All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, August 30, 2019

What's the Perfect Book (for you)?

A lot of my writer friends had a few words to share after the passing of award-winning author Toni Morrison. A lot of people had quotes of hers to share, comments about their favorite Morrison books, or just how she moved them, either as writers or as people. On my page I shared my favorite quote: "If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it."

Toni Morrison
In its simplest form, this is a call for all people to write that story. In everyone there is that story; the one they not only want to tell, but also the one they want to read. Everyone knows it's there and some people even search for it. However, a lot of those authors realize that finding that story is not the easiest thing. It's actually pretty difficult unless you know where and how to search.

First, in that story you want to read, who is the story about? Don't try to understand who that character is, but consider that character's values, their strengths and weaknesses, and why you want to see that character on the page. What about that person is worth writing about? People have endless lists of qualities, but what should go into the story?

The next step is just like every other part of story creation: What is the conflict? What is the problem you want to see that character face? Don't just think about what problem they could face - that's easy. What makes you want to see your important character go through that particular problem?

At this point it should be getting difficult. If you really care about this character as the one you want to see in a story, putting them through a really difficult problem might feel a little personal. After all, this is the story you want to read, so it needs to be a real page-turner.

This is now where Toni's advice becomes difficult to put into play. As our character faces the problems and challenges, we now have to write a bunch of that character getting beaten up, knocked down, and forever facing the uphill climb. Why would anyone put themselves through the process of doing this to a character? For those who are writers or who follow this blog, the answer is simple: the outcome.

When you think of that story you want to read, what is the most amazing, satisfying wrap-up for the character's adventure? Don't even think about the problems you've already established. Just think about how this concludes, and why that particular ending brings you such joy. Knowing the how and why of the ending should be conclusive statements referring to the how and why of this character's beginning. At that point, you have established the tent poles of the story arc.

At this point, everything between the beginning and the end is your choice. You just need to know how they fit between the points you've established.

The only question left to ask now is why you aren't writing the book. You literally have everything you need.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Is A Plot Twist Even Necessary?

The other day, I was approached by one of the members of a writing workshop. They had been building out a story, putting all the pieces together, writing out everything, chapter by chapter, but they were now hung up because there was no big plot twist. They really wanted one in the story, but nothing seemed to fit. This was their special version of Writer's Block, and they wanted to know what to do.

I kept my response simple. "I understand that you want one, but do you really need one?"

Everyone likes a well-written plot twist, but they are actually rare creatures. I know many people who have lived very interesting lives worthy of filling several books, yet none of those stories really have a dramatic plot twist. A recent biography I read about President Abraham Lincoln had - not surprisingly - no big plot twists, yet it was an excellent read.

Part of good writing is allowing it to carry its own weight. When a story is written in an engaging manner, it only requires a few structure elements: All information provided serves a purpose in developing the narrative, the reader understands the protagonist's journey, and the character's growth between the first and last pages is clearly demonstrated. At that point, any other added feature is just a bonus.

Let's go back to Lincoln. His story is widely told, and even though the legends and fables are far more popular than the actual facts, his story is a simple one. A rural upbringing with hardship and tragedy, mixed success with business and relationships, love and loss, each success mired with complications, leading to the final steps of reforming the Union; a goal he never truly witnessed. Where's the big twist? Where do we find out that John Wilkes Booth was actually a friend of someone defeated back in court during his prairie lawyer years? What's the big reveal?

There isn't one. It's an engaging story where we see a character live, grow, and take on life's many challenges, each while holding to a constant, though evolving, ideal of what the United States of America truly stood for. Each challenge comes back to the character's core, and we understand Lincoln that much more. Even as we get to the last few pages of his life (no spoilers here), we feel a full and complete sense of what remained unfinished, what needed to be carried forward, and the sorrow of a dream unrealized.

It's just a good story.

The question we need to ask ourselves as writers is whether or not the big twist adds anything to the story. A good twist is always interesting, but if it takes the reader away from the broader premise, it's distracting. Nothing is worse than a big change that feels artificial. If a twist is placed in the narrative, it should change the development of all characters involved, and be felt for many chapters after it's happened. If it doesn't have that kind of staying power, maybe it's not necessary.

The writer in my workshop opted to leave out a twist for twist's sake, and finished writing their wonderful novel. That novel was later published, and now everyone has heard of it - Angela's Ashes.

