Roundup: Writing Dialogue

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on writing good dialogue.

When it comes to dialogue, there is no right answer as to how you should execute it in your story (really, there aren’t many right answers in creative writing). But you know good dialogue when you read it. So what makes it good?

From Ploughshares:people talking in paris

Roundup: Writing and Music

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on writing and music.

For thousands of years writing and music have been entwined (think Greek poetry and lyres). Today, perhaps more now than ever, we are seeing writers writing about music, and writers drawing inspiration from music.

Music in my ears.

The following is a compilation of some of our favorite posts about writing and music:

Ploughshares Posts:

Roundup: All You Need is Love (and a Good Story)

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Well, on the fourteenth, but it’s never too early to start spreading the love, and great literature about love, for that matter. Everyone likes a good love story.

  • In her article, “Fleas Are for Lovers,” Ms. Lowe tells that “once upon a time the flea was also a popular emblem of erotic love.” Who knew?

adult male Oropsylla Montana flea

Love Park
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Roundup: Conversations and Collaborations Among Writers

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on conversations and collaborations among writers.

Much has been professed about the nature of writers – that they are solitary creatures, or instead, ones that require community to fuel their work. Of course, there isn’t a definitive answer, and many writers are both. So let’s not generalize. As the great Mark Twain once put it, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Please enjoy these posts about writers connecting with other writers:

  • In this post, Alicia Jo Rabins explores the advantages of writers forming a creative partnership in Torah study, a “form of obsessive, passionate relation with words and meaning,” where it’s common to work in pairs.

DSC_1400Continue Reading

Roundup: Ploughshares Readings and Q&A’s

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on author readings and Q&A’s.

Public readings are a great way for authors to promote their work, and for audiences to hear their favorite (or soon to be favorite) writing read aloud. Maybe you’re dying to hear how an author reads a particular character’s voice. You knew it was a soft southern accent all along… Or maybe you just want to be read to. Because really, who doesn’t like being read to?

Going in person is ideal, but what’s the next best thing? Here we’re taking a look back at video clips of Ploughshares’ guest editors’ readings and Q&A’s.

Poet Tony Hoagland, former guest editor of the Ploughshares Winter 2009-2010 issue, reads his poems “Wild” and “Barton Springs” here:

In these three clips, former guest editor of the Ploughshares Fall 2010 issue Jim Shepard reads his story “Poland is Watching.”

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Part 3:

The following video segments are from a December 2010 Ploughshares Q&A with Terrence Hayes, guest editor of the Winter 2010-11 issue and (then) a recent recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry for his collection Lighthead.

Part 2:
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In this Q&A, Colm Toibin, guest editor of the Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares, discusses storytelling, the writing process, and more:

The original blog post can be found here:

Patriotism Swells in the Heart of the American Bear: Some Books for the 4th

Before we move on to things literary, I think we should begin this Independence Day week with Fozzie Bear singing “America the Beautiful,” which my mother incorrectly identified as our national anthem during her citizenship exam (she still passed). Actually, I kind of wish it was our national anthem—I prefer its focus on the extraordinary natural beauty of this country rather than our military might. I also wish that it could be sung, whenever possible, by a giant stuffed bear.

Now, on to some of our favorite books about American history!

“Although I’m not usually a nonfiction lover, I make an exception for Paul Johnson’s remarkable A History of the American People. Be forewarned: at 1,104 pages, this books clocks in right between enormous and epic. Though this tome looks unapproachable, Johnson’s tone throughout is readable and friendly—and his storytelling is truly remarkable. We all know that the Declaration of Independence was eventually signed, but Johnson brings the reader into the past so effectively—shows the insurmountable problems that stood in the way of what now seems like cut and dry history—that at certain points I found myself wondering if this start-up nation was going to make it. Although Johnson himself is British, his deep love for American history comes through in this book. He is uniquely positive, seeing America’s mistakes not simply as tragedies, but also as lessons for the future. It is hard to come away from this classic pessimistic about the future.” —Jessica Arnold, Digital Production Assistant


“As a break from acerbic commentary, I recently picked up a book that has been raising my spirits about both America and humanity: Rebecca Solnit’s thought-provoking A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. I think we’ve all heard enough about people taking advantage of each other when things get difficult. Solnit’s book discusses the extraordinary generosity and community spirit that are perhaps even more common in the aftermath of catastrophes. She discusses three American tragedies: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Katrina, and September 11th, and finds many more examples of spontaneously noble conduct than the opposite.” —Akshay Ahuja, Production Manager

