You know something funny? I've never read a single one of SK's novels. The only thing of his that I've read is On Writing, which is pure brilliance, and I'm just taking millions of strangers' word for it that he knows what he is talking about. (Of course, that one book by itself is enough to convince me that he does know what he is talking about.)
So. Mr. King insists that in order to be a good writer, one must read a lot. His quote that I want tattooed on the inside of my eyelids is, "Reading is the creative center of a writer's life." Just from my own experience, I can attest that this is so; the times when I am most inspired to write are the times when I've been reading a lot. He also says, and bless his socks for putting this in print, that reading bad writing is as important as reading the good stuff, because of all that one can learn from someone else's mistakes. And here's where I'm going to get really unkind, because I'm going to share what I learned from my most recent experience with less-than-stellar writing: Somewhere to Belong.
I have a rant stored up inside of me about Christian literature, which is coming in due course. But it doesn't matter what genre this book falls into; it just needs improvement. But before I dive into the worst of the worst in the book, however, I will begin with this: Judith Miller has a gift for description. She brought her setting to life for me with her beautiful word pictures. That more than anything else is what kept me reading, because the whole thing sounded so pretty. If Ms. Miller were writing tourist information books, she would be fabulous at it. Except, she's not writing for tourists; she's writing novels.
The bad part? The dialogue. No matter how much people may have grown up in the same town, they don't all speak in exactly the same way as her characters do. You may be able to get away with that for your background characters, but not for your main ones who do most of the talking. And really not even for the secondary ones. I did appreciate that she scattered some German words into the townspeople's speech; apparently, in an Amana community, one uses both English and German content words. Great. But not every person in town will use the exact same speech pattern. And certainly, not everyone in town will speak with pristine English with some German thrown in for good measure-- no dropped 'g's, no slang, no words in the wrong order, as might occasionally be expected from people who have facility in two languages.
Even worse are the people not from the town. Berta's family, who moves in at the beginning, talk like the rest of the town minus the German words. Berta herself, a 17-year-old, uses such perfect English that she sounds completely stilted. Witness one of her early sentences: "I'm unaccustomed to rising at such an early hour." Late 1800s or not, I've read enough books by people who lived through that era to be skeptical that any lazy teen (for so she is portrayed) would use such polished English.
The ridiculousness continues with Johanna's sister-in-law, a society lady from Chicago, who also sounds like Every. Other. Character. (Or, more accurately, everyone other character sounds like her; she should have polished language, given her background.) And, to top it all off, Berta and her father go to visit a boarding school. No prizes for guessing how all those girls (and their headmistress) spoke. I will at least give credit to Ms. Miller that no one at the boarding school used German words.
Psychology says that the thing one most despises in other people is likely to be the thing one also despises in one's self. (That was a lot of "ones".) And in this instance, I must admit: Guilty as charged. I struggle with writing dialogue. I don't write a lot of fiction for this reason. And, unfortunately, all my characters tend to sound like me, which does not reflect a very accurate picture of the world.
So, my writing friends: What to do? How do I keep from making the same mistake and ending up with dozens of exactly-the-same-voice characters?