Creative and Memoir Writing

March 2023 Carol Brennan King

This has been an unusual month here in Pennsylvania, primarily due to my own physical issues and some personal. I planned to talk about Writing Engaging Dialogue March 15, then moved it to March 22. But, as happens in everyone’s life, there were some complications. Some great, some not so great. Today, I am going to be playing a bit of catch-up.

First, because I was in the throes of writing a query letter, I set other material aside. I want to start our notes today for the query letter material since I was up to my eyeballs in that material personally.

A query letter is just a letter sent to magazine editors, literary agents, and sometimes publishers. Writers write query letters to propose article ideas or to present their book idea as they seek publication. A query has a pretty prescribed format as follows.

  1. Open the letter with a greeting and if possible it goes like this: Dear Mrs. Wolcott (the editor of the magazine in which you wish to publish). OR Dear MS. Jones, (the agent you hope will take your book on.) The point is to do the research to find a person to whom you should address your letter. Use standard business style format. Google it if you are not sure what a business letter should look like.
  2. Write a strong hook for your letter. You want to catch the attention of the reader, and through your writing, convince them your article or book proposal is worth their time. Think: your best writing, the kind that pulls the reader in. I am writing a book proposal for a historical fiction book. I am sure this is not my final draft, but this one begins like this:

I stood at Johannah’s grave, the wind blowing dried leaves away from the lichen-covered tombstones, her pain burning through the air and settling in my heart. I had finally found my great-great-grandmother and I promised her there that I would tell her story, how she left the graves of four dead babies in Ireland in the hope that her three living bairns would live better and longer lives in America.

Now the first paragraph should “hook” the reader in. If you have already been published, you might mention that here, or if you have met the person to whom you are writing, you might mention that. The point is when they finish your first paragraph, they should feel some connection that makes them want to read more.

3. In the next paragraph, you give a short synopsis of your story. A synopsis is a summary of your book – who did what, what were the greatest challenges they faced, and how was their story or journey resolved. Think again, use your best writing to convince the reader that they want to buy this story or book.

4. The final paragraph is where you convince them that you can do the job. Think about your credentials, noting that you do not have to outline your classes or complete background. In my final paragraph, I mention that I have a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing and that I am committed to telling the story of people like my Irish family, evacuees whether they left home a hundred and fifty years ago or last year from Ukraine. We forget the personal challenges they face in search of a new and safer life.

5. Remember. you want to personalize your query, to make it sound different from all the other people who have looked up what a query letter is and follow that outline in a stiff and impersonal fashion. You want the editor to know that if he or she does not follow up on your letter, they are missing someone who will be able to help sell the book with their own passion.

6. Finally, close the letter by thanking the agent or address, and if you can comment on other books they have agented, do it. Say something like, I have read every book by …..( a person that this agent worked with)

7. Read your letter out loud. Then read it out loud to someone else, asking for their comments or help to improve it. Have someone who has good English or grammar skills edit it. AND, this should certainly not be your first draft that you send to the agent. I have never heard of anyone who sent the first draft and sold their work. Remember, if this letter does not draw them right into your work, you are going nowhere. Last night, I heard a woman who went on to sell three books, tell her story of writing her first query, polishing it to the best extent her law degree would allow, then send a copy of it to 100 agents/editors without one sale. The lesson: as best as you can, personalize your letter to the addressee. Research that person. Don’t send a horror manuscript to an agent who buys mysteries. There is a difference and you must know the difference between genres. Again google genres.

So there you are. Now, with all of that said, before you write your letter, look at that agent or that editor’s page. Make certain that you are selling something that they want, that is the genre and even historical period if that is relevant. DO YOUR HOMEWORK!

8. Don’t be cutesy in your closing either. Sincerely will do nicely. NOW that may seem like a lot to get in one letter. That is why you can count on several drafts. You need to get this letter down to one page. Think three to five hundred words, but five hundred might be hard to read. So hover 400 and below. And draft away!

PART 2 Class Notes


I borrowed this material from the website at the bottom of the page, so you can go there and just listen to the whole thing or get a warm-up by reading my notes.