Now that would be a twist (though it never happened).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Plot Twist "Deus" and Don'ts

Everyone likes a good plot twist, and most people enjoy a surprise. A twist makes the reader feel that an entirely new adventure is starting thanks to that one particular change. When surprise is done right, it releases all the tension and suspense built up to that point in a burst of OMG! As a writer develops these talents, the readers will follow. However, it's not as easy as it sounds.

The term "plot thread" is a great metaphor for how a good story should form and how its structure should develop. As a nice green thread spools out, some strands might break away and wander in another direction, some will change their hue, others might wind back to the main thread, and some get tied off and concluded. The point is, all the diverging elements remain part of the same thing. If we are looking at this thread and suddenly a big red rope gets tied into it, the reader is more distracted than engaged. Twists and surprises need to feel like they're still part of the story's natural flow.

The first half of the 20th century was the heyday of the serial film - a multi-episode story shown in small sections over a number of weeks, each with the cliffhanger ending to make sure kids came back the next week. An episode would end with the hero trapped in a car rolling toward the cliff's edge, and the last scene showed the car going over the cliff! Oh no! Of course, the next episode starts with the same scene but reveals that the person actually got out just before the car went over the cliff. Problem solved, and the story continues. This will work with ten-year-old moviegoers. Readers will hate you.

There is a term often used in storytelling, "Deus ex machina," that describes a sudden, unexpected introduction of a new element that resolves plot points and tidies up a situation. This can be a very clever literary device, but more often than not, it comes off as contrived and damaging to the integrity of the story. A new character entering to save the day, the hero locked in a cage reveals that he has lockpicks that he's always used, someone knows how to read an ancient language at just the right time - these all create a sense of artificial progress. Without getting into the history of the term itself, let's just say that if someone says a plot twist seems rather deus ex machina, it's not a compliment.

This does seem counter-intuitive when we talk about surprises, right? The very element of surprise implies not seeing it coming. To reconcile this, the best surprises seem like they come out of nowhere, but the reader then realizes hints had been dropped all along. Our hero with the convenient lockpicks? Maybe in a previous scene we meet him in a house but realize he didn't have keys, or when people ask how he could get in he says, "Don't worry." These plant seeds that slowly germinate until that big moment. The best surprise is actually when these seeds finally blossom. The reader gets hit with the big turn, then realizes it had been sitting there all along. Like the thread metaphor, the reader should have that revealing moment that this was not a new strand, but one that had been there all along.

I will offer one example where deus ex machina works, though it's often debated. William Golding's Lord of the Flies (spoilers ahead) explores a group of kids stranded on an island after a plane crash and their descent into tribalistic savagery (why this was recommended reading in my high school I will never know). As the story comes to a boil with our hero, Ralph, about to be hunted and killed by his classmates, he comes across an adult - a Navy officer from a passing ship. Not a rescue ship, just a passing ship. The hunt stops, the children cry in shame, the story concludes. Good or bad?

The reader might feel cheated in some regards - it wasn't even a rescue mission, which would at least tie in to the entire plane crash part. If not for a passing ship, Ralph would be killed. Is that satisfying? However, people who favor this device show that the adults were removed from the story, allowing the kids to become victims of their own impulses, and the return of an adult confronting the now-savage children ties the moral arc together nicely. The officer may have been new but his purpose - adult guidance - had been a theme all along. Agree? Disagree? People still discuss this book, so at least it had a lasting impact.

I still don't know why they wanted us to read that in high school.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Story Changes: External or Internal?

"My life was going just fine when I came home yesterday; everything the way I wanted it, until I entered my house and discovered..."

  • My girlfriend cheating on me.
  • A message on my voicemail saying my uncle left me $40 million.
  • Martians playing poker with my cat.

All of these would be perfectly reasonable ways to start a story (side challenge: write a short story starting with one of those lines). They fit the standard mold of a character facing change that sends them on an adventure. This is Act 1 of any story, and it works well. However, one thing they all have in common is the direction of the change. All of these stories offer an external factor that forces change upon the character. In this way, the character is forced down the path of change. What if this isn't the case?

Internal change can be a very dramatic method of storytelling, because it gives the character immediate ownership of their actions. In the examples above, change is forced upon the character and they have to react, then address the results of that reaction and so on. This is very representative of life so it's a good working model for a story. But what if the character starts from a proactive stance? The world doesn't kick the person into changing, but rather they start the process? Consider the previous example, but with a different close:

"My life was going just fine when I came home yesterday; everything the way I wanted it, until I entered my house and discovered nothing about my life made me happy."

