Quests and voyages

It’s a truism that we travel, not only to encounter magical places and astonishing people, but to encounter ourselves anew – to deepen our understanding of who we are. Travel is always an exploration of the self, as much as the world.

I’m delighted to be collaborating with Createplace and the Queensland Writers Centre to run a workshop on travel memoir, as part of the Writing for Wellbeing series. I’ll be introducing techniques that I use regularly as a memoirist and travel writer, and encouraging participants to delve more deeply into their own stories of travel and adventure.

The workshop is called ‘Quests and Voyages: Writing about where we’ve been and what we’ve learned’. It will be held in Brisbane, at the State Library of Queensland, from 2-5pm on Sunday 8th October. You can book, and/or check out the other workshops in the series, here.

Wishing you all the best on R U OK Day? 2017.


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Shibboleth and Other Stories

Shibboleth and other stories coverMargaret River Press is an independent press operating between the Margaret River wine-growing area and the Centre for Stories in Perth, Western Australia. Each year the press publishes a small number of literary fiction and creative non-fiction titles. Margaret River Press also conducts an annual nation-wide short story competition, publishing the winners and short-listed entries in a digital and paperback anthology.

While the anthology is always a good read, this year’s collection – Shibboleth and Other Stories – is particularly impressive. Perhaps more than most years, the 2016 anthology embodies a small number of distinct themes, although several stories cross thematic categories. This sense of similar themes resonating back and forth among stories creates a sense of cohesion across the collection.

The responsibilities, successes and failures of parenthood are highlighted in at least half the stories, from the perspectives of parents (prospective, thwarted, actual, willing and reluctant) and children (in childhood, adolescence and adulthood). Several stories centre on tensions, fractures, slow disappointments and hard-won triumphs in romantic relationships, specifically marriage. A quarter of the stories are concerned with aging and the loss or distortion of memories, while at the other end of the age spectrum a few explore life-changing moments in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

The winning story, ‘Shibboleth’ by Jo Riccioni, is part of a tradition in Australian short story writing that borders on ekphrasis: a well-known work by a real-world visual artist provides the organising motif for the fictive narrative. In this instance, Doris Salcedo’s installation Shibboleth at the Tate Modern is used to structure a story about two people at once terminally interdependent and irrevocably ruptured. Tension crackles in Riccioni’s deft manipulation of phrasing, and the intimate third-person narration brings the reader viscerally inside the protagonist’s jangled emotions.

Continuing the theme of famous visual artists influencing the relationships of ordinary people, runner-up Magdalena McGuire’s ‘It Used To Be A Boyd’ introduces two women at very different stages in their lives and marriages. This story casts a spell from its offbeat opening lines: ‘Most people only get married once or twice. Eight times if they’re decadent. But I get married once a week.’ The life-affirming (while slightly alarming) vitality of the Antipodean painters, including Boyd and Perceval, underpins this vivid and uplifting gem of a story.

Interestingly, this story finds a partial mirror later in the anthology, with ‘The Memory Mirror’ by Georgina Luck. In McGuire’s story, the protagonist is a female carer at an aged care home, whose act of kindness toward an elderly woman with dementia unexpectedly strengthens the carer herself. In Luck’s story, two young male paramedics attend an elderly man with dementia. The protagonist’s life is enriched as he witnesses his colleague’s sensitive, creative handling of a fraught situation.

Among other stories in the collection that deal with aging, memory loss and the grief of mental and physical deterioration are ‘Theo’ by Phil Sparrow, winner of the Southwest Prize; the poetic ‘All the Devil’s Weed Plants’ by Mikaela Castledine; and ‘Flight’ by Penny Gibson. Each of these understated works uses the minutely-observed details of everyday life to construct a shell of normality over a welling mood of quiet despair.

The third prize winner, ‘Slacklining’ by Catherine Moffat, is described by the anthology’s editor as demonstrating a ‘quintessential Australianness’. While that’s a problematic assertion, the story powerfully evokes a very specific setting – time, place, class, ethic mix, architecture, subculture – that Australians will recognise. The humour is masterfully wry, as the protagonist’s husband and friends blithely pursue their own enthusiasms and preoccupations, oblivious to the protagonist grappling alone with the implications of her unplanned pregnancy.

