When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.

4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue

This literary agent considers dialogue “a huge indicator of skill for better or for worse.” When reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts) she considers unrealistic dialogue a deal-breaker. Fortunately she also offers some tips for writing better gialogue. Pay attention, too, to the comments: several (including mine) strongly recommend reading dialogue aloud or having someone read it to you. Imagine your dialogue being acted on stage or film: would you keep watching, or would you doze off?

Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

One of my biggest pet peeves as an agent reading slush is unrealistic dialogue. This is a huge indicator of skill for better or for worse. For me this is a bigger red flag than any grammatical error and I cringe when dialogue isn’t edited as carefully as the rest of the manuscript (in terms of pace, being concise etc). I will VERY quickly pass on a manuscript if everything else is going well–except dialogue. It’s a more important piece of the puzzle than most writers realize. It’s our link to your characters’ tone, emotion, voice and so many other things. If you want a reader to connect with your characters (which you all do!) dialogue is a huge part of that equation.

So, how can you write better dialogue?

Write the character’s voice, not yours — Debut writers have a tendency to write themselves into their book when it’s not necessary…

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Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.

Proofreading English English

British flagGeorge Bernard Shaw oh-so-famously said that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

Ha ha ha. Clever, but a bit overstated, don’t you think? True, this native speaker of American English (AmE) usually turns the captions on when watching British TV shows like Sally Wainwright’s (awesome) Happy Valley because, between the Yorkshire accent, the colloquialisms, and the speed of conversation, my unaccustomed American ear can miss as much as half of what the characters are saying.

Also true: Accents and colloquialisms can trip me up in AmE as well.

Written English seems to cross the ocean more easily. Accents don’t interfere with the printed page, and print stands still so I can pore and puzzle over anything I don’t get the first time. If I don’t understand a word, I can look it up.

The biography I’m proofreading at the moment is being published simultaneously in the US and the UK. It was written and edited in British English (BrE), so that’s what I’m reading. I have no trouble understanding the text. The big challenge is that I’m so fascinated by the differences between AmE and BrE style, spelling, usage, and punctuation that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m proofreading. “They went to the the museum” is a goof on both sides of the Atlantic and it’s my job to catch it.

I’ve long been familiar with the general differences between BrE and AmE spelling. AmE generally drops the “u” from words like “favour” (but retains it in “glamour,” damned if I know why), spells “civilise” with a “z,” and doesn’t double the consonant in verbs like “travelled” unless the stress falls on the second syllable, as in “admitted.” In BrE it’s “tyre,” not “tire”; “kerb,” not “curb”; “sceptical,” not “skeptical”; and “manoeuvre,” not “maneuver.” (The “oe” in “amoeba” doesn’t bother me at all, but “manoeuvre” looks very, very strange.)

To my eye the most obvious difference between AmE and BrE is the quotation marks. A quick glance at a book or manuscript can usually tell me whether it was written and edited in AmE or BrE. In AmE, quoted material and dialogue are enclosed in double quotation marks; quotes within the quote are enclosed in single. Like this: “Before long we came to a sign that said ‘Go no further,’ so we turned back.” BrE does the opposite: single quotes on the outside, double on the inside.

That part’s easy. What’s tricky is that in AmE, commas and periods invariably go inside the quote marks, but in BrE it depends on whether the quoted bit is a complete sentence or not. If it is, the comma or full stop goes inside the quotes; if it isn’t, the comma or full stop goes outside. What makes it even trickier is that British newspapers and fiction publishers often follow AmE style on this. My current proofread follows the traditional BrE style, and does so very consistently. Thank heavens.

BrE is more tolerant of hyphens than AmE, or at least AmE as codified by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style and enforced by the copyeditors who treat them as rulebooks. I like this tolerance. (For more about my take on hyphens, see  Sturgis’s Law #5.)

BrE also commonly uses “which” for both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. This also is fine with me, although as a novice editor I was so vigorously inculcated with the which/that distinction that it’s now second nature. Some AmE copyeditors insist that without the which/that distinction one can’t tell whether a clause is restrictive or not. This is a crock. Almost anything can be misunderstood if one tries hard enough to misunderstand it. Besides, non-restrictive clauses are generally preceded by a comma.

