Can Studying Dialogue Improve Your Relationships?

I’ve read numerous studies about the benefits of reading literature, including its ability to increase empathy in readers. One way it does so is by helping us understand people who are different from us, and by helping us to question how we would behave in similar situations.

This past week, I created a new webinar called Dialogue Made Easy with my partners at Writing Blueprints. I’ve taught this class for years, and whenever I do, the room is packed. Writers, new and experienced, are fascinated by dialogue, which sounds like real conversation, but is not.

Recreating the material as a webinar got me thinking about how studying and writing dialogue all these years may have helped my relationships. Dialogue is, after all, designed to reveal character, create mood and suspense, and move the story forward. So as you craft each line, you are “reading” your character. What type of person is she? Optimistic or fatalistic? Shy or outgoing? Assertive or non-confrontational?

As a writer, you are also looking at the mood/setting of the scene. Is she in her own home or at a fancy restaurant? How would either location change how she talked to her husband? And writers use dialogue to create suspense. What if she were to say something out of character? How would the people around her respond?

Good dialogue often moves the story forward. If she makes a declaration like, “That’s it, tomorrow I go to the police,” we read on to see if her resolve will hold, and whether her action will put her in danger.

Having spent a lifetime listening to how people chat, confide, and argue, and most of my adult life figuring out what my characters should say to get them into and out of trouble, I wonder if I’ve learned better how to talk to different types of people, and how better to read a situation before I speak. I’ve certainly learned plenty of things not to say.

Maybe if we all studied dialogue a bit more, we could see how to improve our own conversations. After all, when you cringe while reading a character speaking harshly to another, you are likely remembering a time when you did the same thing.

All of this is just my mind musing, but the Dialogue Made Easy webinar is pure instruction! You’ll learn simple rules to improve your dialogue and you’ll also receive a short workbook full of sample excerpts of dialogue, and exercises you can use to practice the techniques I share. You’ll get lifetime access to the webinar and a PDF of my slides, so you can revisit the information as often as you like. Click here to learn more. Happy writing and conversing!

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Is Hope a Strategy?

The other day, I was explaining a hope I had for my business as I was opening a stack of mail. My well-meaning-but-wet-blanket husband repeated his favorite quote, “Hope is not a strategy.”

At that moment, I opened an envelope that contained a check from a person I had reached out to with a business proposition. I had not heard back from her, but had been hoping she would sign on.

“Ah ha,” I shouted. “See this? Hope is too a strategy.”

What my husband means, of course, is that you can’t just put your art out there in the world and hope people will find it and buy it. Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. To succeed, you need plans and strategies. And to create those you need to do research and identify your competitors. You need good branding and messaging. And you can’t always do it alone. Sometimes you need to hire people to help you build a better website or create stronger sales language or teach you how to manage your social media. You need to embrace marketing and promotion so people find you in the first place.

But my husband is also wrong that hope is not part of your strategy. You can’t tell me Steve Jobs or Bill Gates has never uttered the words, “I hope this new product flies.” Or that Adele has never thought, “I hope people like my new album.” Or that some Broadway actor has never said, “I hope I win a Tony someday.”

No matter what your passion or profession, you gotta hope your work will connect with the right people. In fact, I’d argue that without hope, none of us would ever start a new project. If you think of it that way, hope is the very first part of any strategy.

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Buy One and Give One Free

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of a book she said changed her life. The book so affected her, that she bought seven copies to give to people she thought might be likewise affected. I was one of those people. And she was right. I’ve often said that book is one of the top 5 books I’ve ever read that made me a better and more informed person. The title was Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich, a highly educated social critic, went undercover as an “unskilled” worker to reveal the truths about low-income living and low-wage jobs and how hard it is to break out of poverty. (I remember in high school reading Black Like Me, a similar book in which a white man went “undercover” to examine what it was really like to be black in America.)

If my friend hadn’t given me that book, my attitudes toward poverty might never have evolved. This is what art and literature can do for us, they can open our hearts, minds, and souls. So in the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to view art not just as something that can bring me satisfaction, but as something that might also brighten someone else’s life or experience.

So now whenever I attend a book signing, I don’t always buy one book, I often purchase two, and I think of the perfect person to receive the other book. If I’m in an art gallery and find a note card I love, I buy a second one to give to someone else. I’ve been purchasing season tickets to theaters for years, but lately, instead of just taking my husband every time, I sometimes invite a friend who might appreciate the show, especially if she/he has never attended that theater before.