Other stories focussed on pregnancy and parenthood include Rachelle Rechichi’s ‘Composition’, Helen Renwick’s ‘The Treasure Box’, and Melanie Cheng’s ‘White Sparrow’. ‘Let’s Pretend’, by Mirandi Riwoe, provides an excellent example of relego: the revelation at the end compels a re-reading of the whole story, with a new and darker understanding of what is occurring and has occurred before the story opens. Laura Elvery’s ‘Acrobat’ puts the reader in the shoes of a woman who has chosen not to have children, marvelling uneasily at another woman’s commercial exploitation of her five year-old daughter. Sue Robertson’s ‘Before They Had Teeth’ compellingly portrays a young couple struggling with bereavement, the mother uncertain what she hopes to achieve through a pilgrammage to another culture’s burial site for babies. Wes Lee’s highly inventive ‘Thirsty’ is by turns enchanting and wrenching, as the father of a disabled son strives ‘To make people laugh. To see them, take care of their needs’.

From the other side of the parent-child relationship come two ‘waiting’ stories. In Emily Paull’s ‘The Sea Also Waits’, a young man waits for his mother to come up from a free-dive in the evening ocean. In Kate Glenister’s ‘A House’, a young woman waits for the paralysis of grief to pass, desperately conjuring memories from the fabric of her dead mother’s house.

Kathy George’s story ‘Teacher’, based on true events, compassionately explores a young man’s anxious need to individuate from his parents, and the wisdom that eventually leads him to benefit from his mother’s life experience. A less supportive mother-child relationship is depicted in Catherine Noske’s ‘Brown Snake’, with Maya’s mother and aunt unable to protect her from loss of innocence, or empower her towards a happier life. Similarly, in Leslie Thiele’s ‘The Boat’, childhood abandonment leaves Victor psychologically incomplete, vulnerable to an invisible but fundamental self-doubt that finally surfaces through a ‘mid-life crisis’. The protagonist in Michelle Wright’s ‘Photographs of the Missing’, a pre-teen girl, tracks her teenage cousin Jacko’s deterioration into mental illness and wonders who she should tell, seeing his mother is ‘folded tight with bitterness’ and ‘it would cause her too much grief’.

Many of the stories mentioned above implicate the protagonist’s romantic relationships within the central tension. Others place these relationships front and centre. Chloe Wilson’s ‘The Drydown’ and Susan McCreery’s ‘Night Shift’ explicitly examine the reciprocal impacts of low self-confidence and an undermining partner on the female protagonist’s well-being. Conversely, Julie Kearney’s ‘A Fork In the Path’ features a male protagonist so undermined by his wife, who sees him as ‘timid’ and ‘a pathetic wimp’, that he almost fails to muster the courage to respond to a desperate plea for help.

‘Le Farfalle’, by Cassie Hamer, brings a touch of magic realism to an acutely-located moment of first love: young Joe, ‘dago’ child of Italian immigrants who is barely tolerated by his schoolmates in 1950s Australia, bonds with fresh-off-the-boat Francesca over Joe’s grandfather’s butterfly collection.

Shibboleth and Other Stories will reward readers and students of the short story form. It is available here:

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Queensland Poetry Festival

qpf2016-web-banner-03.04This is a blog about fiction, but there’s no reason a fiction writer shouldn’t also write poetry. For those who do, check out the Queensland Poetry Festival – entries closing soon! Queensland Poetry Festival

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Beautiful white bunny rabbit sitting in front of burrow in ground

Queensland Writers Centre periodically offers a ‘Rabbithole’ – a weekend where you pack up your notebook/computer/clay tablet or whatever you write on, head in to QWC headquarters, sit round a nice big table in air-conditioned comfort with a bunch of other writers – and write! I love the studious atmosphere, the sense of support, and the general feeling that writing is a valuable activity to which it is entirely legitimate to devote uninterrupted time – loads of it.

This weekend I wasn’t able to score a seat at the table, so I took myself off to lovely lively Grange Library and participated from a distance. The event gives you permission to shirk all other responsibilities and social commitments, and just write. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world – you can link in via Facebook, and enjoy a sense of connection with other writers while you get on with manifesting the people in your head.

