Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"You Write So Wonderfully," The Editor Murmured Financially

A writer learns early that her manuscript has scant seconds to convince an editor of its merits. I've watched hopeful new authors at conferences, seated at tables with overworked editors who scan the first page, then one or two in the middle. Sometimes that's all he does before he lays the manuscript down, folds his hands, and gently, respectfully... shakes his head.

Harsh reality. And the reason behind it is this: there are things new authors do in their writing that instantly mark them as amateurs. They string cliches together to form lifeless paragraphs. They force readers to stand by while characters search under the bed for their shoes only to find... (ho hum!) shoes.

They gussy up their dialogue with gaudy tag lines. Their characters beseech, giggle, hiss, choke, and gush. And they do it laconically, suddenly, hoarsely, and good-naturedly.

In "Write Away," one of Sharon's favorite books on writing, author Elizabeth George tells us that most of the time, a simple said will suffice:

What happens when a writer uses said in a tag line is that the reader’s eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb—providing it’s the verb said—simply gets discarded.

Elmore Leonard agrees with her. In "Writers on Writing," he says: “Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. . . . Never use an adverb to modify the word ‘said.’"


In "Spunk & Bite," one of Bonnie's favorite books on writing, Arthur Plotnik counters:
“Well, this annoys me,” I say pointedly. “This annoys me,” I hiss. “This annoys me!” I trumpet through cupped hands.

Plotnik does not suggest we ignore the general rule of thumb. I imagine he's seen and lived through the scenario I described at the beginning of this post. But he calls us to remember that rules of thumb have exceptions:

... maybe they are 99 percent right. But it’s the 1-percent-wrong part that intrigues me, because that’s where some of our most commercially successful writers live; because that’s where the thrill of risk and reward comes into play; and because rigidity can hamstring an idea on its way to expression.
His point is that on occasion, a well turned fancy-tag can add humor or clarity or interest to your writing. Of all the excellent examples he offers, my favorite is this from Fay Weldon's novel, "Worst Fears:"

“You prurient old cow!” shouted Alexandra. . . .

“I understand your anger,” said Leah.

“No one understands my anger!” shrieked Alexandra.

“This session is at an end,” said Leah.

Can you imagine any simpler, faster, better way to show the reader the contrast between one character's rage and the other's cold composure?

An author who learns the rules takes a great first step away from amatuer status toward publication. An author who learns when it's better than okay to break those rules makes great galumphing strides in the direction of art.

Tell us about you: Read any fabulous dialogue tags lately? Written any?

We love to read what you have to say.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Heading to Field Day, but I hope to return and write a few from my fav. books.
~ Wendy

Zan Marie said...

I agree with Leonard and George--Just can those fancy tags and let said do it's job.

Of course, if an editor wants to say your post title to me, I just might change my mind. ; )

Nicole said...

You know, "said" is boring. Repeatedly "said" is annoying. I'm in the one percent fold. Gimme a break, okay? Said said said. Geez. Can't we write with expression and pizzazz? Don't use anything but said if you must use anything at all, but don't use exclamation points much either. The rules must be learned, but they're as trendy as Amish novels. Write with the know-how, but break the rules and get outside formulaic. Please.

(Think you mighta hit a nerve, Katy?)

Bonnie Grove said...

Huzzah for Plotnik! Katy, thank you for this post. What I love, love, love about Art Plotnik is his absolute refusal to forget the fun in writing. He goes searching for the moxie in writing and when he finds it, it's like buried treasure. He hauls it up, holds it out and says, "See? This is sashay hutzpah, baby. Let's all try it!"

Do I use "says" or "said" 99% of the time? Yes. Because 99% of the time it's the thing the character said that matters. But in that 1% of the time, using a highly developed eye for characterization, rhythm, plot, and scene beats, a writer can make an entire manuscript soar.

This is the biggest secret great novelists understand: a little goes a long way. Dazzle without blinding.

Patti Hill said...

Amen, Bonnie! Writing is fun!

Kathleen Popa said...

Zan, yes, said does the trick most of the time, and you are wise to keep things simple. Most of the time.

Nicole, absolutely, no exclamation points!!!!

Bonnie and Patti, I love you both for your hutzpah. If the writer doesn't have fun, the reader won't either.

Wendy, come back! Share from your favorite books!


Susie Finkbeiner said...

You know, this has been an issue for me since 4th grade. It was in my reading class that the teacher gave us horrible advice.

"Don't EVER use the word 'said' when writing a story. Think of something more exciting," she explained.

She screwed me up!

I have to say, I love when Lisa Samson writes dialogue. Every once in a while she'll just write the character's name. That's it. It's all the reader needs. Love, love me some Lisa Samson.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

"Don't work yourself up, Donald," his wife boomed as gently as the soft diapason of an organ in some glimmering cathedral at evensong.
From 'The Rival Monster' by Compton Mackenzie. 1952

Henrietta Frankensee said...

"MacDonald of Ben Nevis, you ninny." the Chieftain roared again.
For a moment the janitor was under the impression that one of the trams in Buchanan Street had crashed through the doors of the Daily Tale's offices.
From same as above.

Meg Moseley said...

"Oh Bertie," she said in a low voice like beer trickling out of a jug, "you ought not to be here!"
(P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938)

I know. I know. We can't write tags like that in serious or even semi-serious fiction, but I love me some Wodehouse. Exclamation marks and all.

Kathleen Popa said...

Susie - The first thing my favorite professor told me in college was "I want you to forget everything they taught you about writing in high school. It was good and welcome advice (for the most part).

Henrietta - oh my! And oh my! I especially liked the second.

Meg, I'll have to try Wodehouse some day. And serious is over-rated.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Do you know what song just started running through my head?

"When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school it's a wonder I can think at all."