At least a half-dozen hummingbirds, fledglings and adults, have staked out the yard. A batch of dragonflies have claimed it, as well. Show-offs, every one of them, and belligerent. Stand out on the back deck and you’re in the middle of ongoing 1918 dogfights. All we lack at McQuinn Aerodrome is Snoopy and the Red Baron quaffing root beer.
Some days are so grand they make just about any troublesome stuff fade to black. Got up late and lazy this morning and wandered out onto the deck with the dog Terrible and it was better than opening the perfect gift. The Sound’s glinting in the sun, reflecting a cloudless sky, the breeze is heavy with salt air and the richness of land after a good rain. Hummingbirds swirl and glitter a few feet away. In the distance, Rainier watches. I asked the dog, “Does it get any better than this?” and she just looked up at me and wagged her tail. (She’s a truly crummy conversationalist, but she’ll let you know she has your mood tagged.) I hope you’re having a good day, too. Lots of them.
You can probably tell my son salvaged my computer from the hack creeps.
Naming names. I’m working on something new – sort of trying it on to see how it fits – and the characters are bugging me. The worst part is, I know exactly what’s wrong: I can’t come up with the right names. I can see them clearly enough. I’ve got a pretty good handle on how they think and why they do stuff. But the names aren’t right. You know what I mean. It’s the same way in real life. Some guys are christened Michael and that’s who they are forever. The Michael in the next crib over is Mike as soon as he shows up and you know the only people who’ll ever be comfortable calling him Michael are his mother and his wife. There’s a page of names out there somewhere showing how Dickens struggled to name Nicholas Nickleby. I probably take more solace from that than I should, but I figure if Dickens had trouble, I’m allowed any amount of stumble and halt. So let’s hear it for calling people names – so long as they work.
Today’s been sticky and it’s not over. I’m downsizing the place, and obviously one of the things that has to go is books. I’m hanging onto the signed copies and first editions and whatnot; someone in the family will want those. In some cases they know the authors. In every case of the signed books, they know I do. There’s a continuance there; the book has a power beyond being a fine read. It’s a link, friend-to-friend, family to family. Then there are books about writing, again some by friends in the game, some by other professionals I haven’t met but wish I had. Reading them is always inspiring, almost always educational (no matter how often you’ve read it before) and – most important – a reminder that I’m one of the luckiest men I ever met. I’m disposing of just about all the books from my previous career – everything from Lee’s Lieutenants to WWII in Europe to Irwin Rommel’s between-world-wars treatise on small unit actions and Sledge’s (practically) minute-by-minute history of his part in the Corps’ war in the Pacific. I know very, very few of those militaria authors but I had the honor and privilege of serving with some of the original cast, so a few of those go in the lockerbox for the descendants to puzzle over somewhere down the line.
What gets really tough is looking at an old, back-broken, raggedy mess and remembering it from your childhood. Example: Albert Payson Terhune’s collection of stories called My Friend The Dog, my copy published in 1926 by Harper & Brothers, first copyright 1922. I don’t even remember who gave it to me, but it was old when I got it. I read it and re-read it, always jammed in a corner where no one could see, because it made me cry. I wasn’t a kid who wanted other people to know I did stuff like that. I have a couple of books like that. They won’t go yet. I have to read them at least once more.
I guess I’m being foolish about it all. They’re paper and glue. Maybe cloth covers, maybe paperback. Inanimate objects, nothing more, and they get to move on just like we do. That’s the way it is. But damn it, though, sometimes I feel like I’m turning my back on a friend. It kind of hurts, you know?
There was a column in today’s Seattle Times complaining about people smoking marijuana in public. The author was offended because he was being forced to accept the second-hand smoke (is it just me, or is that one of the clumsiest phrases ever invented?) from joints in an area where puffing on a Camel a year ago could buy you a one-way ticket to Siberia. (OK, Wenatchee. Picky, picky.) He reports the police enforcing the law, which is pretty restrictive concerning cannabis pollution, are asking people to “voluntarily obey the law.” He goes on to hope the next time he gets stopped for a traffic violation he’ll be asked to voluntarily not speed or what-have-you ever again, cross-my-heart.
This is an interesting place to live. A few years ago there was a stink about grand theft auto. It was said (note to self: If you don’t have a law degree, stay as vague as possible) that anyone who boosted a car and got caught was let off with a warning because, if he/she (note to self: You live here, idiot – gender nonspecific or else) they hadn’t been arrested for the same thing before, it was a first offense. This was applied without reference to the occasional rap sheet that stretched from here to there and back. If your car ended up in a chop shop and the non-resale parts ended up dumped on a sidewalk, you could get hit with a littering fine, but the guy who took it may or may not have an official warning to never steal another car forever and ever. Can you imagine the terror? Whose? Yours, you nasty litterbug? Or the (as ever, penitent) thief?