I managed about 10,000 words on a new MS, and a detailed outline of the story. As an inveterate plotter, I was thrilled with the experience of writing 10,000 words by ‘pantsing’ (writing by the seat of your pants, without a plan to follow).

Can thoroughly recommend the Rabbithole as a way to stop procrastinating and put your Work In Progress first. Most of us, in our busy lives, seem to need that permission and encouragement. Many thanks, QWC!

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5 Tips and Tricks for Submission to: The Lane of Unusual Traders – Stage 2 – 31 May (HT: @tinyowlworkshop)

Some tips from Tom Dullemond, my fellow-judge for The Lane of Unusual Traders Stage 2. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Literarium - The Blog

I’ve just finished reading and judging (ie. slushing) the Flash Fiction component of the Lane of Unusual Traders Part 2. The Lane is a part of a large collaborative world building project managed by the excellent Tiny Owl Workshop crew, based in sunny Brisbane, Australia.

As part of reading through the submissions, I thought I would give some tips and observations to any potential submitters to the Short Story component of the submission window (due May 31, people). I’m judging for that too, so you probably should pay attention if you want a submitting edge.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about at all, check out the market listing link above, or go here to the ‘LoUT’ homepage for a quick introduction:

Finished? Keen to submit? Cool, then read on!

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??????????????????????Writing is a creative process. Sure, it’s hard work and needs to be taken seriously – sometimes. But at the very beginning of a story, or when you hit a boggy patch, take time to play.
Julia Cameron speaks of “listening to our artist child within”. Allowing ourselves to be childish – to play – is essential to the creative process. I’ve written elsewhere about the distinction between so-called left and right brain “modes”: the left mode being more serial, rational, logical and quantitative; and the right more parallel, intuitive, connective and performative. Play can help you move from left-brain mode (required to write operational plans and budgets) to right-brain mode (required to write stories). Depending on our day jobs, some of us need more help than others to make the switch!
Artists play in different ways. Here are some of my play techniques: I’d love to hear about yours.
I enjoy buying stationery – even just browsing the aisles! – and the main facet that attracts me is colour. I make bright colours a routine element of my writing practice and environment, so something as boring as filing a note or a sketchy draft paragraph becomes fun. Each of my draft novels is allocated a box-file, in a colour that relates to the novel’s content. My first novel actually had the working title “Blue”.
I use playful symbols of the elements to redress imbalances of mood. My office is furnished with many candle holders, for when I feel dark and stodgy and in need of fire. A wind-chime reminds me to be light and airy; a desk-top water-feature encourages a sense of fluidity. Rocks help me get grounded. Some of my coloured touchstones represent particular qualities, and I’ll hold one or put it on my desk while writing to remind me of that quality, whether I need it for myself or a character. The meanings attached to my touchstones are purely idiosyncratic. For example, the turquoise reminds me of an editor friend who often wears that colour, and who is extremely good at organising herself to focus on the task at hand. When I need to channel Helena, I carry the turquoise around!

A number of my novels are written in first person, two in the form of journals. To write my YA novel, I selected a visual arts diary of the kind I thought my character Storm would love, with thick creamy pages and stout spiral binding. I bought coloured gel pens, and wrote in whatever colour I imagined Storm would select to express her mood at the time. When I began my fantasy/steam-punk/weird novella, The Serial Journal of Phileas Postlethwaite, I had just been given as a birthday present a mock leather-bound journal that tied with a thong. The giver intended me to use it on an upcoming tall ship voyage, since it suited the period, but I had to buy another notebook as my ship’s journal – I had filled up the gift with Phileas’ reflections on his weird world!

I didn’t dress up to write as Phileas, but I did to write as Storm. In the novel, Storm has a favourite jumper with black-and-white striped sleeves. That was a jumper I’d picked up in an op shop, and often wore when I was writing as Storm, especially in the hard bits!