This is an internal realization, and the change is driven by the character themselves. At this point, our main character decides to be the self-appointed hero, pursuing this elusive happiness. It may sound like a technicality, but the hero now bears all the burdens of each action. In the externally driven story, the hero is forced to act, creating the reasoning of, "I had no choice." The internally driven story means that the hero did have a choice to act or remain idle, and stepped up.

Internally driven stories are far more difficult to write because the responsibility is constantly on the character to push forward - it's their mission, after all. The world isn't chasing them around, they are making demands of themselves. However, by the end, the reader will behold a character that they know intimately, top to bottom, because they know how their mind works just as well as the writer. It is a challenge worth trying.

On that note, whether a story kicks off from internal or external drivers, the big concluding realization has to be internal. For any reader to have a satisfying experience, they have to witness the character's change and growth, which should culminate in that big "A-ha!" moment. The reader doesn't want to go through three-hundred pages to have someone else give the hero the treasure, solve the puzzle or shoot the bad guy. That's the hero's job - to have the big moment. The external examples above should end with the hero moving on after his failed relationship, learning how to not let his inheritance corrupt him, or play cards with the martians and his cat. If those situations conclude without the hero's participation, the results will be a disappointed reader.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Stories Can Turn With One Swing

I am not a big fan of boxing, nor do I follow it on a regular basis, but one of the best lessons I ever learned about writing actually came from one fight. I know a good story when I see it, and dissecting it reveals what makes it good storytelling. In this case, it's a good story turn - where the hero, facing insurmountable odds, every possible obstacle in their way, turns the tide and wins the day. That turn is critical to the entire story. If it isn't believable, if the writer doesn't sell it, the whole story is ruined.

The fight was the 1974 Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire - The Rumble in the Jungle. (Expertly discussed in the Academy-Award-winning documentary, When We Were Kings.) You don't need to know about boxing to understand why this story is such a great example. It's the story of Muhammad Ali, a boxer trying to reclaim the heavyweight title. However, the reigning champion is George Foreman, seven years younger and far stronger than Ali, with a reputation for utterly destroying his opponents. Ali was the underdog, with Vegas odds sharply against him. It's amazing that he won.

Or was it?

While everyone enjoys the underdog story, the victory needs to be for a reason the reader can buy into. If the underdog just wanted it more, do we buy that? Whatever the goal is, clearly everyone wants it. The reader has to feel the struggle, fear the inevitable defeat, and then buy into when the story turns.

In the Ali-Foreman fight, Ali started out aggressively, trying to use speed and dexterity to dance around Foreman's devastating punches. A nice start, but then Foreman stepped up and started showing why he was the champion. He cornered Ali so all that speed meant nothing. Ali made it through the first round, but we fear all his talent might not be enough.

When our story places the hero against the ultimate adversary, we just need a seed of hope to keep the reader excited. The story can beat up the hero for a while, but as long as that seed exists, the reader presses forward. The reader wants that victory as much as the hero does, and it's that bit of hope that gets them there.

In the second through fourth rounds, Foreman went after Ali. Ali gets pressed against the ropes all the time, Foreman swinging away but not landing any good shots. Ali was on defense, deflecting the swings then getting a jab or two at Foreman. Our underdog faced three times more punches than he threw, but got out every time without taking a bad hit. Ali wasn't winning, but he's already made it through four rounds. Foreman's last two opponents were gone in the first two rounds. That hope grows.

When our hero turns the tide, it should be something that was quietly evident all along. If they figure out a puzzle, it should be from a hint they got several chapters back but didn't think about for a while. If they track down the criminal, it should be a clever analysis of evidence already presented. If things just change without a reason, the reader feels cheated. They want to know there is a purpose for the shift.

In the fifth round, Ali started landing a few punches, and Foreman wasn't moving as quickly (plus he had a cut above his right eye that Ali kept targeting). In round six, Ali let Foreman put him against the ropes, but Ali was resting while Foreman was exhausted. By the seventh round, Foreman's punches were weak and Ali turned aggressive. That's when the turn hit. We realize Ali had been playing defense all those rounds to sap Foreman's strength and energy. This strategy, known now as the Rope-A-Dope, had played out before us for the whole fight but we only realize it once Foreman was staggering. Then Ali's eighth-round, five-punch combo put Foreman on the canvas, and our underdog is victorious.