Does it matter?
Not in Seattle. We are Westerners, pioneers, those who chased the setting sun in the eternal hope of finding a land where we could live free and unfettered. It is our lot today – our destiny as the most civil of civilizations – to accede to the law. Nevertheless, we must forever acknowledge the overarching law of laws: “If it messes with my fun, stick it.” Now that we sturdy settlers have run out of land to steal from the Indians, we’re being forced to push each other out of the way. Here in Seattle we think one way to do that is invent selective enforcement of the law. Blame that on the fact that Seattle leads the nation in book sales. Unfortunately, it’s all apparently fantasy or other forms of fiction. History seems insignificant here. If it did, perhaps more people would reflect on the fact that we’ve had selective enforcement of the law for generations. The law was the Constitution of the United States. The selective aspect led us to Jim Crow and the Seattle attacks on “The Celestials,” or Chinese.
But that’s a ridiculous comparison. Right? And it was a long time ago. Right? Light up, lighten up, light out.
It’s been a long time since I posted anything to the blog. There’s a reason for that. I was interested in posting because I wanted to say things about the writer’s craft. I still do. But there are a bazillion – or more – blogs out there doing the same thing. What I have to say isn’t unique. That means anyone interested in the craft can go anywhere to learn about it and my efforts to help are pretty much on the order of hollering down a well. It doesn’t matter whether or not I explain something to someone. What matters is that there are hundreds of perfectly qualified people doing it every day.
So I’m going to blog for my own pleasure. Yeah, I’ll put out stuff about craftsmanship, but just as much to organize my own thoughts on the subject as to benefit someone else. What I really want to do is start the engine. That means I’m going to approach this blog thing as part of my meditation process (more about that at another time). Rather than sit down at this infernal machine cold as an iceberg and simply start pounding on keys, I’m going to write something about a subject that has my attention at the moment. May be current affairs, may be other affairs (not mine), and may be the world in general. But instead of wasting my first hour of work writing toward a novel – and the material is junk for the trash can – I’m going to exercise my mind and my thought processes on something totally unrelated, just to get the engine up to speed. Maybe you’ll find it interesting, maybe you won’t. The point is, It’ll help me get my mind in order. And if no one else ever reads it, much less responds to it, listening to echoes coming back up a well shaft is always entertaining. Beside, they don’t argue with you.
But if they start, this whole schemozzle goes in the tank.
Since Annie Pearson and I last chatted about dialogue, I’ve been meaning to say something about capturing the unique aspects of a person’s speech.
Jim Rollins and I recently talked about this issue.
If you read thrillers, you know who he is. If you don’t, look at his Bookshelf and check out the best seller lists he’s topped and the awards he’s garnered. Jim speaks at writers conferences; he’s a fine teacher because he knows his craft. And, as a friend, I’d be seriously remiss if I didn’t mention that he’s got a new book coming out this fall—INNOCENT BLOOD—and a spring release titled KILL SWITCH: great reads guaranteed, and polished craftsmanship we can call learn from.
Here are some comments Jim had on the matter of dialogue and dialect. I have some notes of my own that follow this conversation.
DON: Jim, when you’re creating a character, do you give any immediate thought to the unique voice of that character? Or does that come as the story unfolds?
JIM: For me, it’s about learning who the character is during the flow of the story. It’s only in that furnace that I discover who that character truly is. Unfortunately this often means having to go back and rework that character after finally learning the true nature of that guy or gal. But I like this method, as the character becomes born out of the story, making them “fit” naturally into it versus trying to shoehorn a pre-made character into a storyline.
DON: Do you ever draw a character’s dialogue (in part or wholly) from a real person? (I’m assuming that, if you do, you’re very cautious about it, or I’d be sending this to some jailhouse.)
JIM: I’ve never done that fully, but I always have my ear out for some turn of phrase or snatch of conversation that intrigues me and I jot it down. Eavesdropping is a great tool for a writer to hone.
DON: Have you ever considered characters who speak in dialect? Assuming you don’t want to swamp your readers with that sort of thing, how do you avoid it while still capturing the flavor of it?
JIM: I hate when writers spell out phonetically some foreign speaker’s dialog. It stops a reader’s natural flow in a story and turns them into a puzzle-solver, forcing them to try to figure out what that speaker is saying. I prefer to flavor my foreign speaker by leaning on that language’s natural colloquialisms and manner of speech. And I’ll occasionally pepper in a foreign word.
DON: You deal with exotic locales and personalities. How do you deal with other languages or the slang from other places?
JIM: Using the tools described above, here’s an example from my next book (The Kill Switch), using a Russian speaker as an example:
“I do you better than bonus,” Fedoseev offered. “You become part of my team. Permanent part. I am generous. Your dog will eat steak every night. He would like that, yes?”
