James O. Born
Last week we discussed one of the most important elements of novel writing: dialogue. Dialogue not only distinguishes your characters, but it can set the tone for the entire book. I make it a point never to criticize authors in public. I will continue that through this post, but I must admit it's difficult. It would be easy to point out stilted prose or cases where supposedly illiterate, back woodsman use words like "ubiquitous" or "corpulent." (I'm just trying to show off my vocabulary but I'm serious about the dialogue of the uneducated in the book.) The other thing that drives me crazy is children who sound like adults writing children.
The proper use of dialogue can also dictate the personality of your character. Do you want to give the impression of a smug, jerk (at least to an American), have a character showoff using unnecessary French phrases. You want to have your character instantly disliked, use terms like, "those people," or some kind of derogatory term for virtually any minority.
If you want your character to exemplify an ideal, simply have them talk to people as equals and with respect. They don't focus on themselves and they worry about other people's actions and reactions. It's kind of like real life. The real life that you are going to create in your novel.
This is a short post today as I am preparing to travel. I will continue the discussion on dialogue in twoweeks. Next week I intend to make some concrete announcements about my publishing career next Thursday. No, I'm not throwing in the towel just yet. But I can't blab about how to write a novel, then not write one every once in a while. It's not good for my reputation or my bank account.
Today's quotes are a little different. They are literally dialogue taken from a TV show. What I feel is one of the best written shows on TV, Modern Family. It takes place during a discussion between a stepfather and stepson who are slowly starting to bond. The stepfather has bragged to his beautiful, younger wife that he intends to write a novel.
You can't be a good writer without being critical of your own work –
Manny Delgado, age 12, character on the TV series Modern Family
“Enough chit chat, I have to get a character out of a bind.”
“What did he do?”
“He told his wife he could write a book.”
Jay Pritchett from the TV series Modern Family
From the messy desk of Paul Levine...
Rambling thoughts from a non-rambling man:
Sex in Public Places
When I was editor-in-chief of Penn State's student newspaper, "The Daily Collegian," about a zillion years ago, we did not have a "sex columnist." At the time, there was allegedly a sexual revolution going on, but I seem to have missed the battle cry.
These days,"Jill" (no last name) is the paper's sex columnist, and her current piece is "Jill Talks About Adrenaline Rush of Hooking Up with Risk of Getting Caught."
Essentially, sex in public.
Okay, so we were behind the times, with all our anti-Vietnam War editorials and blaming Nixon for everything, including awarding the 1969 mythical national championship in football to Texas...BEFORE the bowl games. (Yes, Penn State went undefeated that year).
Anyway, I'm all for a sex columnist because, unlike fellow scribbler Jim Born, I'm a hip dude and a hep cat.
Eavesdropping in the Locker Room
So I'm in the locker room at the University of Miami student/alumni gym today, and I'm listening to two undergrads:
First Guy: Dude, I flunked the midterm in Beginning Pottery.
Second Guy: Yeah, I cut Jogging class.
First Guy: I'm thinking about taking Stretching. All chicks.
So I suppose I should confess. Back at Penn State, I failed Etiquette. Really, I had a deadline at The Daily Collegian, causing me to miss the final. A dinner party.
Jake Lassiter in Trouble Again
Just why did Jake Lassiter slug his client? The answer is revealed over on my website blog where Jake is "Flirting with Disbarment."
This all takes place in "Last Chance Lassiter,"
a prequel to the 10 book series featuring the linebacker-turned-lawyer. Herewith, as lawyers, say, a brief excerpt from Jake's disbarment hearing:
JUDGE BUCKSTROM: Apparently, Mr. Lassiter, you have a propensity for violence.
JAKE LASSITER: Not really, Your Honor. The only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.
Q: How’s that?
A: I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.
Q: But in this case, Mr. Lassiter, you have admitted striking your own client.
A: Technically, he wasn’t my client. It was our first meeting, and I hadn’t agreed to represent him.
Q: So why did you hit him?
A: He came at me with a baseball bat from the collection on my office wall. Barry Bonds. Mark McGuire. Alex Rodriguez.
