Let’s talk about dialogue

TalkA few readers recently have been kind enough to make positive comments about the use of dialogue in Song of the Sea God – for which I thank them very much. I decided I would share a few thoughts about writing dialogue in fiction in the hope it might stimulate a discussion.

These points are just a few things which strike me about the art of writing conversation in novels – I’m sure you will have your own, and please do add them in the comments section at the bottom so it can become a resource for people visiting this post.

Here’s what helps me when I’m writing dialogue.

Listen up

First I listen. I ear-wig on people’s conversations. It’s probably a bad habit but, you know, if that’s my worst then I’m doing ok. Whenever I’m sitting at a coffee-shop or on the bus, or in the pub I’m picking up scraps of dialogue, the things people say, the way people say them. If there’s an interesting exchange I might even write it down later in the notebook I carry with me and, who knows, it may pop up again in a story or novel.

As well as noticing what people say I notice how they say it, the little quirks of spoken English – have you noticed, for example, how often people begin a sentence: ‘Yeah, no…’ I try to reflect the way people speak, the natural cadences they employ.

Not too real

I remember too though that real speech is messy. When I was an undergraduate, studying English lit, I did some linguistics and, in those tutorials, came across real conversations, carefully and accurately transcribed. People talk over each other, trail off half way through what they’re saying, um and err. Written out exactly how it was said it looks odd and wrong and hard to read. The fact is, when you are writing you don’t want real speech – you want believable speech, and that’s a different thing.

_44607086_trainspotting_226_282Acute accent

Accent can be agony for the reader when it is done badly. If you want to see an accent done fabulously well in fiction you need look no further than Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. His story of young Edinburgh based drug-users is rendered entirely in a Scottish dialect which feels real and vital and powerful, it’s a triumph. If you want to see accent done not so well, take a look at some of the other British regional accents Welsh attempts in other books – they are perhaps not as believable.

I think there’s a lesson in that. If you can inhabit an accent like your own skin, because it is yours or because you are a fabulous mimic then go for it.

But otherwise beware!

Accent done badly in dialogue can be like nails on a blackboard. It can jar the reader out of the story and make what you write seem clunky and poorly executed. It can even be a cue to mirth – and no writer wants people laughing at their book in the wrong places!

I certainly favour giving a flavour of accent and in the words and construction I use – but it takes a brave man to go the full Trainspotting.

What’s the point?

Before I write dialogue in a story I ask myself a question: what I am I using it for? Letting characters burble away in your fiction to no particular end is not to be encouraged. Neither is having them spout lumps of clumsy plot exposition.

I think you have to leave your characters room to live through their speech, but not overindulge their jokes or banter at the expense of moving things on. Like so much else with writing fiction, this is a balancing act to be made on the basis of taste and experience.

So there we go – my thoughts on writing dialogue – what are yours?

Song of the Sea God visualSee what you think of my dialogue, and indeed the rest of what I do, in my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

What we talk about when we talk about writing

Raymond_CarverThe peerless short story writer Raymond Carver wrote an essay called ‘On Writing’ which is worth anyone’s while to study I would say, especially if that someone is a writer themselves.

It’s a piece I go back to now and again and enjoy reading over – even though there are parts of it I disagree with.

If you’d like to read it you can find it in Fires, a collection of Carver bits and bobs, along with some of his other essays, stories and poems – it’s also available online here.

‘On Writing’ is essentially a Carver manifesto, dealing with what he thinks makes a good writer.

He tells us: “Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.”

But talent on its own, he says, is not enough – in fact, he’s never met a writer who didn’t have talent. What picks out the best from the rest is a way of looking at the world, and describing it, which is different from everyone else’s way. Every good writer makes the world over to their own specifications.

“It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on every­thing he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”

51n7gmbPbEL__SY300_The essay also includes a bon mot which Carver picked up from the writer Isak Dinesen which he likes so much he say’s he’s going to write it on a card and pin it to the wall above his desk. Dinesen said that she “wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.”

I like that too – ‘without hope and without despair.’

There’s plenty more in there to cherish – but now to the bit in the essay I can’t quite go along with – Carver’s dislike of ‘tricks’ in writing.

He says: “No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep.”