???????????????????????????????Visual arts
I’m highly visual, so I like to play with visual arts materials. Coloured modelling clay is a favourite, to get into playful space. Drawing exercises are great for integrating left and right brain ways of perceiving and creating. Try making a collage as a way to explore your character, setting, or theme.
Other toys
I use a range of playful knickknacks to encourage a creative state of mind. A mini Zen garden is an aid to quieting unhelpful racing thoughts. As I dismantle the previous pattern, rake the sand smooth and create something new, I can feel my brain slowing down, thinking more deeply and richly about what I want to write. A few minutes of three-ball juggling helps integrate the left and right sides of my brain and body, while contact juggling one or two balls steadies my breathing and enhances my focus. If I need to get energized, I turn to a skipping rope or hula hoop!

???????????????????????????????Depending on your interests, the options are probably limitless. Just make sure your playthings are easily accessible, so the play can happen the moment you’re ready for it, and writing can flow from the play.
What about you – how do you play, to help you write?

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mitsake608x1Proof-reading, say all the self-help books, is vital. A manuscript riddled with typos and grammatical errors conveys a lack of respect for yourself, your work, and your reader. It’s just sloppy, and there’s no excuse for it.

As a writer, I agree. It’s wince-worthy to re-read your manuscript after you’ve sent it – or worse, after it’s published – and notice a typo. Probably the only one in the whole piece, but it’s a dirty fly in your fragrant ointment: you’ll flinch at the mention of that piece for the rest of your days.

As submissions reader for a journal, I’m much more forgiving. It irritates me in passing to note a typo that hasn’t been weeded out of a submitted manuscript. I’m more bothered by an error of grammar or punctuation that doesn’t look like failed proof-reading – the writer simply doesn’t know it’s wrong. But to be honest, if the story’s marvellous, those details won’t bother me. They’re what editing’s for.

Let’s agree that rendering the manuscript pristine is desirable. Now we have a problem. It’s all very well for the gurus to urge “proof-read thoroughly, then proof-read again”. The human brain is not designed to proof-read.

Probably everyone on the internet knows the meme on the right. The trick uses the brain’s self-organising skills against it. The numbers come first, and are light against a dark background instead of the more familiar dark on light: these features encourage us to see the numbers as more important than the sentence below. Our lifetime’s experience of school tests and Spot the Difference puzzles has accustomed us to the paradigm of task-plus-instruction, in which we process the instruction but focus on what appears to be the task. And long familiarity with written English, the brain’s capacity for auto-correction, and our perceptual bias towards closure, cause us to read what should be there rather than what actually is there. For most of us, reading is an over-learned skill – something we do automatically and can’t stop ourselves from doing (try not reading a billboard). Our unconscious mind, like a good butler, helpfully fills in the missing word or “fixes” the incorrect phrase, allowing our conscious mind to go blithely about its business never knowing there was a thing out of place. Great, for reading. Not great for proof-reading.

Of course you can choose to consciously pay attention to every word. That’ll last about three lines. The conscious mind quickly gets tired of doing a job it doesn’t usually do. We read for meaning, translating the words on the page into people and settings and smells and emotions and the gleam of a sword and the tension of what’s going to happen next. We don’t read to check if there’s one squiggly line on the page or two in the place where two squiggly lines are needed to correctly spell the word “squiggly”.

So, how can we proof-read more successfully?

1. Get someone else to do it. Sometimes it’s worth paying a professional copy-editor, who’s trained their conscious mind to notice squiggly lines. A friend, long-suffering partner or writing buddy may not be infallible, but they’ll probably do a better job than you. You’ve agonised over every word, rewritten every phrase two or three different ways; you’re bound to miss that “the” or “a” left over from a previous version. To fresh eyes, it will stick out like a broken finger. If you have three or four people proof-read, hopefully between them they’ll pick up everything.

2. If you’re not 100% confident of your spelling, punctuation and grammar skills, have someone more knowledgeable in these areas read your work. Don’t rely on your word processor’s spell-checking function. Your word processor has never read a novel, it can’t always spell and it definitely makes grammatical errors. I’ve had editors “correct” my work by taking advice from a spell-checker, and those corrections were wrong, so very wrong. You don’t need an algorithm, you need a pedant.

3. Read backwards. Begin at the end of the story and read each sentence in turn, working back to the beginning. You’re less likely to get caught up in the flow of the narrative and miss the errors on the page.