And, of course, I also buy art to give away on my newsletter each month. I try not to pick only things that appeal to me. I try to buy all varieties of art, jewelry, books, music, etc., to give my newsletter followers the most diverse choices. It’s fun to see who enters the giveaway each month, and who likes what. My winners are always so excited and grateful, and it makes me happy to think that artist’s work found the perfect home.  I have only two rules for the giveaway; I can’t know the artist and I have to buy the art. It can’t be given to me. The artists are always so grateful and pleased to achieve not only a sale, but some additional exposure.

If we could all think a bit more about gifting art to our friends and family, we would not only help our hard-working artists, we would bring a little joy into the lives of others. And if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter to see the monthly giveaways, click here. 

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Are You Really in Pursuit of Happiness?

This Fourth of July weekend, I’m musing on the Declaration of Independence. What exactly did our Founding Fathers mean by including “the pursuit of Happiness” as one of our unalienable rights? 

Some say our Founding Fathers were influenced by Francis Hutcheson, an Irish reverend and philosopher, and others who believed that happiness was best achieved when people engaged in civic actions to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers. In other words, men like Washington and Jefferson, who had wealth and property and everything you could need to be “happy” by our modern definitions, knew that true happiness came from contributing to society, not just seeking personal wealth, satisfaction, fame, or glory. 

Our interpretation of this “right” has changed in modern times. Most people today view it in a more self-gratifying manner. Our right to pursue happiness seems to mean the ability to seek personal fulfillment, material goods, time for our hobbies, etc. We have truly become a “me-centered” nation. 

But what would happen if we all looked at the things that make us happy in our personal lives and sought to make those things more readily available to others? And what if we pushed our lawmakers to do the same?

So, if getting a college education helped you achieve happiness in your career, could you demand our politicians make college more accessible and affordable to all? If you were lucky enough to benefit from a grant in your arts career, might you encourage your Congressmen to make sure more grants were available for others? If you take pride in your heritage, might you encourage new candidates entering political races to embrace and support diversity in all areas? 

And when your pleas fall on deaf ears, can you take matters into your own hands? When our lawmakers fail to care for those in need, can we be the ones to start scholarships, set up grants, raise awareness, take action?

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote that the Founding Fathers knew, “People were happy when they controlled their destiny, when their voice was heard, when they participated in public events, when the government did not do things to them, or even for them, but with them. 

Our Founding Fathers understood that happiness is hollow when it’s not shared. And they recognized that when only a portion of our citizens are happy and others are not, unrest will follow. It isn’t just our duty to care for others, it’s our right. How privileged we are to live in a country where we can fight not only for our happiness, but for the happiness of others. Happy Fourth of July! 

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Everybody’s Stupid But Me

When my kids were younger, they used to listen to a song that went like this: Everybody’s stupid, everybody’s stupid, everybody’s stupid but me.

I’m not sure where they found it, but they loved to sing it. Okay, admit it, there are days when those lyrics ring true, right? Especially when you find yourself in conversation with someone whose opinions fly in the face of everything you believe.

A friend of mine read an article recently that said when trying to convince someone to change their thinking, it does no good to quote facts or statistics. They’ll put up their guard against those arguments. The only way to get people to listen with an open mind, or at least an open heart, is to tell them a story. Something personal that brings your points home.

I would take that one step further. I’ve met people who wouldn’t care one bit if I told them the most heart-rending story about, say, an artist trying hard to succeed against enormous odds, but if I can make my points personal to the listener, I sometimes gain a little ground.

I was talking to someone the other day about, I think, the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the “futility” of funding artists. “They give grants to poets,” she said, “yet no one I know even reads poetry anymore, including me.”

“Okay, let’s go there for a minute,” I said. “I get that poetry is not your chosen genre to read, and you have no need for it 99% of the time. But can I ask you this . . . have you ever attended a memorial service for someone you loved and read a poem the family had chosen for the program?”

She paused. “Well, yes, my dad.”

“And have you ever been to a wedding where the bride or groom or pastor chose to read a poem? Or maybe picked out a “new baby” or graduation card because you liked the poem inside?”

“I guess.”

“So that means most of the time, most of us will have no reason to give much thought to poetry. But in the most profound moments of grief in our lives, we will turn to poetry for solace. And in the moments of greatest joy, we will turn to poetry to express our happiness. And then, during those most significant events of your life, won’t you be glad some poet is out there working hard at her art?”

The woman flashed me a lopsided smile and said, “You got me.”

This woman was not stupid, she had just never understood how art fit into her own life or how her life would be diminished without it.