Q: You collect from any players who didn’t break the rules? A: Innocent until proven juiced, Your Honor.
Q: So your testimony is...your prospective client attacked you with your own bat?
A: Under Florida’s stand-your-ground law, I could have shot him with a machine gun. You can read the rest of the "transcript" here.
I was wide awake. 3:30am. Jet lag – I only arrived back from England last Monday, and it always takes me a week to get back on track with my sleep. Now 4:30am. Questions and answers running through my mind. I had them licked – but how would I fare under pressure? Who knew? Finally, sleep again. Until 6:30am.
OK, so maybe I am overstating my concerns about this, but believe me, I had known people blow this thing that I had embarked upon, so I made sure I was well prepped. I had a folder with every single document required, I had done my homework and I was ready. My husband insisted upon coming with me, even though I said, “You know, there’ll be a lot of waiting around – I’ll be OK on my own.” “Oh no,” he said. “This is way too important. I’ll be there in the waiting room.”
The instructions were clear from the outset. I had to be appropriately attired. So, what would it be? The red jacket with a blue and white scarf, just to set off on the right foot? Or should it be sober grey? In the end it was my black jacket (but should it be the 10-year-old first-ever-book-tour-crumple-free-in-a-suitcase jacket, or the eBay-Chanel-big-time-buyer’s-remorse jacket? I went with the crumple free, plus the six-year-old-fourth-book-tour-black-pants and the vintage Hermes scarf (pink, because it’s spring) – another eBay find, this time without regret. My late mother-in-law was responsible for my love of Hermes scarves – she bought me three, all told. She had served with the American Army Nursing Corps in WW2, shipping out to Europe on the Queen Mary in 1942, to return home some four years later – she would be proud of me, though I think she would have preferred that red, white and blue Hermes scarf. She loved her scarves, my mother-in-law.
I’d allowed time to get stuck in traffic, to go back home if I forgot something – so we were early. Time for even more adrenalin to flood the system. And then we were there. 630 Sansome Street in San Francisco. According to my husband, once inside it’s like a cross between Stasi headquarters and the DMV. Mind you, he can say that sort of thing – they can’t kick him out because he was born here, a Cleveland boy. For someone arriving for their citizenship interview, well, it’s just Daunting Central and you’d better keep your opinions to yourself.
This office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly the INS) was not unknown to me – I’d been there years ago for my Permanent Residence interview. In fact, I need never have come again, because as a legal immigrant, I could have just continued renewing my green card every ten years. But there are advantages to having citizenship – and one is to vote in an election. As a US taxpayer for almost a quarter century that is something I wanted to do, and there were other considerations – it was time. And applying for citizenship is not something I had done lightly – Our Jim Born will attest to that. I collared him at the Virginia Festival of the Book (how many years ago was that, Jim?), to talk to him about the right to bear arms, and wanted to know what he thought. He advised me that I had to follow my heart, and if that was something I could not swear to – that effectively I would take up a weapon to protect the United States – then I should not do it. He was right.
I gave it a lot of thought. At the time I was disillusioned with what I thought were a bunch of gun-happy politicians – and not only in the USA, mind you – too willing to wage war. But I read the relevant parts of the Constitution and I read the Declaration of Independence, and I did my homework and a lot of thinking. And I realized that if I wanted to live in a country, I had better be willing to protect it – and that is what I saw reflected in those important documents. I was not being asked to tote a gun to Safeway, or to approve of those who do. I was being asked to protect the land of my choosing.
It was as I signed in for my appointment that I wondered how different people interpreted “appropriate attire” for an interview for citizenship. The young woman checking in next to me looked as if she’d come straight from a party with the Kardashians. A yellow mini skirt, black panty hose, red high heels and a leather jacket over a nicely coordinated turquoise-blue t-shirt. Make-up applied with a trowel. She carried only her iPhone in a twinkly little wallet. I wondered if all her docs were on that iPhone, and where she had put the copies the instructions indicated should be brought to the interview. She tapped her inch-long fingernails on the counter as she waited, looking sideways at the bulging folder I carried, marked “Naturalization Application.”
