Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

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.

Letting Go, with a Safety Net

cut-chapter-4This morning I deleted chapter 4. Selected the whole damn thing and zapped it. The old chapter 5 is the new chapter 4. Viva chapter 4!

When reading through the printout of draft #2, I couldn’t help noticing that chapter 3 segued nicely into chapter 5 and chapter 4 felt like an extended detour. At present Wolfie has two point-of-view (POV) characters. Chapters 3 and 5 were from the POV of the 50-something woman. Chapter 4 was from the POV of the sixth-grade girl.

When the timing is right, the POV switch works. The idea is to switch just when the reader wants to know what the other character is up to. This time it was more like a TV thriller cutting to a commercial in the middle of a high-intensity scene.

Another thing: When I wrote draft 2, chapter 4, I wasn’t a big fan of Felicia, the sixth-grader’s mother.  Dead giveaway: The woman won’t use linguiça in her kale soup because she thinks it’s unhealthy. In my world that’s a deal-breaker. But Felicia has become deeper, more sympathetic. She’s caught in the middle of a difficult situation, but she seems to be on her daughter’s side. So I was more than ready to jettison all evidence that I was underestimating Felicia.

So I did. I jettisoned the whole chapter.

However, I’ve got a safety net: If at some point I have regrets, or a vague hunch that there’s something in old chapter 4 that might come in handy, draft 2 remains on my hard drive, and it includes old chapter 4.

If experience is any guide, I won’t go back, but knowing that I can gives me permission to be ruthless. When revising, sometimes you really do have to be ruthless.

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

Recently I introduced a client to the wonders of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. Like many Word users, she wasn’t aware of its wonders. (As a longtime user of Word, I sometimes become so obsessed with its PITAs that I forget how wonderful its wonders are.) With Track Changes you can delete a word, a phrase, a sentence, a whole paragraph and see how your text reads without it. You can flip back and forth between with and without, or leave it to deal with some other time.

You can experiment. You can play with your prose. If ruthlessness is sometimes called for when you’re revising, so is playfulness. Revision is creative work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Be ruthless. Be playful. Be brave. You can always go back to an earlier version, but if you’re anything like me you usually won’t want to.

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.

Eulogy for a Novel

Word came earlier this week that a member of my writers’ group passed last Sunday night. Following a serious illness Allen was in an assisted-living place in the Boston area, so he’d missed several weeks’ worth of group meetings (which, coincidentally, take place on Sunday evening), but we assumed he would be back, sooner better than later, but later would do.

In the Sunday night group we’re all working on book-length works, history, memoir, or fiction. Each of us brings a chunk of the work-in-progress to each meeting, passes out copies, and reads it aloud (or has another member read it). Then we discuss it, mark up our hardcopies, and pass them back to the writer. Each week we hear a new installment of eight different works, history or memoir or novel.

Allen’s novel is set in and around Berlin in the early 1960s, a time of heightened Cold War tensions — the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Its protagonist, Faust, is a young, idealistic army lieutenant newly arrived in Berlin and assigned as a press officer. His father is a small-town newspaper editor in the U.S. Midwest, but high-stakes Cold War journalism looks little like journalism back home. Gradually Faust learns the ropes, dealing with, among others, his superiors, a taciturn noncom who knows much more than he does, a CIA operative, and the international press corps. He falls in love with the civilian employee assigned to tutor him in German — she turns out to be a high-level spy for the USSR.

To say that we were caught up in the story is an understatement. Faust’s growth from naïve idealism into sober experience and the beginning of wisdom is well handled, and the setting, the evocation of the times — well, we kept wondering out loud how Allen knew so much, but Allen would smile enigmatically and a little self-deprecatingly and we would move on. As writers we all know better than to press too hard. (Faust’s war-correspondent friends would have pressed harder.)

And now — we know from the history books how the political crisis was resolved, but what became of Faust? How did he assimilate all he was learning and reconcile its myriad contradictions? Did he remain in the military, become a war correspondent himself, or perhaps return home to become a newspaper publisher like, and in some ways very unlike, his father? We’ll never know.

So I’m thinking of all the novels out there left unfinished, or finished and unpublished, by the death of their authors.

A writer friend of mine died suddenly last December. Don and I never met in person, but we’d been corresponding online for 17 or 18 years. When I was close to done with The Mud of the Place, we swapped manuscripts. His Summer Blues was based on his experiences as a gay man in the military stationed in Germany in the late 1960s, a politically turbulent time in both Europe and the U.S. It was quite wonderful. He submitted it to a couple of independent presses specializing in gay lit, got no takers, and set it aside.

My first thought after learning of Don’s death was for Summer Blues. The publishing world has changed considerably since the early years of the last decade. Would he have wanted it published? I suspected that yes, he would have, or at least he’d have been OK with the idea, but pretty soon reality reasserted itself. Transforming a manuscript into a book is hard enough, and costly in both time and money, but publishing also involves getting the book into the hands of readers. That means distribution and marketing.

