Monday, October 30, 2017

Dialog Don’ts and Do’s

     One of the skills top writers own is the deft handling of dialog.

     The best way to become adept at this is to simply listen—really listen—to the people around you.  After a while you’ll develop an ear for dialog and dialect and inflection, and can begin applying what you’re learning in your fiction.  One thing that’s quickly apparent is that people rarely speak with perfect diction or grammar.  Also, they often don’t speak in complete sentences, but rather in fragments.

     Over the years, I’ve interviewed many people for magazine articles, usually recording them because I never could take notes fast enough.  I’ve always had to edit what they say, rearranging their sentences, correcting grammar, tidying up.  This requires a light touch, because I want to preserve personality and emotion, so I can’t edit too heavily.  Not one interviewee has ever complained, probably because I’ve always made them sound better than they really did.

     For example, in answer to the question, “What was your first car?” someone might say, “Well, you know, I was, uh, just sixteen so I was, like, real happy just to have anything that, you know, just had four wheels and ran at all, so when Dad bought me this twelve-year-old Chevy with, like, a million miles on it, you know, well I was just ecstatic.”  I might edit that to, “When I was sixteen, my Dad bought me a twelve-year-old Chevy with a million miles on it and I was ecstatic.”

     One glaring mark of the inexperienced writer is attempting to inject emotions into dialog attributions.  Big mistake.  Examples: “I miss my Mom,” Suzy said dejectedly.  Or, “Wow, that’s awesome,” Tim expostulated.  Or, “Welcome home,” Dave smiled.  Don’t do this.

Here are three dialog commandments.

One:  Use dialect and accents sparingly.  Often mere suggestions are enough. 

Two:  Generally, keep dialog brief and simple.  For great examples, see Elmore Leonard’s work.  Or study the work of any best-selling writer.

Three:  Almost never use anything but “he said” or “she said,” even when characters are asking questions.  Readers will not tire of you doing so.  They don’t even consciously see the “she saids” and “he saids,” just as they aren’t conscious of most correct punctuation.  All they want is to always be sure of who’s speaking.


Monday, October 16, 2017

What do you mean by that?

          An old friend and I met for breakfast early one morning in a local restaurant.  When we sat down with our mugs, he told me, “My wife said everything will be fine as long as we don’t have coffee until ten o’clock.”
          I said, “But we’re having coffee now.”
          He said, “What are you talking about?”
          “You just said she doesn’t want you having coffee until sometime after ten o’clock.  I thought you maybe shouldn’t have caffeine right after taking some medicine or other.”
          “No.  I said she doesn’t want us hanging around here arguing politics from now until mid-morning.  She’s got chores for me to do.  Anyway, that’s what I meant.”

          Have you ever tried to assemble a rather complicated new purchase with only an instruction pamphlet written in some obscure dialect faintly resembling English by somebody who obviously doesn’t know a Phillips screwdriver from a swizzle stick?  “Next put big end careful forward into side part (if having model A or maybe B but not model C-2) and fasten two three small clip very strongest, please.”  For their own safety, it’s a good thing such writers remain anonymous.

          Or have you ever tried to immerse yourself in a novel only to find it necessary to repeatedly leaf back to get straight what the devil is supposed to be going on?  Was it Tom or Harry who shot the gardener imposter back in 1912 for treading on the petunias?  Is it Maude or Mary who’s pregnant?  And who’s the daddy?  Just how many friends and relatives can Jason possibly have, and which one of them is the rich personal-injury lawyer again?  Did it mention somewhere back there who is having the affair with the mayor, or is that supposed to be a plot secret?  Did I really pay fifteen bucks plus tax for this book?
          I began the back-cover blurb for one of my books thusly: “In 1858, soldiers came with bayonets to . . .”  I was only trying to establish the background for a story that takes place entirely in current times.  But of course I witnessed the inevitable occurring during several book signings.  A passing potential buyer looking for a contemporary thriller would pause, glance at that beginning phrase, and understandably assume the book to be an historical novel.  And I’d find myself hastily trying to explain away what, after all, had been my own glaring mistake.

          The first obligation for any writer is clarity.  It’s not always easy.  We know what we mean to say and can’t imagine a reader taking it any other way.  But a good rule to follow is if a phrase or sentence can remotely be interpreted in more than one way, you can safely wager it will be.  

          Rearrange or reconstruct any suspect sentence or phrase until it’s clear. 

          It’s never the fault of the reader when misinterpretation occurs.  And it can cost the writer dearly.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Tips from the mountaintop

             If we resolve to achieve success in our writing (especially in thrillers and suspense), we can do no better than to heed the hard-earned wisdom of those who have summited the best-seller lists.    
Catherine Coulter has written dozens of NY Times best-selling novels.  She shares excellent tips on how it can be done here:

During a ThrillerFest conference panel, four top guns—David Hewson, Lisa Gardner, John Sanford, and M.J. Rose—revealed these seven writing sins:

Ann Rule certainly rules in the true crime genre.  Intense curiosity, a background on the fringes of law enforcement—and a fortuitous (though dangerous) stint as a volunteer alongside then yet-to-be revealed and arrested serial killer Ted Bundy in a Seattle crisis clinic—took her to the best-seller lists.  Good advice for wannabe true crime writers here:

Notice anything special?  All these web pages are from the same fount of writing information, the venerable Writers Digest organization.  They’re publishers of a respected magazine devoted to the craft, and of valuable annual guides like Writer’s Market, sponsors of excellent online writing classes and of prestigious writing contests.  They’re long-time staunch supporters of struggling writers everywhere.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Obsolete words

I’m old enough now to have outlived a surprising number of words and phrases.  How many of these do you know?

Transportation:  Sunday drive, vent window, running board, rumble seat, continental kit, fender skirts, curb feelers, souped up, chopped and lowered, bored and stroked, rolled and pleated, four on the floor, whitewalls, recaps, fuzzy dice, service coupe, steam roller, steam shovel, drive-in movie, A&W Drive-in, Howard Johnson, meter maid, caboose

Attire:  homburg, bowler, spats, zoot suit, jodhpurs, galoshes, rubbers, penny loafers, suspenders, hat veil, pink stuff (hats, shirts, shoes, ties), monocle, bobby socks, girdle, corset, brassiere, hoop skirt, mink coat

Games:  marbles, Chinese checkers, tiddlywinks, carrom board, croquet, badminton, horseshoes, canasta, pogo stick, hula hoop

Miscellaneous:  double feature, crew cut, duck tail, delinquent, reform school, flower child, ice house, ice box, ice man, mechanical typewriter, electric typewriter, word processor, slide rule, pocket watch, doilies, jukebox, juke joint, soda fountain, a malt, glass milk bottle (with disposable paper cap), let’s rumble, dial tone, party line (my house was two rings), telegram, carbon copy, rewind, Kodak moment, flash bulb, Linotype machine, movie usher (my sister was one, with uniform and flashlight), black-and-white TV, penny candy, inkwell, blotter, shaving brush, blueprint, Bakelite

If you know them all, you’re at least as old as I am and statistically we’re supposed to be dead.