All posts by D. Gabrielle Jensen

Crafting Realistic Dialog

I’ve never set out to instruct other writers on their craft. I worked as a writing tutor in university, helping other students become better writers (or just craft better essays), and through that experience, I learned that teaching was not for me.

But recently, I’ve been trying to find new ways to make writing a consistent thing which I can use to pay some bills and it seems like sharing my tools and tricks–and, I hesitate to say, expertise–with the masses of aspiring authors is a valid path toward that goal.

To that end, I offer you my thoughts on dialog.

I hate writing dialog. Let’s get that out of the way before we go any further. I love writing action scenes–fight scenes, sex scenes, doesn’t matter as long as it’s moving–but dialog bores me to tears.

Dialog is also one of the things about my writing on which I receive the most compliments. That it is so realistic and believable. That it is engaging and entertaining.

So, in order to share how I write dialog that elicits that kind of praise, I have to take a step back and figure out what really goes into a conversation.

Perhaps it stems from my own real life experiences.

I am not a small talk kind of girl. As an NFJ personality type with ADHD, I am far more interested in the mysteries of the universe than the mundanity of idle chit-chat. Got a story to tell? Jump in with both feet. Preface with, “Girrrrrrrl, you won’t BELIEVE what happened to me today,” and swim for the bottom.

And that comes through in my writing as well.

One of the most common bits of advice given on the topic of writing dialog is to skip the pleasantries. Yes, ten minutes of hello, hello, how are you, I am well, how are you is real life but it’s B O R I N G. Just typing it out was boring, imagine finding it within the pages of what should be a riveting page-turner.*

Instead, start conversations in the middle.

Seeing the caller ID name flash on my screen, I slid the green dot to the right and lifted the phone to my ear.
Sam started talking, almost before the call had fully connected. “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to pull his still-beating heart out through his nose with a coat hanger.”
“I gather the conversation went well?”

Another aspect of my dialog is I don’t always give readers what they are expecting. The expected answer to “how are you today?” is “fine, thank you.” So? Don’t do that.

Sheila rounded the corner of the island counter to find Jamie seated on the floor, legs crossed beneath his body, licking peanut butter from a spoon. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Have you ever considered the ramifications regarding the size differences between gummy bears and gummy worms? The gummy universe must be a terrifying place.”
“For the bears, anyway,” Sheila replied, grabbing a spoon of her own and joining Jamie on the floor.

Answering a question with a question is a good way to draw out the conversation without drawing out the conversation. Answering a question with a question means neither person is going to get an answer to their own question, at least, not right away.

There is probably a lot more I could say but the truth is, I don’t really know how to tell you to write dialog the way I write dialog. Like I said before, it is one of my least favorite things about writing. But I think my best advice is grab a couple of close friends and a bottle of cheap wine and go sit under the stars. Then pay attention to how you talk to each other when you don’t have to muck around with niceties and small talk. Because I honestly think that’s where a lot of this comes from.


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Award-Winning Author

I am an award-winning author.

What does that really mean, though? How long can I milk it? Does it have a shelf-life?

I earned the title, the first time, in 1992. I was 12 years old when I won my first poetry contest. It was sponsored by the D.A.R.E. program and open to middle school students in three states. And out of some ten thousand students, I came out on top. I got four tickets to a Colorado Rockies game of my choice and a suite at the Marriot in downtown Denver.

As a senior in high school, it was mandatory for everyone on the newspaper staff to enter a story in a contest run by the local college newspaper. I earned first place for a sports writing story.

The anthology that introduced the world to Fia Drake won first prize in the Feathered Quill Book Awards for 2019.

My publisher, the same publisher responsible for that anthology, wants to be able to add accolades to all of the titles under their umbrella. So they are encouraging me to enter Fia in other contests.

The thing is, I don’t care.

I care that they want that to be part of their reputation but I don’t care enough to do it myself. It is part of my contract that they will pay the entry fees for two contests; all others are at my cost.