I was instructed to wait in section B. My husband sat next to me, and I watched as he eyed up other applicants. Only an Australian wore a suit – everyone else was in a variation of jeans and other very, very casual wear. John leaned in to whisper in my ear. “You are way overdressed,” he said. “They won’t let you in looking like a stuck-up Brit.” He grinned, which was just as well because my adrenalin was REALLY pumping now. This was no place to throttle an American.
Finally I was called for my interview. I swore to tell the truth and the officer started without missing a beat. Every single departure and entry back into the United States was reviewed, and I explained why I was away for five months in 2012 – that’s when my Dad passed away. I was asked to state my occupation. Writer. I was asked what I write, so I just said “Historical Novels.” I didn’t want to get into it, but then he said he was really interested in WW1. I grinned. We were on my turf. He said that he had always wanted to go to the battlefields of Flanders. Yes! “I’ve been three times,” I said. Then he looked at his notes. And we were back to business. Read this sentence. Write these words. Answer these questions – and they came fast. Had I ever committed a crime? Had I been married more than once? Or to two people at the same time? Had I ever lied on an official form? Had I done this? Had I done that? No. No. No. No.
Then onto the next jump. Questions on American history and Civics. You have to get six correct answers out of ten. I aced the first six, so he stopped there. It was the only time I slipped up – ish. “Can’t I answer the others?” I said. “I did all that work!” He laughed. “It’s OK. You passed.” Then he smiled and held out his hand. “Congratulations. You’re approved for citizenship of the United States of America.” My bottom lip wobbled.
It’s not a done deal until I take the Oath of Allegiance, which he said he would try to have scheduled for the end of April – turns out the next San Francisco Oath Ceremony is on my birthday, and he didn’t miss the connection. So, fingers crossed.
I left the office still shaking, walked along the bland antiseptic hallway and out into the waiting area. My husband stood up to greet me and I gave him the thumbs up. We hugged among that sea of plastic chairs and the smiling faces of people waiting –there weren’t many; it was a slow Good Friday in the Citizenship department. And I guess we looked kind of funny, the woman in business-black and a posh pink scarf and a guy in jeans and a sweatshirt. I looked around and smiled back – and I could tell that each of the earth’s continents was represented there in Section B, a gathering of people who had come searching for a new Life, Liberty and their stab at the Pursuit of Happiness in the United States of America. There’s nothing bland, really, about a latter-day Ellis Island.
Have a lovely Easter. It’s my favorite holiday, the herald of new beginnings.
PS: And what did my mother say in a ‘phone call on the morning of my interview. “The best of British luck to you, my darling.”
James O. Born
My thanks to Kat Carlson for pinch-hitting for me last week. In the coming weeks I have an impressive array of authors who will be contributing their viewpoints to the blog.
Today I want to start a multi-day discussion on dialogue. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a modern novel. Of course I wanted to say modern "crime novel," but that's just my personal preference. I've published science fiction as well as crime novels, but I read everything. And I mean all different genres; from literary novels about feuding farming families in the Midwest to historical fiction about Rome. And I am here to tell you there is almost nothing harder than writing good dialogue and nothing that will sink a novel faster than bad dialogue. It doesn't matter if the novel is set in the 1920s or around the birth of Christ, in the South or in South Boston. The choices you make when writing dialogue will affect all aspects of the reader’s experience. I'm not trying to freak you out, but this is the nuclear arms race of writing. There is very little that's more important. Except college football.
Dialogue is one of the clearest and most direct ways to express your character. Even internal dialogue can let the reader know how smart, how funny or how sincere any particular character may be. It's fun to read funny dialogue spoken by characters who remain cool under pressure and can come up with great one-liners, but it is just as important to read dialogue that expresses sorrow or concern in a way that lets readers know the gravity of the situation and the depth of the character’s compassion. The word choices that a character makes in the story should have no reflection on you, as the writer. If you limit yourself to having everyone speak the same way you do, I can almost guarantee you've written a boring novel. The dialogue comes from the character’s background, not yours!
