Constructing effective interview scenes, part VIII: like I said, yeah, and other snore-inducing perils of dialogue lifted from real life

Waiting for the next pile of submissions to hit the editorial desk

Waiting for the next pile of submissions to hit the editorial desk


Much like the career writer’s life, the life of a professional reader like me is singularly devoid of holidays. The struggling economy sure is pulling a lot of dusty manuscripts out of bottom desk drawers, so this summer, even the nicest weather seldom pulls me away from my editorial desk. At best, I move it outside.

All of that intensive reading leaves me with an unusually high level of sympathy for our old friend, the infamous Millicent agency screener. You remember her, right? She’s the luckless soul employed by an agency to sift through the hundreds of query letters they receive every week — and, more often than not, to read requested submissions to see if they should be passed along to the agent who requested them.

Was that giant sucking noise I just heard all of you who are approaching agents for the first time gasping at the notion that the agent to whom you addressed your query — or worked up nerve to give a pitch at a conference — might not be the one making the decision whether to reject your manuscript? Sorry to disillusion anyone, but at a large agency, and even most of the small ones, the agent is seldom the first reader.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: time. If the average agent read every single incoming letter, e-mail, and manuscript sent by an aspiring writer, she’d never have time to sell any books. Millicent’s eagle eye assures that she will see only the submission that she might realistically end up representing.

Try not to resent that too much: folks in agencies tend to work exceptionally long hours. Heck, Millicent’s boss is probably reading her existing clients’ next books on the subway on her way home to Brooklyn, or after she tucks her kids into bed at night; she has to squeeze work by potential clients into her schedule wherever she can.

Which means, incidentally, that she’s every bit as likely to be bleary-eyed and grumpy when her pupils hit a manuscript’s first few pages as the submission-inundated Millicent is. Remember that, the next time you’re tempted to complain that agency screeners — who are, after all, employed primarily in order to reject manuscripts, since any agent can only take on a tiny fraction of the writers that approach it in any given year — are too harsh in their expectations. She was very likely instructed to be that touchy about manuscript megaproblems.

Why, what a remarkable coincidence — we’ve just been talking about one of the most pernicious manuscript megaproblems, poorly-constructed interview scenes, haven’t we? Let’s get back to it by examining one of my –and Millicent’s — perennial least-favorites, repetitious dialogue.

Yes, it does turn up all the time in interview scenes, especially in that annoying species of unrealistic dialogue that consists of lightly-disguised monologue with a monosyllabic second character thrown in. These sterling specimens of prose tend to run a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Sandy fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Jeff replied.

“I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization for Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”


“You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No,” Jeff said, crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Sandy dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it? Or do you think that’s just blaming the victims?”

“Could be.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Jeff said, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Jeff serving in this conversation, other than listener? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of entirely colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious. And, lest we forget, a rather poor interview scene, because it’s not actually a conversation; all Jeff has to do to obtain Sandy’s opinion (of a scene he’s apparently just witnessed, no less) is to be there.

Stop jumping up and down — I see all of those raised hands out there. “But Anne!” the first realism-lover I call upon protests. “Isn’t this a common type of real-life conversation? Mightn’t Jeff just be a monosyllabic guy, and couldn’t the fact that he’s basically not participating in this scene be indicative of something about his relationship with Sandy? Couldn’t it, in fact, be justified as character development?”

Yes, yes, yes, and maybe. But let me ask you something: are you planning to be sitting next to Millicent when she reads this particular piece of dialogue, in order to explain why Jeff’s being so darned uninteresting?

I didn’t think so, but you’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers believe that if an authorial choice can be explained — even if it needs to be explained, when the text itself doesn’t reward the choice — then it’s perfectly fine. The fact is, it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that the author will be in the room when an agent, editor, or contest judge first encounters a scene like this, so when precisely is the writer going to defend it? After the manuscript’s already been rejected?

If you don’t like that answer, you’ll be happy to hear that I can suggest another, even better reason not to reproduce this type of dialogue on the page: it’s usually boring for the reader. Never forget that part of the novelist’s goal is to entertain.

Trust me: Millicent never forgets it. A submission that bores her is going to end up in the rejection pile, inevitably.

But you do indeed have a point, reality-huggers: in life as we know it on a quotidian basis, people really do talk like this. Sometimes, it isn’t even deliberate. I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

In a single two-minute anecdote.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, her father spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.”

Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample. Don’t they know that I make my living from growing them?”

But “like I said,” no.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual human beings actually say quite bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would all be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this shining piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

A: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”

A: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) “Could be. Must be visiting family. She’s not married yet, is she?”

A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”

Me: (Seeking escape route.) “Yes. How’s your son? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to boyfriend, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

A: And how’s your mother?

Me: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.

B: Give my regards to your mother.

Me: I will. (Wheeling cart away.) Remember me to Bobby, his third wife, and his eighteen children from various marriages.

A: Well?

B: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is more or less a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right? Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Award yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the characters as human beings, or their relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’ life.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “speaking of boring one’s readers, haven’t we already talked about this, and relatively recently? I get it, already: just as real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is SELDOM character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as they sometimes expect.

Or, to put it less gently, Millicent couldn’t care less whether the dialogue on the page actually happened, unless the manuscript is nonfiction; what concerns her in a novel submission is whether it’s entertaining.

In fact, you’d have to search long and hard to find a Millicent who wouldn’t argue that novel dialogue should specifically not be like real speech — it should be much, much better. Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.)

To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as transcripts of reality:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”


“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response — and fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Yet without reader feedback, most aspiring writers wouldn’t notice this narrative problem — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that the writer’s memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, thank you, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read. And, dare I say it, entertaining.

Stop scowling at me; expecting writing to be interesting and entertaining is not a Philistine’s objection. Of course, writers want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in a character on the printed page.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes to the four winds and the tides. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah.”

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

Since it’s my job as a book doctor to be irritated by exchanges that might irritate Millicent, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, um, or a linguistic trope such as our old pal “like I said…” Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

“Like I said…” would be a particularly easy edit, because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my old friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice). Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words. “Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Now, since the dialogue in her published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it wholesale.

Because, like I said, if it isn’t either interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there? Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part VII: spicing up the dialogue with conflict, or, keeping the reader from dozing off in the midst of all of that loving harmony

\"If you call me darling ONE more time, I\'ll turn you into lover tartare.\"

In my last post, I clued you in to the dangers of including too much physical description of your characters and/or backstory in your interview scenes, particularly in ones near the opening of the book. (If you have not given a physical description of your protagonist or some insight into her primary relationships by page 182, the manuscript has a different problem.) Within this context, I asserted — perhaps rashly — that conversation where Person A describes Person B’s physical attributes TO Person B are relatively rare.

It hit me in the wee hours, however, that I had neglected to mention the primary real-life situation where speakers ROUTINELY engage in this sort of banter: people in the first throes of being in love. Especially if one or both are in love for the first time, their vocal cords are likely to emit some otherwise pretty unlikely dialogue. As in:

“Wow, your eyes are SO blue, Snuggums!” (Giggle.)

“Your nose is adorable, Muffin. I love that little freckle right there especially.” (Smack.)

“Who’s a little snuggle bunny? Is it you? Is it?”

Or the ever-popular:

“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you. Do YOU love ME?”

“How can you even doubt it? I love you twice as much every time I blink. You can’t possibly love me even half as much as I love you.”

“That can’t be true, because I already love you five times more than anyone has ever loved anyone else.”

“Oh, darling, what a wonderful thing to say. I love you so much.”

“And you know what? I love you.”

Zzzz…oh, pardon me; I must have been indulging in a well-deserved nap while waiting for something interesting to happen during this love scene.

Do I sound cynical? Actually, I have nothing against love, in principle — truly, I don’t. It has produced some fairly spectacular poetry, and most of the human race. But allow me to suggest that this particular species of conversation, even when spoken live, is properly only interesting to Snuggums and Muffin themselves.

Why? Well, it’s just a TAD conceptually repetitious, is it not? Not to mention the fact that entirely self-referential dialogue becomes intensely boring to any third-party listener with a rapidity that makes the average roller coaster ride seem languid by comparison.

Don’t believe me? Tag along on a date with two people (or heck, three or four) deep in the grip of the early stages of infatuation with each other and count the seconds until the quotidian problems of which way to hang the toilet paper roll and not being able to sleep for more than five consecutive minutes before being awakened by a snore that would put Godzilla to shame have reared their ugly heads.

News flash: it can be equally deadly on the page — but naturally, as writers, when we write about the enamored, we want to capture that breathless feeling of discovery inherent in infatuation.

Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Yet in print, rhapsodies on eyes of blue all too often produce prose of purple:

“Tiffany, your eyes are the most astonishing color, blue like Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. Not a cloudless day in midwinter, mind you, when you might drive by the lake on your way to a ski slope, but the blue of midsummer, of long, dreamy days on Grandfather’s boat. Or still later, when you and I were in junior high school, and our parents shipped us off to that Episcopalian summer camp — the one that used the 1929 prayer book, not the modern edition — when we swam beneath skies of azure…”

True, someone MIGHT conceivably say something like this in real life, but let’s not kid ourselves here: you’d have to be Charles Boyer to pull off a speech like this without prompting gales of laughter in Tiffany and bystander alike. And snores from Millicent the agency screener.

Generally speaking, extensive physical descriptions like this work far, far better in narration than as dialogue. Most people already have some fair idea what they look like: while it’s always nice to be told that one is pretty (anyone? anyone?), one seldom needs to be told that one is 5’6″ (“Ooh, darling, I love all 66 inches of your length!”), even if that is indeed the case.

In fact, mentioning the latter fact in real life might actually engender some resentment. Height and weight are the two self-descriptors the average person is most likely to fudge. Lopping 20 pounds off your weight in casual conversation isn’t usually considered lying, precisely — after all, you’re not standing on a scale at that very moment, are you? It’s not completely inconceivable that you’ve shrunk radically since breakfast — but it’s not precisely court testimony, either.

I find this kind of misrepresentation fascinating, as it so seldom fools anyone. Most people would never dream of perjuring themselves about their eye color on a driver’s license application — but don’t most people subtract a few pounds, or perhaps 30 or 40, on general principle, on the same form?

While we’re on the subject of doubting self-serving statements, aren’t personal ads living proof that many people are, at best, rather optimistic about their height? Don’t we all get at least a vague sense that the average movie star’s date of birth is somewhat variable, when she admitted to being five years older than we are when her first movie came out, two years older at the time of her first real hit, and yet asserts that she has now, a long, full career behind her, aged at about half the normal human rate?

Can’t we all live with that? I mean, River Phoenix’s four years at nineteen were good years for all of us, weren’t they?

Ethically, I don’t have much of a problem with these harmless little pieces of self-aggrandizement; for the most part, they’re victimless crimes. (“That’s he, officer — he says he’s six feet tall, but he’s 5’9″ in his stocking feet!”) In fact, being aware of this tendency can add a certain piquancy to an interview scene.

Love scenes in particular. I hate to seem cynical, but is it entirely beyond the bounds of probability the Boyer-wannabe above might have slightly exaggerated the blueness of Tiffany’s eyes for romantic effect?

In other words, what if instead of depicting your infatuated lovers commenting upon the REAL physical attributes of one another, the dialogue made it plain that a certain amount of hyperbole was going on? Or if one professed blindness to a physical defect in the other? Such a scene might not provide just-the-facts-ma’am physical descriptions of the characters, but it might conceivably be more character-revealing — and more interesting to the reader — than the transcripts of either sweet nothings or undiluted praise.

If a writer REALLY wanted to get tricky, the narrative might not even make it clear in the moment precisely how and why Lover A is choosing to lie to Lover B. Conveying a subtle sense that there’s something more going on in this scene than meets the enamored eye is a great to increase tension.

Provided, of course, that the narrative doesn’t immediately stab the rising conflict in the heart by explaining in minute detail precisely what’s going on. This has been the death blow to many a promising love scene.

What do I mean by this, you ask? Let’s take a look at a scene where mixed motives have been handled with restraint.

Angelica backed off slightly, instinctively when Desmond kissed her, but lips pressed to hers, he failed to notice. Or if he did, any qualms he may have had were soon quelled by her enthusiastic embraces.

After a few minutes’ slurping passion, she loosed her lips enough to ask, “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

He toyed with the come-hither straps of her meter maid uniform. “Not until half-past one. And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule.”

Angelica sighed, pulling him closer. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security.” She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Gives a pretty strong impression that Angelica’s motives in pursuing the tryst might not be completely identical to his, doesn’t it? The slight tension between her actions and her words convey that easily, without a lot of heavy-handed justification or acres of internal monologue.