It’s easy to be seduced by the way Carver writes – but I can’t go along with what he’s saying here. For many of us, short stories are the place where we try out ideas, do mad things – they are our space to be experimental, even if those experiments don’t always work.

Also, there’s the question of what constitutes a trick – Carver himself was prone to the odd literary device, and particularly to the ‘trick’ of leaving a vacuum in his stories so the reader was left to fill it with emotion. It was an astonishingly successful trick which worked at times like magic.

Hmm – so it’s like the president of the magic circle saying: ‘All these other magicians, they do tricks. Not me! I’d never stoop so low as to fool you with trickery.’

So I don’t agree with every word in there – but it’s still a remarkable manifesto. And it extols the virtues of working hard at your craft, taking pride in making each piece as good as it can be and finding precisely the right words in the right order. Who could disagree with that?

Last word to Carver of course – here he tells us how the short story writer should go about his or her task:

“He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.”

I can’t promise you no tricks at all – but, if you get a moment, take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Maria Malone – Author Profile

Today I’m delighted to welcome Maria Malone to my blog. Maria’s a very successful author who writes not only under her own name but also as a ghostwriter to lots of famous names such as Cheryl Cole and Tony Hadley. I’m really pleased she’s been able to join us to talk about her fascinating life and work.

Pachae on boatTell me a little bit about yourself as a person?

I’m from Whitley Bay, a seaside town a few miles north of Newcastle, and although I’ve moved around a lot I still consider my roots to be in the North East. The ice rink was on my doorstep when I was growing up and I was mad on skating – spins, axels, ice dancing, the lot! Now, not having an ice rink handy, I do a lot if walking and I’ve ditched the sequins … I still have my ice skates, though.

I’m a passionate reader. Both my parents loved to read and there were always books in the house. In terms of writing, a turning point came after leaving my job at Yorkshire TV to freelance as a producer. I was able to structure my time differently and started to write Weekdays at Nine, a novel set in telly. When it was shortlisted in a Little, Brown/Daily Mail competition to find a new blockbuster novelist it was a huge confidence boost. I can remember feeling crushed when I didn’t win but looking back I’m glad – it wasn’t good enough!

Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed?

I always wanted to write, was one of those kids who scribbled away. I started as a trainee reporter on regional newspapers in Blyth, Northumberland, and then Bradford before moving into telly. I was in the newsroom at Yorkshire TV to start with. I’ve worked on all kinds of programmes, ranging from a special with Arthur C Clarke in Sri Lanka to a revival of the Channel 4 music show, The Tube.

For a couple of years I lived in Johannesburg where I finished writing Weekdays at Nine (see above!) and developed Wildtrack, a children’s reality show set in the South African bush, for CITV in the UK. I moved back to England via Virginia Beach and joined ITV in London, producing DVD features for drama and entertainment programmes, from Prime Suspect to Popstars and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. I wrote books to tie in with shows, briefly edited the Hear’say fan club magazine, and was the writer attached to ITV’s Reborn in the USA series in 2003, which proved be the springboard for a fantastic ghostwriting opportunity. In 2004, I left ITV to focus on ghosting.

1000px08_cheryl-234x300I know one of your main areas of work has been ghostwriting books for big names like Cheryl Cole, Girls Aloud and Tony Hadley. Could you tell us about how that writing process works?

Ghostwriting means spending a lot of time with the person whose book it is – as much as they need in order to be able to tell their story exactly as they want to. The process varies depending on each person’s availability and involves being flexible and fitting in with whatever other commitments they may have. It may involve going on the road or spending time in a recording studio or rehearsal room – whatever it takes. It is someone else’s book and they have to come first, always.

Do you write fiction too? How would you describe your work in this area – its themes and the important things about it?

I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, have a couple of novels under my belt, and am busy on the first draft of another one at the moment. I write commercial women’s fiction/thrillers. That sounds a bit grand but it’s not since I’ve not been published! I like dark stuff, exploring what people are capable of and how they conceal their true selves; that sense of thinking you know someone and then something happens to make you question everything. I’m a huge fan of writers like Nicci French, Chelsea Cain, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker. Anne Tyler is brilliant too. I recently read A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez and was blown away. It’s now on the long-list for the 2013 Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award.