When it's done right, a reader feels excited with the outcome - they enjoy the entire experience and feel it is a genuine, complete experience. There is a sense of satisfaction in a proper turn, and the story will stick with the reader long after they put down the book.

The Rumble in the Jungle was 45 years ago and people still talk about it. What does that tell you?

Monday, August 12, 2019

How Believable is Your Reality?

The other day I went into the city for a few errands, and you will not believe what happened! Actually, that's the problem - you might not believe my story. It can be a word-for-word explanation of the crazy and inexplicable events that led to a completely amazing conclusion, and yet in the end, the reader might say, "I'm not buying it." Perfect truth, unconvinced reader. A terrible combination.

Think about when your friend told you a story about that thing that happened the other night at that bar with the two ex-Marines and the karaoke contest, and that woman with the service dog and everything that went on in the parking lot... on and on, and at the end, your friend has to insist, "But that's what happened!" Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. Something about it wasn't convincing, and you wrote it off. Was your friend lying? Well, first and foremost, your friend might not be a good storyteller, and we can learn from their failure.

When we hear a story too amazing to be real, we subconsciously analyze it. The story itself is not the subject; we start to pick apart the details. We look at the actions and reactions, the character response, the cause-and-effect actions, the sequencing of events. We quietly look for inconsistencies to disprove this wild story. As writers, this is what we need to think about when we tell our tale.

Here's what we need to remind ourselves: First, are the actions consistent with the character? If we tell that story about when we were nine and spent a terrifying night alone in the upstairs bedroom of our grandmother's house while hearing all those noises from the attic, the actions need to build out from there. If we then explain how we decided to examine the attic in the middle of the night, well, why the change of attitude? Do scared nine-year-old children suddenly decide to face their fears and go into the attic after midnight? I'm not buying it. However, if that is what happened, then the storyteller needs to explain how this child found bravery. The reader needs that justification, and with it they will embrace the story.

Consistency of character and of action require attention, but so do believable responses. Let's look again at our nine-year-old venturing into the attic after midnight. Assuming we have adequately explained why this child took this brave step, we still need to make sure their response is believable. If, in this story, the child ventures forth with the flashlight from the kitchen, looks around and sees a ghost in the corner of the attic, the response is everything. Now, we know that children are capable of doing anything in weird situations, but the foundation must be established for the response to be believed. In this little story, we've established the child's fear of the unknown. If the child tries to talk with the ghost, we do not understand where all that fear went. The credibility feels as fake as that ghost.

It is very apparent that the moment the child sees the ghost, we need to have a framework that justifies the next step. If the ghost looks like his grandmother in her nightclothes, this could ease the fear enough for the child to talk, to ask why she is in the attic. Familiarity creates a believable response, and the story moves forward. Then, when the figure in white turns, looks at the child, smiles, and vanishes... now we can move the story along with the reader still interested.

Lastly, the conclusion needs to fit; the culmination of all past events and nothing more. That's when the panic-stricken child runs from the attic, dives back to the room and hides under the covers. His parents come in to check on him, and calm him down for being so scared about nothing. They tell him it's natural to be scared when he sleeps in a new room, but his grandmother has to sleep downstairs because she is too sick to climb the stairs. They take the child downstairs to show him that his grandmother is sleeping comfortably, but find out that she is no longer breathing - she passed away. Now it all comes together, and while the reader may not believe everything, that inner critic has nothing to use to tear apart the story.

So, about the other day in Chicago... I now realize that's not a very interesting story, and you wouldn't believe it anyway. Maybe we'll go with the grandmother story - that one's pretty amazing!

Friday, August 9, 2019

How Real Is Your Fiction?

The other day, a fellow writer and I discussed her upcoming novel. Without giving away too much, part of our conversation involved creating something that could predict certain aspects of the future. Needless to say, this is fiction. However, fiction is always at its best when the reader embraces this new version of reality, which creates a problem: How does a story maintain this believability while working with a clearly unbelievable premise?

The flux capacitor - the ultimate symbol of believable fiction 
First, let's establish a few ground rules. Of top importance - genre. Sci-fi, fiction-fantasy, alternate history; these all come with an informal understanding that wild, outrageous things will exist, and some liberties must be granted. Anyone who reads The Hobbit either grants the author certain freedoms or loses the chance to explore this world. Such freedoms include accepting that a dragon with the size and weight of Smaug could never ever fly under normal circumstances. We accept this flight and move on, under the presumption that there might be magics or other mystical things at play that would take chapters to explain, and we would much rather get on with the story than understand the magical metaphysics of a flying dragon. Every genre has its Smaug, and we price that into the genre.