Which, alas, is how many manuscript submissions would have approached it. Here’s a sample — note all of the named emotions, explanations through thought, and just how quickly the reader’s ability to speculate about what might be going on evaporates:

Oh, God, Angelica thought, stunned by the onslaught of Desmond’s cologne, not again. Didn’t this lummox ever think of anything but sex, sex, sex? Still, she had been ordered to keep him here until after the President had been assassinated, and if a little nookie was the most pleasant way to achieve that, well, so be it.

She hoped that it would not take very long; her husband, Ivan, would be expecting her home soon.. “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

“Not until half-past one,” Desmond panted. “And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule. It’s not as though anyone out there is planning to perch atop the Washington Monument during his speech on the Mall and shoot him with a crossbow in front of 210,000 people!”

Angelica stiffened with fear. How on earth had he ferreted out the details of their plan? Had she been betrayed by a careless or treacherous fellow spy? Was Desmond merely toying with her, in order to extract further information?

She pulled him close. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security,” she whispered, shuddering inwardly at the irony of her own words. She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock; if only she could keep him here until after Reginald had charged the herd of maddened elephants into the assembled throng, all might still be well. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Kind of stops the tension dead in its tracks, doesn’t it? See how the suspense builds naturally when the narrative merely hints at the underlying plot, rather than screams it from the rooftops?

The same technique also works beautifully in anti-love scenes, by the way: if you want to ramp up the tension, try both muddying the players’ motivations a little and conveying those mixed emotions through action, rather than having them say precisely what they mean at all times.

Yes, yes, I know: your tenth-grade composition teacher told you that good dialogue should be able to convey all of the emotional nuances of a scene without additional narration. Let me guess — s/he came up with that pearl of wisdom while either trying get you to read Hemingway or to stop relying so heavily upon adverbs to express a character’s feelings, right?

I tend to doubt that s/he intended it as a lifetime embargo upon certain parts of speech. Adults don’t let ten-year-olds drive Mac trucks, either; one needs to be trained to use dangerous tools safely before running amok with them. In case you’re curious, the kind of writing s/he was trying to avoid with her prohibition probably ran a little something like this:

“I can’t pay the rent!” Polly exclaimed distressedly.

“But you must pay the rent,” dastardly Donald declaimed determinedly.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she wailed helplessly.

“But you must pay the rent,” Donald insisted violently.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she sobbed unhappily.

“I’ll pay the rent!” nattily-dressed Nathan called helpfully.

“My hero!” Polly cried relievedly.

“Curses,” Donald said morosely, “foiled again.”

I seriously doubt that s/he was hoping you would never use another adverb as long as you lived, just that you would use them with discretion.

But as with so many of the old writing saws, the creaky old chestnut has mutated over time in the conversation of the literal-minded from don’t use adverbs to describe how every speech was said; how about letting the dialogue itself show tone? to it’s bad writing to use an adverb ever, under any circumstances. Purge your manuscript NOW of all -ly verbs, or you’ll tumble into a pit of burning pitch.

Just a SLIGHT difference between those two iterations of that rule of thumb.

I know I’m going out on an editorial limb here, but I suspect you’ve progressed enough as a writer to be trusted not to over-use adverbs, haven’t you? There, I absolve you: from now on, you’re allowed to use all available parts of speech, if you do it with discretion. Fly on your merry way, allowing your shackles to fall to the ground.

Just don’t start using adverbs to describe how every character says every speech, okay?

Oh, and while you’re at it, you don’t need to add a tag line (he said, she avered, they bellowed) to every line with quotation marks. Use them sparingly, just enough to keep the reader abreast of who is speaking when.

Which means, in case your tenth-grade composition teacher forgot to mention it to you, that in a two-person exchange where the opinions expressed are not identical, simply alternating speeches after the text identifies who is saying what initially is usually sufficient.

If you feel ready to implement a more advanced writing technique, try varying the tone a little throughout confrontation scenes; watching two characters spit vitriol at each other unceasingly can get a little old rather fast. For instance:

“I hate you, Ted Fairfax, more than any human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a message for you, Tammy: I haven’t been able to stand you since high school.”

“But you and I dated in high school!”


“Ooh, you’re a jerk, Ted.”

Perhaps I’m an overly-critical reader (actually, I’d better be, or I wouldn’t be good at my job), but a little bit of barb-trading goes a long way for me. Call me zany, but I would rather be shown Tammy and Ted’s mutual loathing through action, rather than merely hearing it in their words.

Or, to put it as your crusty old writing teacher might have, by showing, rather than telling.

