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Well, it’s over, and we judges have had a blast. It looks like you people did too. In all, we received 38 entries. Only a couple failed on word count, a couple of others didn’t stick rigidly to dialogue, but most of you were very good and complied with the rules. Even managing to make something from what was a tricky picture prompt.
Yes, that is me, and that is a giant tortoise; my family spent a day behind the scenes at London Zoo, including feeding these magnificent reptiles. My daughter is responsible for capturing me having the brief catch up…
Before we get down to the business end a few general thoughts:
- In a fair few cases, there was still some ‘telling’. When you only have 99 words you really mustn’t. You have to leave a lot to the reader’s imagination, let them work it out. Sometimes the best entries are those we had to come back to, to find the hidden gems.
- I’m often guilty of penning a snippet, making a joke but to win these competitions you need depth. A story hinted at perhaps but something more than just those 99 words. A character we care about also gains a bonus tick.
- Use the title. These are free words. Clever titles, puns, and word plays are all very neat, and I love them, but if you use them to help the judges understand something about your story, you don’t need to then explain it in the story.
Ok, so let’s get down to cases. We liked a lot of what we read; we also disagreed (except the winner – that stood out). So this is how it goes. Each of us has chosen a story we liked, but the others felt they couldn’t push it higher into a place; these we have given a Honourable Mention.
From Judge: Chelsea Owen
Man to Man By Deborah Shaw-Wagner
“You seem like a wise old thing. May I ask a question?”
“Well, I don’t know from wise, but I’m old enough. Ask away.”
“It’s just you’re the first I’ve come across where I feel comfortable asking. You look like you’ve seen a thing or two.”
“Or three, sure.”
“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m having woman trouble. We don’t move through life at the same pace.”
“Can’t she slow down? Can’t you speed up? Compromise?”
“We’ve tried. Nothing works.”
“Then maybe it’s time to move on.”
“I live in a giant terrarium! How far am I going to get?”
Chelsea says: This piece had several interesting elements in it, including a tortoise asking advice of Geoff (the old and wise man) and Geoff then asking whether the tortoise might need to ‘speed up’ or ‘slow down’ regarding his ‘women trouble.’
I felt the take was clever, and appreciated the author’s following the parameters set up. If it would have had a definite story arc and less of just a conversation snippet, I think it could have bumped up to top three for sure.
From Judge Esther Chilton
Of Old Men, Teens, and Tortoises By Nidheesh Samant (The Dark Netizen)
“Do you see that old man there? The one talking to the turtle.”
“Yep, I see him. He’s looking like a retard.”
“Hahaha! These senile old farts, I tell you. I bet he believes that the tortoise over there understands what he is saying.”
“I guess it can’t be helped. Comes with old age.”
* * *
“You see that girl there, Mr. Tortoise? The one who’s looking here and talking to herself. I bet she’s making fun of me.”
“Teenagers, I tell you. They think everyone else is an idiot. I bet they also think tortoises don’t speak.”
Esther says: I chose this as my HM because I like the two different viewpoints. The first is the teenagers’ viewpoints and what they make of the man and tortoise. Having a teenager myself and being around them quite a bit, I could imagine teenage girls thinking along these very lines! Being critical, some of the dialogue could be made tighter and perhaps doesn’t reflect how teenagers speak these days. But the concept is excellent.
The second viewpoint is from the man and the tortoise. Just as the teenagers are mocking them, they replay the compliment. There is some slight confusion with the line ‘The one who’s looking here and talking to herself’, whereas in the photo, there are two teenage girls together, and as there is a clear conversation going on between them in the first half of the story, this line doesn’t quite gel.
But, overall, the idea is great; it’s a neat little story, which makes the reader smile. The two different viewpoints give it that something and they tie in together nicely.
From Judge Geoff Le Pard
A Shell of His Former Self By Bill Engleson
“That it would last longer?”
“It lasted as long as it did.”
“I suppose. But that’s not much of an answer.”
“Hmmm! Do you really have a question?”
“Of course. It seems like it has ended…far too soon.”
“It always does. But what did you expect? Advance notice?”
“Maybe. Why not?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because LIFE is all the notice you’re entitled to. By all accounts, you’ve had a good one.”
“And still have, right?”
“Time does flit.”
“You are so fucking cryptic.”
