Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Reader Response to Birthing the Mother Writer Class 4: The Roll/Role of Dialogue in Fiction

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In last month's "Birthing the Mother Writer" class, we were introduced to dialogue in fiction as a way of keeping the plot and narrative "rolling," while also revealing the hidden "roles" of the characters in the story. This month's column includes a story that shows such an adept use of dialogue, as well as Cassie's Five Tips for Creating Effective Dialogue, paired with her commentary on the story.

In Triage

by Stephanie Laterza

Amara was relieved to see the Partner pushing through the revolving doors in his trench coat and hat as always.

"Counselor," he said, extending his hand. "Welcome back."

"Thank you," said Amara as she shook his hand.

"Let's go up."

"He says I have to sign in," she said, nodding at the linebacker security guard behind the desk.

"She's with me, Paul," said the Partner.

Paul looked straight ahead and nodded.

"Ready to give us 200 percent?" the Partner asked Amara as they stepped into the elevator.

"Don't I always?" She wondered whether the agency had told the Partner about her pregnancy.

"Give me your coat," said the Partner as they stepped off the elevator at Reception.

As Amara peeled off her black peacoat, she saw the soup bowl-sized bulge peeking beneath the surface of her gray suit. The Partner hung her coat in the hall closet next to his long trench coat and said nothing. He dragged his feet along the musty brown carpet in the dim hallway and motioned for Amara to follow. She tucked her long chestnut waves behind her ears and sighed.

"Our client Feltreco," he said, lowering his voice, "is a French antique furniture company that secured a monetary judgment against the defendant, Peter von Schwen, for defaulting on a sales contract worth several millions. Now Schwen won't pay so we need to look into his assets. Also, and this is confidential, Amara, I'll be leaving the firm in six months."

"Where are you going?"

"Mellerson, Cramwell and Johns. In the New York Times Building. Mellerson has hundreds of attorneys here in New York, in Washington and in Tokyo. Not like the 50-attorney pittance we have here."

"I see."

"I intend to take Feltreco with me. I know I can trust you not to say anything."

"Of course."

The Partner stopped in front of a closed office door that sat two doors down from his corner office.

"I'll introduce you to Marcy Picard," he said. "New associate. Vanderbilt Law graduate. Laid off last summer from a powerhouse Louisiana firm. Speaks fluent French. And," he said, whispering again, "she doesn't know I'm leaving."

Amara nodded. The Partner pushed open the door after a rhetorical knock. Amara swooned against a miasma of Chanel perfume.

"Yes?" asked Marcy as she covered the mouthpiece of her phone.

"This is Amara," said the Partner. "She's a contract lawyer who's worked with me before. She'll be helping with Feltreco."

"Okay," said Marcy, without rising from her chair. She looked Amara up and down behind her red-rimmed Gucci glasses. Amara glanced around Marcy's office. The only framed photo on the bookshelf was a toddler picture of Marcy holding an oversized jack-o'-lantern while wearing a white princess costume.

"Amara will be sitting with the paralegal Terri outside my office. She already knows my secretary, Noreen."

"Okay," Marcy repeated.

The Partner shut Marcy's door.

Out in the hallway, the Partner walked Amara to her cubicle where a petite, curvy girl with auburn hair and dressed in a black and white polka dot dress sat placing labels on the front of several black binders.

"Terri, meet Amara," said the Partner. "She's a contract lawyer on Feltreco."

"Hi," said Terri, jumping up from her seat and extending her hand. Amara noticed the warm scent of vanilla as she shook Terri's hand.

"Hi," said Amara, smiling.

"Give Amara a copy of the Feltreco materials to start reviewing," the Partner instructed Terri.

"I have the Feltreco binders right here," said Terri.

The Partner turned to Amara. "I want you to identify sources of the defendant Schwen's assets. If you get any inkling about something, highlight it. Put your findings into a memo, discuss them with Marcy, then come see me so we can get Schwen into court. Clear?"

"Clear," said Amara. "Before we get started, I'd like to discuss something with you."

"Okay," said the Partner. "Let's go to my office."

Amara's heart thudded against her silk white blouse as she sat in the brown leather guest chair facing the Partner's desk. She focused on a beaming photograph of his wife, a curly blond veterinarian with slightly crossed, cornflower blue eyes, and their eight-year-old daughter, a diminutive version of her mother.