Time Enough for Drums, by Ann Rinaldi: This book harkens back to English class days of old. Although it’s a YA book with a side of romance, it’s a completely historically accurate take on a sixteen-year-old girl’s life during the Revolutionary war. Aunt Jemima Emerson is a feisty liberal-leaning teenager whose tutor John Reid is a boring old Tory. Of course John is actually a double-agent, working as a spy for the rebels (because no romantic figure can be on the losing side of a historical conflict). I wish this book had been assigned instead of those silly old textbooks they had us read in American History class.” —Andrea Martucci, Managing Editor

“I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a novel about race during 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, immediately after seeing the movie. The novel reveals the struggles of black maids who cook, clean, and raise the children of white families, children who love them as colorblind toddlers and who grow to mimic their racist mothers. One of three narrators in The Help, Aibileen, tells ‘secret stories’ to the white child she raises in order to instill life lessons on racial equality and civil rights, stories about a ‘real nice [and wise] Martian’ named Martin Luther King Jr. who no one liked because he was green; Aibileen strives to ‘stop that moment from coming—and it come in every child’s life—when they start to think that colored folks ain’t as good as whites.'” —Jennifer Feinberg, Editorial Intern

“Growing up, nothing about the historical facts I copied down from overhead projections resonated, so I was always hesitant to dive into history, unless there were strong elements of narrative and motivation and imperfection that I could latch onto. A People’s History of Baseball, by Mitchell Nathanson, while maybe not the usual sort of book I would pick up, engages me because of the way Nathanson immediately connects baseball, our national pastime, to our messy history: ‘Rather than see baseball through a patriotic, sepia haze, we can choose to see it through a more critical eye, one that permits us to see our collective selves as something less than our best.’

“But, as Fozzie’s voice reminds us, we can’t internalize what America has been, is, and will be without the help of a little humor. Sometimes it’s Muppet-style humor that we need, and sometimes it’s in a voice that is simultaneously deadly serious. Take the poetry of Tony Hoagland, for example, who often mourns over the cataclysm of American complacency, but is also known for his humor. ‘So we were turned into Americans / to learn something about loneliness,’ he writes. What I envision is a few days into the future: me crammed in with thousands and thousands of people along Boston’s Esplanade while fireworks crash and boom above our heads for hours. So yes, Mr. Hoagland, it is our ‘own hand which turns the volume higher,’ but what else are we to do? We can’t simply deny the pleasure of it all, nor the off-key belting out of America the Beautiful.'” —Abby Travis, Editorial Assistant


Juneteenth and Some of Its Books

Today is June 19. For those that don’t know, this is a holiday celebrated in some parts of America as Juneteenth. Also known as Freedom Day, it marks the day that the Union army arrived in Texas in 1865 and actually enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, more than two years after it was declared.

Juneteeth, famously, is also the name of the incomplete second novel that Ralph Ellison spent his last forty years working on, which has been published in two edited versions, the more complete one called Three Days Before the Shooting. So we thought now would be a good time to talk about some of the literature that has risen out of the African-American experience and spoken to all of us.

One of the best novels I have read recently is Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. (I am proud to say that Ploughshares published one of his very first stories. I also highly recommend this essay Jones wrote for Powell’s on why writers might continue to write even in the face of constant rejection.) But back to the book: The Known World explores slavery from a number of angles, including one I had never known about before, which is the strange case of black slaveowners.Continue Reading

April Fools: Some Funny Novels (Seriously, That’s What the Post Is About)

Our valiant editorial intern, Sean Mackey, suggested this month that in honor of April Fools’ Day we recommend a few humorous books. He had this to say himself:

Humor is becoming more and more specific for different audiences, where a reader who laughs at I Am America, And So Can You might not find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies funny.  Two classics that have remained fresh for centuries, despite this audience segmentation, are Candide—Voltaire’s condensed epic tale bashing optimism—and Don Quixote—Cervantes’s satire on chivalry, knighthood, and what it means to fully “embrace” literature.

Sean’s absolutely right that it’s hard pulling off lowest-common-denominator humor these days, especially in a book—but you don’t have to go quite all the way back to Voltaire and Cervantes to find funny writing that everyone can enjoy.