“I’ve been told that. Regardless. Better pack your bags.”
Geoff says: I enjoyed the premise of the Tortoise as a sort of grim reaper, preparing the man to meet his end. The philosophical conversation was great, about getting some notice of impending death and there still being time, like the tortoise is playing with the man but at the end letting him down not very gently with ‘Better pack your bags’. When we discussed it, we felt it lacked that something more, the suggestion of a bigger story here which the opening exchanges might have been used to incorporate. It meant, eventually, we didn’t feel the necessary warmth towards the characters to push this onto the podium. It made me laugh, though and that always leaves a nice glow.
Ok, so now the places. Drum roll….
(receives a digital copy of Apprenticed To My Mother, by Geoff Le Pard)
Seems terminal By Anne Goodwin
“I’ve seen some serious cases, but this.”
“Should’ve taken precautions.”
“They don’t all end up in this state?”
“Not the ones who exercise self-control.”
“But isn’t it addictive? No going back once you’ve hit that high.”
“No return to normal, admittedly. But lots draw the line at earwigging on conversations on the bus.”
“Wouldn’t you be curious, though? Wouldn’t you want to inhabit the mind of a tortoise? Or a former lawyer obsessed with words?”
“Sure, if it were reversible.”
“How do you know it’s not?”
“Go and talk to the tortoise. Betcha he answers to Geoff.”
Chelsea says: I believe we liked the unique approach to this prompt. It was two persons engaged in conversation, and was a story based on the picture but not specifically ABOUT the picture Geoff included. Also, it had a twist and a bit of humor.
A really nit-picky suggestion would be to clear up some continuity between the first part of their conversation and the last sentence. I get the idea they are talking about THE tortoise they can see, even standing over him. Then, one says to the other, “GO and talk to the tortoise” like they are not near him.
Esther Says: Again, this story hooks the reader right from the start. What’s serious and so tragic? Gradually, all becomes clear. It’s a witty, amusing story and uses the prompt in a great way, reversing the roles of who’s actually who in the photo. The last sentence is a belter, making the story finish on a high.
Being picky, the dialogue in the middle could be improved – the paragraph beginning ‘No return to normal…’ is slightly wordy.
Geoff says: It’s a piece that full of potential in what’s really going on and how the conversation is probably taking the man somewhere too far. There’s a lot of nicely judged humour and a great last line.
Roll those drums again, and we come to:
(receives a digital copy of Esther’s book of short stories, the Siege)
Untitled By Sarah Brentyn
“Mr. Le Pard?”
“He’s not here.”
“Isn’t that him?”
“Yes. It is.”
“Okay. Well I need to deliver—”
“He’s not here at the moment.”
“But he’s right there. You just said.”
“He’s probably at the park…maybe the zoo.”
“You must be new.”
“Well, yes. Today’s my first day. I’m Susan. I told him that earlier but he called me Shelley.”
“Ah, the zoo it is then. He’s off visiting his friend, Shelley, the tortoise. No telling when he’ll be back. Just leave the lunch tray, Susan. One of the nurses can bring his meds back later.”
Chelsea says: I think I mostly enjoyed the idea of Geoff being crazy and on medication. He IS speaking with a tortoise, for Pete’s sake. The dialogue was believable and did not leave me scratching my head as to who was speaking and what he/she intended with his phrases.
-With the exception of a bit of a muddy patch there in the “Isn’t that him? / Yes. It is. / Okay / Well I need to deliver— / He’s not here at the moment. / But he’s right there. You just said.” That was a tad confusing with Geoff later being revealed as being at the zoo visiting his friend.
Esther says: The story, which has been awarded second place intrigues right from the start. There’s confusion between our two conversationalists. This hooks the reader and makes them want to know what’s going on. The reality is a sad one, and it’s so poignant. The last line is very understated yet finishes the story powerfully.
Nonetheless, the writer does overexplain the ending, and so the last couple of paragraphs are a little clunky.
Geoff says: There’s so much warmth and poignancy here. It confuses, deliberately so at the start, and that echoes the man’s confusion. And the ending, the inherent sympathy of the carers allowing him his time ‘inside’ is delightfully done. So much we want to know about, about the time at the zoo, the other place he visits. As already foreshadowed by my fellow judges there were a couple of places where we felt the dialogue clunked a little at the end. But a great piece. (thought what’s with the lack of title…?)
