3 Ways to Write Editors Want (Circa 1926…) Pt 2 – Dialogue

writing dialogueIn a previous post The Short Story – Writing What Editors Want Circa 1926…Part 1 I looked at some writing tips, written 90 years ago by author Michael Joseph in his book Short Story Writing for Profit. It is a book I found in a second hand shop whilst away writing in Suffolk and it is is full of gems of the period, alongside some writing advice that remains true well into the twenty-first century. This is a great time of year to learn from the masters, as this week many will be embarking on the writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo.

I have been particularly interested in the way Josephs discusses dialogue. The examples he gives are somewhat amusing. For example, in order to suggest that a man is weak and ineffectual, he offers:

“Oh rather,” said Algy. “A gel always notices a chap’s clothes what? Ties and socks to match, and all that sort of thing, doncher know. Oh rather!”

Then he, with some nerve, goes on to suggest that dialogue in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson or Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is ‘curiously artificial’.

But he is right in a way. He considers dialogue to have three main purposes:

  1. To reveal character
  2. To convey setting
  3. To carry on or accelerate the action.

You may know, or have been told, that there are other ways in which dialogue can make, or break, the success of your short story. But these seem to me to be a firm foundation, at least as a starting point. Although Algy is clearly a man of his time, possibly a member of the Bertie Wooster set or a bit part player in a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery,  he is, although it is hard to believe, speaking naturally. 90 years later, we shouldn’t write dialogue that is too formal, nor yet too real. There are few of us that speak using perfect grammar all the time, so listen to real dialogue (I do love a coffee shop for this, but we all have our favourite coffee shop writingsettings for earwigging other people’s conversations) and jot down the ways in which they take their own stories forward. You might even be able to weave a short character sketch around their words (making all sorts of unfair assumptions of course, but they are never going to know…).

However, as Michael Joseph points out:

The dialogue of fiction must appear real and true to life…[but] faithful reproduction of ordinary human speech would appear ridiculous on the printed page…The dialogue of fiction is the result of drastic boiling down of ordinary speech. Only what is significant may remain; all the innumerable irrelevances, repetitions, ejaculations, grammatical errors and meaningless phrases must be pruned away before dialogue can be written down…’

So, he is here warning any author away from the TOO realistic  – feeling the need to show how keen you are to write real dialogue, by including every um and ar and well and the stutters that creep into our pattern of speech. Why, when one of the first rules of good short story writing is to ensure that every word counts, would you waste those words on ones that clearly don’t, and which can only slow down the pace and frustrate the reader?

As to setting, well in a restricted word count, it is possible to convey a sense of place within the confines of dialogue. Perhaps, as they are speaking, a character could run his or her fingers along a dusty mantelpiece, or notice that curtains are only partly drawn, to suggest a level of neglect. Josephs uses the example of a mystery story to show how surroundings can be drawn into a sentence that also moves the story along and offers a suggestion of character:

“I like this place…It is so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn’t want to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me…”

To continue that acceleration of pace and to ensure that the action that does take place you must feed the imagination a balanced diet, rather than one so rich it becomes lazy and bored. The example given in the book is, I think, a good one.

“Throw a stone down sergeant. I want to judge how deep it is” …

I am seeing a well, down which a police constable might have to climb to retrieve a murder weapon. Or a hole created by a collapsed trench in the First World War perhaps. Any thoughts?

Subtext, suggestion, looks, and thoughts can all be there without direct reference. It is a skill I find very difficult, and thankfully Josephs considers this to be the bane of many writers, and he believes dialogue has to be spontaneous to be successful: ‘…revision is not desirable. If your dialogue does not develop naturally, scrap it and start again…’ I think that rather harsh. If you are revising and revising again, as writers are advised to do, the dialogue might need to change, or mistakes only become obvious for the first time.

Elizabeth Taylor

However, I am with Michael Josephs when he says the best way a writer can improve their own dialogue is to read the work of the masters of their craft. 90  years ago he was suggesting E.F. Benson, Jack London and A.A Milne. I would suggest the author Elizabeth Taylor, who to my mind, in her wonderful short stories and full length novels seems to have mastered the perfect example of saying much by saying little.

Josephs also offers practical tips, such as inventing imaginary conversations between well-known fictional characters (he suggests Kipps and Micawber. Any modern day suggestions?) or taking a short story and re-writing the whole thing in dialogue.

