Monologue About Dialogue

The catalyst for this post was a recent musing about “How Do You Create Realistic Dialogue?” on the Creative Writing for Me blog.

At the time I was reworking a chapter from Wolfie that’s nearly all dialogue. Almost 30 manuscript pages of nearly all dialogue. The warning lights were flashing: It’s too long! It’ll put readers to sleep! Readers want action action action, and talk is not action!

Aside: That “readers won’t like it” mantra gets embedded in our heads. It’s not just editors we have to talk back to: it’s ourselves.

But full-length plays are virtually all dialogue. We can be riveted for two hours by people talking.

So how to create dialogue that’s not only realistic but riveting? Dialogue that develops characters, moves the plot along, and gives the reader a break from one narrative paragraph after another?

Listen to people talk. Listen to yourself talk. Listen to the self-talk that goes on inside your head. Pay attention to how they talk as well as what they’re saying. Some people speak carefully, weighing every word. Others rush headlong into a sentence and don’t get to the end till five minutes later. In a conversation of more than two people, there’s usually one who says almost nothing. People use words to evade and conceal as well as to communicate.

Pay attention to the interactions. People in conversation react to each other. Sometimes it’s obvious: one person interrupts another, or two people complete each other’s sentences. Other times it’s subtle: one person has something to say but holds back, maybe waiting for the right opening, maybe from self-doubt. Or one person has zoned out of the conversation completely and is just itching to get out of there.

Read everything aloud. I read everything aloud, even narrative passages, even essays and reviews, but with dialogue and monologue (like the thoughts swirling inside a character’s head) it’s crucial. I read my long conversational chapter aloud to my writers’ group, Because of its length I did it in two parts. To my surprise and delight, they weren’t bored.

Let it flow. My dialogue usually starts when I point two or more characters at each other and let them talk. In first-draft mode I let them go on, and on and on and on. Often it’s not till they’ve gone on for a while that they get to the point, and often I don’t recognize it until they get there.

Shape your dialogue. People in books, plays, movies, and TV shows generally don’t talk like people you overhear on the bus or at the grocery store, but their conversations still sound “realistic.” You the writer have to actively distill the way people really talk into dialogue that sounds natural but gets to the point more efficiently than any real-life conversation. This takes practice, and a lot of it. Here are some things to keep in mind.

• What do you want this scene or this bit of dialogue to accomplish? Usually it’ll be more than one thing: disclose a bit of information, reveal something about a character, show how the relationship between two characters is developing, etc.

• Even more important, what does each of the speakers want to accomplish? What does each want from the other(s)? Send each character into the conversation with a goal. My very long conversation involved several characters, all of whom already knew most of the others. I had an agenda — Amira has to reveal to Shannon a crucial bit of backstory about someone who isn’t there — and so did each character. Giles, a successful artist, wants to encourage Shannon, a chronic procrastinator, to keep painting. Shannon is trying not to fall in love with Amira. Amira is troubled by a traumatic family event. Jay wants to watch the Celtics game on TV.

• People are not talking heads, even when we’re sitting at the supper table or watching TV. We fidget with our clothing, we gaze off into the distance. In theater, film, and TV, the actors show us all this. In a story or a novel, the writer has to do the showing. Pay as much attention to what your characters do as to what they say.

• People often talk in slang, sentence fragments, and anything other than neatly constructed sentences.  Punctuation conventions are generally aimed at producing neatly constructed sentences. Beware the editor what wants to punctuate your dialogue according to The Chicago Manual of Style or the precepts of some grammar guru. At the same time, you needn’t rely entirely on punctuation to shape your dialogue the way you want readers to hear it. You’ve got other tools in your toolkit. Pay attention to how words sound, and how sentence structure affects what words are emphasized. (When a writer overuses italics, it’s often because she’s not paying enough attention to the pacing and cadence of her sentences.)  Where you put the “tag” — the he said/she said — in a piece of dialogue can have a big effect on how your readers hear it.

A couple of my previous blog posts deal with dialogue. See “Of Dots and Dashes” and “Editing Workshop, 1.” Both focus on punctuation, which is an essential tool in shaping dialogue.

So — have you got any bits of dialogue that are giving you trouble? Other Write Through It readers can learn from your questions — and from the bits that work especially well too. Send them along using the contact form below.