And now, for the drums and the fireworks and the whizz-bangs and applause and jazz hands and all kinds of cacophony we have…
The winning entry
The biggest of stars
The flashista extraordinaire
(takes home a cool $25.00 and all the accolades)
No Title By Sarah Brentyn
“Mommy, that man’s kissing the tortoise.”
“He’s not kiss…oh, dear God. Zookeeper!”
“What seems to be the problem, Ma’am?”
“Ah, yes. Sad state of affairs, that is. And it’s a tortoise.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Not much I can do, you understand.”
“I do NOT understand.”
“Can’t just magically change the situation, now can I?”
“You must do something. The turtle—”
“Whatever! Stop giggling, Jenny.”
“Don’t worry, Ma’am. We’ve hired a witch to reverse the spell. Should be here next week. He’ll have his wife back then. Enjoy your day.”
Chelsea says: This story was one of my favorites from the start, in terms of humor, interesting dialogue, and incorporating more than one speaker. The words flowed rather well, which made for smooth reading. I was also able to picture the characters; I believe I may have started assigning each a tone and a certain lilt to his/her speech.
I have only highly critical suggestions of what could be improved (especially considering it won first place). First, a few bits in the ending phrase are confusing without the aid of the picture. Second, even more, distinct voices would help in piecing out who is speaking -though, as-is, that’s not difficult to figure out.
Esther says: Our winning story stands out as it interprets the prompt very well, the dialogue flows and is realistic, and it’s a complete story in itself. I also like the gradual build-up towards the climax, where all is revealed. It’s a light, fun story and leaves the reader with a warm glow.
If there’s any criticism, and it’s only very slight, perhaps there could be more ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ in the last paragraph.
Geoff says: On first read this won. Then I read it again and again and it won again. It has so much. Three people and you know exactly who is speaking – that takes real skill. There’s humour, there’s a twist, there’s a larger story as to how the man’s wife was turned into a tortoise and why, there’s a nice fantasy about it, there’s time for a little parental correction ‘stop giggling Jenny’ as well as the parent twice being corrected that we have a tortoise not a turtle and all in 99 words. If there’s anything to say to improve it, I think the last paragraph might benefit from reworking – given everything else here it feels almost like unnecessarily lengthy exposition… but I really am being picky.
So there you have it. The benefits of completely blind judging means our winner and our second placed entrant is one and the same: Sarah Brentyn.
Take a bow, smarty pants….
Read the full collection at Rodeo #1: Dialog.
I sit and listen to news of blisteringly cold gales, snow falls, and marvel at photos of these dumps of snow on Facebook and Instagram. We are still in summer here with no evidence of autumn being around the corner and no doubt those in the northern hemisphere will be wondering if they will ever come in from the cold.
This puts me in mind of memoir as a genre. Will it ever come in from the cold and be given the value it deserves. Despite Frank McCourt and Mary Karr who are credited with being the first to move memoir up a notch in people’s estimation, memoir is still talked of in hushed tones. Writer’s of memoir often seem a little embarrassed that this is the genre they write. Other writers might quickly say, “I don’t write memoir.” What is the problem with owning our own story? Is it a lesser story because it happened to us? Does it say something about us because we want to tell it? No story has to be told and if yours is one that you don’t wish to share there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We do share our stories though. Every anecdote we relate is a small memoir told in an oral tradition. I researched memoir for my masters and discovered that memoir as a genre is new to scholarly examination. I also discovered that not many realise that memoir is captured in the genre creative nonfiction.
What is creative nonfiction? Lee Gutkind, the father of creative nonfiction, describes it as a “true story well told.”
The best creative nonfiction in Gutkinds opinion is where the public (books such as True Blood, The life of Henrietta Lacks) moves closer to the private end by giving some personal detail and the private end (which includes memoir and personal essays) includes some public information.
If we are looking at ‘true stories well told’ where does the creative come in? It does not mean making the story up. Once you do this, you have moved from nonfiction to fiction. The creative has been found to cause some confusion, and other names (narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction) are often interchanged in the hope of giving a little more clarity. The creative is referring to using storytelling techniques from fiction to tell the true story. There are three major elements used: 1) dialogue; 2) high definition descriptions of scenes and 3) manipulation of time. It was these features that McCourt and Karr used skilfully creating a true story that people wanted to read.