The advice I have taken from this fascinating little book is as relevant today as it was in the early part of the last century. Firstly, to write good dialogue you have to know your character inside out – how he or she thinks or feels in given situations, or about specific issues will go along way towards suggesting the way in which they would express themselves in speech.

Secondly I must learn to put myself into the place of all my characters, becoming each of them in turn. That is something I will find especially difficult and even more so when I know that to be really successful a character has to have light and shade; isn’t wholly good or wholly bad perhaps.

Many of the suggestions Michael Josephs makes are very daunting and take me back to school homework and complicated writing exercises set by some creative writing tutors. But I am not one of those lucky people to whom (apparently) writing good, natural dialogue comes naturally,  so there is no point groaning and procrastinating, I just have to get on with it.

Clearly this writing business takes a lot of real WORK…

What are your best tips for good dialogue?



NaNoWriMo: 43,000 and counting….

The third of my occasional posts for National Novel Writing Month. Don’t worry, it’s nearly over…

I love Christmas. Always look forward to it. But this year I am anticipating opening the first door of the advent calendar with particular enthusiasm. It will be December 1st and  NaNoWriMo will be over. For better or for worse. Thank goodness for that.

Don’t get me wrong; I hate to wish even a few days of my life away and I love writing. However NaNoWriMo places a particular kind of pressure on an obsessive compulsive with an addictive personality like me. Others take a philosophical view if they stall at 10k, but I HAVE to get to 50,000 words written by midnight on the 30th. Or else.

The real difficulty is that I know it is a shocking piece of writing. I am flitting about between decades as if I am in H G Wells’ time machine, the Tardis or the phone booth in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. One minute it is 2010, the next it is 1882; or 1905; or 1922 ; or 1864. Today I added 1932. The characters are largely the same in each period, so continuity is a nightmare. They probably haven’t changed their underwear in sixty years.

So what do I think is the point of the exercise? Why is National Novel Writing Month a ‘good thing’? Creative writing courses everywhere say ‘Just write!’ ‘Practice writing every day!’ ‘Don’t eat till you get 500 words on the page’. OK, so I made the last one up but it is probably out there somewhere as sage advice. NaNo makes you do these things and millions around the world put themselves through the mental torture every year so there must be something to be said for it. Or is there? Is it simply another way to speed life up to an unbearable degree? WiFi words. A book at the speed of broadband….. Continue reading “NaNoWriMo: 43,000 and counting….”

NaNoWriMo: The second half – retire hurt, change tactics or keep the faith?

This is my second blog post about my November NaNoWriMo experience

Half way through November. Fifteen days gone and I am still plugging away at my NaNoWriMo novel. I am afraid I am behind schedule, and will have to write nearly 2000 words a day to make sure I finish this side of Christmas let alone by the end of the month. But will I make it? Well with over 20,000 words committed to paper already it would be a bloody shame not to now wouldn’t it? Still I have to consider all my options. Two weeks is still two weeks and as we are frequently told, every day of our lives is precious. As you can tell, it is crisis time for the Grogan novel. Am I really a storyteller? I am beginning to think facts are more my forte.

The trouble is, that no matter how many pep talk emails you get from the team at NaNoWriMo, it is still a lonely battle. Your own determination and will power is the only defence against the ennui or burnout commonly experienced by those attempting to produce the necessary 50,000 words in thirty days whilst maintaining some vestige of a normal life.

For example, I have spent some of my day out taking photographs of Wellington, with a view to compiling something that makes it look even vaguely interesting to a would-be tourist, day-tripper or anyone quite honestly. I may or may not succeed, but it certainly didn’t get any of my novel written. I watched a history programme about the German invasion of Poland. It was enlightening (I really never knew that Hitler was not only evil but such a lazy man) and utterly terrifying, something we all should watch, but it didn’t get any of my novel written. Then there was the dog to walk, my son to nag and the last half hour of Midsomer Murders to watch. And yes, you’ve guessed it, a blog to write.

My story is not the problem. It is about a man whose life is deeply affected by his experiences in WW1, but it is told from his own and also his mother’s perspective and weaves in his lifelong mental health issues. So I am in London, moving between 1905, 1922 and back to the 1880’s. I fear I may have made it over-complicated, but at least if I have exhausted ideas for one period of history I can start working on another. It is however based on real life characters from my own family and I am finding it hard to fictionalise them without somehow cheapening their real experiences. After all, I am speaking for the dead, in a non-spooky way.