Some genres are not as clear, however, so the writer has to lay out the groundwork for how certain elements work. Even though many readers grew up knowing the rules for vampires, werewolves, zombies, and all the other things that go bump in the night, during the past thirty years we have witnessed new interpretations. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series put a new spin on vampires that Bram Stoker likely never considered, as well as on werewolves. Zombies are no longer W. B. Seabrook's mindless creatures in The Magic Island - they now are fully fleshed out in Daniel Waters' Generation Dead and Mira Grant's Newsflesh series. However, in these series, the rules for these creatures are formally established and adhered to. This creates a clear sense of reality within their fiction, and the reader embraces the new normal.

But what about when something unbelievable exists in a world as real as, say, modern-day Chicago? A person living in an abandoned warehouse where he raises a dragon? A scientist who finally perfects the first time machine? A community of custodians throughout the Loop who are intelligent, self-replicating androids? We want this version of Chicago to be as real as can be, but now we need to sell this incredulous idea. There are some basic dos and don'ts that allow the wild to be real.

If someone has invented a time machine, don't try to explain too many details; after all, details about something that doesn't exist can open doubts in the reader's mind. Rather, throw around a few scientific terms mixed with fiction and reality - a "quantum splicer" offers science and fantasy without detail. Anyone know what a flux capacitor is? It's enough to make the Back to the Future franchise work. Maybe the person raising the dragon doesn't understand how the 12-ton beast can fly, but when its wings start flapping, he feels the air swirl around him and an electricity resets his Fitbit. No real details, but enough to say that something else is going on, and the reader moves forward.

The biggest don't is a simple one. Don't forget that characters have to behave in a real manner. The man raising the dragon is probably used to seeing this. However, when his fiancee walks into the warehouse and sees a dragon-feeding session, she can't just say, "So this is what you've been doing all this time?" She had best act in a manner that we think most Chicagoans would if they see a FREAKING DRAGON! Reactions still have to be genuine, at least at first, and then steered toward where the author wants to go. If the reaction doesn't seem real, the reader loses connection. Quickly.

Real fiction is a delicate balance, but the best rule is to have fun with it. Explore your creativity and try out different ways a person would react when they discover their custodian is an android. When you enjoy the writing part, the reader will buy in to that immediately, and it will allow you room to wiggle around as adjust to the new situation with the custodian (no offense to Roombas).

Monday, August 5, 2019

Knowing When the Story Ends

I recently re-read Joseph Conrad's short novel, Heart of Darkness; a special edition with author's notes in Conrad's own handwriting. Most people know this book as the basis for the movie, Apocalypse Now, which is enjoyable in its own right. Both works explore the madness that forms as foreign powers intrude on other cultures, as noble efforts become tyranny, and as rational people lose their humanity. However, one of these works knew when the story had run its course. Conrad didn't.

In defense of Conrad, Darkness came out as a three-part serialized story (as many famous stories did). Because of this, the structure was significantly different than it would be as a novel written as one piece of work. As a unified piece of work, the author could take a little time setting the stage, introducing Charles Marlow, the mood, and potential for conflict, then build up the tension and drama for as long as necessary, then hit the crescendo with the famous line (spoiler alert), "Mistah Kurtz - he dead." Then tie up the ends, send Marlow back to Europe as a changed man, and done. the bulk of the book would be one-hundred pages, the post-Kurtz part twenty at most. Rather, Kurtz died and there was still another piece to be told. This weakened the book (in my opinion), and watered down the impact. In a two-and-one-half-hour movie, Francis Ford Coppola killed spent the bulk of it leading up to the big moment, then off Kurtz, tied up a few points, and the credits were rolling before the body was cold.

However, this post isn't a scathing critique of Conrad or praise of Coppola (after he made The Godfather: Part III, I realized anyone can drop the ball). This is about knowing the story you tell, and telling the story you know. There are no hard-and-fast rules about this: the rival can die somewhere other than the end, the hero can go through greater challenges to learn the big lesson, and so on. The big challenge is to feel when the story you are writing has gone in a different direction from what you are trying to tell.

