by Kelly Baugh
Every writer has some things they do really well and some things they stink at.
It's usually easy to identify what you stink at. Mine are mechanics and details. Here's my excuses:
1. I only minored in writing. Those mechanics classes fell by the wayside. However, I can test you for a rotator cuff or ACL tear and tell if you are a supinator or pronator, just by watching you WALK!
2. I'm a big picture person. I see my book as a Monet-like blur of beauty. Details can be so pesky and I hate to obsess on them (thank goodness my critique group does not feel the same way).
For me, it was harder to find out what I did well, but now in retrospect, I should have known it was what I enjoyed writing the most. The part I rarely have to struggle through: dialogue.
I could spend the whole day writing dialogue, especially because I ditch any characters that are boring. Only interesting people talk in my imagination (unlike the phone call I had with my insurance agent yesterday. But that's a different story).
My daughter and her friend asked me for some advice on how to write good dialogue, so I decided to come up with a list. I'm not sure they'll listen to anything I have to say. Since they're teenagers they know everything (how I miss those days). Regardless, here's what I'll tell them:
1. Read, act in or attend plays.
I was in drama class in high school and have continued to do some amateur acting throughout my adult years (along with the very talented April Moore, Jenny Sunstedt and other NCW members). All that memorizing of lines pounded some seriously good conversations into my consciousness. Successful plays are all about fantastic dialogue; there's no time for exposition and the omniscient narrator is usually absent. Live audiences are less forgiving than distanced ones. Authors and screenwriters immediately know if something doesn't work and either cut it or edit it. The result (of those that endure and get good reviews) is snappy and sweet. The more you're around it, the more you can pick up the tempo, sound, and punch of these lines.
2. Be immersed in as many different cultures as possible.
I've lived in several different countries and traveled all over the world, but you don't have to have my wanderlust to work on this one. The clique you hang out in is a culture. Instead of just surrounding yourself with those folks, purposefully spend time with people who are completely different than you and study the way they talk, the sayings they use. One of my best friends is Puerto Rican. She has a distinct way of expressing herself compared to my friend from California, and I'm not talking about accents. The way each conveys her emotions, the stories they tell to illustrate something, what they don't say; each of these little nuances is a facet of a specific dialogue. I picture an actual person like one of these women in my mind when I write a character. Once I'm finished, I read the dialogue out loud and try to picture whoever I'm basing my fictitious character on saying the same line. If I can't do that, I rewrite and rewrite until I can.
3. Sprinkle in idiosyncrasies or idioms like seasoning, not a main ingredient.
My last book was set in Mississippi. I could have gone hog wild (he, he) with accents, sayings and syntax. I did on my first draft because you've got to ignore that inner editor during the creative flow stage. However on my millions of revisions, I cut out nearly all the accent marks (walkin' vs. walking), sayings (he was more nervous than a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs) and syntax ("I do believe I might just head that direction" vs. "I'll head that direction"). While all the original Southernisms were accurate to the way I've heard many people speak, it's not something that makes for good reading. And if I've heard it once I've heard it a thousand times: you cannot write dialogue exactly how people talk. However, you have to throw in enough colloquialisms to give your reader a sense of setting and voice. It's a challenge to find the happy medium, but that leads me to my final point.
4. Read it out loud.
I know writers hear this all the time, but why do we not do it?! I cannot count the number of instances I've written something, thought it sounded brilliant, then wanted to curl up in a ball of humiliation when I heard someone from my critique group read it out loud. I'm slowly learning. Any time there's a large dialogue scene I (wait until I'm alone then) read my final draft out loud, using voices, postures, anything that makes that character more realistic to me. Usually I'll catch sections that are too wordy, too cute or over the top. As an added bonus, I also find out where I can add a bit more description. Did I roll my eyes when I said something, slump over, etc.? This practice brings strength to any writing, but especially dialogue.
What tricks do you use for the things you write well? And if you've got a sure-fire way to help with mechanics that doesn't involve a grammar book, I'll be your friend for life.