The example that immediately jumps to mind is Douglas Adams’s oeuvre, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its many sequels, to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and even his quirky non-novel project, The Meaning of Liff—a “dictionary” that bears a passing resemblance, in intent if not execution, to another classic humor book: Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. (One personal favorite from Bierce: “Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”)

Adams has plenty of company, too, in today’s contemporary humor writers: Jasper Fforde, for example, who’s most famous for The Eyre Affair and its sequels, and Tom Holt, a British novelist writing very much in an Adamsesque vein. (His most recent is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages.)


There’s a fuzzy line, of course, between all-out trying-to-be-funny books, and more literary books that happen to have funny components. Jincy Willett is one author who probably falls more on the latter side, most notably in Jenny & the Jaws of Life—though anyone in an MFA program may appreciate The Writing Class just as much if not more. I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t also mention Aimee Bender here, though in my experience her work—Willful Creatures, for example—is more of an acquired taste. (And speaking of acquired tastes, if you don’t laugh at the opening sections of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, you’re probably not alive.)

If you want to get really high-level about it, there are also some writers who arguably aren’t “funny” at all, at least not on the surface, but at which you nevertheless can’t help but laugh. I’m thinking here of David Foster Wallace—not a favorite of mine, but I can at least appreciate what he’s going for—or of specific books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which takes place during a trip up an escalator, or Kafka’s The Castle. Follow K. to the end of that story, and you have to laugh if you don’t want to cry.

[A note from Akshay: I have to introduce one of my favorite comic writers, Flann O’Brien, who we somehow missed in our St. Patrick’s post. O’Brien recently received a boost when one of his books, The Third Policeman, showed up on an episode of Lost. You can start with At Swim-Two-Birdsone of the weirdest, wildest, and funniest books in English—and then pretty much read anything else. He is a magician. Also, this isn’t a novel, but no student of the language can be without “English As She Is Spoke,” which we read aloud with some friends during a long car ride. This is not recommended, as it results in some very unfocused driving.]

One final caveat: humor’s more subjective than even “serious” literature, and there may be books in the list that you think are hopelessly dull, or books not in it that you’re shocked we could overlook. If that’s the case, don’t just sit there fuming—tell us about it in the comments! We always appreciate new reading suggestions.

And now, to end with some truly sophisticated humor:


Winter Books: Anti-Beach Reads, Ski Reads, and Skillbuilders

There are many different ways to respond to the weather that is bearing down on this part of the world. Alcohol is an old strategy; SAD lamps are a newer one. For our money, nothing beats books. Here is a wintry mix of our literary strategies for getting through the season:


If summer is the time for the light and breezy, maybe now is the time for thick woolen blankets, barely-functioning space heaters, and some big book projects.

When I’ve made it through the New Year and the ornaments are put away and all that is left is the debt, I’m ready for a bigger book. Take a look at Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism which chronicles the lives of Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody. Three remarkable women who shaped the thinking of their day and inspire me to think big. Marshall’s book is big, but it’s worth it. —Sarah Banse, Editorial Assistant

If I had to use one word to describe a Boston winter, that word would be wuthering. So I have to start by returning to Emily Brontë. After that, I turn to the Scandinavians and the Russians: first, the new translation of Dostoevsky’s Demons and then Sigrid Undset’s trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter – all 1168 pages of it! I picked up shorter, cheerier novels for the summer, and poetry in the fall, and every time I walked away from the shelf I could hear these two fat books muttering to each other: “He’ll be back.” —Akshay Ahuja, Production Manager Continue Reading

Favorite Scary Stories (and Other Frightful Literature)

To celebrate Halloween, the Ploughshares staff gathers together some favorite reading that gave us the willies.

Scary (Short) Stories

“The Withered Arm,” by Thomas Hardy: Deeply unsettling, especially in its suggestion that casually fantasizing about bad things happening to other people (in this case, a fairly nice person) can actually make those things happen. —Akshay Ahuja, Production Manager

“The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson: A haunting tale of community and the underbelly of human nature. A classic for a good reason. —Sarah Banse, Editorial Assistant

“The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Poe. Unbeknownst to the narrator, Roderick Usher entombs his sister alive. As the narrator reads a story about slaying a dragon in an attempt to calm Roderick, the dragon’s screams come to life through the screaming lady Madeline of Usher as she breaks free from the tomb. —Abby Travis, Editorial AssistantContinue Reading