I have been thinking the same thing about Allen’s novel. It’s not quite finished, but it’s publishable, and perhaps Allen had either reworked the problematic ending or left notes about what he was thinking?

But with Allen’s novel, as with Don’s, I looked myself in the eye and realized that I have the time and money and commitment for my own work (I hope), but not for anyone else’s.

Long time ago, 20 or 25 years ago, I worked with Virginia, a local writer, on her novel, which was based on her own life, growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s, living in New York in the 1940s, eventually moving to Martha’s Vineyard, losing a daughter to suicide. It’s beautifully written, moving, honest. This writer too made a couple of attempts to find an agent then gave up.

Not long after she died,  I was telling another writer about this wonderful novel I had on my hard drive that no one but close friends and family members even knew about. My friend shook her head sagely. “We all have one of those,” she said.

It seemed callous at first, even dismissive, but then I got it. Counting only the completed or nearly completed publishable manuscripts I’ve read, I’ve now got several, in head or heart or hard drive. For each one, we, the lucky few who’ve read them, form a sort of secret society: we’re privy to something special that no one else knows about.

For a few moments I’m overwhelmed with sadness at the loss.

Then Mother Jones’s famous words surface in my head: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

blank paper

On Selfish Reading

I’m pretty much self-taught as a writer. As an editor, I had a mentor who taught me to think systematically about the words, sentences, and paragraphs in front of me, how to recognize, diagnose, and fix problems. In my first editorial job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit, I had to clear every manuscript I edited with the person who wrote it. Often these people weren’t professional writers. They didn’t have long experience to fall back on. Some of them were downright touchy. They taught me the importance of knowing what I was doing and being able to explain it. I still do that in my head even when I have no direct contact with the author (as when I edit for big publishers) and when the author isn’t likely to ask me to explain everything I’ve done.

About writing, though — the downside of being self-taught is that though I can review, critique, and coach pretty well, I don’t have a clue about how to teach writing. My syllabus boils down to “Read lots of stuff. Keep writing.” This blog post from Brevity does a fine job of showing how and how much writers (and editors too, I do believe) can learn from reading.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Anna Leahy, adapted from the forthcoming anthology, What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing:

Anna Leahy Anna Leahy

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about reading as part of how writers learn, perhaps the most important way we learn such things as “the love of language” and “a gift of story-telling.” Of course, a writer must write, but Prose says, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential.” That ability is cultivated by reading.

“I read for pleasure, first,” Prose goes on to say, “but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. […] I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each…

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Structured Revision: Keeping Your Novel on Track

I’ll almost certainly be starting draft 3 of Wolfie before I finish draft 2, so Alison McKenzie’s assurance that it really is OK to edit before you have a complete draft came at just the right time. Wrangling book-length works into shape is a challenge no matter what, but I’m intrigued by her “25K rule” and might try it with novel #3. If you’re working on a novel, novella, or book-length memoir, check it out.

Backstory Happens

Standard advice for fiction writers usually includes “Start in the middle.” Good advice, for the most part, but how do you work in all the important stuff that’s happened before the story starts, the backstory?

Backstory often gets a bad rap. It’s associated with info dumps, superfluous prologues, and abrupt jumps back in time.

But backstory is crucial, not just the backstory for the situation but the backstory of each character. (Come to think of it, these overlap so heavily that they might almost be the same thing.) Lately I’ve become a huge fan of Sally Wainwright, the British screenwriter who’s largely responsible for such series as Last Tango in Halifax, Scott and Bailey, and Happy Valley. She’s created some of the most three-dimensional, complex, recognizable characters I’ve ever seen on small screen or large — or in novels, for that matter.

A big reason is that Wainwright’s characters have pasts. Where they’ve come from helps shape who they are, yes, but their histories also help drive the plot. Unexpected events in the present trigger memories of the past; those memories affect how they respond to the events. Their friends and co-workers see them in a different, perhaps surprising light.

Most of us have memories that we would rather keep in the closet, safe from prying eyes — including our own. When events force them into the open, we have plot.

In “Notes and More Notes” I wrote that for me “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.”

In Wolfie, the novel in progress, much of what I’m discovering is about backstory. I already knew that protagonist Shannon fled her violently alcoholic family as a teenager. Now, in the late stages (I hope) of draft #2, I, along with Shannon, am learning what happened after she left, thanks to an unexpected phone call from Shannon’s estranged younger sister. As a result, draft #3 is going to have a plot thread that’s completely absent from the first three-quarters of draft #2.

This might drive a careful planner nuts. Planners often want to know a character’s history cold before they get down to writing. What happens when unruly backstory starts to erupt out of the carefully planned tale?  Maybe it doesn’t happen. Maybe serendipity doesn’t bother to knock where it knows it won’t be welcome.

If I were on deadline, if I had to deliver a final draft to a publisher by, say, the end of April, I probably wouldn’t hear the knocking. Or maybe I’d scream so loud at the intrusion that serendipity would cower in the shadows and hesitate to come back. This is part of why I’ve never aspired to write for a living, though I wouldn’t turn down fame, fortune, and/or more time if they came knocking.