“Ask him yourself.”
Fedoseev’s gaze flicked toward Kane, then he smiled and wagged his finger at Tucker. “Very funny.” He tried a different angle. “You know, these two suka may have had a helper. If he is still around—”
Suka was one of Fedoseev’s favorite slang terms. Roughly and politely, a suka meant scumbag.
DON: My pal, Annie Pearson, said to ask this: How do you let readers know what untranslated phrases mean without stopping the narrative dead in its tracks?
JIM: See the example above, where I actually roughly translate the word. But sometimes it’s a matter of context and tone, where no translation is necessary. Again from The Kill Switch, here are both methods used:
“Priest tells me fly,” Fedor added in badly broken English. “Fly you tonight.”
Tucker nodded. “Spasiba.”
“Da. Your Russian bad.”
Here the reader may not know that spasiba means “thank you,” but there is enough context for the reader to understand that Tucker is agreeing with the Russian pilot.
Also, Don, as you and I noted about “speaking your dialog”:
I learned early on that a great way of knowing if dialog works is to read your work aloud. It is there that I’ll often find bits and pieces that don’t work.
Someone once told me that you should be able to take out any piece of dialog from a novel, read it aloud, and someone familiar with the book should know who that character is. The goal is to strive to make each character’s cadence, diction, and vocabulary consistent enough that the character’s dialog becomes a unique trait for that individual.
Since that discussion with Jim, one element I’ve been thinking about a lot is dialect. To be clear:
I dislike written dialect—a whole lot.
It doesn’t make me feel any closer to the character or any more involved. What it makes me feel is imposed on by someone who’s deliberately misspelling words or inventing phonetics unknown outside the Tropical Bird Exhibit at the zoo.
So how do we account for the fact that Zorba the Greek speaks English with an accent that could easily sour your skanopita? In plain fact, we can’t really approximate the sound of his English. What we can do, however, is concentrate on some highlights—impress them on the reader early on.
If one of your characters notes that Zorba pronounces is as eez, we’re on our way. A few scanty references to other variants is usually enough to anchor the reader in the dialect.
More, there’s a tendency among all of us to alter our speech when we shift into a second language. Your character, Greek or not, will probably speak a bit more slowly than a native speaker. There will also be awkward phrasing from time to time; it may be a single word, but it’s enough to catch the attention of the reader, thus reminding him/her that the speaker has a unique facet.
Listen to someone whose English is a second language.
Even those who’ve spoken English since childhood occasionally entertain some personal quirks in their use of the language. I have a very close friend whose speech is practically indistinguishable from someone born here (which she wasn’t). But she does something with “little” that always stops me cold. If she wants to describe a small portion, it comes out:
“…a li’la bit.”
Another time she may say:
“…a li’la while later…”
If the character in your novel has a similar quirk, you can call on it at any time to remind your reader that this character is unique—and isn’t unique character what we always shoot for?
It’s a small thing, and dangerously easy to overdo, but I don’t think there’s anything a writer can do with dialogue to better enhance a character’s singularity than attach a singular quality to his/her speech.
I’m not advocating a cast of characters drawn from U.N. membership. All I’m saying is:
Look for the vocal tag with the same industry you apply to physical appearance.
I’ve been musing with Annie Pearson on craft topics for a while, and we’ve been sharing ideas back-and-forth here. We’re looking for other writers to share in the exchanges—just like we would after-hours at a writers’ conference. We’re talking about structure now. Let me know if you want to chat about that or any topics related to writers craft.
In our blog-swap, Annie and I have spoken back and forth about dialogue as something that has to contribute to the story. As obvious as that seems, it’s amazing how often truly good writers stumble through conversations like salmon battering their way up rapids. What’s particularly damaging is the forced marriage of narrative and dialogue. How often have you read something like this?
Bill’s face turned fiery red. His eyes bulged and a muscle twitched in his jaw. “Now you’ve made me angry…,”
Say again? Unless Bill was just swigging Tabasco from the bottle, what else could he be but angry? In short, if you’ve described a character’s appearance well enough to tip off your reader to his/her emotional state, why clog your pace with pointless dialogue that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know? You’ve done a good job setting up a powerful scene, then stepped on it. As authors, we should be constantly asking ourselves how to direct dialogue so it contributes to the total story. In the above situation, if Bill’s dialogue is on the order of “You know I hate it when you do that…” your reader knows the characters (A) have a history, (B) the history has points of abrasion, and (C) this particular event isn’t unique. Instead of revealing something in narrative, only to repeat the information in dialogue, you’ve broadened the reader’s knowledge of the characters and their relationship. More than that, by exposing that one small facet of their relationship, you’ve opened up a warehouse full of possible actions, reactions, and resulting tensions.