 

 

Go Set a Watchman

Plenty of people have reviewed or written about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, but my friend and mystery writer Cynthia Riggs pinpoints what I think is the most important issue raised by the contrast between Watchman and the classic that grew from it, To Kill a Mockingbird: the importance of editing. Not just copy and line editing, but the kind of editing that sees the potential in a manuscript that isn’t “there” yet and then coaxes, browbeats, and otherwise persuades the writer to make it real.

It’s rare these days that a publisher will invest this kind of time and expertise in a book, especially a first novel. Writers have to do much of the work ourselves, with the help of workshops and writers’  groups and, if we’ve got the money and can find the right person, an editor. But it’s always possible to improve even the drafts that we’re sure are done.

Martha's Vineyard Mysteries

To All Who Plan to Read or Have Read “Go Set a Watchman”:

Cynthia and Howie comparing copies of Cynthia and Howie compare “Go Set a Watchman” with “To Kill a Mockingbird”
photo by Lynn Christoffers

“Go Set a Watchman” was Harper Lee’s first book, and first books are usually unpublishable, as was “Watchman.”  While it has brilliant writing in patches, it has inconsistencies, improbable passages, repetitions, unnecessary divergences, too much back story, ramblings, boring passages, too much overwriting, and almost every error a new writer can make.

Tay Hohoff, an editor at Lippincott, saw promise in the work, saying the “spark of the true writer flashed in every line.”  She urged Harper Lee to scrap “Watchman” and start all over, write a new book with an entirely different story.  Hohoff saw Scout’s young voice, one of several back stories in “Watchman,” as the potential for a great book once it was rewritten, and, of course…

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Top 10 Writing Tips

These are good. Several are probably more applicable to fiction than nonfiction, but most apply to all kinds of writing. My favorites are 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9. And maybe 10. I’m not sure about the love or the fun part, but the wonder of words coming through my fingertips? Yeah, that’s a big one. Thanks to Charles French‘s words, reading, and writing blog for the lead.

Lynette Noni

A few months ago I was asked by the Gold Coast Bulletin to come up with a list of writing tips that they could publish in their newspaper. I really wanted to include those tips in a blog post back then too, but the Bulletin asked me to wait until they’d published them first, which is fair enough. I’d pretty much forgotten about it, but this week my wonderful publicist tracked down the link for the whole article that they wrote up on me back in May in the aftermath of Supanova, which means I can now share my tips with you all!

Top 10 Tips (Portrait) JPEG

Feel free to share the above tips if you find them helpful at all. And if you want to read the whole article (it’s an entire page, which is so cool!), you can do so by clicking on this link to find a screenshot JPEG of it here: 

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Notes and More Notes

These days the how-to-write gurus like to divide writers into planners and pantsers. Planners, it’s said, outline everything in advance, then stick to the outline. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t know how the story is going to end until they get there. They make it up as they go along.

Either/or doesn’t work for me. Meticulous outlines make sense for some, but for me they suck the point out of writing. Writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, a story needs forward motion. To maintain forward motion, some sort of structure is required; otherwise you’ve got waves breaking on the shoreline, getting no higher than the high-water mark before they fall back, momentum spent. Last year I set a project aside because it had a surfeit of subplots, characters galore — and no forward motion whatsoever. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. What it lacked was structure.

Think of structure as the frame of a building or a road through previously untracked wilderness. Either way, your job is to build it. My first novel, The Mud of the Place, started with a character and a problem. I wrote it scene by scene. But though I never made an outline, I scribbled notes here there and everywhere. Years after I finished the final draft, I was still finding yellow pads with notes on them: notes about characters, notes about plot, notes about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I’m doing the same thing with Wolfie, the novel in progress. Ideas and insights and solutions to plot problems often come to me while I’m walking or kneading bread or falling asleep, but to really explore and develop them I have to keep my hand moving across the page. This time I’m keeping the notes in one place, and in chronological order. When I’m stuck or drifting or just need a jump start, I dip back into them. My old ideas keep giving me new ideas.

Here’s a sample of what they look like and what I use them for.