I’m looking, casually, at awards contests where I think I could be successful but only casually because it is important to my publisher. And as a result, I have come up with a kind of wishlist for contests.

  • Voted on by readers (read also: would someone please enter me in the Goodreads award)
  • Favor given to indie or small press authors
  • Low entry fee or entry fee that goes toward prizes

Actually, that’s really it. But even with that being the extent of my list, I am struggling to find anything that meets my criteria. I don’t even care if it hits all three, but I would prefer it be voted on by readers instead of a panel of judgey judges.

Anyway, I guess this is all to say, if you find a contest that fits what I’m looking for, drop it in the comments. I’m hitting a wall here.

Starving Artists

Some days I feel like those singers they used to feature on American Idol. The ones who had been told their whole lives they had the “voice of an angel,” but when the angel sang it sounded like a wounded cat.

Except with writing instead of singing.

I read through these elegantly-crafted blogs and even just social media posts and I question whether I am capable of conveying emotions and meaning in the same way. I have been writing, professionally, for twenty years, casually for thirty-five. But there are still moments when I feel like I no longer control the words in my mind. I can no longer guide them to the page in the ways I once did.

I have never wanted anything more than to entertain people with my work, to give them an escape from the mundanity of their everyday lives. But then I hear people talking about books they have read, emoting over the prose, choking back tears at the beauty of the story, the tragedy of the characters, and I don’t believe I am capable of eliciting such a response.

I see other authors gushing their gratitude over the number of books they have sold solely to their Booktok community or their Bookstagram community and I doubt the potential for that to be me. Because I am not writing books that touch people’s souls or change their lives. I never wanted to. But is that the reason I feel like I am back in the third, fourth, fifth grades, listening to my teachers tell my parents, “She’s just not living up to her full potential.”

But, is this my potential? Am I only meant to watch from the outside while others succeed at the dreams I have had, both consciously and unconsciously, from before I even started school?

Without even knowing what was happening, I grew up in a generation compelled to create. Previous generations have all given birth to creative compulsives, this is not new. But somehow the Xennial/Millennial generation has reared ourselves flying a bold middle finger at convention. We saw futures as starving artists and said yes, please. We are bringing back the concept of “patron of the arts,” in the form of crowdfunding, pay what you want models, and subscription services. We are figuring out ways to forge our paths while bucking convention. We have chosen to be hungry and homeless in favor of creation, in hopes of one day “making it” with our Etsy shops and our Bandcamps.

And for some, it’s working.

Just not for me.

Bored

What do you do when you can’t even figure out what content to produce to keep yourself entertained?

I have lamented this on here before (which is part of the problem) but I don’t know what to share with people. I have no interest in producing MORE writing tips or editing tips; the internet is saturated with them.

I don’t feel like I get any engagement from behind the scenes content–research bits, character sketches, that sort of thing–and lack of engagement is the quickest way to reinforce my belief that I am a boring human.

I think that’s it, ultimately. I am boring. People tell me that I’m interesting, that I have a lot to say, but when I ask them for guidance, they just repeat themselves. “You’re not boring!” Okay, but I think I am so tell me what it is about me that makes you think I’m not boring? Maybe the thing that you find interesting would be interesting to other people. I might still think it’s dumb but at least having someone say it’s interesting to them gives me hope that I just think I’m boring because I have to spend all day every day listening to the same stupid stories.

I know that those same stupid stories are new to other people and I can’t accurately gauge their entertainment value. But in this case, no news is not good news. No engagement IS engagement. No engagement is rejection of my offerings from the vox populi.

Sometimes it’s an algorithm thing. But my anxiety doesn’t understand that word. My anxiety says, “No one liked this, that means it was terrible. Whatever you do, do NOT repeat this.”

If I post too many more of these, this is going to be my brand. At least in this arena. WordPress is going to start marketing me as the Debbie Downer who has nothing valid to say. Because I keep presenting myself in that light.

I have things to say. I have A LOT of things to say. I’m just not sure if anyone wants to hear them.


