Such a Voice as That!

suchavoiceasthatIf you’ve ever heard my mom sing, you’d recognize her voice every time she blats out a song. It’s that unique. She brays, she’s loud, off key, flat, out of tune. Even the resonance of the shower stall does not improve her voice, and singing lessons would be about as useful as a water filter in the middle of the Sahara. Mom sings with gusto, like she can’t wait to get the words scraped out of the back of her throat and into the silence around her. Yet despite the fact that Mom has an absolutely awful voice, it’s truly a delightful experience to hear her sing because she exudes such joy of music. She beams, she glows, she bubbles with joie de vivre. Everyone who hears her sing cringes, but no one tells her to shut up because it’s fun to listen to someone create musical triumph out of singing so poorly.

Mom’s voice is so distinctive that everyone recognizes it. It’s terrible, yes, but distinctive. No one wants to sound like Mom. Except you, Writer, you really do want to sound like Mom. Distinct. You want your reader to grab your book and declare, OMG, it’s another exciting, wonderful book from Storyteller, the writer whose voice sounds like no other! Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

So exactly what is this business of writing voice? You know about the other aspects of writing: plot, character development, pro- and antagonist, conflict, suspense, crises, setting, time period, and imperfect heroes. You’ve got down grammar, spelling, sentence construction, dialogue, cliff hangers, and secondary plots. But voice – how do you define writing voice? It’s often linked to dialogue, though as unique as speech may be – Southern drawl, Hawaiian pidgin, or Yiddish inflection – it’s more than the slant of a character’s words. Voice shows up consistently, even without dialogue to drive it forward. It’s what happens when the way the words are slung together engages the reader as much as the suspense or mystery that imbues the story. The author owns voice.

John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces, exhibits a voice like no other. The story is told mostly through the character of Ignatius J. Reilly, a rotund ne’er do well who lives with his mother in a rundown neighborhood of New Orleans. Read the opening paragraph of the story:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap, Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Who is this audacious character who exemplifies the worst fashion taste and yet seeks to criticize it in others like someone who doesn’t notice the toilet paper tailing from the back of his pants? It’s Ignatius, and his personality never improves. You might read only that first paragraph today but the author’s voice is so unusual and identifiable that, read another paragraph a hundred pages and two years hence, you’ll still know it: the raucous and farcical humor of A Confederacy of Dunces. It isn’t just the dialect or even the antics of the bumbling inhabitants of this forlorn part of the city. It’s that each character remains true to his internal compass, however skewed the arrows might be. Toole guides the reader through a New Orleans we’d all be loathe to visit in person but we bask in his words as he relates the hijinks of this motley group of social rejects. Readers who savor Dunces are in love with his original voice.

Voice must feel authentic and true to the story. Juliet and Romeo were doomed from the start, their love too sweet to survive the family feud. Readers sense from Shakespeare’s first line, Two households, both alike in dignity, that no dignified end bodes for the lovers. The Bard mastered voice in everything he wrote, and his audience remains loyal.

Stretch voice too far and a story, however clever and inventive, will read as unbelievable. It’s the lack of a sure voice that allows a character to do something counter to his nature. We’ve all thrown down a book as betrayed by a voice that’s wandered too far out of range. Disconnected or fragmented voice is not a new entity to you if you’re a member of a writing critique group or a lower division college class. Stop rolling your eyes – sometimes it’s your own voice singing off key.

Voice has history, and history must be honored. No matter how toothsome he looked in her Grandmother’s bonnet, Little Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf had to con the girl into settling onto his dinner plate. He was a wolf, after all, and wolves eat children, so the Grimm story goes. Any alteration to the original tale must provide insight into Wolf’s psyche. The reader must believe he has sincerely opted for pea soup instead of red meat. The writer must show that Wolf was understandable after all, his appetite for chewing up children based on his miserable childhood and the bullies that tried to eat him. All he ever really wanted was a friend willing to chop veggies with him when all he ever got was bigger wolves tenderizing his tail. That could be a credible voice as well, more heartrending than the original fairy tale. Yet it isn’t the change in outcome that showcases voice. It’s the tone and method of story presentation. A consistently distinguished voice can reveal poor abused Wolfie – not the big baddie everyone thought him to be, just a frightened pup in a shaggy costume. Ahwoo-o-o-o.

OMG, you hear that? You’d know that sound anywhere. That’s Mom singing off key. There’s a place for such a voice as that!

 

 

 

 

 

You Don’t Talk So Good

talking“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate that we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for the supervisor.) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching leaping toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to capture is the perfect locution of the English professor, as formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit/creative writing background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a high school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – it ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hotspots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that “produced” them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in a book is to say less, implant a red herring, or mean more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented teacher you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping that even if readers think I “talk funny,” they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation. I have to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.