In early November I was trying to corral some emerging themes, subplots, and images. I was auditioning names for one character (Javier? Rafael? Rafe? Ralph?) and social media handles for another (for the moment she’s settled on Quinta Wolf). Note also the ink scribbles at the top and the liquid splotch (probably tea, maybe beer) at right. The red notes were added later.

20141107 notes

Here the author is trying to figure out what the hell happens next. She does this a lot.

20141121 notes 1

Toward the bottom of the same page, the pen offers an answer — and starts speculating about a possible plot development further down the road. I haven’t got there yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Note the scribbles. Note taking often involves scribbles.

20141121 notes 2

By late February, I had started draft 2, even though I hadn’t finished draft 1. My main plot threads were clear and becoming clearer. I had to build them a trellis to climb on. On March 24, I listed the characters driving each of the threads. “The Wall” is a mural that protagonist Shannon is painting on her living room wall. It has, as these supposedly inanimate objects sometimes do, taken on a life of its own. Amira wandered in from the set-aside novel, where she plays a major role. Her role in Wolfie isn’t settled yet, but it’s definitely important.

At the bottom of the page I’m brainstorming names for my villain. He started off as Bruce McManus, which didn’t feel right. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” is gone. I didn’t want a name with obvious ethnic associations. I did want a name that suggested that what this guy does, though terrible, can be and often is done by ordinary, unexceptional men. His surname is now Smith.

20150324 notes

Here — not even three weeks ago! — I’m looking ahead to what follows a key scene (“selectmen’s meeting”). The scene itself is being lifted wholesale from draft 1, but when I first wrote it I hadn’t thought much about what its repercussions and aftershocks might look like. I’m also working out some character motivation: “Why is Shannon getting uneasy?” She is uneasy, and with good reason, but neither she nor I are quite sure why. The tricky thing is that it can’t be too obvious. One of the questions that’s driving this novel for me is “What do you do when you suspect something is very wrong, but you can’t be sure and the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes?” The jury’s still out on that one.

20150628 notes

And finally, here’s the sketch for a plot break-through scene. Bruce, an outwardly rational lawyer who weighs the consequences of (almost) everything he contemplates doing, has to make a move that isn’t all that well thought out. He has to be, in other words, on the brink of panic. What would do it? Well, if he realized that Shannon, whom his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Glory, idolizes, knows Amira, who counseled Glory four years earlier when she was in trouble at school, that would do it. How to bring that about? I mulled that over on several walks, then a possibility popped into my head. On July 8, I sketched it out and decided, Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s try it.

20150708 notes

The Name Game

Editing nonfiction, I’m always astonished and delighted by the sheer variety of people’s names. Some are common, others unusual. Many hint at where the individual or his/her forebears might have come from — at least the forebears in the paternal line. The names of women are usually plowed under by marriage, though they may resurface in a child or grandchild’s middle name.

Other names are more generic — which in English-speaking countries means “more Anglo-Saxon” — than the people who bear them. Immigrant names were often changed at the border by immigration officials who found the original unpronounceable or unspellable. Individuals change their own names for an array of reasons. Sometimes the grandchildren of immigrants reclaim the ancestral name, though it means they’ll be continually asked how to spell or pronounce it.

One of the first things a small-town newspaper copyeditor learns is that most readers will forgive the occasional error of fact and rarely notice the grammatical gaffe, but if you misspell their names or, worse, the name of one of their kids, they will remember it forever. The first name of one fellow who appeared occasionally in news stories was Kieth. Yep: i before e. As with Triple Crown champ American Pharoah, the impulse to “correct” it was strong, but once I ascertained that “Kieth” was correct, I didn’t give in to it.

I’m jealous of nonfiction writers. They do have to get the names right, but at least they don’t have to make them up.

Fiction writers do.

Naming characters is like titling the work. Some names come easy. Others come hard.

A character in Wolfie, my novel in progress, appeared as Bruce McManus. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” was a placeholder. His real name didn’t show up on its own. I had to poke around my brain looking for it.

What made this difficult is that Bruce is not a nice man. He’s not-nice in a particularly loathsome way, but his particular kind of loathsomeness is not all that rare.

What was wrong with McManus? Well, I wanted a generic name that would not be associated with a specific ethnic or national group. “Mc-” suggests Irish or maybe Scottish. Bruce comes across as WASP and probably is. When it comes to names, I have a couple of ruts that I regularly fall into, and one of them is names beginning with M. A main character in this novel is Shannon Merrick. Up the road from her is a couple named Morris.