4. Start in the middle and do a paragraph. Then jump to an earlier paragraph. Then a later one. Keep going till you’ve proof-read the whole piece, completely out of order.

5. Read carefully and consciously, no more than a paragraph at a time, then take a break. Come back in a while and do another paragraph. And so on. Your proof-reading faculty fatigues quickly: keep coming back with it fresh, and stop before it gets lazy. Combine this strategy with 3, 4 and/or 6.

6. Read aloud. Combine this strategy with 3, 4 and/or 5.

7. Make sure you check the title, and any subheadings or captions. As the meme teaches us, we often read with blind spots. More than once I’ve seen a piece with pitch-perfect text, but some glaring titular error – in, of course, the largest font on the page.

How about you – what proof-reading strategies do you use?

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In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #17 ‘Calliope’, Morpheus punishes a writer by overwhelming him with ideas for stories. ‘They’re coming so fast,’ gasps the writer, ‘swamping me, overwhelming me…’

Like most writers, I occasionally wonder what I’ve done to offend Morpheus.

Margaret Atwood seems to have the same problem. She recently responded to the question, ‘How do you generate ideas for stories?’ with the pithy comment ‘I have too many ideas – no need to generate them!’ (

newt in a fountainIt’s the classic clichéd reader-to-writer question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ As if ideas are rare and precious things – diamonds – we must scratch and search and dig for, and hoard once we find them. Keith Johnstone, granddaddy of performance improvisation, points out that ideas are all around us, inside and out, flowing through us every minute of every day – we exist in a gushing torrent of ideas, like newts in a fountain. Being ‘stuck for an idea’, Keith says, means we’re blocking our own creativity: judging and rejecting perfectly good ideas before we’ve even let them into consciousness.

The real question is not ‘Where do you get ideas?’ but ‘What happens to turn ideas into stories?’ Well, a lot of things.


John Gregory Dunne said the thing most necessary to being a writer is always having the means at hand to record an idea when it strikes you. Joan Diderot, in her 1996 essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, said her notebooks were full of ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use’ – moments, impressions, that later might get woven into something substantial. I use the voice recorder function on my phone; I have friends who use Google Docs. Find tools that work for you, and catch those passing ideas.


I don’t know about you, but my time and energy are limited. Sometimes a story idea seizes my brain and won’t let go: it saves me the trouble of prioritising by insisting, ‘I go first!’ Unfortunately, the initial flush of energy rarely lasts long enough to finish the story before a new idea starts pushing and shoving, demanding attention. I do as much as I can with one idea – making sure it’s all written down or recorded – before I get distracted. That way at least I’ve got something to come back to when time and brainspace allow.

Sometimes, a particular competition or publication opportunity looms. That makes prioritisation easier: if you know one idea is more suitable than others for the length of story required, the theme, or the judges, you can focus on it.


You have an idea you really like. Now, what form will best serve the communication of this idea? Is it a poem? A prose poem or a sestina? Is it a song lyric? A rap or an anthem? A rap anthem? Maybe it’s a huge idea with lots of ramifications to unpack. A novel, then? Or is it a delicate, intricate, tiny but powerful idea, perfect for a piece of flash fiction? You might not be sure until you begin to write, but often the idea itself suggests certain forms and gives the thumbs-down to others.


One idea does not a story make. I have a colleague who won’t begin a story until he has three unrelated ‘elements’, or ideas, to combine. He writes about these elements with the aim of drawing them together, and the process of doing this generates new ideas.

This is where it’s useful to have lots of ideas sitting around in various stages of development. Maybe Idea X isn’t strong enough to drive a whole story on its own – but combined with Y and Z, it’s a winner.

Expanding and exploring

An idea just popped into your head – in the shower, at the theatre, over dinner with your in-laws. What is it about this idea that’s triggered your writerly instincts? Different writers explore ideas in different ways. I like to brainstorm a fresh idea, with pen and paper or onto the voice recorder, before trying to write about it. My writing buddy will mull the idea over while walking the dog, then sit down and begin slowly and thoughtfully writing the story. Whatever your process, what you’re doing at this point is exploring and expanding the idea – ‘extending’, in impro theatre terms. See where it goes. Investigate what other ideas it brings in its train. Decide where you want to put the limits around it, for the purposes of this particular tale. The process will continue as you write, rewrite and edit the story, but it’s nice to devote some serious time to ‘exploring the idea’ right at the start.