 

Diagnosing Dialogue

Dialogue is difficult to get just right and, like many others, I struggle with it mightily. Even so, I love writing good dialogue. But, if it’s so hard, why do I like it?

  • I love how good dialogue shows us more about a character than the author could ever tell us.
  • I love the energy that comes from tight crisp banter between characters.
  • I love how good dialogue can control the pace of a story.
  • I love the feeling I get when someone tells me that my dialogue sounds real.

But what is good dialogue? What is real dialogue? And how do we write it? Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.

  1. Record and listen to real conversations among friends. Now compare what you thought was said, to what was actually said. The lesson here is that real dialogue should not be your goal. Real dialogue is terrible–full of pauses, ums, stutters, repetition and bad grammar. What you need to strive for is dialogue that sounds like what you thought you said.
  2. Strip it down. This trick is one of my own inventions. If you have dialogue and it’s just not working, copy/paste it into a new document and spend a few minutes stripping away everything except what the your characters say–kind of like a stage play. When you read the dialogue with all the exposition and attributions stripped away, does it hold up? Does it hold your attention? If not, then it still needs work.
  3. Cut the fancy tags. Attributions are those verbs we add to dialogue. He said…She asked. Many times you don’t need them at all. When used, their purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. Don’t get cute, and don’t break out the thesaurus. If you find yourself striving for tags like he queried or she opined, you already know your dialogue is weak and you’re looking for a crutch.
  4. Don’t overuse names. People rarely use each other’s names in conversation. If you find yourself starting every other line with someone saying someone else’s name, then you’re characters don’t have strong, original voices. Maybe they both sound like you. Maybe they both sound like each other. Whatever it is, you’re having trouble distinguishing between them. Clear that up and you won’t need to keep repeating names.
  5. Stories are all about conflict, and dialogue should be no different. In many conversations the different players have competing motives. If Sam has a slightly embarrassing secret, Alex can’t just ask her what’s bothering her. She has to tease it out. And Sam has to resist. Try thinking of the conversation like a fencing match. It’s boring if there’s a single lunge and it’s all over. Lunge, parry, riposte, counterparry, lunge, dodge…
  6. Dialogue CANNOT be predictable. Take another look at that real conversation you transcribed and notice how much of a real conversation is predictable. Compare these rather mundane examples:

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Yes.”
    “What?”
    “Pizza”
    “Was it good?”
    “It was great”

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Pizza. It was great”

    By eliminating the expected responses, the dialogue gets tighter, crisper, and more compelling

What tips for writing dialogue do you have to share?

Talk Talk

people_talkingBaby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk. Rant, whisper, inform. Stutter, harangue, order. Insult, complain, gossip. Coo. Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night. Talk talk.

If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, just the way I say it.

So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know? Oof, that’s a terrible take.

I guess I have to clean up my speech for the written page because that sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.

My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like mine, as if my quirky phrasing had been loaned to my characters. Too many words, correct grammar, a spiraling conversation that takes the reader way out of the story. I talk like that too, monologues that explain the history of my world before I get to the point, detracting from the topic. The delete button is my most trusted tool when I write dialogue, and passages are much improved when I wield it with vigor.

As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can apply to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses and motive becomes apparent.

I also read, as any writer does. A character pulls down the mask on his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.

[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]

The dialogue is minimal but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.

Applying everything I know intellectually about dialogue to my writing demands a lot of time, introspection, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck that I have to haul to the scrap heap. But I’m proud of my successes. In The Tree House Mother, two teenage girls park on a hill and talk their hearts out in a crucial scene, the chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. At the end of the conversation both girls find that words can only tell part of their story given that even the meaning of words thought to be mutually clear is enriched by one’s experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up in tears. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.

Often it’s not what’s said but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires me to trust my readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can serviceably describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience grasps her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue; it’s hard to find a better mentor.

My most recent WIP is Where Did Mama Go? It takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers, so a great deal of the story is dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or mysterious, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s raw, visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by certain scenes. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.

I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth. Talk talk, just say something worth reading.

Be well, friend.

The Gift of Gab

The gift of gab – something I feel I have in spades; something I feel I will never discover.  I sail smoothly through one conversation about Christmas gifts and sink in the calm waters of chat about Christmas dinner.   The holiday season always hits me with contemplations of how we humans learn to interact. And how easy it is to miss the mark in routine exchanges.

Mother-in-law:  You’re looking quite nice today.

Me:  Yeh, I have to do laundry.

It turns out that typical human interactions depend on a variety of factors (isn’t that just typical.)  It depends on expectations – what each person in the interaction is expecting from the interaction.  It depends on circumstance, on what each person is doing or about to do.   It depends on each person’s experience in similar conversations.