If you're writing a novel about the Ku Klux Klan and other modern racist organizations you should use words that are not generally accepted and I hope you don't use in real life. I had several long discussions with the late Elmore Leonard about the use of various slang for African Americans. He used them as a pointer to the hardest of the hard-edged characters. No one could ever call Dutch Leonard a racist. Eventually, I did use the worst of those words as a way to delineate just how bad the bad guys in my stories really were. I only met one person who ever considered it racist to put it in the novel. No matter how I tried to explain that it clearly had nothing to do with my beliefs, he said the use of such words in any form was racist. He may have a point, but I disagree. I don't think a writer should be censured for trying to make a story realistic and characters true to their background. It's a touchy subject and one you should address on an individual basis, but you can't be scared of it. My first agent once told me, "You can't write a book that you picture your grandmother reading." That is an excellent bit of advice.
Another man, who, after reading Walking Money, suggested that conversations around my house must be spicy with all the salty language. He seemed truly disillusioned when I told him that I rarely used foul language in real life and that that was just one particular character who would string together the most inappropriate and dirty words. In truth, even during the height of my law enforcement career, I ran across real-life people who said disgusting things. And I made it a point not to speak like that, certainly not around my wife and children. But sometimes people can't separate the character from the author. Break out of your comfort zone. Have your characters say things you would never dream of saying. We have a whole lot more to cover on this subject, but since the Miami Heat's final game starts in a few minutes and I do, at some point, have to continue writing novels in order to keep my house and my wife, I'm going to bring this discussion to an end.
But we will continue the discussion over at least the next week and perhaps two. There are so many aspects to writing dialogue that some of them just happen without thinking about it. How do you feel about reading uncomfortable language in a book? Does it sweep you up in the realism of the story? Or does it turn you off? I have very successful author friends who do not use certain words even in their hard-boiled detective novels. This comes back to the first major point of this series of blogs. When writing a novel, it’s up to you how you write it.
Today's quotes are:
“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ―Joyce Carol Oates
"I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation." —Tom Stoppard
From the messy desk of Paul Levine...
The Washington Post cleaned up when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. The newspaper won both the "public service" award and the "explanatory journalism" medal. The latter was for a series detailing the challenges faced by people on food stamps. The former was far more controversial. Shared with the Guardian, the Post won the Pulitzer for its revelation, examination, and explanation of National Security Agency documents STOLEN by Edward Snowden. (I prefer the word "stolen" to "leaked" or "disclosed.")
The Post says it had a team of 28 journalists working the story; I was happy to learn there's still a newsroom in America that has more than two dozen reporters and editors. But I'm not happy with the Pulitzer and the reflected glory it shines on Edward Snowden, that fleeing felon now protected by that great defender of liberty, Vladimir Putin.
I express my views in detail on this subject on MY OTHER BLOG, today entitled: "Pulitzer Prizes 2014: Snowden Gets the Last Laugh."
As for the Washington Post, I find some irony in a story it published a few days ago, essentially pointing out the flaws in the Pulitzer Prizes. The story was entitled "Five Myths About the Pulitzer Prize" and asserted:
1. The Pulitzers don't honor the best in American journalism. Magazines, for example, are excluded.
2. Small news outlets don't have much of a chance.
3. Some newspapers chase prizes at a "disservice to readers." Frankly, I don't agree with that. "Chasing" Pulitzer Prizes generally means spending significant resources on major projects that serve readers.
4. The Pulitzer Prizes are stuck in the 20th Century. That may have been true, but last year, the tiny on-line publication InsideClimate News won the award for national reporting for its "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil."
InsideClimate News beat the other finalists, heavyweights Boston Globe and Washington Post, to win the award. (I suppose the medallion could be updated. It still shows a man hard at work on a 19th Century printing press, but isn't that part of the charm?)
The complete list of the 2014 Pulitzers, from the History award for Alan Taylor's “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832," to Poetry, Vijay Seshadri's "3 Sections," can be found here.