In my current proofread, however, I encountered a sentence like this: “She watched the arrival of the bulldozers, that were to transform the neighborhood.” “That” is seldom used for non-restrictive clauses, and a clause like this could go either way, restrictive or non-restrictive, depending on the author’s intent. Context gave me no clues about this, so I queried.

comma

A comma (willing to moonlight as an apostrophe)

Speaking of misunderstanding, remember “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”? Some copyeditors and armchair grammarians consider this proof that the serial or Oxford comma — the one that precedes the conjunction in a series of three or more — is necessary to avoid misunderstanding. As I blogged in “Serialissima,” I’m a fan of the serial comma, most of what I edit uses the serial comma, but the book I’m proofreading doesn’t use the serial comma and it didn’t me long to get used to its absence.

BrE uses capital letters more liberally than AmE, or at least AmE as represented by Chicago, which recommends a “down style” — that is, it uses caps sparingly. In my current proofread, it’s the King, the Queen, the young Princesses, the Prime Minister, and, often, the Gallery, even when gallery’s full name is not used. Chicago would lowercase the lot of them.

I knew that BrE punctuates certain abbreviations differently than AmE, but I was a little fuzzy on how it worked, so I consulted New Hart’s Rules, online access to which comes with my subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries. If Chicago has a BrE equivalent, New Hart’s Rules is it. In BrE, I learned, no full point (that’s BrE for “period”) is used for contractions, i.e., abbreviations that include the first and last letter of the complete word. Hence: Dr for Doctor, Ltd for Limited, St for Street, and so on. When the abbreviation consists of the first part of a word, the full point is used, hence Sun, for Sunday and Sept. for September.

Thus enlightened, I nevertheless skidded to a full stop at the sight of “B.Litt,” short for the old academic degree Bachelor of Letters. Surely it should have either two points or none, either BLitt or B.Litt.? I queried that too.

AmE is my home turf. I know Chicago cold and can recognize other styles when they’re in play. I know the rules and conventions of AmE spelling, usage, and style, and (probably more important) I know the difference between rules and conventions. In BrE I’m in territory familiar in some ways, unfamiliar in others. I pay closer attention. I look more things up. I’m reminded that, among other things, neither the serial comma nor the which/that distinction is essential for clarity. Proofreading in BrE throws me off-balance. This is a good thing. The editor who feels too sure of herself is an editor who’s losing her edge.

Dot Comma

This is part 2 of “Sturgis’s Law #5.” I got carried away with hyphens and didn’t get around to commas till the word count was edging toward the stratosphere. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #5 redux.

Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.

Commas drive people crazy. They’re small but they’re powerful. They can be used for so many things. Teachers, editors, and the authors of style guides often try to wrangle them into some sort of order, which is fine, but when the guidelines harden into rules, writers and other editors may get feisty.

I suspect that it’s not the poor commas that drive people crazy; it’s the notion that there are a gazillion iron-clad rules about the right and wrong way to use them and if you get any of them wrong someone will think you’re stupid.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it's the bottom half of a semicolon, but it's impersonating a comma.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it’s the bottom half of a semicolon, but it’s impersonating a comma.

Take my sentence above: “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To comma or not to comma? It’s actually OK either way: convention sensibly advises a comma before the conjunction that separates two independent clauses, but an equally sensible corollary notes that the comma may be dropped when the clauses are short.

So I went back and forth a half-dozen times between “They’re small, but they’re powerful” and “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To avoid settling on one or the other, I actually contemplated “They’re small but powerful” and “They’re small — but they’re powerful.” All four options are well within the pale of acceptable usage, but each reads a little differently.

Sentences like this can send us running to the style guide, and when the oracle responds with “It depends,” that’s when we start to lose it.

This, however, is no reason to throw the comma conventions out. Writing that consists of long comma-less sentences is devilish hard to read, and besides, we usually talk in phrases, emphasizing some words and not others. Commas, and punctuation generally, help shape your sentences so they’ll be read, understood, and heard the way you want them to be. Learn the basics so well that they become your default settings. At that point you’re ready to change the defaults when it best serves your writing.

Here’s a short paragraph plucked at random from my novel in progress. Shannon is explaining to the selectmen in her town* why Wolfie, a dog who’s been running amok and maybe killing livestock, should be allowed to remain in her house. No surprise, the paragraph has a lot of commas in it, doing common comma duties.

Shannon smiled. “You might say so,” she said. “When Wolfie’s confined to a crate, he tries to get out, and when he can’t get out, he howls. We’re making progress on that, but, well, I don’t think he would do well at the kennel.”

