Author and developmental editor Kathryn Craft is one of the presenters at the 2023 Write Stuff Conference
Interview by Sara Karnish
Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, Kathryn served for more than a decade in a variety of positions on the boards of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, and was named the 2020 Guiding Scribe for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Kathryn leads the Your Novel Year small-group mentorship program, has served as adjunct faculty for Drexel University’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program, hosts writing retreats for women, and speaks often about writing. She writes a monthly series, “Mad Skills,” at the award-winning blog, Writer Unboxed.
Her debut novel, The Art of Falling, set in the Philadelphia dance world, a harsh microcosm of our society’s celebrity-driven expectations of women’s bodies, is available from Sourcebooks. Her follow up novel, The Far End of Happy, is based on true events surrounding the 1997 suicide standoff that resulted in her husband’s death. Originally meant to be a memoir, she decided to novelize.
Learn more about Kathryn at kathryncraft.com or writingpartner.com.
Kathryn will be facilitating a half-day workshop focused on dialogue, “Say That and More”, on Thursday, March 23. I sat down with Kathryn to talk about the importance of dialogue and so much more.
Q: Can you give us a sneak preview of your half-day workshop “Say That and More” at the Write Stuff Conference?
KC: Dialogue, if used well, can be an incredible multi-tasker. It can build characterization, deliver information, enhance conflict, further the plot, reveal the motivations of non-point-of-view characters, expose hidden loyalties and secrets, and more. In fact, if it’s only doing any one of these things, it’s not doing enough! By analyzing powerful excerpts of dialogue from bestselling novels, we’ll figure out what these authors have done so well, and then give each technique a shot with either prompts or characters from our own works in progress. It will be both fun and eye-opening!
Q: Why is strong dialogue so critical to a novel?
KC: We humans communicate with each other primarily through speech. Imagine speed-dating without it! The first “I love you” will change a relationship, for better or worse. A baby’s first word is joyfully celebrated. Asking for what we truly need can be nerve-wracking. Losing our voice before a speech or performance can be a tragic loss of opportunity. One’s dying words can carry a lifetime of meaning. We can feel lost when someone is desperately trying to communicate with us in a language we don’t know. Since such situations are common to all humans, well-written dialogue can gain immediate emotional investment from your reader.
But equally important to dialogue is what isn’t said. If that first “I love you” is met with silence, we know things aren’t going so well. Same if the baby’s first word is “Da-da” and the mom whisks the baby from “Da-da’s” arms to go down for a nap. By tapping into these universal human emotions through a rich tapestry of actions, memories, and setting, we can invite the reader to add up what’s on the page for themselves. After all, they’ve been reading signals during conversations their whole lives.
Q: Authenticity is key to capturing how characters speak, and sometimes this means writing regional dialect. How should a writer handle dialect, colloquialisms, and “folksy expressions” in a novel?
KC: This has changed a lot over the years as the publishing industry has gotten twitchier. There’s the fear that today’s busy readers will no longer put up with phonetic spelling and dropped syllables, even though doing so brought the series characters of middle grade authors like J.K. Rowling and Brian Jacques to vibrant life. A more recent concern is the fear that trying to write dialect will come off as prejudicial, racist, homophobic, xenophobic—if there’s even a whiff of political incorrectness in the way you’ve presented a character as “other than,”, there’s a possibility you’ll cross a line and lose readers.
One solution is to evoke the sound of the language without full-out transcription. If a young woman says she could listen to her daddy all night long, his dropped syllables making his stories roll like waves, a periodic transcription of his language won’t cause a problem. If you need to convey the speech of a foreigner with minimal English, study the syntax of his native language (lack of articles in Russian, adjectives following many nouns in French) and mimic it.
Q: You’ve drawn on your personal experiences for your novels The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. What are some tips for writers to capture personal experiences—events, even interesting dialogue—and possibly use them later?
KC: I give a separate workshop on this, which was a direct result of all I learned while obtaining my PhD in self from the School of Hard Knocks. Since our emphasis here is dialogue, I’ll share one pertinent story from The Far End of Happy.
After I’d already filed for divorce from my first husband, and within a month of his suicide, he said to me, “I guess you don’t like me very much.”
This line of dialogue was seared into my memory to the point that I wanted to include it in my novel. But when my editor read that line of dialogue, floating as it was within the fictionalized version of real events, it made less sense. “The scene reads fine without it,” she commented. “Just delete it.”
That I couldn’t do. To me it had the feel of an important turning point in this couple’s awareness of what was (or wasn’t) happening between them. So instead of deleting, I went back several chapters to better set up this important moment.
My takeaways: 1) while listening to your editor is important, you don’t have to solve problems in the way they suggest, and 2) just because it was spoken in real life doesn’t confer power to a line of dialogue, and setting it up might be a long game.
Q: Dialogue aside for a second—you are a developmental editor through your business, Writing Partner. How do we maintain the tension throughout a novel and keep readers’ interest?
KC: This isn’t just a whole other workshop; I’m writing a craft book on the topic! Just about all fiction craft can be geared toward sustaining the reader’s interest. The most important foundational concept is what I call psychological tension—the relationship an author builds between the protagonist and the reader. A reader is hooked when a protagonist’s deeply desired goal raises a related question in the reader’s mind that she wants answered (“Can this character achieve his goal, given all the obstacles ahead?”). Now you have the reader looking around every corner to see how it’s going for the protagonist. It’s only once this relationship is created that the author can raise, dash, and reward reader expectation, which is the very definition of a satisfying read.
This year’s Write Stuff Conference runs March 23-25 at the Best Western Lehigh Valley Hotel. Registration is open! www.glvwg.org