Another of my ruts is trochees — names of two syllables with the accent on the first: Shannon, Merrick, Morris . . . I’ve also got a few three-syllable names going — Segredo, Kelleher, Correia, McDermott — but not many with only one syllable. So I started brainstorming single-syllable, generic names.

Trouble was, nearly all those single-syllable names were good English words: Black, Brown(e), White, Green(e), Stone, Hunt, Young, Pierce . . . Their meanings and connotations were likely to color (sometimes literally) readers’ perceptions of the character, and raise the possibility that this was intentional on my part. Nothing wrong with that: I’ve done it myself. In my first novel, The Mud of the Place, Jay Segredo got his surname for a reason. “Segredo” in Portuguese means “secret.” But with this Bruce character? No.

So while I was out walking one morning and thinking about something entirely different, “Smith” slipped into my conscious mind. Bruce Smith. Bruce Endicott Smith. I had it: a one-syllable surname that was about as generic as you can get in English and that didn’t begin with M. 

Some characters show up with names firmly attached. How to name the ones that don’t? There are plenty of options. Some writers open the phone book at random then let their forefinger do the picking, once for the first name, once for the last. I often discover names by listening to the characters talk, either to themselves or to each other. My novel is set in a particular place — Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, New England, USA — which limits my options somewhat. If your story is set in Croatia, Armenia, Brazil, or Japan, or if one of your characters comes from somewhere else, there are names lists galore on the Web for different places and different languages. If you don’t know the place or language, though, take care: the name you choose may have associations you don’t know about. (“Bush” was not one of the monosyllabic names I considered for Bruce.)

For fantasy and science fiction writers the possibilities might seem endless, but not really: readers have a harder time with names they can’t pronounce or remember easily.

Do names really matter all that much? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” true, but if roses were called rhododendrons, they probably wouldn’t show up in so many poems. The busybody who appeared in the excerpt I quoted in “Free the Scene” didn’t give her name, but it turned out to be Juliet Cavendish Cooper. If that suggests someone who’s imperious and proud of her genealogy, fine with me.

For the important players, though, the name can provide a way into the character’s head and history. How did the person come by that name? Does s/he like it or hate it? Growing up a Susanna, I wanted a name like everybody else’s so I went by Sue or Susan (occasionally spelled Suzan). After high school I decided that Susanna really was much better, even if I often have to spell it out. One of my main characters, given name James, as a kid was widely known as Jimmy. After he left home, he started calling himself Jay. Now only his mother calls him Jimmy.

My friend the prolific mystery writer Cynthia Riggs sometimes donates naming rights to good causes. If you’re the high bidder at a benefit auction, you or your designee gets a namesake in Cynthia’s next novel. This is how Bruce Steinbicker, in Cynthia’s recently released Poison Ivy (St. Martin’s, 2015), got his name. But in the writing Bruce the character took on a personality of his own, as characters are wont to do. This prompted Cynthia to write to Bruce the real guy:

In the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series book I’m writing now, Poison Ivy, I intended the character named after you, the TV star Bruce Steinbicker, to make a simple cameo appearance on the porch of Alley’s Store. However, the character insisted that he play a larger role . This is a problem writers often face. A character takes over and there’s not much we can do about it. But since our character, Bruce Steinbicker, decides to have a dalliance with a woman other than his wife, I thought I should let you know in case this might cause problems for you in your personal life. If so, I can give our Bruce S. character an alias.

Please let me know whether or not you’re comfortable with being loosely identified with our naughty Bruce Steinbicker, as I’m in the home stretch.

To which Bruce the real guy replied: “I’m fine with this and when I showed your message to my wife of 49 years, she just laughed.”

Since Cynthia and I are in the same writers’ group and I heard most of Poison Ivy in manuscript, I’m now wondering if that’s where my Bruce’s name came from. Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe yes and no. The writer’s mind steals from here, there, and everywhere, then forgets where the shiny baubles came from.

 

 

My Characters, My Selves

The other day a writer-editor friend on Facebook posted a quote from Truman Capote: “You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.”