Ted could, for instance, be lying about his feelings in high school. That would automatically render their relationship more complex — and thus more interesting — than simple mutual hatred. In fact, mixed emotions are almost always more intriguing on the page than simple, straightforward feelings.

Especially if, as we’ve seen in pretty much all of today’s examples, the characters are going around bellowing about their feelings as if they were traipsing about in the last act of La Bohème — and expressing those emotions with a pinpoint accuracy that would make living and dead poets alike turn bright green with envy.

Allow me to make a subversive suggestion: people aren’t always telling the truth when they say that they’re in love.

Or in hate, for that matter. Occasionally, they have been known to change their minds on the subject. Some are reluctant to name their emotions at all, and still others are prone to aping the emotion that they believe the person sitting across from them expects them to be feeling.

Here’s a shocker of a revelation: human beings are complex critters, far more so than they appear in the average interview scene in a manuscript submission. Individuals have even been known — sacre bleu! — to mislead total strangers who show up, demanding information about that set of sextuplets who fell down the well thirty years ago.

Or DID they?

Actually, in any interview scene, it’s worth giving some serious thought to having the information-imparter lie, distort, or soften the facts he’s conveying. If the protagonist has to guess what is and is not true, the scene automatically becomes more dynamic than if she’s just nodding and saying, “Oh, that must be so hard for you,” or “What do you mean, Uncle George has left me his once-lucrative sheep ranch in Bolivia?”

After all, logically speaking, in scenes where the protagonist is extracting information from a stranger, why SHOULD the imparter tell the absolute and complete truth? Would you tell your deepest, darkest secret to a complete stranger who showed up on YOUR doorstep demanding answers?

I ask this rhetorically, coming from a family where total strangers regularly show up on our respective doorsteps and demand answers about what certain well-known deceased writers were REALLY like.

But even among those not used to being trapped into impromptu interviews, I would suspect that compulsive truth-telling to strangers is not the norm. People have been known to equivocate a bit when someone they’ve never seen before abruptly appears and demands to be told intimate life details. Even very nice people.

I know; shocking.

But such a possibility amazingly seldom seems to trouble the daydreams of your garden-variety protagonist. A good 90%, interviewers in novel submissions just accept that they are being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Yet in an interview scene — especially one that opens a book — certainty is almost always less interesting than doubt, just as reading about complete amity is less gripping than interpersonal friction. And in the real world, complete understanding, let alone agreement, between two people is rare enough that I think it should be regarded as remarkable.

There;s a reason that most professional readers will advise against writing much in the first person plural, after all, despite the success of the Greek chorus first person plural narration in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: interpersonal conflict is, generally speaking, far more interesting than pages at a time of harmonious agreement.

Let your characters disagree; let them quibble. And let them lie to one another occasionally. Both your plot and your characters will thank you for allowing them to be more complex.

More thoughts on dialogue follow next time — and after that, on to pitching. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Musings on an airplane: the return of Edith Wharton, or, the heavy, heavy responsibility of original selectivity

Sorry about the lapse in posting; I honestly meant to start blogging again a few days ago. I’ve been just exhausted.

To restate that more positively: I’m back from my fabulous writing retreat in the beautiful mountains of southwestern France — or to be precise, I wrote most of this post while I was on a plane from Zurich to Chicago. (Props to Swiss Air: the flight attendants had no problem with my co-opting three middle seats for a mid-air office. Much easier to use a laptop with your legs stretched out, I find, than folded underneath an unstable tray table. Oh, and they let you know that you’re about to land by offering you wee bars of chocolate.) Truth compels me to say, though, that I took this photo on the way to the retreat, not from it: those dark blobs are the Pyrenees.

If any of you map-huggers out there are thinking that I was neither retreating anywhere near Zurich nor do I generally reside in the vicinity of Chicago, you’re right: it took a van ride, two train trips, and three airplanes to get me from La Muse to Seattle.

Now that’s what I call retreated.

So if I still seem a bit jet-lagged, well, I’m entitled. Which is perhaps why I’ve elected to devote today’s post to yet another extensive discussion with a dead person.

Hey, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. A while back, I started a conversation with Edith Wharton — or, if you want to be pedantic about it, with a few choice excerpts from her THE WRITING OF FICTION, as good a discussion of the craft as you’re likely to find anytime soon.

