What are we talking about today?

Some days have themes. I don't necessarily post something in each of these topic areas every week.

Sunday: Church-related or spiritual things.
Monday: Running.
Tuesday: Books.
Wednesday: Transportation.
Friday: Green living.

14 October 2010

Stephen King Gets it Right, Again

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?


Brandon P said...

I've wanted to read that book for quite a long time but never have gotten around to it. It really does sound very good.

In other thoughts, I really think you should reserve your periodical emphases ("Every. Other. Character.") for titles. That really threw me off while reading, especially the capitalized "Every." that started it off. I appreciate what those can do for titles sometimes, but using them in the article itself really throws me off. Just my humble opinion. :o)

And dialogue, that's a good thought. Since I'm not a huge fan of fiction I've never given the different voices much thought, but it's definitely a good point. So, no suggestion, but thanks for the revelation.

Faith said...

I want to hear this rant about Christian literature, myself... I don't know if you've read many of my book reviews, but I've read a lot of Christian fiction this year -- some absolute crap, and some that's been surprisingly good. The face of CBA publishing is changing, and for the better, THANK GOD (and I really mean that). It's going to be a long, tough road, but the industry will be so much better for it. Now I just need to convince the ladies in my congregation that they DON'T need another Amish fiction book to read. Sigh.

As for dialogue...? Pick a period TV show. Or a movie set in a different world. Or go to the mall and sit in the food court and listen to the cadence of speech around you. I think immersion in other forms of speech will help to recall those speech patterns when writing. You can't write different voices if you haven't heard them! Just my thoughts. Of course, it's all easier said than done... :)

Su said...

@Brandon: But I love the periodical emphasis! It's my favorite! Sigh... I shall consider it. :) You should certainly read the book, if for no other reason than entertainment value, because there was a lot of giggling when I read it. And if you want to write, it's invaluable.

@Faith: It's written & queued up to post! But I don't remember what day it's coming. I will certainly drop by & read your reviews; it would be a refreshing change to read the non-crap Christian lit! My grandma LOVES the Amish fiction; her house is filled with it. She's really into period & Christian literature much more than I am. I've definitely done the "listen to other voices" thing, but my own voice is drowning them out, so far. Maybe I should start transcribing conversations at the mall... that would be hysterical. :)

sparquay said...

Hmm, maybe pay attention to how your friends talk and maybe mimic their speak patterns to the dialog? I don't know. Maybe it's like acting. If you are a good actor then you can think in different personas and speak as if coming from that person instead. Maybe you're just a bad actor. ;)
But then again, maybe I don't know what I'm talking about and I'm just guessing from the brief exploration in writing fiction with dialog myself. Granted I haven't really noticed how dialogues are similar... but maybe I would if it were standing right there in front of my face.

sparquay said...

Maybe I put too many "maybe"s in that last comment!

Su said...

@sparquay: I didn't notice the first time through, but I'm sure it would have stood out if it were an entire post. Or book. ;)

And I am a terrible actor.

Rachel Morgan said...

I keep hearing good things about Stephen King's ON WRITING. Thinking I should read it!

And I've now added something to my editing checklist:
*check that characters don't all speak the same way*
(Cos I honestly haven't thought about it much! I just write whatever speech comes into my head that seems natural!)

Su said...

@Rachel: It's gold. You should read it. Maybe I'm overly OCD on this dialogue thing, but... wow, it was just so obvious. Maybe if the 17-year-old didn't sound so much like a schoolmarm, I might not have noticed.

L'Aussie said...

I'm with Rachel, everyone's always quoting this book of SK's. I'd better get it myself!

Su said...

I've read it a couple of times; the second go-round was to see if I'd learned anything the first time! (I did not, unfortunately.) I think I took more in this time than last time. I'll definitely re-read it again. (And again... and again...)

a runners' life said...

I've read 'On Writing' multiple times that I've lost count. There's always something new and motivating that I catch.

Dialogue is a tough one. I find it difficult too though sometimes I make one character use longer sentences, another shorter ones. Some might use particular words more often than others. That sort of thing. But I must say that dialogue has to be the hardest part of writing fiction.