You’re not reading this for a sociology lesson; I get it.  This applies to writing, and very much so.   Back to laundry.   Leaving that particular bit of dialogue alone could be fun.

Pop quiz:  What kind of tone is the character “me” using?

Answer:  Rueful, I bet, though, every person reading this answered something completely different.  Because our interactions depend on a variety of things, like expectation and experience, none of which is provided in that bit of dialogue, forcing you to rely on personal experience.

As a reader, I like a bit more than pure dialogue, though.   Yet I feel we often go overboard one way or the other – we provide way too much for our purposes, or we give too little information.

I just think we, as developing writers, need to consider how we approach providing information.   I think we need to play with it a little bit, experiment with our particular gift of gab and dabble in others.

Neither way is bad, of course.  Actually both have their merits.   Both have their problems.  Too little information and our readers will misinterpret something vital.   Too much information and it’s easy to get lost in the details.

A reader, looking at my dialogue above, should probably know that I was dropping my baby off at his grandmother’s house, that this was a regular visit.   Readers may or may not know that having a baby with you probably quadruples the chance that you’ll get something on your clothes.   And it’s guaranteed to be something you want off your clothes immediately but have no option but to ignore – possibly until laundry day.  Frankly, readers can figure that part out for themselves, or not.

It would be very pertinent for a reader to know that this person is a frequent social stumbler – which would be the point of including a scene like this, and considering how much of all the expectations / experiences / circumstances surrounding the conversation is important to know in this instance.

It’s worth consideration.   After all, every conversation about Chanukah presents or holiday movies, no matter how mundane, are the patterns upon which our friends and colleagues learn our personalities.  We learn about each other from them, and about ourselves.  Why wouldn’t it be the same for our characters?

How You Say It

Not long ago I got into one of those discussions that can happen when bookish friends are at the bar and have been waiting too long for a table. “What was the first book you can remember reading where you immediately wanted more?”

Like any question that leads to a great debate, one that is chock-full of ambiguity. Does it mean what book made me want more of the author’s work?…More of that series?…Or does it really try to find out what book started to turn me into a reader?

So I thought back to the books I read as a kid. I discounted the books that we usually think of as children’s books, simply because they are a different reading experience than novels or short stories. And while I know it wasn’t the first book I read, I kept coming back to one title. I remember when I finished it, I just had to tell someone how great it was. My Papa was the other sci-fi lover in the family so that’s whose ear I bent (in my mind it was five minutes, but now that I have kids I know it was probably more like a day). And I remember being beside myself when I found out there were more books in the series.

The book was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 30 years (or so) later, the book still holds up to repeat reading, and stands as one of my favorites. And as I look back over a reading life that has spanned about 35 years, that book seems to be a remarkable standard-bearer for the type of books I love the most.

If I stand at my bookshelf, it’s easy to see the books I read the most. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, is heavily-creased, dog-eared, faded and generally looks like it’s gone a few rounds with a hyper puppy (a fitting analogy if you’ve read the book). Red Thunder, by John Varley, though not much more than a pulp sci-fi novel, is probably the most heavily highlighted and annotated book I own. Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, has been forced on so many of my friends that I’m on my fourth copy. Lamb, by Christopher Moore… I could go on and on…

But it’s been only recently, that I realized not only how much these books are emblematic of the books I love to read the most, but they are also harbingers of the kind of writing I aspire to, even if I don’t always realize it.

What ties these books together is not just a genre–sure I love sci-fi, but there are hundreds of great sci-fi books that I’ve devoured and never picked up again. It’s also true that all of these are wildly funny (although with Red Thunder I would say that while the story is humorless, the characters bring a great wit to the events), and that’s a sure way to my heart. But if I had to pick a single thing that brings them all together it’s dialogue–I could pull back a bit and call it “Voice” just as easily, since several of these have a delightful first person narration that speaks directly to the reader.

Why? Every book I’ve ever read has dialogue. So what is it about the dialogue in these books that makes them so gripping to me?

It took me a long time to be able to answer that question. In most of these books the dialogue isn’t particularly poetic, or lovely. Nor are the characters’ words particularly insightful.

No, what makes these books such fine examples of gripping dialogue is that the author uses the dialogue not only as a means to tell the story, but also as a tool for character building. But perhaps most important of all, the characters nearly never say what you think they will.

Reading good dialogue is like watching an intricate fencing match. Each participant has their own agenda–maybe one is trying to get a straight answer, while the other is teasing with tiny revelations like a prose dance-of-the-seven-veils. In great dialogue, there is offense and defense, lunges and ripostes, jabs and parries. When dialogue is good, a section of dialogue will never wind up where you thought it would.

To me this is not only the hallmark of great writing, but also of a great storyteller. And will always get me coming back for more.