Should anyone happen to be in the market for one, that is. Stephen King’s ON WRITING is pretty good, too, as is Annie Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD. I don’t think any female writer should even consider skipping Joanna Russ’ HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING. And I’ve never made a secret of my admiration for Carolyn See’s MAKING A LITERARY LIFE.

I could go on all day, but does anyone else have suggestions to share?

My point is, THE WRITING OF FICTION is a fascinating book for anyone interested in, well, the writing of fiction. Particularly, I suspect, for those acclimated to the episodic ramblings endemic to blogs. (Who, me? Episodic? Rambling? Perish the thought.) Although our Edith wrote the book back in the 1920s, her highly opinionated, self-referential argumentative style would be right at home in the blogosphere.

So I’m dragging her into it.

When last I crossed literary swords with Edith, we were talking about whether it’s possible for a writer to imagine a character from a different background sufficiently to render actual research into the conditions under which that character might have lived superfluous.

She seemed to think it was possible, if not necessarily desirable, for imagination to hold the reins of probability, provided that the author maintained an objective distance from the subject matter. Quoth she:

The chief difference between the merely sympathetic and the creative imagination is that the latter is two-sided, and combines with the power of penetrating into other minds that of standing far enough aloof from them to see beyond, and relate them to the whole stuff of life out of which they but partially emerge. Such an all-around view can be obtained only by mounting to a height; and that height, in art, is proportioned to the artists’ power of detaching one part of his imagination from the particular problem in which the rest is steeped.

Myself, I think objectivity is overrated in fiction. Perhaps because the intervening 80 years since she wrote this book have offered so many spectacular examples of authors who decided to ignore the old writing saw write what you know with disastrous results — and if you doubt that, check out some of the female characters that turned up in the works of male authors in the 1950s — I am of the opinion that just guessing how a character unlike oneself might respond to certain stimuli can lead to both unrealistic and stereotyped characters.

How off the mark, you ask? To haul out my favorite example again, the collected short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald contain SEVEN instances of a female character’s saying to another human being, “I’m so beautiful; why can’t I be happy?”

Need I say more? Except perhaps that what an author regards as his own objectivity might well strike a reader who has something in common with the character on the page as ignorance?

However, for about a century, objectivity was all the rage, so much so that if you bump into an author or editor trained in the 1940s or 1950s, you may well be treated to a lecture on how first-person narratives are inherently flawed. They’re so subjective.

Or good first-person narratives are, anyway.

I didn’t revive the debate on objectivity in order to blame Edith for the pseudo-objective failings of some of the writers who followed in her quite broad wake. (Okay, not merely for that purpose.) I wanted to draw your attention to this little gem of writerly wisdom:

One of the causes of the confusion of judgment on this point[i.e., the difference between mere human sympathy and writerly empathy] is no doubt the perilous affinity between the art of fiction and the material it works in. It has been so often said that all art is re-presentation — the giving back in conscious form of the shapeless raw material of experience — that one would willingly avoid insisting on such a truism. But while there is no art of which the saying is truer than fiction, there is none in respect of which there is more danger of the axiom’s being misinterpreted.

Or, to put it another way, just providing a transcript of what happens in real life isn’t art; it’s court reporting. Good realistic writing is by definition a selective recreation of reality.

Which tends to come as a surprise to advocates of slice-of-life fiction, who believe that the primary goal of writing is to reproduce quotidian reality as closely as possible. That can work very well in a short story or scene in a novel or memoir, but just listing everything that happened in even the most fascinating human interaction tends to overwhelm the reader with detail — and annoy Millicent the agency screener, incidentally.

So how can a writer decide what parts of reality are and are not essential to conveying the story at hand? Ah, there’s the rub. As, indeed, Edith herself points out:

The attempt to give back any fragment of life in painting or sculpture or music presupposes transposition, “stylization.” To re-present in words is far more difficult, because the relation is so close between model and artist. The novelist works in the very material out of which the object he is trying to render is made. He must use, to express soul, the signs which soul uses to express itself. It is relatively easy to separate the artistic vision of an object from its complex and tangled actuality if one has to re-see it in paint or marble or bronze; it is infinitely difficult to render a human mind when one is employing the very word-dust with which thought is formulated.

In case she’s being too polite here, let me make it a bit blunter: one of the difficulties of this art form as opposed to others is that your average Joe on the street doesn’t suddenly whip out a block of marble or embark upon an interpretive dance to react to, say, someone cutting in front of him in a long line — although you must admit that either would be an interesting tactic. No, he uses words, so it’s darned tempting for a fledgling writer to believe that just quoting what he says on that particular occasion will in fact convey the entire situation to the reader.