Generally speaking, people who disagree with us are not stupid (although a few are willfully ignorant). They just have a different world view, and that view has been formed by their personal experiences and the stories they tell themselves.

In these divided times, and this era of fake news, we have new opportunities to engage in dialogues that will help us understand each other better. Now is not the time to write people off as “stupid.” That will get us nowhere. Now is the time to tell our stories.

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Perfect is Not Always Best

There is a sculpture not far from my house that is a representation of one of our town’s early residents. It sits on a pedestal at the corner of a busy intersection, and visitors and locals often asked two questions about the piece: “Who is that supposed to be?” and “Why is his head so big?”

The answer to the first question is Antoine Janis, the first white settler in our county. The answer to the second was “artist error.” Recently, the artist decided to correct her mistake, and received permission to remove the statue and reduce his head size by 15%.

The “new and improved” Antoine Janis is now standing once again on that same street corner, and the artist is pleased with her adjustment. You would think I would be too, but I’m not. I miss his big head.

It’s true that Antoine looked a little “funny” with his oversized head, but I came to love him that way. His big head made him unique. It gave him character. It made him stand out. And it certainly got him noticed. His confident stance sort of made up for his “deformity.” It was like he was saying, “Yeah, I’m odd, but that’s me. Take me or leave me.”

Now Antoine looks normal, and no one asks about him anymore. I used to talk to him when I drove by:

“Hey, Antoine, what’s with the giant noggin?”

“Hey, buddy, how do you hold that thing up?”

“Lookin’ good, Antoine. The shadows today have slimmed up that head of yours.”

Now, I’ve got nothing to say. He’s just plain, old Antoine.

So maybe better is not always best. Maybe sometimes our screw-ups are more endearing than our “perfect” pieces. Though it’s tempting to correct our mistakes, maybe sometimes we should let them stand.

Think of all the great songs that came about because a wrong note was played or all the books we love that really aren’t that well written. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I thought Antoine was once quite handsome, big head and all.

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From Setbacks to Success

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher gave us an assignment to write a poem. For some reason, that poem really mattered to me. I had to get it right. I stayed up past my bedtime, and my mother ordered me to bed. “Just a little longer, Mom. I have to get this poem right.”  I’d never felt that way about an assignment before.

A day or two later, my teacher, Mrs. Irons, called me up in front of the entire class and said, “You did not write this poem. No fifth grade student could write a poem this good. You must have copied it out of a book. Now go home and write your own poem or you’re not getting a grade.”

I slunk red-faced back to my chair. I could hear kids laughing, and one boy said, “You cheated.” I did not cheat!  I sat at my desk fighting back tears of humiliation and anger, and then slowly something dawned on me. I lost focus on what was happening around me, because all I could hear was a voice in my head that kept saying, “Wow, you must be a really good writer.”

And that was it. From a moment of pain and frustration came a new direction for my life. I had found something I not only loved and cared about, but was good at.

There have been many more moments like that one, moments where something good came from bad, like the time my agent told me to give up on my book, Dancing in Combat Boots, prompting me to rewrite the book for the better. Or the time I fired my fourth and last agent and then turned to self-publishing, which became my career. Or the time I had to give up my office because the overhead was just too high, and that saved income helped me reorganize my business.

This artists’ journey, like any journey, is accompanied by its share of heartbreak and tears. Even my most fortunate and successful artist friends experience their share of disappointment and frustration. In our darkest moments, we have choices. We can give up, or we can trust that this newest setback is not a roadblock, it’s just a chance to change directions.


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No Rest for the Artist

The other day, my daughter came to spend some time with us after a particularly grueling semester of college. “Mom,” she said to me. “I’m just letting you know, for the first few days I’m home, all I’m going to do is sleep, read, and watch Netflix.” And that is exactly what she did. She recharged her batteries before undertaking an equally busy summer schedule, and I so admired her for it.

I have a hard time giving myself permission to “do nothing.” Now, if I’m on vacation, that’s one thing. That’s allowed. But just to take a day off when I could be/should be working, that’s another thing altogether.

There are days I sit at my desk and accomplish very little because I’m burned out or tired, but I make myself sit there anyway. It’s silly. I get nothing productive done, but I feel guilty if I take a nap in the middle of the day or head outside to read a book. Most days, I don’t give myself permission to “turn off” until 10:00 at night. How crazy is that? 

