Tuesday, September 14, 2010

She Said, She Said: Collaborating to Write Dialog

Writing dialog is my albatross. The thing that I am convinced will drag me under the foaming waves with every story I try to write. I love to talk, for heaven’s sake…but, honestly…I’m completely intimidated by writing what my characters need to say.

 Maybe not completely intimidated. But pretty close.

Which leads me to one of the benefits of working with a partner when writing. I hesitate, backspace, sigh a lot and generally feel like I’m doing the writer’s equivalent of stuttering and stammering just to type the stuff between the double-quote marks. But my co-author, Sayantani, sends me chapters with funny, smooth dialog that I’d give my left arm to be able to write as a first draft. (No, not jealous or anything, girlfriend!)

OK…just so you know I’m not totally insecure, I will tell you that there are plenty of things about my own writing that I’m confident in and think are just the bomb. But that’s for another post…

Back to dialog writing: I’d do my best, which in the beginning of our project, took ages just to stutter my way through the scenes where dialog was key. I’d send my file to Sayantani (crossing my fingers that it really wasn’t as stilted as I thought). She would tweak and re-write and put notes in the margin about word choice and generally teach me how to get better. Yep. You heard me. She poked me along until, by the middle of our project, I was writing dialog more fluently. It may not have turned out great just yet; however, the point is that I was writing fast. Putting words between those damnable double-quotes without over-thinking or backspacing my way to frustration.

To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure she knew how much she was teaching me at the time. Maybe she did…but regardless, she was one of the best teachers of dialog I’ve had simply by pushing me to keep going. By setting deadlines and continuously giving me honest feedback without fail.

Now, just so this doesn’t turn into a whole post of me telling you how fantastic my partner is – I want to make it clear that you, too, should try to find that writing partner in your creative life. Maybe not someone who will embark on a long-term project with you and commit to sinking tons of free time (and a whole lot of not-so-free time) into reaching a goal with you. But you can seek out an honest critic. Someone who will read your work and give you honest, kind, helpful feedback. (KEY: Be open to it!) Maybe it is a teacher. Maybe a sibling, friend, writing group member, neighbor, co-worker… ask around! Look for people who are READERS. Those are the folks who will have experience with the sinking into the story I’ve talked about before. They’ll let you know where you stutter and stammer.

 Oh, and tell them thank you. A lot! (Thanks, Sayantani!)

And while you are at it, check out the dialog pacing, flow and word choice in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. I’d love to hear what you think. The first few pages left me frustrated with the vocabulary and somewhat stilted speech patterns. But the longer I read and the deeper I got in Westerfeld’s dystopian world, the more I appreciated how his intentional choices with dialog helped create the foreign world of forced plastic surgeries and bubbly thinking and disdain for anything not “pretty.” Those strange speech choices began to make sense and taught me a bit more about how dialog can have a bigger job than just recording spoken words for characters. Westerfeld used his dialog to help support setting and theme. The dialog was pivotal to how the world of the Pretties and the Uglies was created. Not that I’m trying to form your opinion for you or anything. Really.

Read it and tell me what you think. Or let me know where you have learned valuable dialog lessons.

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