An interesting discussion ensued. The first comment took issue with the word “blame.” So do I. But characters come out of a writer’s head somehow, even when they’re based on real people. I’m not my characters and my characters aren’t me, but whatever my characters do or say rises in my mind, travels down my arms, and is transmitted to paper or screen by my fingers.

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” as the old guy said — I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m not my characters, my characters aren’t me, but I’ve imagined them. I’ve brought them to some kind of life.

Creating characters is probably the weirdest thing about writing fiction or plays. It’s totally juju. Joan of Arc’s voices don’t seem strange to me. I sometimes wonder if I might stumble off the edge and forget that my characters are characters. What if I ventured into my fictional world and couldn’t find my way back?

Can writers create believable characters if we don’t have the seeds of those characters in our heads? I suspect not. Whether we dare acknowledge and nurture those seeds into fully developed characters is a whole other question. A character in my novel in progress is a man who has sexually abused his stepdaughter and may do so again. He’s not a viewpoint character. I don’t want to get into his head, and I’m not sure I could.

Actually, now that I think of it, what I’m really afraid of is that I can get into his head. This fellow has appeared in a couple of scenes already. He acts like a trial lawyer at the family dinner table. His wife steps gingerly to avoid triggering his temper. Hmm. I recognize this. I grew up with something similar. I learned from my father how to intimidate people with words.

paperwhites

That’s me on the right, ca. 1993, in rehearsal. I was playing a rather timid nursing-home volunteer. Words came out of my mouth in an English accent that isn’t mine. I wasn’t her, but we definitely had a connection.

Characters often do things that their creators would never do, and say things that their creators don’t believe, or wouldn’t say in public if they did. Do authors really hide behind despicable characters to say the despicable things they believe but don’t dare say under their own names? I’m sure it happens, but I’m equally sure that if you want clues to what the author believes, you have to look at the whole work, not just the words or deeds of one or two characters.

Good actors can be so persuasive playing despicable characters. They have to connect with some despicable kernel in themselves to be that persuasive. When they’re really persuasive, viewers may feel an unsettling connection with that despicable character. Writers both create the characters and watch them in action. That can be pretty unsettling too.

When a really horrendous act is reported on the news, a common response is “how could anybody do something like that?” Me, I’m immediately working out a hypothetical trajectory in my head: how did this person get from birth to the point where he (it’s usually a he, but not always) could do this terrible thing? Into the cauldron of my mind go whatever sketchy details are available and everything I’ve read, heard, or experienced about, say, war, poverty, hopelessness, anger, addiction, fanaticism, denial, the way that humans tend to get swept away by what the other humans around them are doing . . .

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m still having a hard time with that abusive stepfather.

 

On to Draft 2!

This past weekend I took a very deep breath and started draft 2 of Wolfie, my novel in progress.

The time had come.

I like to take a break between drafts. The longer the work, the longer the break, which means that with a novel or a long essay it can be a few weeks. This time I didn’t exactly take the break: the break took me. In late January I suspended work on the novel to focus my attention on a long, challenging editing job with an impending deadline. That deadline met, I turned to a review assignment whose deadine was also impending. I’d read the book and been thinking about it for weeks, but now I had to write the review. (For some thoughts about reviewing see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy.”)

Wolfie was never far from my mind. To push on with the first draft or to start the second? That was the question.

Draft 1 wasn’t complete. The Word file stood at 227 pages, almost 55,000 words, with a dozen or so handwritten pages yet to be transcribed. I had a pretty good idea of where things were headed. I probably could have forged on through climax to conclusion and then started the second draft . . .

The trouble was, a couple of significant plot threads have only come clear during the writing. One is hinted at in draft 1 but only sketchily developed. The other comes as a backstory dump in the handwritten pages I haven’t transcribed yet. It needs to start much earlier and be woven into the story.

Over the last year I’ve been taking Wolfie installments to my Sunday night writers’ group. This is a first for me. Usually I don’t let anything out in public until it’s in second or third draft — when I’ve gone as far as I can on my own and need some outside eyes. With Wolfie, though, the weekly deadline and my group’s encouragement have kept me going.

So — should I push on and bring the final chapters one by one to the group, explaining that the backstory to this or that wasn’t set up yet and they’d have to wait for the second draft to understand what was going on? I didn’t like that idea at all. I want the writing to stand on its own.