Writing is vital to me and it’s the process more than the outcome that really matters. In the past I think I probably put too much emphasis on wanting to be published, seeing it as the be-all and end-all. I don’t feel like that any more. It’s the writing itself that drives me now.

FROG PRINCESSTell me about your current book – what is it about and what makes it a great read?

I collaborated with Angie Beasley on her book, The Frog Princess, and it was a joy to do. Basically, it’s an autobiographical story of a girl growing up in poverty in Grimsby destined to work in a local factory who makes her escape via the beauty pageant circuit.

For a shy girl who lacked confidence and was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, becoming a beauty queen was a brave choice and one that flew in the face of Angie’s family and strict upbringing. No matter what life threw at her, she hung onto her determination to succeed. Hers is a heartfelt and inspiring story about having a dream and going for it, no matter how unlikely it may seem – something very many of us can relate to.

Where can I buy a copy of your book?

It’s available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon here.

You can find Maria:

on her website here.

or follow her on Twitter here

‘How to write’ books

First I was young and now I am old and there was a time when I could not under any circumstances countenance the idea of reading a ‘How to write’ book.

My logic, such as it was, ran that this type of book merely distracted me from my already ordained path as a writer, my development was to be natural and organic, unsullied by protocol and not restrained by the bonds of convention.

Hmm yeah, well we all have those types of notions when we are young I suppose.

Now I’ve grown up a bit I tend to think it’s best to take good advice when you are offered it. I also think that good writers are made, not born, and that there are technical tricks which can help you improve what you already have.

But I still don’t read a great many of these types of books, though there are a great many available. Here’s why: If ever I’m asked by a writer for advice what to read – much in the same way as one race-day punter might ask another for a tip on the best horse in the third, I always suggest a novel.  Or a whole bunch of novels. They tend to suggest some to me too. What I don’t suggest is a how to write book.

Because it seems to me the best way to learn to write is to read a lot of good writing – particularly if it’s of the same genre in which you are hoping to excel. If you are a crime writer, read lots of good crime writing. It’s common sense isn’t it?

Having said that, I have read a few of these types of books and I can say that it’s rare you flick through one without finding at least a few nuggets of information, or useful practices, or tips or which can help you with your writing. Some of them are very good indeed I would say – at least I have found them to be so.

Here then are the three ‘how to write’ style books which have been most useful to me in my development as a writer so far. I say again though, these are no substitute for reading broadly and deeply from the wonderful and diverse library of fiction we have at our disposal.

51dvcZiLj5LHow Not to Write a Novel

by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

Funny this one – and also smart. The idea behind it is that explaining good writing is like herding cats, but it’s easier to spot bad writing. So this book goes through a whole host of howlers and draws your attention to them so you can not do them! I certainly spotted a number in here that I have been prone to as I‘ve developed – and it is a useful book to have around while you are rewriting as it makes you self-conscious about bad habits.

It covers flat characters, clichés, unconvincing plots and all the rest in it’s rundown of 200 mistakes.

517zPPD-z7LThe Master Class in Fiction Writing

by Adam Sexton

Tips from the top – a look at how some great writers write and what we could learn from them – so it’s my favoured principle of learning from what we read then, but  in a more ordered and considered form.

Authors covered in the book include Updike, Nabokov, Hemingway, Austin etc and their writing is used to support the argument throughout. Structurally, the book is split into chapters on areas like character, description, the world of the story and so on.

51Pti8zif-LA Novel in a Year

by Louise Doughty

I won this one as a prize. Not at a fair or anything. It was sent to me by the author when Song of the Sea God made her shortlist in the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year competition. (My book was called The Longing in those days).

What I like about it is that it explains the writing process as it really is from the author’s point of view. So, rather than a rarefied classroom look at what you should do and in what order, it feels real and organic. I also found it matches very closely the way I do actually write a book – with plenty of freeform humming and hawing and writing of scraps at the front end and then planning and development and rewriting. So it feels very truthful – it’s not how you should do it, it’s how you will do it – it’s what works.

So those are my three. I’m sure you have your own favourites. If you know of any we really should be reading please add them in the comments section below so this becomes a resource for other people looking for tips on the best how to books to read!

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.