken things. There’s this desire to take the “best” things with you. New markers, clean erasers, favorite books, jeans with whole pockets and shirts with all their buttons need apply.

In a nutshell, this doesn’t work. Junk is an inescapable part of civilization. First of all, there’s that odd phenomenon that happens with every move. The things you know you left behind came with you and a few things you knew you wanted can’t be traced. But even if you don’t move, your existing, fully-functional belongings will be happy to wear out, develop holes, break, or shrink.

Presto! Fresh junk.

For example, we have a chronic teapot problem. The tile floor and the tea lite stove conspire. Yes, empty tea pots crack under the heat of a single candle. We’ve proved it repeatedly.

At the Second Hand Kaufhaus (Kaufhaus=Department Store), I bought a replacement teapot for 20 cents. It was the “right” kind for us because it was designed to have the handle on top rather than on one side of the teapot. Only it didn’t have the handle.

Small triumphs give us courage and self-esteem. We bought molding and copper wire and paper covered wire and my youngest and I made this handle. I sawed my finger a very little bit with the dull saw, but my youngest and I were very pleased with ourselves. I wrapped it and put it on the shelf as a Christmas present for my husband.

Unfortunately, the present fell to the floor before making it under the tree. When my husband opened it, the lid had broken neatly in half.

But then came a surprising reversal: He spent Christmas afternoon with Patex glue, bonding with his “new” teapot.

(Epidemiology caveat: Not sure it’s healthy to drink tea made in a glued pot. I didn’t search PubMed to find out.)

Do we need a certain number of broken things? After this experience, I wondered if a small amount of brokenness and disorganization in our lives is an invitation to participate.

It’s a kind of redemption. When we imperfectly repair a teapot, we invest ourselves in it. There’s a little glow every time we use it that says, “I saved that.”

“Craftmanship of risk” is a concept from David Pye and mentioned in the beauty of mistakes video above. When we make something new, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of risk: maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s all for nothing.

A broken thing is an invitation to create. It invites us to take a risk. If you have a brand new house with newly painted, perfect walls, you might have to overcome inner resistance to mar the perfection with a hole to hang up a picture. A broken thing or an imperfect thing is closer to our level.

“People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.”

–From Barb Siddiqui’s review of David Pye’s THE NATURE AND ART OF WORKMANSHIP published in 1968.

If we like the work enough, if we find joy in it, even with its imperfections, we can make marvelous things. Broken things are a way to practice.

There’s another bonus to broken things: If we’re willing to fix them, that usually means someone wants them. That’s a built-in audience.

 

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