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Overwhelm and Too Many Irons

I set up this blog because I have previous experience with WordPress blogs being pretty discoverable. The free ones. The paid ones are not and I am still striving for passive organic growth. I need platforms I can just water occasionally and let them grow on their own while I focus on everything else.

I close out every one of these with a link to my Patreon and I’m pretty sure that’s getting me nowhere. I’m a pretty realistic person and I understand that supporting a Patreon, even at the rate of $3/month is not something you enter into lightly. Reading a free blog is one thing. Subscribing to a free blog is one thing. Giving money to someone every month is a whole other ballgame entirely.

So I get it.

What I don’t get is what I’m supposed to be posting.

I have yet to find a groove with this free platform that will bring in the traffic my previous attempts brought in while also engaging people enough that they will want to go off campus to check out something else. And I have a lot of free content on my Patreon.

I don’t produce enough fiction to be able to spread it around like peanut butter. I would love to. I really would. I would love to have some kind of serial work running on every platform. Something here, something on Patreon. Something on Radish, Kindle Unlimited, Wattpad. While also finishing novels on the side.

What I want is to be able to produce the amount of text that my fingers are able to type. Which would be the equivalent of two full manuscripts each and every five-day work week.

HA!

I know that’s not realistic. Danielle Steel does it but she’s a machine and has been doing it longer than I have been alive. Stephen King is probably close.* But the rest of us have to also work day jobs and . . . sleep.

I actually don’t need that much sleep. And a lot of the time I need sleep because of my day job.

Ideally, I would love to have enough content and support to cut back on my day job. I can’t give it up entirely. I am an extrovert. I need people to stay healthy. But if I could work three days a week in a salon then write the rest of the time, that would be an enormous step in a different direction toward “full-time author.”

I just need to figure out what people want from me. What kinds of content am I supposed to be sharing in each place to get the people to follow me?

Until I figure that out, I guess continue watching me fumble along in the dark.


* Danielle Steel writes up to 20 hours a day on a manual typewriter. The woman is a machine. I don’t have the same statistics for Stephen King (I got the Danielle Steel stats from Jeopardy!) but I do know he’s a pantser like me which is both encouraging and DIScouraging at the same time.


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19 and Counting

When I was 19 years old, I had moved away from home. I was in college in a new town with new people and I did that with intention. I did that to get away from the influences of the small town where I was raised. I did that to get away from the classmates I had known all of my life.

And I did that to get away from my parents.

They still influenced me, though, even from 300 miles away. I hid my first tattoo for six months. They didn’t know I drank alcohol with my new friends–yes, underage. They didn’t know that I skipped classes because they were boring and attendance wasn’t mandatory.

I was asked, when I was 21 or 22, if I was a Republican or Democrat. I had always heard Republican growing up so I said Republican. She then quizzed me on policies and I learned I was a Democrat, despite being raised in a Republican environment.

In high school I participated in sports because everyone participated in sports. I didn’t enjoy them but it was the expected thing. I joined clubs because it was the well-rounded thing to do even though the only ones I really enjoyed were The Arts(tm). Theater, advanced art classes, after school scrapbooking classes. But these were not activities people expected of students in my school.

That was all 20+ years ago.

If I were to travel back to 1999 and stand next to myself, I would look like my own cool but black sheep aunt from out of town. I wouldn’t look like an older version of myself. I make a distinction between where I was raised and where I grew up. Because they were definitely not the same place. I did a lot more growing up in my five years at university than in the 19 years before.

Some of the people I went to school with, who never left that town or only moved to the next town over but kept all the same friends, would look* like an older version of themselves.

I make a distinction between where I was raised and where I grew up. Because they were definitely not the same place. I did a lot more growing up in my five years at university than in the 19 years before.

And I think that’s the real discussion, here. When you have lived in the same place, in a small community, your entire life, it is very easy to find yourself in a place of complacency. Sure, at 19 years old you are old enough to start thinking for yourself and questioning authority but there’s a saying, “You can’t know what you don’t know you don’t know.” You can’t ask questions if you don’t know there is a question to be asked. Until an outside influence points out that there is a different perspective, you don’t seek out that different perspective.