The usual result? Pages upon pages of dialogue uninterrupted by narrative text, like a radio play, as though the writer believes that no further elucidation could possibly be necessary — one of Millicent’s better-known pet peeves, by the way. Or writers who are flabbergasted to hear professional readers (agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, Millicents) castigate their stories as unbelievable or unrealistic.

“Unbelievable?” they gasp. “Unrealistic? But that’s impossible: the scene you’ve targeted really happened!”

I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who love to write the real, but this cri de coeur almost never carries any weight with professional readers. In fact, if I’m going to be honest about it, this incredibly common protest is much, much more likely to elicit a chuckle, or even an eye-roll, than a cry of, “Wow, touché, dear writer. Let’s leave that scene entirely untouched.”

Why can I predict that with such certainty? Well, I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean that it will strike the reader as realistic when it appears on the page.

As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing. (For a far more detailed analysis of this quandary, check out John Irving’s TRYING TO SAVE PIGGY SNEED, speaking of established authors’ books about the writing life.)

So if Edith hadn’t brought this up, I would have: this is a classic point upon which aspiring writers who have yet to see their words in print and those authors who have (and give advice to the former) so often don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s rare that an established author will argue that all a good writer needs to do to offer fresh insights to the reader is simply to reproduce exactly what she observes in real life. If all a good writer had to do was hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, there would be little difference between the documentary filmmaker and the novelist except medium.

Good art is a lot more complicated than that.

However, you can’t throw a piece of bread at your garden-variety writers’ conference without hitting a writer who will insist that his manuscript — or, in classes, his scene — must have the resonance of truth because IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY. And then these aspiring writers wonder why the pros just stop listening.

Edith, would you mind telling the class why, please?

Still the transposition does take place as surely, if not as obviously, in a novel as in a statue. If it did not, the writing of fiction could never be classed among works of art, products of conscious ordering and selecting, and there would consequently be nothing to say about it, since there seems to be no way of estimating aesthetically anything to which no standard of choice can be applied.

Did some of you get lost in the verbiage there? Basically, Edith is saying that just throwing your diary onto the printed page isn’t art, any more than simply setting up a camera to film every second of everyday life would be, because that would remove the artist from the process as anything but transcriptionist. A good writer, however, picks and chooses what parts of reality are important to the story and leaves out the rest.

Or, to use a glaring modern example, do you honestly think that reality TV would be bearable for even fifteen consecutive minutes’ viewing if no one were editing the footage?

Think about that the next time you hear someone say that the point of written dialogue is just to reproduce the speech of everyday life. (And yes, school-age readers, you have my permission to print out what I just said and wave it in your English composition teacher’s face.)

Before the young and the daring think Edith and I are taking their side too completely, let’s see what she has to say about the perennial bugbear of the young writer, the desire to do something that’s never been done before in print:

Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before; for though one of the instincts of youth is imitation, another, equally imperious, is that of fiercely guarding against it. In this respect, the novelist of the present day is in danger of being caught in a vicious circle, for the insatiable demand for quick production tends to keep him in a state of perpetual immaturity, and the ready acceptance of his wares encourages him to think that no time need be wasted in studying the past history of his art, or in speculating on its principles.

“Ha!” I just heard half of you exclaim. “Ready acceptance of his wares! You try landing an agent in the current literary market, Edith.”

Before you dismiss this portion of her argument accordingly, consider a moment: I think a case could be made, and a pretty good one, that the extreme difficulty of selling first fiction, combined with how much busier our lives are than writers who lived a hundred years ago, tends to have the same effect that she’s describing here.

Don’t believe me? Okay, line up ten unpublished novelists and ask them to name not only the bestsellers in their categories in which they write, but the back-list perennials. Don’t accept any answer that names a book that’s been out for more than two years. Ask them to give you thumbnail reviews of each, and explain how their own books are similar or different.

8 of them will not be able to it; at least 5 will not have read anything in their chosen category that has come out within the last two years, which means that they are unfamiliar with the market. And 2-3 will laugh and tell you that they don’t have time to read at all.

But if you ask them if their novels are original, all ten will promptly say yes. But if they’re not familiar with the market in their book categories, how on earth do they know?