And there’s that magic word again: TENSION. If tension is the engine that drives a novel (full disclosure; I’m a believer), then the interaction between the characters is the fuel. I just finished Hallie Ephron‘s latest, There Was An Old Woman. I suppose it’s women’s fiction. I don’t care. I read what I choose and my criteria are a reasonable premise and the craftsmanship that assures a good read. Ms. Ephron supplies. I’m mentioning it here because her use of dialogue to further the story is outstanding. Her primary characters are two sisters and two elderly women still living in the neighborhood where the sisters grew up. It’s a suspenseful novel and the dialogue (internal as well as interpersonal) rings like silver. Every thought, every reminiscence, every exchange leads us further into the snare waiting for the victims. No car chases, no bombs hidden in the toilet, no dark figures scurrying about. But there’s dialogue. Each bit of it tightens the tension. What I found especially well done was the internal dialogue. Ms. Ephron’s characters provided story narrative in individual voices and they never broke form. That’s a pretty nifty trick.
When you review your own work on your way to that perfect final draft, be sure you ask yourself if there’s a craftsman’s edge to your dialogue. What’s said is important; what’s necessary is that it’s said with effect.
Annie Pearson and I have started swapping blog comments. We’re both committed to studying – as well as practicing – our craft, and we’ve found an electronic answer to the old-fashioned jaw sessions where writers got together and discussed technique, editors, agents, and other tests of endurance and perseverance. We just started, but it’s already increased my curiosity concerning some of the writers groups on the net. I have no experience of them, but the idea sounds like a good vehicle to expand horizons and deepen opinions. One of my problems with the whole blogging concept is that it has a lot in common with hollering down a well. Some of the bloggers I read about speak of thousands of hits a week; some claim to rack up that many a day. I find that staggering.
The point of all this is that I’m inviting anyone who’s interested to respond to what Annie and I are up to. We’re not teachers, we’re students. If you want to talk to someone with problems and struggles like your own, come on board and we’ll all take a shot at it.
I’m getting more writing done now. I’m partnered with a fellow in North Carolina on a thriller. The story originated with him, and it’s a good one. I’m cautiously optimistic about its future. I’m also working on a fantasy. I’ve never done anything like that, and it’s proving more of a challenge than I bargained for. Still, it’s exciting; any time you come out of a good fight with the sense that you won, it’s a great experience. So far, I think I’m a couple of rounds ahead of the book. I’ll know better when I get the first rough draft whipped.
Sadly, the answer is no. Not if we’re writing dialog. It’s customary for people discussing the craftsmanship in writing to say things like character’s the most important thing in your novel, or point of view can make or break your entire novel. We’ve all heard arguments about how tough it is to maintain or control pace. Etc. In the end, it’s all of the techniques woven into a whole that make a novel either sing or croak. But a key to keeping a reader interested in your characters is the dialog exchanges.
Dialog in a novel bears little similarity to our ordinary conversation. When we talk to someone else our objective isn’t to further a story. If anything, we’re making a point or making a joke or, as the cliche has it, making conversation. Dialog, like everything else in your novel, has to be finely tuned to keep the story moving forward. More, it has to move it at the pace you’ve selected at the moment. If you’re at a point in your story where the tension is at a lowered state, it’s a good idea to match the dialog accordingly. If there’s an argument, try to keep it as civil as possible. In short, how your characters respond to each other on the page has a direct influence on how the reader responds to everything on the page. Consider: If you portray a couple building a relationship and you set a conversation at a beautiful, tranquil site, even a minor disagreement between them can foreshadow trouble to come. It’s the same way a composer can throw in a minor key – or more blatant discord – to create an effect in music.
An author controls what the characters say and how they say it. We make conversation, but we create dialog. Obviously, in everyday speech we do our best to communicate. So do the characters in a novel. The difference is that the attentive author will select language, tone, and character description to assure the speech serves the overall needs of the novel. General chit-chat doesn’t help.
Dialog is a fine way to reveal character. Interior dialog tells us things we could never otherwise know. The language a character uses defines him/her – in the eyes of the other characters, but not necessarily in the eyes of the reader. And, most certainly, not necessarily accurately. We all know Bre’r Rabbit and his rustic, dialectic dialog. If you take it at face value, he’s a traditional hick. But what he says and does makes us know he’s a cunning trickster. Dialog in the hands of a practiced author can give us insight into a grand shell game – one hand manipulates the walnut shells and the other one slips the pea out of sight. In short, dialog should contribute to every aspect of your work. It defines character, it establishes pace, it creates or dissipates tension, it contributes to suspense and story. A novel is a matter of people interacting with other people; without good dialog, that interaction will never ring true.