Once you get out of that situation, however–IF you get out of that situation–and you encounter different people with different experiences from different backgrounds, you then know there were questions to be asked.

And it’s easy, at 40 years old, to say, “I should have done better.” And you can think that all day, every day, for the rest of your life. And it’s not untrue. But I think people fail to realize how deeply embroiled a person can be in the systems of a small community. The best lesson isolation can teach us is ignorance.

*I don’t mean “look” in the physical sense, not entirely. I mean in terms of personality, values, priorities…


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It Makes a Little Sense

When I was nineteen, I spent a day in the company of a man with whom I had grown up. We met in the fourth grade, when I was 10 and he was 11 (he had gotten held back a grade). We were almost exactly eleven months apart in age, shy the length of a work week. We had grown up together, graduated high school together, and then coincidentally moved to the same other town together after high school. I went there to get away from high school; he had lived there before we met and moved back as an adult.

I spent the day with him in his house and I learned that the friendship we had kept for so many years wasn’t at all what I had thought it was.

He opened up, confessing his years-long crush, upon which he had never acted because he thought I was, quote, too good for him. I, the voluntary misfit artistic weirdo, was too good for the school heartthrob sports star but whatever you want to tell yourself, friend. When I explained I had never seen him that way; that he had been like a brother to me, he got angry. Like, every “it happened to me” story on the internet level angry.

And that confession coupled with that anger made me call into question everything I had thought our friendship had been. Except that it took twenty years for me to really, truly understand what had happened.

If I do, in fact,  understand.

Because today, twenty-one years after the last time we spoke, I am left with supposition and assumption. I can ask myself, “what was the motivation behind this?” until I am blue in the face, but I’ll likely never have the answer.

What triggered this trip down memory lane?

2019 should have been our twenty-year class reunion. But we couldn’t get it planned. So, one person took the reins and we had it set for July 10, 2020.

Cue shitgetsweird.mp3

Insert handbasket.gif

But before the shit hit the fan, I was simultaneously looking forward to and dreading this reunion. I had seen a small handful of classmates at a funeral for one of our teachers and the father of one of our class. It was a brief meeting and some of them I looked forward to seeing again, at the reunion, in a lighter atmosphere.

Others, like the villain in this story, filled me with dread.

How did I think I was going to combat this? By taking a date.

He is much younger, has a cool career . . . how would it have looked to these people who had tormented me as a child for me, an internationally published author, to show up with a (gorgeous) professional musician. And what was better, he was good at running interference. He had done it for me before.

Of course, none of that happened.

But it has made me understand, at least partly, why I cannot let go of the person I was bringing with me as a beautiful buffer.

It’s less that I love him. I do, that is not up for debate.

It’s more that despite the slim chance we’ll ever see each other again, I cannot let him go.

I can’t let him go because he will stand up to people twice his size if he thinks someone he cares about is being mistreated. Because he’ll openly admit on his very public social media that seeing the Freedom Tower or hearing his own song on the radio made him cry. Because he’ll openly share his struggles with depression in the hope that it will give someone else courage to seek help.

Because he is a chivalrous feminist and if you don’t believe that’s possible, you haven’t seen real chivalry (spoiler: it’s not the misogynistic alpha male garbage that gets promoted as chivalry).

Because he is the person I think of whenever anyone places a blanket statement of defamation over the male gender as a whole. Because he is one of the few who knows we don’t mean all men but is still willing to use his race and privilege to fight for women. Because when he talks about celebrity crushes, it’s women like Topanga Lawrence, Hermione Grainger, and Felicity Smoak who rev his engine. Because he’s kind and intelligent but no bullshit but also a total goofball.

Because he is the antithesis of every horror story on the internet. He is not going to creepy stalk a woman through the bar. He would be that guy who would hand a drugged drink to the person who drugged it and say, “if it’s safe, you drink it.”