"I wanted to tell you that I'm pregnant," said Amara, smiling.

The Partner drew his mustached lips into an oh before any sound emerged.

"How far along are you?" he asked, frowning.

"Three months. I'm entering the second trimester, which they say is the best one. I'll have plenty of energy. And no morning sickness."

"Does your agency know you're pregnant?"

"Yes."

The Partner puffed out a long breath.

"Well, congratulations to you and your husband."

"Thanks," said Amara, no longer smiling.

"He's still at Parker Fitzsimmons, right?"

"Yes."

"Good. He'll take care of you."

"I'll take care of me," said Amara, frowning.

"Oh sure. Anyway, can you handle the workload for the next six months? Because I told you I'm leaving this place soon and I know there will be a lot of cleanup to do before I go."

"I can handle the work," said Amara. She had no reason to believe she couldn't work until the day her water broke, just as her mother had 30 years before at the electronics company where she worked as an office manager and was thrown an elaborate baby shower. Amara looked forward to the possibility of her own office baby shower.

"I'll be sitting most of the time," she continued. "And I won't be doing any heavy lifting, except for those case binders," she laughed.

The Partner still frowned.

"As long as you can work full days."

"I'll arrive at eight in the morning. I'll eat lunch at my desk and go home around seven at night. Is that okay?"

"Sure," he said. "Seven, or eight o'clock, should be fine."

Amara nodded.

"Whatever it takes."

 

Stephanie Laterza's short fiction has been featured in Writing Raw and in Akashic Books' Terrible Twosdays series. Her poetry has appeared in Literary MamaSan Francisco Peace and Hope, and Meniscus Magazine. Her crime novel, The Boulevard Trial, was published in March. Follow her blog.

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Five Tips for Creating Effective Dialogue from Cassie Premo Steele

There are so many good examples of how to use dialogue well in this story that I thought I'd list five of them so you have them on-hand when you're working on your own fiction.

1. Use the body.

We almost never speak without also moving something to indicate our meaning. Make your characters move, too:

"Counselor," he said, extending his hand. "Welcome back."

2. Use the volume button.

We don't always speak at the same volume (ask a mother of a toddler what "inside voice" means). Let your characters adjust the volume, too:

"Our client Feltreco," he said, lowering his voice, "is a French antique furniture                company . . ."

3. Trust the reader.

You don't have to tag every piece of dialogue with "he said" and "she remarked."

Trust your reader to figure out who is speaking:

"I see."

"I intend to take Feltreco with me. I know I can trust you not to say anything."

"Of course."

4. Make a face.

The face tells more than the voice. You don't have to go into great detail, just a shorthand will let the reader know the truth of the speaker's feelings:

"How far along are you?" he asked, frowning.

5. Let readers trust the character.

When a character's actions are in line with their speech, let the readers know this. Give them the evidence:

"I can handle the work," said Amara. She had no reason to believe she couldn't work until the day her water broke, just as her mother had 30 years before at the electronics company where she worked as an office manager and was thrown an elaborate baby shower. Amara looked forward to the possibility of her own office baby shower.

The use of dialogue in this story keeps the story line moving quickly, or "rolling," as we explored in last month's column. Dialogue allows readers to shift perspectives quickly, both between the contrasting viewpoints of the characters and between what the characters reveal through their speech and their internal dialogue with themselves, as revealed in gestures, facial expressions, and pauses.

 

This story also exemplifies the different "roles" that the characters play in their interactions, as they choose to be truthful at times and deceptive at other times. This is something all people do, but it is an especially crucial decision for mothers in the workplace, who must negotiate the unspoken pact of trust between employer and employee, while also safeguarding the well-being of themselves and their families.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this: The Partner expects Amara to keep his six-month secret. In return, do you think she can trust him with her own revelation? How have you chosen to share aspects of your mothering with people at work? What still needs to be hidden in the workplace in order to be perceived as "giving 200 percent?" Please feel free to leave me a comment.

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Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with "Due Dates!")

Photo credit: Susanne Kappler

Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering. And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we've got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class! Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I'm so glad you're in this class!

Unit 1: Poetry

 

Unit 2: Fiction

 

Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction

  • May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
  • June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
  • July and August—Summer Break
  • September—Life is a Book
  • October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)

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Reader Response Submission Guidelines

Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:

-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”

-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.

-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.


Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.


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