The first comma is standard in punctuating dialogue in American English (AmE). Use a comma before or after a dialogue tag, depending on its placement in the sentence. If you want, you can turn that sentence around:

She said, “You might say so.”

The second comma follows a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence. Commas are also used to set off introductory phrases, especially when they’re fairly long. How long? I remember learning that any introductory phrase or clause of at least seven words should be followed by a comma, but please, don’t be making your decisions on word count alone. The main purpose of that comma is to keep the introductory phrase or clause from bleeding into the main sentence.

The third comma, the one before and, separates two independent clauses. The fourth, like the second, sets off an introductory clause. This sentence is both compound (it comprises two independent clauses) and complex (it includes dependent clauses). In such sentences, commas help the reader figure out what goes with what.

Next comes another before-the-conjunction comma, and then we’ve got an interjection: well. When interjections — well, oh, good heavens, and the like — come at the beginning of a sentence they are almost always followed by a comma. When they come in the middle, you usually want commas fore and aft. Say the sentence out loud. You pause before and/or after the interjection, right?

Good writers often use commas to help pace our sentences, perhaps to signal a slight pause. I hear a subtle difference between She shut the door then opened it again and She shut the door, then opened it again. In the former, the opening follows hard on the shutting. In the latter she hesitates; maybe she’s had second thoughts. Some people don’t hear any difference at all between the two. When an editor who doesn’t hear the difference meets up with a writer who does, things can get ugly.

When they approach commas that can’t be neatly explained by one of “the rules,” some editors ask “Is it necessary?” When I’m editing, my own work or someone else’s, I ask instead “Is it useful?” and “What purpose is it serving?” If it’s serving a purpose, I generally leave it alone.

This is not to say that I pause to ponder every comma I come to. In most book-length copyediting jobs I put a bunch in and take a bunch out on the fly. If asked, though, I can nearly always explain what I did and why: this is a knack that comes with experience, lots of experience.

Commas ready for recycling

Commas ready for recycling

Some writing, even good writing, is peppered with commas. I remove the excess and save them in a pepper shaker, so I’ll have them on hand when I come to a work with too many long, breathless sentences.

When a sentence or whole passage is overpunctuated — it contains so many commas and other punctuation marks that you barely notice the words — this is often a sign that the sentence itself needs work. The writer is trying to tame the sentence with commas when the real problem lies with the words, phrases, and/or clauses and the arrangement thereof.

OK? Commas may be small and powerful, but they don’t have to be scary. Play around with them. See what works and what doesn’t. And if you’ve got a comma question or observation, post it in the comments or use the “Got a Question?” form at the top of this page.


* This town, like most small to middling towns in New England, runs by the town meeting system. Town meeting, in which all the town’s registered voters can participate, functions like a legislature. In addition to the big annual town meeting, usually in the spring, there are usually two or three special town meetings during the year. The board of selectmen takes care of business in between.

“Tag!” She Scowled

Let’s talk about dialogue tags: the “he saids” and “she saids” that you can’t do without if you’re writing fiction or memoir or anything that includes people talking. (Except play and film scripts: those are different.)

How did they come to be called that? I don’t know. “Tag” to me suggests a bit of paper attached by string, wire, or plastic to an item for sale at a yard sale or in a store. Or a children’s game in which one kid catches up with another and yells “Tag, you’re it.” I think of them as “attributions,” because they attribute speech to one speaker or another, but “tag” is shorter so I’ll stick with that.

There’s plenty of hoohah out there about dialogue in general and tags in particular. I’ve contributed a bit to the hoohah: “Monologue About Dialogue” and “Of Dots and Dashes.” Here’s a bit more.

Most of the style guides, how-tos, and freelance pontificators agree on two points:

  • Tags are supposed to be unobtrusive.
  • “Said” is usually the best choice.

As guidelines these are fine. As rules? Not so much. “Said” is often the best choice, but by no means always, and “unobtrusive” does not mean “invisible” or (maybe more important) “inaudible.”

Dialogue tags can do so much more than attach words to speakers. Depending on what you choose and where you put it, they can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think.