Let's look at a commonly read novel that was standard reading back in my school days: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (a different jungle than Conrad discusses). Most everyone I know who read this will talk endlessly about the horrors of the meat industry at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly Chicago's Back of the Yards area where the Stock Yards once flourished. However, the story was intended to be a statement promoting socialism - the last one-hundred pages all but leave the meatpacking industry behind. Sinclair wanted to tell a story favoring socialism but instead established the groundwork for meat packaging reform. Most everyone remembers the first two-hundred pages then forgets the last one-hundred that were supposed to be the big rallying cry. In this regard, he failed as an author but your hot dogs are safer for it.

On another Chicago note, I offer Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift as a fine example of telling the story you know and knowing the story you tell. As readers, we know from the get-go that the main character, Charlie Citrine, is not on a good path, and his friend and mentor, Von Humboldt Fleisher, is not going to be around for the end of the book. Therefore, does Humboldt need to die in the last twenty pages? Nope. We understand that Charlie's redemption is the real story, and that becomes the part where the dramatic writing comes in. The dialogues with Charlie and Von Humboldt are wonderful exchanges, but the story could easily get lost in those parts and forget that Charlie needs saving more than Von Humboldt. Bellow keeps this very cleverly balanced, and the story pays off because of this.

The long and short of it is, whether the story is about sailing up the Congo or sailing down Western Avenue, Make sure the important parts are showcased, the side-trips add to the story but don't dominate, and the messages stay on point. If people read your political statement and talk about the meat industry, you've lost your focus.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Speech and Dialogue

As I sat in one of the many writing workshops I attend, I found myself oddly drawn to a particular narrative. Sue Mydliak, author of the Birthright series and other works, was reading from her upcoming novel, Elspeth. The story is in 1700s Scotland, therefore the Scottish brogue is quite prevalent. However, something felt unusual, yet I couldn't explain it. I just listened, critiqued, and tried to figure things out.

The Sorting Hat scene from 
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,
in Scottish Brogue
During the discussion portion, one of our members crystallized what I had been noticing. He said, in so many words, that it is a delicate task to write dialogue with an accent, and too often, people let the accent define the character. The character's voice had to be clear, distinct, and consistent, but it could not be a substitute for meaningful words that drive the plot and fill in the character. In Elspeth, the character has her brogue, but it was the character that drew me in. The dialect became a complementing factor to the characters, filling in the story like description or mood. I was enjoying the story without even noticing it.

At that point, I immediately thought about all the period pieces I've read and written where the regional dialect is perfect and fascinating, but I was more interested in the character's Mississippi twang or slow southern drawl than the actual character. This is very deceptive, particularly in short stories. If I write a quick, one-thousand-word story where the protagonist has a Chicago tilt to their speech, readers will find it interesting, even amusing, and read the piece. However, if that story goes on without any real statement of movement; if the elements of the story are weak, readers will finish it and talk about the character's voice, but not much else will stick. They might not even remember the story. Maybe that's okay for a short story, but as that short story expands to a larger work, it will be empty calories for the reader.

The man making the comment in our workshop used an example from acting to define this: "Let the character drive the accent rather than the accent drive the character." Following that rule is what made Elspeth so appealing, and disobeying it is what often makes stories become immensely forgettable.

But how do we do this?

I did a little investigation, and there seems to be a consensus about the best technique to follow. When you set the stage for a conversation between someone from Boston, someone from Prague, and someone from Sydney, write the dialogue clean and sterile. Use proper English, clean grammar, and lay out the discussion without all the distractions. If the dialogue doesn't work before the accents are added, it sure won't work afterwards; it will just sound different. The exchange of ideas is the core of any dialogue or narrative.

The next step is to consider any specific miscommunications or confusions that might play a role. This is not mandatory, but can add a natural feel to open discussion. Referred to as The Tower of Babel rule, it's our nature to not understand each other, so take advantage of it. If you ask a Londoner the time and they answer, "half-five," is that 4:30 or 5:30? Let the explanations begin.

Lastly, turn it into their dialect. Add the little bends and folds in their voice that make it distinct. Drop in as many y'alls or finnas or Hahvahd Yahds as you wish. Above all else, be consistent - inconsistent dialect is destructive to good dialogue. This creates the tonal appeal of dialogue that is already built on strong bones.

And when it comes out, read Sue Mydliak's Elspeth. It's going to be a winner.