Monthly Archives: June 2013

Hey, Writers. Are You Brave Enough for This?


I thought of a fun idea. Well, fun for me but potentially mortifying for you. Sound enticing?

Who among you is bold enough to offer up a piece of your writing for me to edit in public? By that I mean you send me a flash story or essay, and, right here at Clawing at the Keys, I will post the original piece, followed by the piece with my edits visible, and finally the revised version, in one sequence.

Your submission should be an original, unpublished, and self-contained work by you, either fiction or nonfiction, under 250 words, and not previously edited. Second or third drafts are probably a good choice. No erotica or excerpts, please, for different reasons.

If you are brave, insane, or masochistic enough for this adventure, please volunteer in the comments section below. We will exchange the actual piece via e-mail later. If you are not brave enough, please leave a comment anyway. I am emotionally vulnerable and will assume you have forgotten about me.

Note: You will not receive a prize for participating. However, several years from now, you will be able to say, “Hey, remember that thing that happened that time?”

Second note, even better than the first one: Please don’t send something you are passionate about and intend to publish later. This is for demonstration and for fun, so don’t waste a passion piece on me. Send fluff.

Third note, when notes start getting boring: If I get multiple volunteers, I can do more than one post. However, if a piece needs extensive rewrites, it won’t serve the purposes of fun and demonstration, so I might pass.



Goodbye, Richard Matheson

I don’t know if another writer influenced my storytelling style more than Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and dozens of unforgettable Twilight Zone episodes. It was reported just hours ago that he died yesterday at age 87.

Richard, enjoy your  journey into a wondrous land, where boundaries are that of imagination…


Writing Dialog, Part I

universeFor a fictional story to feel real, readers must believe that the universe our characters inhabit existed long before first paragraph and will continue to exist long after the last one (unless you are a nihilist and blow up your universe at the end).

That means each fictional universe has a timeline (even those zany time-travel stories I am not clever enough to write). We need not concern ourselves with the post-story timeline or most of what happened before the story started, since those things do not directly affect the characters. When it comes to writing dialog, though, knowing the character-specific events in the pre-story timeline is critical. Because if our characters haven’t “lived” those unwritten moments, lame dialog may result.

Example 1:

A mother is harping on her teenage daughter to clean her messy room, but her emotion level is disproportionately high for the situation. The daughter, prone to outbursts of clunky exposition, says, “Ever since Dad died, you’ve been taking your anger out on me!”

Example 2:

Two inmates are walking the yard at the penitentiary. Hank, worried about Cletus’s terrible memory, summarizes, “I can’t believe that I’ve spent 15 long years in this joint for a crime I didn’t commit. But, by the grace of God, I just have to survive one more day, because they granted me parole and I will be released tomorrow!”

Example 3:

A husband serves his wife with divorce papers. Inclined to speak in expository list form, she says, “First you pushed my mother-in-law down the stairs and tried to make it look like an accident, then you cheated on me with my yoga instructor, and now you have the nerve to divorce me?”


These examples all suffer from the same problem: The characters are talking about things they would logically have discussed ages ago… because they already “lived” through them, even if we didn’t write about it. The daughter wouldn’t wait until that moment to mention her mother’s behavior for the first time, since she is clearly aware that Mom’s behavior has changed since her father died. Hank wouldn’t need to give his pal a rundown of what has gone on in his life for 15 years, because Cletus has been seen it happen. And I’m sure the husband and wife have already discussed the yoga-teacher affair at length.

Writing good dialog involves many elements. Relative to today’s discussion, though, a writer can improve her dialog by making sure the answer to the following question is “yes”: Is this dialog exchange in its logical place on the timeline?

With that in mind, here’s how I would rewrite the dialog in the above examples:

#1 – Daughter, as soon as her mom finishes screaming about the messy room: “I didn’t give Dad cancer, Mom.”

Without exposition or histrionics, we know that Dad is probably dead (and that will be clear soon enough anyway), and that Mom has been overreacting to minor issues involving her daughter ever since. Plus, it’s more cutting and hurtful, which reveals the dynamic between them more clearly.

#2 – Hank, to Cletus, whom he has known for years: “You know how many thousands of times I’ve walked this damn yard in the past 15 years? Well, this is the last lap I’ll ever do.”

Hank is still saying something Cletus knows, but now the line has a wistful, hopeful quality, because Hank is about to experience a big life change.

Tragically, Hank is stabbed to death that night by a mysterious figure cloaked in black, thus setting up the new bestselling mystery series Cletus McPhatter – Prison Detective.

#3 – First of all, I’d rather read about the mother-in-law getting pushed down the stairs than about someone handing someone else a legal document, so that’s the story I’d tell. However, I didn’t make up this scenario. Well, maybe I did, but let’s just go with it. I’m jonesin’ for some Taco Bell and want to finish this post.

The wife, after her husband hands her divorce papers: “After all the shit you’ve put me through…”

There’s no need to restate the existence of the divorce papers through dialog. When a bartender asks for your ID, you don’t say, “Here, I’m handing you my driver’s license,” do you? Plus, now we are curious about what horrible things he has done to his wife.

That’s it. I’m off to get a volcano taco. Please share your thoughts below.


Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA... Earth forms, 4.5 BYA... first Taco Bell opens 51 YA

Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA… Earth forms, 4.5 BYA… first Taco Bell opens 51 YA

Because you DEMANDED it!

 As I always say, “Give the people what they want!”


A man proud of his Mole People heritage.

A man proud of his Mole People heritage.