But I’m not on deadline, and for the moment I’m grateful. I knew almost at once that this particular plot thread was meant to be in the novel. It fits. It’s been exerting a sort of gravitational pull on Shannon all her adult life, but for a long time Shannon wasn’t dealing with it so I didn’t have a clue. Other events flushed it out of hiding.

Backstory happens if you let it happen. Your characters will help you with this. They’ll say or do something that makes you wonder: Where did that come from? And in a few moments you have the kernel of an earlier incident that will become part of the character’s backstory.

These incidents may loom large in the character’s memory long after everyone else in the vicinity has forgotten them. When I was 13, I was told by another kid in my church choir that I always sang off-key. No one else ever told me that, and I didn’t even like this kid, but I was so afraid she was right that I stopped singing for almost 20 years. Most of us have had experiences like that. So have our characters. In our heads we’re often arguing with people who passed out of our lives years or even decades earlier. Listen.

 

Sturgis’s Law #6

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #6:

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Every aspiring writer has heard it: “Write what you know.” It’s a terrible cliché.

Well, no, it’s not so terrible, because there’s truth in it. There’s truth in most clichés. The trouble with clichés isn’t their lack of truth. It’s the way they become ossified into conventional wisdom and, gods forbid, rules.

Think about it. If you write what you don’t know, people are going to find you out — unless your skill is such that you can persuade them that you do know it, even if it contradicts what they know, or think they know. This means that you actually know quite a bit.

You probably didn’t start out with all the skills you needed to tell that story either. You developed them on the way.

travvy in field

This is Travvy. The fictional Wolfie looks like his twin brother, but they’ve got different stories to tell.

Knowing stuff is great. Some imagery and a major plot thread of Wolfie, my novel in progress, has grown from what I know about dogs, specifically Alaskan malamutes, particularly Travvy, the Alaskan malamute I live with, on whom the title character is based.

Both Wolfie and my first novel, The Mud of the Place, are set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where I live. Any plot can take place anywhere, but the places where it unfolds will affect how it happens and who the characters are. People are influenced by our surroundings, both past and present. The better you know your settings — both those that exist in real time and those you make up, and those that are a combination of the two — the more you’ll know about your characters.

On the other hand, when you set out to write a history of X or a biography of Y, you rarely know everything there is to know about the subject. I’ll go out on a limb and say you never know everything there is to know about the subject — and when the book is in print and getting great reviews (let’s be optimistic for a moment here), there’s still more to be learned.

The same goes for memoirs and novels. Memoirs are about your own life, and in fiction you get to make stuff up, so maybe you don’t have to know so much? Ha ha ha. There’s nothing like writing to show you how much you don’t know, and how much of what you do know is incomplete or not quite right or even downright wrong. So memoirists and fiction writers do what historians and biographers do to correct the errors and fill in the gaps: research.

Memoirists may interview family members, reread old letters, or cross-check remembered facts and dates with written records. Mystery writers don’t generally start off knowing a hundred ways to commit murder, or what a body looks like when it’s been shot at close range, or what police officers do at a crime scene. And so on.

Think of writing as a journey of discovery. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Write what you want to find out, what you’re curious about. If you’re a “planner” — you like to plot everything out in advance — choose a destination that intrigues you. With my first novel, The Mud of the Place, I thought I knew where I was going, but that’s not where I ended up.

Wolfie started with a fairly simple “what if?”: What if a dog like Travvy was running loose in my town, hassling and probably killing livestock? That was answered pretty quickly, but not before it had segued into a question I’ve long been obsessed with but haven’t dared think too hard about. It goes something like this: Hindsight is 20/20, but what do you do when you begin to suspect something bad has happened and maybe is still happening, there’s no way of finding out for sure, and the price of being wrong is very, very high?

Well, I, like my characters, am still somewhat in the dark, and I, like them, have been drawn into unsettling territory: the powerlessness of children, the trickiness of memory, the barriers we throw up against what we can’t afford to know. I’m having conversations with teachers, therapists, and others who’ve been confronted with comparable dilemmas. I’ve read and reread many accounts of adults who have managed to survive similar situations.

Perhaps the strangest thing that’s happened so far is that one supporting character is an animator: he works on animated films with computer-generated graphics. Where the hell did that come from? I’m not a big moviegoer, and apart from a book I worked on some years ago about Pixar Animation Studios, I knew zip about animation. But I knew, immediately and intuitively, that the fact that this guy was an animator could be significant. So I’ve been reading up on animated films, and particularly what animators do.

No way am I ever going to be an animation expert, though I certainly know more about the subject than I did two months ago. I don’t know everything there is to know about Martha’s Vineyard either, but I do know it well enough to know what I don’t know. And that’s enough.

P.S. Here’s an article I turned up while procrastinating researching this blog post. Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Don’t Write What You Know” from TheAtlantic.com. It’s very good.

“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.