Yup, the bit where the rubber meets the road. One of my uni lecturers memorably told the class, ‘Ideas are beautiful. They live in a beautiful place called Ideas-Land. As soon as you start trying to wrestle them through to the plane we live on, they inevitably get mangled. Your skill as a writer lies in your ability to unmangle them, and return them to a semblance of their original beauty.’ I was profoundly relieved to discover I was not the only idea-mangler.ideas land

You get a choice of exercises this week. Select freely, according to your current need.

  1. Review how you capture ideas. Do you have a system? Could it work better, perhaps by using different tools?
  2. Practise prioritising. Are you dithering around among too many projects, too many ideas? Pick one and make some real progress on it. Capture intrusive competing ideas and set them aside until you get a tangible outcome from Idea Number One.
  3. Go through your Random Ideas file and note down at least 3-4 different forms in which you could imagine this idea at home (e.g. flash fiction piece with a satirical tone, murder mystery, sit-com episode, sonnet, etc.) Cast your net wide. Which of these are you interested in writing? Note down one form you think definitely wouldn’t suit this idea. Why not? You might be surprised what you learn about the idea itself through doing this exercise.
  4. If you’re feeling playful, pick three ideas that seem completely unrelated. Give yourself a time limit (5 or 10 minutes). Write the first draft of a piece that brings those seemingly disparate ideas together.
  5. Take one idea and explore it in a way you normally wouldn’t. Go for a walk (or a bike-ride, drive, kayak etc.) and dedicate your brain to exploring that idea until you get back. Flip through magazines looking for images that illustrate the idea in some way, and create a collage. Use butcher’s paper and coloured pens to make a concept map. Assemble a soundtrack that explores various facets of the idea. Improvise an expressive dance. The point is to try something you haven’t tried before, and in doing so equip yourself with new techniques for creating the idea-to-story bridge. Feel free to Comment and share your own techniques. Happy writing!

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at


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‘Realistic’ dialogue

I recently read a draft of a colleague’s story. I was thoroughly enjoying the tension, the mystery, the literary craft of the tale – until, a third of the way into the story, the focal character began to speak.

He was an old man fold yorkshire manrom an English country area, and the writer had him using the idiomatic expressions of his class and county in a manner she later assured me was authentic: her great-uncles had spoken exactly that way.

Not only did the character speak entirely in dialect expressions, he also said exactly what one would expect him to say in his situation – his dialogue was made up of clichés. A fiercely independent old codger, he was refusing to go into a nursing home, and constantly made statements like ‘There’s life in me old bones yet’. My colleague reminded me that people do speak in clichés quite a lot: they’re the expressions that spring to mind because we’ve heard them so often. The dialogue, she insisted, was ‘realistic’. She’s probably right.

The problem is that, as a reader, I was jarred out of the ‘reality’ of the story the moment I began to read this character’s dialogue. My suspension of disbelief was shattered; instead of remaining immersed in the fictional world, I surfaced. For me, the tone of the story shifted abruptly from literary fiction to caricature. I can identify two reasons for this.

Firstly, we’re all accustomed to minor characters in novels, films, and (especially) TV shows, speaking entirely in clichéd colourful expressions to indicate their local, low-class status. Along with costume, it’s a short-hand way to tell the reader or viewer ‘this is all you need to know about this character – he or she is the equivalent of a Shakespearian mechanical, performing a function in the plot’. I’m sure there are real West Country people who say ‘Happen we mun’ do this or that. There are certainly real Australians – my dad among them – who say ‘Blimey Charlie’ and ‘strike a light’, but I know that as soon as I put these expressions in a character’s mouth, the Australian reader’s mind will switch from literature to television. Americans might consider their reaction to ‘Boy howdy’ or ‘Git along now’. We’re all steeped in the convention that certain geographically-linked idiomatic expressions indicate a particular kind of character not to be taken seriously.