And even though I am not afraid of men, I am not hyper vigilant about men in public spaces, I am aware that there are threats. And the potential of finding a threat makes me want to hold on tight to one that I know for absolutely certain is not a threat. Even if he doesn’t want to be held.


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And the Culture of Toxic Positivity

I am a positive person.

I don’t enjoy being around people who complain all the time. I don’t enjoy being around people who always have something negative or damaging to say. It’s just not a good feeling for me. I don’t like it.

But there is a point where even positivity can become toxic and damaging.

It’s in the moments where you are complaining about something that is actually a real issue, something valid to complain about, something other than those things you can’t change and which don’t really affect you anyway–those moments when you’ve been sick for days and you need to be upset about it or when an error at the bank causes your account to be overdrawn, real, legitimate reasons to be unhappy–and someone comes along and chirps at you, “Cheer up, you have it so much better than others.”

When, as a positive person, you get an off vibe from another positive person.

A friend asked the Facebook vox populi what they value most about her. My gut reaction to her question was “realistically positive.”

Like, she’s a super positive, loving, caring, warm human but she is not like that all the time. She has moments where she hates everything. She gets sad. She gets angry. And I think the key is she doesn’t apologize for feeling feelings. If she’s angry, she takes a beat to figure out the best way to express her anger in order to accomplish something.

So many people choose chaos when they are angry. My friend chooses diplomacy and order. She’s angry, sure, and she’ll let you know but there’s no screaming, no profanity. Just well chosen words that let everyone know what’s on her mind.

And then she turns her sunbeam back on.

It is the thing I value most in our friendship because it aligns with my state of being.

I can’t handle people who are just perpetually sugar coated. You need to find a balance, my dude.


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Ideas!

My overactive brain has recently decided it wants to put together things to help other authors connect with readers. Organize blog tours, set up a convention with opportunities for panel discussions… Ideas for DAYS!

The problem is that I am that person who gets EXTREMELY disappointed when I organize something and no one participates. Like, deeply, in my bones disappointed. I go through a whole myriad emotions–sad, angry, frustrated, defeated. It’s enough to make me dread trying again.

But try again, I will because I am a planner, an organizer, a social creature. I can’t help but try to bring people together. It’s who I am as a type A extroverted empath. I just want to assemble the masses. That’s why fostering a community has been one of the keystones of building my platform as an author since the beginning.

I’m just a single, individual, very smol person and it takes a lot more than just me to get things done on the scale I want them done.

But, don’t, for a second, think that’s going to stop me.


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I Am Part of the 97%

I have struggled to write this poem for months.

I can’t explain why, what provoked it, but a memory flooded into my brain and refused to leave. It prodded at me, urging me to talk about it, share my story.

My story is not a special one. It’s not even a particularly tragic one. It is, unfortunately, not even a unique one. But it is a story that I have had to accept and one that might help someone else find the courage to tell their own.

I thought that putting it into verse would make it more palatable to people. It would be art rather than a dissertation, entertainment instead of testimony. No matter how I have tried, the rhythm is wrong, and the words are out of place. Or the words are flattened into the beat. If I rhyme, I am writing to a child. If I don’t, I lose my grip on making it poetry.

So, I will stop trying to force what does not want to be.

I will tell you this story that leaves me numb, like I wasn’t really there as it unfolded, but I will tell you in prose. I will tell you in sentences that offer subjects, objects, verbs, and predicates and I have to hope that you will stay until the end, even though it does not have a happy ending.

When I was nineteen, I was in college. It was my first year and I had gone far enough away from home that I couldn’t go home on the weekends. It was a special trip for holidays, and I was forced to leave my comfort zone and find myself.

But then I learned a boy I had grown up with had moved to the same town. He was not in college. He had lived in that town when he was younger and his father still did, so he moved back after high school. And we made an effort to spend some time together at the house where he lived alone.

This house was in a new and undeveloped part of the city. Dirt roads, newly constructed homes, and the closest neighbor one hundred or more yards away.

It was also a twenty-minute drive from the college, and I didn’t drive.

