Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire
At my Wordstock workshop next weekend, one thing we’ll talk about is sniper dialogue—that short burst of speech in the middle of narrative that manages to totally redefine a particular moment or scene.
Writing good sniper dialogue is tough—for me, anyway—because you can’t rely on the back-and-forth interplay between characters. Everything depends on one line, or two, and then it’s back to narrative.
Since you have to do a lot with a little, there’s a tendency to overdo it. But it’s the underplayed dialogue that often works best in that situation.
One example I always think of is from Jon Raymond’s short story “Coast.”
A screenshot from "Coast" by Jon Raymond.
Three bursts of dialogue—four words, five words, three words—and the relationship between these two characters has changed.
I don’t know if I’ve ever written any really good sniper dialogue—when my characters start talking, they tend to keep talking—but I’m always on the lookout for it.
I’ll be talking about all kinds of dialogue at Wordstock in PDX on Saturday, October 14. The workshop I’m leading is called “Keep Talking.” Now that I see it in the program, though, I kinda wished I’d called it “Say What??” Regardless, there’s sign-up info and more details here.
“Tyrants and kings do their usual things and you try to stay out of their way.” Listen to the sniper attack of electric guitar that animates the acoustic background of Seger’s “Won’t Stop.”
Seger: “I'm using a lot of acoustic guitar and then saving the electric stuff for these real razor solos, kind of like sneak attack songs." May 14, 1998, The Oakland Press
What do you do with a character who won’t say anything on the page? Or one who won’t shut up? I’m running a workshop on dialogue at the Wordstock Festival in PDX in a week or so. By then, I hope to find the answers to these and other questions.
I had both extremes in Wire to Wire—a character who wouldn’t speak unless you poked him with a stick and one who blabbed on for pages. The one who wouldn’t shut up was a lot more fun to write.
To get ready for the workshop, I’m making a list of things I want to address. Here’s what’s on it so far:
- Dialogue as character poetry
Characters who don’t talk
Characters who talk too much
Dialogue as story information – exceptions where it works
How many people in a scene can talk?
Real vs. real-sounding vs. clever dialogue
Importance of the cut-away
Situations where no one should talk
Story clues in dialogue
Delillo dialogue/McCarthy dialogue
Swearing in dialogue
Sometime in the next ten days, I’ll get an outline together to make sense of all that. With examples from Robert Stone, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jon Raymond, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem and maybe other people named John as well.
The workshop is on Saturday, October 13 at 4:30. It’ll be fun and maybe even helpful. You can sign up here.
One minute and fifty-six seconds of garage rock that will never die: The Music Machine’s “Talk Talk.” Sean Bonniwell R.I.P.
A book can take you far. In the past 14 months, Wire to Wire has taken me to Michigan three times, New York twice, and to California, Minnesota, and Washington once each. Michael Slater and I have crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the Mackinac Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge on our way to readings and events.
In Michigan alone I logged more than 3,000 miles. I got my rental car stuck in the sand of Lake Michigan, got lost looking for Canada, re-met friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years, helped a desperate man contact his parole officer, and talked with a prosecutor who claimed he’s put all my characters in jail.
Since W2W was published in May 2011, I’ve done 37 readings or events, easily earning the title of The Hardest Working Man in Train-Hopping, Glue-Sniffing, Quasi-Crime-Novel Indie Lit. What else may hap, they’ll never take that away from me.
Thirty-seven stops in 14 months: Wire to Wire Book Tour
After all that, last week’s reading at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers seems like the perfect ending. I’d been a student at Squaw Valley in 1986 and 1992, workshopping early versions of W2W. I went back last week to read with six other Squaw Valley alumni and was overwhelmed by the amazing line-up of talent and the generosity of everyone there.
I owe a lot of thanks to everyone along the way, and to the wonderful people at Tin House. For now, it’s good to be back in the treehouse. The book I'm working on these days is about a guitar player with a missing finger, a banker with a missing kidney, and a woman with a missing friend. It's called AUX IN. If you see me on the streets, ask me why I'm not home working on it.
W2W: From the treehouse to Michigan and back in couple of short decades.
The song of the wheels is ride: Jimi Hendrix, "Hear My Train A' Comin."
Part two of the Michigan W2W tour starts soon. This time Zane will be with me – my son's 19, yet somehow I’ve convinced him to spend 8 days on the road with me in my home state.
We’ll visit libraries in Warren, Howard City, Curtis, and Sault Ste. Marie. When we’re not talking about Wire to Wire, Bob Seger, freight trains, or anything else that’s on your mind, we’ll be taking it easy, taking any comfort we can find. If you’re from Michigan, you know what song that’s from. And if you don’t, come out and see us and all will be revealed.
Zane hasn’t been to Michigan since he was 4, so it’s also a chance for me to show him where I grew up, near the tracks outside Jackson, Michigan.