Continue reading “NaNoWriMo: The second half – retire hurt, change tactics or keep the faith?”

On working for a living and writing a novel in November…

This is my first blog post about my November NaNoWriMo experience. Hopefully writing this as a kind of occasional diary it will keep me going till the 30th. I am having a first try at historical fiction, set in 1905, flashing back to 1885 and then forward to the 1920’s. Lots of opportunity therefore to make historical errors! Hopefully someone will be kind enough to tell me if I have gone badly wrong…

Last year I was encouraged by my friends to have a go at NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month, or a novel in November. However you look at it, the aim is to write at least 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. That is more than 1500 words a day and many people last less than a week.

I completed it in 2009, and my friends didn’t. I am immensely proud of the achievement but what I wrote wasn’t actually very good. It was a detective story, set in a residential care home and the two sleuthing residents were based on my sparky mum and her 90 year old friend Audrey. I don’t think I planned it very well, and by the time I was approaching the denouement I had a murdering 80 year old ex-cold war spy hiding out in the home. One year on and I still haven’t found a way of catching him. I considered a mobility scooter chase, superglue on the commode or poisoned tipped walking sticks, but in the end I set ‘Lavender Larceny’ to one side. I had reached the 50,000 word target but I hadn’t written a novel. I may go back to it – it certainly needs a good chop and a proper re-write but it is a daunting task.

This year I was going to try again, planning much more carefully, but I thought I may have a research project for November and had almost given up on NaNoWriMo 2010. The work fell through, so to take my mind off of impending bankruptcy I decided to give it a go. And here I am at the end of day two, having written nearly 4,000 words of historical fiction. The story is first set in London in the early 1900’s, flashing back in to the 1880’s, so I have to get dress, speech and environment right; ensure I don’t pack them off on a form of transport as yet undeveloped, or living with facilities that didn’t then exist. Having Auntie pick up the dog hair with a Dyson or Billy putting up a shelf with a Black & Decker is not an option. It isn’t a comedy, so I am winging it frankly.

It doesn’t really matter of course. This is all about getting people writing; that first step just putting some words down on paper, or in my case the laptop. I am on Twitter on a regular basis and many others are putting themselves through the same torture so at least there is a support group to have a good scream at as the word count slips back. The trick apparently  is to write without any thought to corrections, reviews or edits. A stream of consciousness may result but writers have won prizes with what appears to be just that – with swear words – so there must be something to be said for the method.

Continue reading “On working for a living and writing a novel in November…”

In which I read a terrific book but am none the wiser for it…

An illustration for Goethe's 'Faust' by Harry Clarke

Have you ever reached the end of a novel, particularly one over 500 pages long and felt as if you had to flick through the whole story again to work out where you may have failed to pick up a thread? Or come to the final chapter and even though you have enjoyed it, felt slightly cheated at the thought that a sequel must be on the way?

I have, within the last hour, finished ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the author of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, a thrilling novel published about five years ago and much beloved of book groups everywhere. Both novels are mysteries set in the early part of the 20th century in Barcelona, which I have visited just the once and immediately fell in love with. It is a city which oozes artistic purpose, and these two books reflect that, focusing as they do on the nature of writing, truth and storytelling. They are gothic romances with a list of characters that would challenge Dickens. The Angel’s Game’ also owes something to Wilkie Collins and to the legendary Faustian deal with the devil. But essentially Zafon writes pacy and atmospheric thrillers; pageturners in the best sense. Hence my need to understand what I have read, and  preferably without having to read it again.

Children (remembering my own early reading and that of my own two when they were tinies) love the familiarity of the same story read over and over again. The characters become friends and they inhabit the world the author has created for them finding comfort in repetition and satisfaction in learning whole passages off by heart, catching out unwary parents trying to skip a few pages on the sly. But as an adult this does not seem to be what I want from a book that I read, usually before I go to bed at night, as a means of relaxation and pure entertainment. I will happily read a poem many times – repeating the words to myself under my breath (or out loud if I am confident I am completely alone). A history or a biography can be read and re-read so that fact, or what passes for it, can be absorbed and I might be learning something. But a thriller? I could read it again if asked to critique Zafon’s style perhaps but not to discover a missed twist or an untied loose end.  Does this inability to retrace my steps make me a poor reader? Or worse perhaps, potentially less of a writer? Is it a snobbery on my part – I would re-read Dickens so why not Zafon?

Continue reading “In which I read a terrific book but am none the wiser for it…”