Maybe more important, I don’t really know how those last chapters are going to unfold. It’s going to depend in part on what my characters do and say in the parts I haven’t written yet, and I won’t know that until I’ve written them.

So I opened draft1.doc and saved it as draft2.doc.

old chap 1

Then I deleted Chapter One. It was an experiment that didn’t work out. The tall man is still in the story, but he doesn’t live in that house anymore. He’s no longer a viewpoint character either.

So far, so good. For me revision is usually about 80 percent cutting and rearranging what’s already there. Chapter Two from draft 1 is now Chapter One in draft 2.

new chap 1

My recollection was that this chapter didn’t need much work. It does a pretty good job of introducing one of the two viewpoint characters: Glory, a sixth-grade girl. What I’d forgotten was that somewhere along the way I’d shifted Glory’s sections from past tense to present, but her introduction is still in past tense.

And I’m still not 100 percent sure that present tense is the way to go. Rather than rewrite it now, I made a note in the margin. The muses haven’t given me a clear answer on that one yet.

For the new Chapter Two, I’ve gone back to writing in longhand. The story itself isn’t going to change much, but I need a new way into it — a way that hints at some of the things I didn’t know when I wrote it the first time. What this means is that with Wolfie second-drafting is going to look more like first-drafting than it usually does. It’s going to involve plenty of exploring, digging, and otherwise adding new stuff — writing, in other words.

Travvy

Travvy, on whom Wolfie’s title character is based, takes a break from digging in the snow.

For me, editing is relatively easy. The writing tells me what has to be done, and I do it.

Writing is more like breaking trail through two feet of snow. My dog and I have done a lot of that lately. It’s exhausting, and it takes longer to get anywhere than it does when we’re walking on good old dirt.

But second-drafting already seems less daunting than starting from scratch. This time around my characters are helping — some of them more than others, of course — and so is the story. If I listen carefully, I can hear what’s not being said. I can visualize the scenes that need to be there that aren’t there yet.

My writing will teach me what I need to know if only I keep writing.

My Voice! Where’s My Voice?

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “the writer’s voice,” also known as “the author’s voice.” Writers worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

Agents and acquisitions editors often claim that it’s the writer’s voice that lifts a manuscript from the slush pile and into the elite ranks of the Traditionally Published. What exactly do they mean by that?

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: "His Master's Voice."

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: “His Master’s Voice,” the voice coming out of the record player. Where the hell did my voice go? Who’s talking?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.

Travvy

My malamute, Travvy, has a flexible voice. Here he is trying to persuade a tractor to move.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. I know a bit about this because over the years I’ve written reviews, essays, poems, news stories, op-eds, newspaper features, short stories, one-act plays, and a novel, not to mention something like 500 blog posts. Some forms I’m more comfortable with than others, some I’m better at than others, but they’re all coming out of the same well of words, opinions, and experiences that is contained in my brain.

Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

The writers of memoir and travelogue often have occasion to quote actual people. This requires first the ability to listen attentively and then the ability to translate the other person’s voice onto the printed page. Sometimes this means putting words in the other person’s mouth that the other person never said. If the other person is dead or fictitious, he or she won’t sue for libel — but astute readers often know when a character steps out of character. When the lapse is obvious enough, the reader may lose confidence in the character, the story, and the author.

My editorial diet is similarly varied. Most of it is nonfiction, but it ranges from scholarly books and dissertations to memoirs, essay collections to book-length works by journalists. Most of the novels I edit are stand-alones: they aren’t part of a series, and they don’t belong to a recognizable genre. Each genre and kind of writing has its own conventions and its own objectives, and in most cases some flexibility is allowed — even encouraged.

In the early pages and chapters — I work primarily on book-length works — I listen for the author’s voice. Sometimes it’s distinctive; often it’s fairly subtle. I notice the words and constructions that the author is particularly fond of. These are perfectly OK in themselves, but used to excess they can become cloying. Some authors (like me) like long sentences and write them well, but that doesn’t mean that the occasional long sentence doesn’t get tangled enough to trip even a careful reader up.