Maybe I have some sort of hang-up about how artists are viewed. I’m keenly aware that many people think artists are “loafers” who just sit around “playing at art” all day. Maybe I think I need to prove how professional I am by working the same hours my husband works in his corporate job. Maybe I worry that if I took an afternoon off to watch TV, it might become a habit.

Regardless of why I push myself so hard, the fact is, we all need a break sometimes. And maybe changing up the routine now and again frees the mind to think differently. Summer is approaching, so this would be a good time to see what happens if I give my imagination a little room to roam, if I give my mind a chance to unwind, if I give my body the opportunity to rest.

Sometimes, the child teaches the parent.

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Artist, Heal Thyself

Remember that old proverb, Physician, Heal Thyself?  I know its literal meaning is to make sure before you try to correct others, you are not guilty of the same faults. But I think most of us interpret it another way . . . we take it to mean that sometimes those of us who should know how to heal ourselves don’t do it. Either out of denial or impatience or egotism or an unwillingness to admit we’re not sure how.

That expression has been popping into my head a lot the past few weeks. Why? Because as much as I’m enjoying writing my new book, I’m also feeling very stuck. More stuck than I have felt with any story in a long time. And none of the advice I would give to my coaching clients or fellow writers seems to apply to this project. Oh I’m sure it does, but I just can’t see it. Or maybe I’m just being stubborn, like a doctor who knows what pills he should be taking, but still refuses to take them.

And the depth of my writer’s block is also shocking and a little scary. I’ve been a professional writer for 25 years, and I have six books and hundreds of publications under my belt. Shouldn’t I know how to do this by now? If I’m this stuck, does that mean I’m not as good of a writer as I’d hoped I was? Not as good as I worked so hard to become?

Maybe this book is a wake-up call, an opportunity to realize I still have much to learn. I recently picked up a new book on writing called Story Genius, which several of my friends have recommended. I’ve also been paying more attention to articles on writing lately. I’m revisiting how I wrote the first six books and searching to better define my own methods. And I’m giving myself permission to be stuck. This book clearly has something to say that I’m not hearing, so I need to quiet my mind and listen. And you can’t do that if your inner critic is shouting you down.

I’m also holding onto hope that maybe because this book is giving me so much trouble, it will wind up being the best book I’ve ever written. Because you gotta believe, right? But I’m also telling myself it’s okay if it’s not the best book I ever write. There will be other stories to tell, and maybe there’s a purpose to this one I just don’t yet understand.

Or maybe I should take my own advice and figure out what is making me feel stuck. Heal myself, so to speak. So I think I’ll watch my video, “The Seven Types of Writer’s Block,” and see if that helps. Can’t hurt, right?

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Find Yourself in Your Art

I recently watched the movie The Lady in The Van. It’s based on the true story of a writer, Alan Bennett, who allows a homeless woman to park her van in his driveway. In helping her, he learns a few lessons about himself. There is a line in the movie that stuck with me. Alan says, “You don’t put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.”

As artists, we are often asked, “How much of yourself did you put into that story, picture, or role?” And people always seem a little disappointed if the answer is not, “A lot.”

In reality, this question has many layers. I believe a little bit of who we are or who we once were makes it into every piece of art we create. It certainly affects the themes we explore. Other times, we pull inspiration from people we know. There’s a lot of my brother and my husband in one of my characters, for example. But sometimes, we entertain or challenge ourselves by forging art that is nothing like us. Or maybe we create art that captures who we wish we were.

Many artists mistakenly believe they should put themselves into their art. Even Alan’s character makes that mistake at first. But the truth is closer to his realization at the end of the film. Good art starts with a quest to find yourself. Seasoned artists often start projects because we’ve observed or heard or experienced something that won’t let us go, and we want to know why. We want to know why it bothers us so much when someone comments on our appearance, or why beautiful gardens make us cry, or why we’ve suddenly become addicted to social media.

These questions are often sparked by a single incident that just keeps replaying in our minds. And they can be sparked by the strangest observations. For example, I’ve noticed when women lose their place or have to keep you waiting, they make funny noises. They say, “doot da doot da doo” or “la, la, la, la, la.” But men never do that. Why is that?  Why do we women feel we have to “make light” of our confusion. If I write an essay about that, I might “find” myself in that essay, because it probably has something to do with my increasing interest in what holds women back.

I believe an artist’s task is to be always seeking to find himself/herself. That may sound selfish or egotistical, unless you accept that we are all, not just artists, on this planet to do just that; to complete our personal journeys. And as we find ourselves and show that in our art, hopefully we help others find themselves as well, just as the homeless woman, Miss Mary Shepherd, did for Alan.

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