We’ll also stop in Frankfort, which I call Wolverine in Wire to Wire. And we’ll go to the real town of Wolverine, which I call Wolvertucky in the book I’m working on now. Sure, it’s confusing, but fiction was never meant to be pretty. Or maybe it was. I’d be the wrong person to ask.
View Michigan Book Tour in a larger map
The W2W tour will stop at libraries in Warren on June 6, Howard City on June 7, Curtis on June 11, and Sault Ste. Marie on June 12.
I’m especially looking forward to reading in village of Curtis – deep in Hemingway country in the Upper Peninsula. For reasons unclear to me, the library specifically requested that I read there, and folks are rolling out the red carpet: June 11 has been declared "Train Day in Curtis." Local restaurants will serve "train wrecks" and "hobo specials.” The Community Building will feature a Train Day Show and Tell. Railroad buffs are setting up a model railroad in the library. All because someone is coming 2,000 miles to talk about a book.
June 11 has been declared "Train Day in Curtis."
Also on the sightseeing itinerary: Muskegon, Petoskey, Mackinac Island and everything else I can jam into 8 long days in the Wolverine State.
So come out and say hi. It’ll be my last trip to Michigan this year…unless Seger finishes that album and starts rocking Detroit. Until then, see you on the road. Dates and details are on the map.
Timing is everything. After months of working on the new book, I’m psyched to be hitting the road again for W2W, especially since the road is taking me to NY, Michigan, and my adopted hometown of Sucker Lake (which in a way, I guess, isn't really the road. But you know what I mean.)
As April begins, I’ll be taking part in the butt-kicking Animal Farm Reading Series, which is held monthly at Public Assembly in Brooklyn. The reading organizers like to point out that all reading series are created equal, but some are more equal than others. In any case, I’m thrilled to have been invited. On April 3, I’ll be reading with Bernice L. McFadden and Eliza Factor.
Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden & The Mercury Fountain by Eliza Factor.
A couple weeks later, I get to do the first W2W event in Lake Oswego, Oregon, which I sometimes call Sucker Lake to honor the lake’s original name. (It was named after the fish, not for the people who fell for the advertising slogan “Live Where You Play” and built their mansions on its edge.)
I’ve lived in Lake O for twenty years, wrote most of W2W in the tree house here, and yet am best known for being the father of Zane Sparling, former prodigy/humor columnist for the Lake Oswego Review. (True story: A couple weeks ago I was mailing off a copy of W2W at the Lake Oswego post office, or the LOPO as some of us call it, when a stranger saw the book and asked if I was Scott Sparling. I was getting set to autograph her hoody when she told me how much she liked Zane’s writing.) In any case, I’ll be at the LO Public Library on April 17. Maybe I can convince Zane to come.
A few nights later, on April 20, I’ll join fellow Tin House writer Alexis Smith along with Jean Auel, Emily Chenoweth, Loren Christensen, Ted Coonfield, Kim Cooper Findling, April Henry, Bart King and Barbara Roberts at HomeWord Bound 2012, a fundraiser for Community Partners for Affordable Housing at the Tualatin Country Club in Tualatin, Oregon.
Glaciers by Alexis Smith
Then, Michigan. On April 28, I’ll be in Lansing at the official Library of Michigan for an event that means a lot to me: Notable Nights, the Michigan book awards ceremony honoring the top Michigan books of 2011. It’s an amazing thrill to be on the list along with Jim Harrison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michael Moore, Susan Whitall, Keith Taylor, Laura Kasischke, and more.
As part of the Notable Books program, I’ve been invited to read at the Shiawassee District Library in Owosso, Michigan, about an hour north of my biological hometown. I’ll be there on April 30. Seger fans, stop by and we’ll talk music, freight hopping, glue sniffing and anything else that’s on your mind.
Later in June, I’ll be back in Michigan again, including Detroit and a short tour of the Upper Peninsula. Can’t wait for that either.
And to get ready for all this travel: the annual trip to SXSW in Austin later this week with the incomparable Ears Two, well known to Segerfile fans. I’m looking forward to four days of Jon Dee Graham, Chuck Prophet, Alejandro Escovedo, the Black Angels, Justin Townes Earle and dozens of other bands. I’ve already made Jon Dee Graham’s “Laredo” the unofficial theme song of the next book (currently called AUX IN):
I drove home from Laredo, I had the fireflies in my head
They were lighting up a small, dark something.
They were circling round a small, dark something
They were looking for a small, dark something.
-- Jon Dee Graham
If you’re in Brooklyn, Sucker Lake, Seger Nation or Austin, shoot me a tweet or an email, or come out and say hi. It’ll be great to see you the road.
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- A Book Brahmin Essay for Shelf Awareness
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- Powell's Blog: Bob Seger
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- An Interview with Kathleen Alcala
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