I do this pretty much without thinking. If you asked me at the end of a job to describe the author’s voice, I’d have a hard time doing it — until I went back with a more analytical eye and identified the various components that make up the author’s style. As a result, I can be a little suspicious when agents, acquisitions editors, and writing teachers go on and on about the importance of that mystical, mystifying entity, “the writer’s voice.”

A few weeks back, though, I was reminded of just how important a writer’s voice can be. A writer I didn’t know asked me to critique his just-completed novel. Like many another editor upon receiving a similar request, I was wary. Most such manuscripts turn out to need serious work before they become publishable, or even readable. “Serious work” translates into serious time, which means serious money. The writer doesn’t have it, or doesn’t want to spend it, and I can’t afford to work for nothing.

So I asked to see a chapter or two. I was already bracing myself for frustration.

Then I started reading. Sure, the punctuation needed work and some of the word choices were a little off, but it was clear almost immediately that the author was one hell of a storyteller and that he had one hell of a story to tell.

Send me the whole thing, I said.

Since then that storyteller’s voice has conjured scenes I couldn’t imagine, taken me places I didn’t want to go, and made me laugh at the same time. This voice isn’t my voice, but it’s so strong and distinctive that I’ve had no trouble slipping inside it and hearing it while I meddle with the punctuation, rearrange the occasional sentence, and ask questions about things that aren’t clear.

Editing doesn’t get much better than this.

When this novel makes it into print, you will hear about it. I promise.

 

People Talking

People talking. Dialogue. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (online) has to say about it:

1. a. A conversation between two or more people. b. A discussion of positions or beliefs, especially between groups to resolve a disagreement.
2. a. Conversation between characters in a drama or narrative. b. The lines or passages in a script that are intended to be spoken.

Here we’re mainly concerned with #2, but as you’ll see, #1 is also important, especially #1a.

Writers of technical and scholarly material may not have to bother with dialogue. They can write papers and whole books in which people don’t talk to each other. For fiction writers, memoirists, and writers of nonfiction of a more personal kind, dialogue is almost indispensable. It also comes in handy for journalists and academics who incorporate interviews with real people into their work. They don’t make the dialogue up, but it takes skill and sensitivity to make effective use of it.

I say “almost indispensable” because it’s definitely possible to write a story, a personal essay, or even a novel or book-length memoir with no dialogue in it. But think of all the wonderful things that good dialogue can do:

  • It moves the story forward.
  • It reveals character, and the relationships between characters.
  • It breaks up the text so the reader isn’t confronted by a wall of print on every page.

Don’t discount this last one. Page after page of solid, often lengthy paragraphs can make a book look pretty forbidding. That’s one reason good writers, editors, and designers of technical manuals and academic books use paragraph breaks, headings, illustrations, and other graphic devices to break up their pages.

Listen to people talk. Eavesdrop shamelessly but be discreet. Think twice about writing things down. (Recording people without their consent is definitely unethical and possibly illegal. Don’t do it.) You don’t need the exact words. Pay attention to tone, facial expression, body language.

Listen to the voices talking in your head.

Pay particular attention to conversations where one person is trying to persuade another of something, or trying to get that person to do something.

If you have an opportunity to watch an improv troupe at work, in person or online, use it.

Read everything you write out loud. Especially dialogue. Try it this way and that way till the reader is likely to hear it the way you do.

Lesson #1: The dialogue in novels, memoirs, and even plays sounds real, but it doesn’t sound the way real people talk. Real conversations meander all over the place. Often they never get to the point — or they do, but it’s not obvious what the point is. Sometimes the point is just to keep silence at bay. Sometimes it’s to keep another person from talking.

Lesson #2: Wonderful, vivid dialogue can be crafted from this raw material. Some writers take to it naturally, others have to work harder at it — but it’s like most things to do with writing: the more you practice, and the more observant you are, the better you’ll get at it.

A couple of my previous blog posts deal with dialogue. See “Of Dots and Dashes” and “Editing Workshop, 1.” Both focus on punctuation, which is an essential tool in shaping dialogue.

So — have you got any bits of dialogue that are giving you trouble? Other Write Through It readers can learn from your questions — and from the bits that work especially well too. Send them along using the contact form below.

Point of View

If you go web-surfing or pick up a couple of how-to-write books, you can learn almost everything you need to know — and a great deal more — about point of view (POV).