Secondly, when a character who speaks a local dialect is intended to be taken seriously, the writer signals this, and uses various techniques to encourage the reader to look beyond the character’s surface presentation. The character usually won’t speak in clichés or catch-phrases: he or she will say things that are startling, provocative, evasive, intriguing, strange, witty, or otherwise unexpected. Sometimes, especially in genres like noir, thriller or police drama, the character speaks very little actual dialogue. Sometimes the character has a high degree of control over his or her use of language – a good example is Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, who chooses carefully whether to speak Italian, English or Venetian in any given situation, and consciously makes his accent and choice of vocabulary coarser or more refined depending on the effect he’s aiming to have on his interlocutors.

So, in literary fiction, we expect to see sophistication in the use of language, within the character’s dialogue, or at least in the interplay between dialogue and what happens around it. The fact that a character speaks in dialect or local idiom doesn’t disqualify him or her from the role of central character – but the writer needs to be aware of how cross-media conventions can undermine the desired effect of a character’s speech.

I’m reminded of a satirical scene I once saw, in which a writer’s work is being produced for television. The scene calls for a horse, so the writer is startled to see a saddled cow being led onto set. ‘It’s okay,’ the director assures the writer. ‘Horses don’t look like horses on TV; we have to use cows, cunningly painted.’ ‘What do you use for cows, then?’ ‘Two actors in a suit.’ Numerous sound effects for radio are produced by means other than the obvious: the sound of a farm gate closing can be mimicked by shutting up an ironing board, ice clinking in a glass may actually be dominoes, and kneeling on a pile of old cassette tape while squelching your hands in a bowl of yoghurt then dropping a wet towel off your shoulder creates a good approximation of a lamb being born ( Apparently, a microphone stuck down a geyser near Rotorua produces the sound of the inner workings of Mordor – but at least that makes sense.mordor

My point is, medium places demands on content. For fiction purposes, it’s not enough to write ‘realistic’ dialogue. As writers’ self-help books constantly remind us, in ‘real’ speech people um and ah, don’t complete their sentences, leave out key words, talk over one another, and sometimes say nothing at all, yet meaning is conveyed in a conversation through tone, gesture, facial expression and so on. These aspects of communication can only be reproduced in a limited way as words on paper. And, of course, in a piece of writing it’s not just the participants in the conversation who must understand each other: the reader needs to process the conversation in the context of the characters and their wider situation. So as writers creating characters, we must ask more of our dialogue than mere ‘realism’.

An exercise:

Look at a piece of your recent writing that features dialogue. Think about what is conveyed to the reader about each character through their speech: the words they use, the length and grammatical correctness of their sentences, the use of idiomatic expressions or slang, and so on. Does the dialogue ‘place’ the character in terms of age, gender, social background, geographical location, and so on? Does the character adjust his or her speech to suit different situations? If your character uses clichés, what effect do these have on the reader – do they build character or undermine it? Are any aspects of the dialogue working against your purposes as the writer of this story? Discuss with a writing buddy or reflective reader.

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at

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Fiction Southeast

Fiction Southeast bannerI’ve just joined the staff of Fiction Southeast, an online journal dedicated to short fiction. You can check it out here. A wealth of short fiction, including an audio series, and great articles, reviews and interviews to inspire and encourage writers and readers.

To quote from the About page:

‘Fiction Southeast is an online literary journal dedicated to short fiction. The journal was founded by Editor, Chris Tusa, and Editor-at-Large, Michael Garriga. We publish fiction weekly (every Thursday) as well as an occasional essay, review, or interview on Mondays. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Aimee Bender, Donald Ray Pollock, RT Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Martone, Ron Carlson, and many others.

‘The mission of Fiction Southeast is to showcase short fiction from today’s most promising writers and to create an online literary journal that allows readers to quickly and easily access quality writing from their laptops, tablets, and cell phones. Since electronic reading devices (and to some extent laptops for that matter) make reading long pieces of writing less enjoyable, we have chosen to dedicate the journal to “short fiction,” in this case, fiction which is approximately 1500 words or less in length. Aside from limiting the stories we publish to less than 1500 words, we have also implemented a READ NOW feature for every story/article on the site (just above the article/story title) that allows the user to increase the font, export to epub format, even save in Kindle format.’

I’m looking forward to working with these guys. Please come across and take a look.


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