None of this was important—I would be spending the afternoon with an old friend. We had known each other since we were nine years old. Ten years is a long time when your brain and personality is constantly under construction. None of the information about where he lived or that I didn’t drive was important—until it was.

As we sat in his living room, he in a chair and I on the sofa, another friend called. He talked to the friend, another of the kids I graduated with, without leaving the room, while I sat quietly and listened, because what choice did I have?

But as I listened, he lied.

It began by him telling the friend I was there. Which was, of course, true. Followed immediately by the announcement we were “hooking up.”

“Hooking up” has always been a strange turn of phrase for me. Perhaps it is my social awkwardness, my inability to understand nuance, but it is ambiguous, in my mind. It almost always means something that happens between people who are more than friends—I can’t think of an instance where it doesn’t but I won’t say unequivocally that it never means anything platonic—but sometimes it means becoming a couple, sometimes it means sex.

Regardless of the meaning, it was a lie.

And he knew it. He gave me a sly wink and shushed me with his finger to his lips. Don’t let on to his friend that he’s not getting lucky.

He ended the call and apologized for lying. “He would have expected it, considering . . .”

“Considering, what?” I asked. It was at this point when he, one of the most sought-after boys in my high school, an okay student but a star athlete across the state, confessed to a long-standing crush on the self-proclaimed misfit, the high school weirdo. He worked hard to overcome a learning disability and be a good student, I skipped class to smoke on the football field and graffiti bathrooms. He was adored by all; I was feared by them. But, according to his version of the story, I was too good for him.

“But maybe now, we can put all of that behind us and get together.”

I told him he was my friend, a brother, and I didn’t, couldn’t see him in that light.

He told me it was my fault for the low-cut top and tight jeans I had worn to his house.

I don’t remember what happened after that. My memory jumps from mid-afternoon sun in his living room to full night in someone else’s house, where I found someone willing to take me back to the college.

I lost hours. I don’t know what happened. He was angry. He wouldn’t answer when I called again days later. He tried “hooking up” with another girl (in the house where it was nighttime) like it would change my mind.

But that’s not even the real story.

Because that story is one that practically any woman can tell you about an encounter with a man. “He told me he liked me—romantically, physically—and I told him I didn’t feel the same way, so he got angry.” It’s almost formulaic.

The real story is hours spent on school buses or partnering for school projects. The real story is the day we spent selling advertisements for the school newspaper, when the whole staff piled into a van, but we had to partner up every time we went into a business and he was always my partner.

The real story is that Pearl Jam makes me think of sharing headphones because we rode the same bus before we could drive to school but after his brother had graduated and we lived in a rural community so the bus ride to and from school lasted thirty minutes and Pearl Jam’s Ten was fifty-three minutes long, so we’d listen to half in the morning and half in the afternoon.

The real story is how it all started when I was eleven and he was twelve and he cornered me in not-quite-public, with no more than a curtain shielding us from our fifth-grade classmates who were rehearsing for Peter Pan, and he pinned me to the bed that had been borrowed from the nurse’s office to be used for the Darling children’s bedroom scene, and pushed my legs open so he could lay between them. And he was hot and smelled of sweat and wet cloth and he was so much heavier and stronger than I was, so I closed my eyes and turned away from him. But because he held my hands above my head in both of his, he had put himself at a disadvantage, and after a few long minutes, he stood up and left me alone with something I would soon bury beneath the next eight years of friendship until another day when the only thing keeping me safe was his choice. Because he didn’t assault me but did everything to make me understand that was his choice not to.

And I can’t face him. I don’t want to face him. He’s married, now, with kids, and I don’t want to face him alone, without backup of my own. Because I always wonder if those moments that mean so much to us—that stick with us or resurface without warning—if those moments mean the same thing to the other person.

No one who knows us both knows this story. People who know me have heard it but no one who knows us both. They’d never believe me. I was a weirdo. Still am. He was the high school heartthrob. He was Andrew; I was Allison. They’d never believe me.

And that’s just one of my 97% stories. Or is it two?


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