What you have to figure out for yourself is what works best for whatever you’re working on.

First off, a short lecture: Everything created by humans has a point of view. Even the formal, scholarly stuff that pretends it doesn’t. Even the photographs that are supposedly worth a thousand words because you’re supposedly seeing the real thing, not someone’s possibly inaccurate, incomplete, or biased description of it. What you’re seeing is what the photographer saw and wants you to see. This was true long before Photoshop, and it’s true now.

Visual images have a literal point of view: a place where the viewer is standing, sitting, hovering in space. This affects what you see. You can’t see the dark side of the moon from Earth. You can’t see the backside of whatever the photographer’s showing you the front of. You can’t see what’s above or below, to the right or left of it either.

Here, though, we’re talking about writing, particularly fiction writing.

Fron Cover MockupMy #1 goal for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, was to show how the place I live in works. I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is in the news a lot, especially in the summer, especially when the president comes to visit. If you see Martha’s Vineyard on the news, you generally see what the reporters see: the summer resort, the quaint tourist attractions, the celebrities. I wanted to show what goes on backstage. The reporters and the summer people rarely see this stuff, and when they see it, they don’t really understand what’s going on.

In short, I wanted to tell stories about people who aren’t considered newsworthy. How to do it?

Mud wanted to be an ensemble piece. So it’s all in third person, with several POV characters. (Yes, I know they all sprang from my first-person mind, but bear with me here.)

Each scene has a single POV. Sometimes an interaction or a conversation can be glimpsed from both sides, but there’s always a scene break where the POV shifts. I learned a lot about each character from seeing him or her through other characters’ eyes. Sometimes a sequence of events remained out-of-focus because the POV character involved didn’t think or say anything about it, and the other POV characters didn’t know what had happened. I liked that a lot.

At one point in my first draft, a non-viewpoint character told my protagonist something my protagonist hadn’t suspected. I didn’t like that so much. In fact, it scared the hell out of me, because I had to drastically overhaul the plot and I was already afraid I’d never finish the thing. But I did, and Mud was much the better for the overhaul. I’d thought I was writing a tragedy. Turns out I was writing a comedy, in which nearly everyone is better off at the end than they were at the beginning.

Moral of story: Non-POV characters have a way of getting their perspectives into the tale. Don’t discount them just because you’re not watching the action through their eyes.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn't telling the story.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn’t telling the story.

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is set on that same island, but it’s not an ensemble piece. Like Mud, it’s all in third person, but it’s got a tighter focus. At present it’s got two viewpoint characters. One is a woman in her mid-fifties — Shannon from Mud of the Place, if you’ve read novel #1. The other is an 11-year-old girl. The title character is a dog. No scenes are told from his POV, but he’s as essential to the story as the woman and the girl.

The big challenge is the girl. She’s smart and observant, but what’s going on in her family is key, and she can’t see or understand a lot of it. More, she doesn’t have conscious access to some of her own memories. So in first draft her POV sections are being told in third person, present tense. I’m not a big present-tense fan, so this is a challenge. I also have to work out ways to weave this girl’s backstory into the novel. She doesn’t remember a lot of it, and the one character who does isn’t telling.

Come to think of it, the girl isn’t the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is the character who knows but doesn’t tell. I hate him. I don’t understand how a person could do what he almost certainly did, and is probably going to do again, and still look himself in the mirror. But plenty of people manage, and if/when their monstrosity is revealed, a popular reaction is disbelief. Creating believable villains is hard. I had a couple of villainous characters in Mud of the Place, but I managed to keep them at arm’s length. I can’t do it with this guy.

There’s also a somewhat mysterious fellow hovering in the wings. I know who he is. He’s important. Is he a POV character? I’m not sure yet. A key scene’s coming up that involves him and another non-POV character. One of them has to become a POV character or I’ve got to figure out another way to get that scene into the story.

This is what I love about using just a few viewpoint characters, none of whom has the whole picture. It challenges me as a writer. I have to plumb those characters more deeply than I would otherwise. I have to come up with incidents that will prompt them to say or think things that readers will need to know. Sometimes they say or think things that even I didn’t suspect. That’s how I know I’m tapping into the deep place that the stories worth writing come from.