Creating Engaging Dialogue

Why is it important?

  • Readers like white space
  • It reveals character quickly and realistically
  • Dialogue allows for the best lines – the ones that are quoted.

Be certain to have a purpose for every single line of dialogue, to either  

  • Reveal character OR
  • Propel the plot forward

Asking yourself what each character wants in each scene is essential. The dialogue is useful to reveal things about your characters:

See what you can learn from the character’s voice in dialogue

  1. Word choice

         Age, personality, profession, hobbies, intelligence

         “Oh, Harry vs. Sorry, mate    Hermoine vs Harry’s friend

         What words is my character likely to use

2. Syntax and rhythm

         Pausing, talks quickly when nervous, monosyllabic, etc

Use punctuation, use of exclamation marks, em dashes, ellipses to show this.

3. Note what you can show about a character through their Quirks

         “Oh, my gumdrops!” a quirk of a specific character

         Always uses big words incorrectly

         Use of contractions – formal or informal speakers

4. People react differently to different people – consistently inconsistent

          How does my character speak normally and when excited?

Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

“I’m hungry,” I said.                            This shows who is speaking and in what way

I’m hungry.” I opened the fridge.       But this shows what the character is doing and can also reveal mood and intention.

Your Goal: To create a balance of tags, beats, and continuous dialogue with no interruptions

Tag overload:

“What’s for dinner?” Ryan asked.

“Whatever Dad is making,” his mother said.

“Oh right,” Ryan said.

“Sixty parents signed up,” his mother said.

“Good luck,” Ryan said.

Example: from The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris, p. 5

 Only use dialogue tags when they are needed to show something not otherwise clearly revealed.

Said versus Other Tags

Said is the invisible dialogue tag unless it is overused.

Use other tags to tell the reader how a line is said…The dialogue tag is like salt, unnoticed unless it is used too much; then it will detract from the dialogue.

          Try Murmured, whispered, groaned, lied, bragged, yelled, snapped, etc.

Be careful with :

         Declared, ventured, replied, acknowledged, elaborated, commented. Mentioned, interjected, pronounced……….tend to be repetitive of what the dialogue has already shown you

Common mistakes with dialogue

Repetitive adverb: when the adverb only repeats what the verb just said.

I hate this, she shouted angrily           better I hate this, she shouted

Or I hate this,” she said with tears in her eyes

Or I hate this, she said quietly

Not concise but in 1890’s language:

I would like to order the dinner box with a large fries with extra salt sprinkled on. I’d also like a diet coke. Said in 1890’2 speech patterns


I’d like a dinner box with a large fried—extra salt, please, And a diet Coke

Good morning! Did you happen to bring in the paper?”

BETTER  Morning, Did you get the paper?

Make certain that you are using concise language, not running on formally in full sentences dialogue.

The Monologue

Note other speakers’ body language or interruptions. – The other person must respond at some point with action beats or responses of some kind.

Show the other person in at least small ways, so that you do not have long and needless monologue instead of a dialogue.

Even in speeches, find someway to interrupt the monologue with paragraphing or adverbs

Dialogue in action scenes

         Keep it short and to the point

         If there’s a lot to say, place it before or after the fight

Example: Their blades met with great force.

“I never wanted this brother,” the Evil Overlord gasped.

“You asked for it when you became evil! shouted Brian and struck again.

“You never understood me,”  this complicates the action scene, slows it down.

Other examples:

Iris wiped away a tear. “I know. It feels like my heart is breaking.”  

Better:  Iris couldn’t speak; her throat was too tight. She reached over and took her sister’s hand.

“I’m really sad right now.”     Show the response, don’t be telly.        “I really need a drink.” A common way to show emotion.

Subtext: the layer beneath the story or what you learn reading between the lines.

Is an upper level skill – you must know your character and scheme or plot

Crenshaw, Katherine Applegate – deals with poverty and homelessness.

My dad put some dishes in the sink. His back was turned to me. (showing subtext.)

“No biggie,” I said quickly. I’m kind of growing out of soccer.

What is implied?

I do suggest you go to the site below because you will find even more helps there.

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