Take a scene from Wolfie, my novel in progress. It involves several speakers and a lot of dialogue. Having  written it in longhand, I typed it into the Word file, doing a very light edit as I typed and paying particular attention to the tags. Most of the tags are “said,” but we’ve also got “stage-whispered,” “admitted,” “called out,” “muttered,” “advised” (twice), “agreed,” “added” (twice), “ordered,” “protested,” “continued,” “told,” “hissed,” and “wondered.”

Here’s a sample. The scene is a big bash celebrating Lorna’s retirement. Shannon has just arrived. Not to worry: the tags aren’t italicized in the original. I just want to call attention to them here. (“Seemed” in the first para is italicized in the original.)

Lorna gave Shannon a big hug then held her at arm’s length. Lorna was actually shorter than Shannon: she only seemed six feet tall. “Looking good, girl,” she said, then she leaned in closer and stage-whispered, “Is that love light in your eyes?”

“Lorna, darlin’,” Shannon said, shaking her head, “you need to make an appointment with your eye doctor.”

Lorna wagged a stubby, impeccably manicured finger at her, setting her beaded bracelets to clinking merrily. “You don’t fool me for a minute,” she said. “I know that look.”

“Well, I do have a new dog,” Shannon admitted. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving.”

When I write dialogue, I’m usually transcribing a scene playing out in my head. I use tags and punctuation to convey it the way I hear it, the cadence, the facial expressions, the body language of each speaker, but without weighing the passage down with detailed description.

When I write, I just write. When I edit, I play around with alternatives. Go ahead: play around with that passage. Would said work better than stage-whispered or admitted? How about changing one of the saids to something less neutral? Experiment with tag placement. See how it changes the pacing of the sentence?

In this particular passage, all the tags have the same structure: Shannon said, not said Shannon. In what follows there’s a said Lorna and a said Shannon. No problem. Recently I fell in with some editors discussing online whether”John said” or “said John” was better. One asked if one was more “correct” than the other, and someone else surmised that one was more typical of British English than American.  When editors start talking like this, it’s time to run in the opposite direction.

Whether “John said” or “said John” is better depends on whether it precedes, follows, or comes in the middle of the spoken part. And on what’s being said. And on whether the speech is being attributed to a noun or a pronoun: “said she” calls attention to itself in a way that “said Shannon” does not. If it suits the tone of whatever you’re writing, by all means go with it.

Choose whatever works best in context. What you do want to avoid is using the same structure every time.

One more thing about tags and editors: Some editors take exception to using words like “smile” or “scowl” or “grimace” as dialogue tags. Hence the title of this post. These aren’t synonyms for said, they argue. No, they’re not, but they can (I argue) convey how something is said — and heard. A phrase said with a smile on the face doesn’t sound like the same phrase said with a scowl. So (say these editors) write “she said, with a smile” instead of “she smiled.” Sorry, no. That separates the smile from the sound. Sometimes that’s fine. Other times it’s not what you want.

The scene excerpted above includes this line:

“What, you’re not retiring to Florida?” Shannon grinned.

Here the question mark fudges the issue of whether grinned is a tag or not. I don’t believe it is. As I see and hear it, Shannon asks the question, then grins. But say that line was followed by this one:

“No way,” Lorna scowled.

It isn’t, but to my mind and ear it’s fine, and neither Lorna said, scowling nor Lorna said with a scowl conveys quite the same thing. The difference is subtle, but if you hear it, don’t let a tin-eared editor talk you out of it.

 

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.

 

 

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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Free the Scene!

Here’s a revision tip for you. I’m currently working on the second draft of my second novel, and it just came in handy (again).

When reading your early drafts, keep an eye out for the potentially interesting scene that happens off-stage. Maybe you were in a hurry when you wrote that part. Maybe you didn’t see the possibilities. Maybe you did, but they were a little bit unsettling and you didn’t want to go there — yet.

Open the door. Let the scene out. Give it room to breathe. See what happens.

These things are little gifts from the Muses, or your subconscious, or wherever you think your writing comes from. They’re the treasures you find at the bottom of a heap at the thrift shop, or in your own closet.

Here’s one of mine. In draft #1, Shannon, one of the novel’s two viewpoint characters, gets a phone call. It goes like this:

Meanwhile, Shannon had had a call from some busybody on the conservation commission, whose members apparently cruised around looking for unsightly objects that detracted from what they called “the character of the town.” The busybody objected to the snow fencing Shannon and Ben [Shannon’s next-door neighbor] had put up to reinforce the post-and-rail fence in the back yard. Shannon explained about Wolfie [the dog she’s just rescued], and how the post-and-rail alone wouldn’t keep Wolfie in for a minute. The busybody was not impressed: the fence did not conform to the town’s fence bylaw and that was that.