In memoir writing, it is now widely accepted that all these elements are acceptable despite being made up elements. Dialogue serves the same purpose in memoir as it does in fiction. It develops or reveals the people who are in narrative, moves the plot forward and gives immediacy to the moment being described. From the readers perspective, it puts them in the scene. For memoir, it is accepted that the dialogue used will be of a style an in a manner of what would have been said. The essence of the dialogue must be true to memory even though the words are not remembered. At the time I was examining dialogue for my thesis I was reading many purists and questioned if dialogue was used, did it change the genre from memoir to BOTS. Painstakingly I counted how much dialogue was in a large number of memoirs – Frank McCourt used the most with one book 22.64 percent and another a whopping 47.74 percent. Most used less than 10 percent in a first memoir and less than 20 percent in a subsequent tome.
A similar finding is possible for high definition description of scenes. Mary Karr was a master at these descriptions such as her description of the doctor: “He wore a yellow golf shirt unbuttoned so that sprouts of hair showed in a V shape on his chest. I had never seen him in anything but a white starched shirt and a gray tie. The change unnerved me.” Despite these types of vivid description Karr could not remember everything and had huge gaps in her memory:
“Because it took so long for me to paste together what happened, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while. It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here. I don’t mean to be coy. When the truth would be unbearable, the mind often blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like a smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.”
The two different memories don’t gel, and yet we accept the doctor scene as true. It gives us an entry into how Karr felt as a child. Again, these high definition scenes are now accepted as belonging in a work of memoir.
Next month I will look at time. I’d be interested to hear what you think about the inclusion of dialogue and high definition scenes in memoir. Do you think that the inclusion of these elements make the writing come alive? Do you feel you get to know the author better through dialogue? Do you think there is a point where there is too much dialogue? I look forward to hearing what you think.
Please join Irene Waters at her blog Reflections and Nightmares with a monthly memoir writing prompt that gives us social insights between generations and geographical locations. Along with your response, give your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in can be seen at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments (here or at the current Times Past Monthly Prompt) or by creating your own post and linking to Trees: Times Past.
Irene Waters is a writer from Queensland, Australia, whose pastimes include dancing, reading, and playing with her dogs. Her main writing focus is memoir. Her writing has appeared in Text Journal and Idiom23 magazine. She is the author of two memoirs, Nightmare in Paradise, and its sequel After the Nightmare which she wrote as part of her thesis. Her Masters is a research degree, examining sequel memoir from Central Queensland University. Irene is a Rough Writer and contributor to The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1, including an essay on memoir.
Crumpling newspaper to start a fire in the wood stove, an article caught my attention. It was in the weekly that advertises trucks, horses and cracked corn for sale so I wasn’t expecting a primer on language. Yet here it was, the third reminder in a week that “said” is enough.
The columnist quoted Elmore Leonard: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. Said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”
Just a few days ago, the editors at WriteDivas typed out the first reminder: “Commented, growled, roared, chided, joked, interjected, and teased are not dialogue tags.”
The second reminder showed up in my “Revision and Self-Editing” book by James Scott Bell. He wrote, “An attribution tells the reader who is speaking. Almost always, the simple said should be your default setting. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said isn’t creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it. This is a mistake.”
And, it is a mistake that editors readily notice. When I don my editor’s cap for clients, I often work with other contract writers who interview a variety of people for industry profiles. I’m vigilant to change all the “he quipped” and “she exhorted” to “he said” or “she said.” The reason editors notice this mistake is because editors read for clarity. The creative attribution is not clear and can imply a certain tone to different readers.
As a writer, what you want is an invisible attribution; you want a dialog tag that won’t make readers pause. Say it with said. It’s clear, understood and allows you to not intrude as a writer upon the speaker.
What I’m learning from Bell in his book (which I highly recommend for fiction writers) is that “Dialog the fastest way to improve your fiction.” He dedicates an entire chapter to this point. So, don’t get caught up in crafting creative attributions or dialogue tags, study the nuances of fictional dialogue and use it to shape your story and create character action.
I’m thinking this is a big lesson given the number of reminders I’ve encountered in a single week from diverse sources. “That’s our writing tip from Carrot Ranch for the week,” the buckaroo said.