This, I’m afraid, is one of the things that render professional writers fairly easy to spot at a conference. Ask ten recently published novelists the same question, and you’ll probably get some pretty detailed analysis of the current book market. (Not to mention a plethora of complaints about their agents and editors.)

“Ah,” some of those non-readers will say, “but I don’t want my vision sullied by contact with others’. Nothing tamps down originality more than listening to what other people say.”

Really? Interesting. Let’s hear Edith’s opinion on the subject.

True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal, vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.

This, my friends, is one of the best definitions I’ve ever seen of what the publishing industry means by fresh, an elusive quality that tends to catch Millicent’s eye and warm the cockles of her boss agent’s cold, cold heart. Many, many writers could write the same story, but the difference between a fresh take and something that Millicent has seen fifteen times in the last week lies largely in how the writer chooses to tell the story, right?

Think the various writers’ respective decisions about how to narrow down what parts of reality do and do not add to the story might have anything to do with that?

Uh-huh; Edith’s not just whistling Dixie here: this is serious writing advice.

Not to mention a killer self-editing philosophy: when in doubt, ask yourself: could anyone but me have written this particular sentence/scene/character? If so, how can I revise it to render my voice and worldview more apparent? Repeat with every sentence/scene/character in your manuscript.

A lot of work? You bet. But as Edith says:

At any rate {the myth of originality without study} is fostering in its young writers the conviction that art is neither long nor arduous, and perhaps blinding them to the fact that notoriety and mediocrity are often interchangeable terms. But though the trade-wind in fiction undoubtedly drives many beginners along the line of least resistance, and holds them there, it is far from being the sole cause of the present quest for short-cuts in art.

That’s her really, really nice way of saying that if a writer’s only goal is to get published, the art is likely to suffer. Ditto if the writer is too lazy to learn what being a writer in her chosen category entails before taking a crack at it herself.

But she’s not about to let off the hook those who assume that if

(a) their own writing is having a hard time getting published, then

(b) all good writing must be having a hard time getting published, therefore

(c) everything currently being published is rubbish.

You will literally never hear a published author arguing this, incidentally, for obvious reasons, which is why, in case those of you who hang around writers’ conferences have been wondering, agents and editors simply stop listening to anyone who makes this particular argument. Which may be why Edith is so unsympathetic to it:

There are writers indifferent to popular success, and even contemptuous of it, who sincerely believe that this line marks the path of the true vocation. Many people assume that the artist receives, at the outset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as “Inspiration,” and has only to let that sovereign impulse carry him where it will.

We all know writers who say that, right?

Inspiration does indeed come at the outset to every creator, but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided; and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.

Wow. I think every writer who has ever even been tempted to say, “Oh, I don’t need to learn about the marketing side of the business; that will be my agent’s job. I handle the creative part,” should think long and hard about what Edith just said. Especially those who subscribe to the astonishingly pervasive writerly belief that all good writing will inevitably get published, regardless of how poorly its author happens to market it.

So does that mean that an aspiring writer should invest all of her writing time in boning up on what’s already on the market? Or that only after a writer has read everything published in the last hundred years should he attempt to write his own book?

Of course not; total immersion in other people’s books and absolute ignorance of the market are not the only two possible courses here. A savvy aspiring writer is going to want to forge a middle path.

And that can be difficult, especially now that finding a mountain of writerly advice is as simple as typing a question into a search engine. As Edith admits,

Study and meditation contain their own perils. Counsellors intervene with contradictory advice and instances.

See? I told you she seems surprisingly up on the current state of blogging about writing.

In such cases these counselors are most often other people’s novels: the great novels of the past, which haunt the beginner like a passions, and the works of his contemporaries, which pull him this way and that with too-persuasive hands. His impulse, at first, will be either to shun them, to his own impoverishment, or to let his dawning individuality be lost in theirs.

Or, to put this as Millicent the agency screener might, the vast majority of the submissions she sees are either completely out of step with the current literary market or quite derivative of a recent bestseller.

…but gradually he will come to see that he must learn to listen to them, take all they can give, absorb it into himself, and then to turn his own task with the fixed resolve to see life only through his own eyes.

In other words, to develop his own voice — and to demonstrate his own unique worldview through the details he chooses from real life to incorporate into his writing.

You had thought I was just rambling on without an ultimate point in mind, hadn’t you? Jet-lagged as I am, I still try to be selective.

I’m looking forward to a less befogged brain on the morrow, however. Keep up the good work!