This phone call had the makings of a fun scene, and I was ready for a little comic relief. What if the busybody showed up in person? What if she caught Shannon in the act of installing the fence?

snow fence 1Consulting the town’s zoning bylaws — the scene takes place in the town I live in — I discovered that the snow fencing didn’t violate any bylaws, but this wouldn’t stop some of the busybodies I’ve run into in my time. I also decided that she wasn’t actually on the conservation commission. She had appointed herself guardian of the character of a neighborhood she didn’t even live in.

This is what the phone call turned into this morning. Note that I’m still in early-draft mode. I strongly suspect that the scene will appear in the novel’s final draft, but I don’t know what it will look like. Will this woman appear again? No idea. It’s up to the Muses.

[Shannon] was halfway done when a white Honda Pilot passed on the road, heading toward the intersection with the Edgartown Road. She didn’t recognize it. Not that she knew every vehicle that lived between here and Sepiessa, but her mind half-consciously sorted them into familiar and unfamiliar and this one she’d never seen before.

Even more unusual, two minutes later it passed by again in the opposite direction. Shortly after that it rolled to a halt on the grassy shoulder opposite her driveway. Looking for directions?

The driver got out of the car, looked both ways, and crossed the road. She carried a cane but walked briskly, barely tapping it on the pavement. Her mostly gray hair was done up in a french twist and her garb said “country gentry”: heavy wool cardigan with leather elbow patches, an ample wool skirt that hung just below the knee, and sturdy walking shoes, all in autumnal browns and russets. She did not look lost. She caught Shannon’s eye briefly then rapped the top rail of the roadside fence with her cane.

Taking this as a summons, Shannon wiggled the stake she had just driven into the ground to make sure it was steady, laid mallet and zip ties on the ground, and walked up to greet the visitor.

The visitor wasted no time on introductions. “Do you have a permit for that fence?” she asked, in a clipped accent that sounded somewhat English but wasn’t.

Loaded for bear, thought Shannon, but with no bears in sight. “That fence has been there for over fifteen years,” she said pleasantly. “I don’t believe I need a permit.”

“That orange fence” — the woman pronounced the word with obvious distaste — “has not been there for fifteen years. You are just now putting it up.”

Caught red-handed, Shannon thought. “I don’t believe I need a permit for that either,” she said. “It’s temporary. I’m fostering a dog for a few days, and I don’t want him getting loose.” She resisted the temptation to tell the woman why she didn’t want Wolfie getting loose. Maybe the woman did know someone on the road. Maybe she kept chickens.

“It is unsightly,” said the woman. “It is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.” She rapped the railing with the head of her cane for emphasis.

snow fence 2

In Shannon’s fourth grade Sister Mary Clement had habitually rapped her eighteen-inch ruler on the desktop while fixing the latest class miscreant with a glare that promised trouble. Shannon hadn’t thought of her in twenty years. Her visitor wasn’t a nun but she was cast from the same mold.

Shannon conceded that the blaze-orange snow fencing was not especially attractive but noted that it was only visible from the road if you slowed down to about five miles an hour and stared out the passenger-side window. She did not ask the woman if she’d ever been down this road before, and if not, how she knew so much about the character of the neighborhood. The character of this neighborhood was more disturbed by big gray dogs running loose than by blaze-orange snow fencing in someone’s back yard.

“The town bylaws are quite clear what sorts of fence are allowed,” the woman said, “and this is not one of them.”

Shannon had no idea what the town bylaws said about fences, but Ben had once served on the zoning board. If he thought snow fencing might be a problem, he wouldn’t have suggested it. Besides, it was past the middle of October. No one who came down this road at this time of year would be bothered by snow fencing. Those with more delicate sensibilities had mostly gone home. “I’ll see what I can do,” said Shannon, turning back toward her interrupted labor.

“I intend to communicate this to the conservation commission,” the woman called after her.

“You do that,” Shannon muttered, not quite audibly. She heard the staccato whack whack whack of the woman’s cane on the asphalt. The car door opened and slammed shut. A moment later the engine rumbled. Shannon zip-tied the snow fencing to the new post and set about pounding the next one into the ground.

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.