Friday, July 22, 2016

I’m trending, I’ve gone viral, and I broke the Internet.

Well, not really.
But since those phrases are tossed around like rice at a wedding, I figure they may as well apply to me as the next guy.
Besides that, they have no objective meaning that I’ve been able to discern or ever seen quantified. Which means, in the end, they are nothing more than what’s long been known in the advertising business as “puffery.” Or, to abbreviate the term I am more likely to voice, BS.
Such vague and nebulous (and meaningless) superlatives are easily assigned to anyone or anything at any time by anyone. Some people will be fooled by them. Most will ignore them. And rightly so.
Even extreme claims with some factual basis can be meaningless. For instance, in the book world, “best seller” and other such rankings are often accurate but still worthless. Years ago, in the days when Amazon ran a short-lived program of selling short stories online, I had a couple of stories that, for several weeks, were listed as either the top or number-two selling Western stories. But they never sold enough copies to accumulate enough royalties to result in a paycheck—and the threshold was pretty low, as I recall.
Still and all, I guess it gives me the right to claim being a “Best-Selling Author!” After all, I am the guy who broke the Internet. Not to mention “trending” and having gone “viral.”

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers Part 30: Write the way people talk.

Sometimes, some writing teachers teach people to mimic the way people talk when writing dialogue.
The truth is, it doesn’t work.
Our last installment of “Lies” addressed trite words we use in conversation (“incredible,” “awesome,” “amazing”) that are mostly useless on the page.
Then there are those other little clichés that creep into and out of our mouths. Just for fun, get yourself a notebook and make a mark every time you hear someone start a sentence with “So.” It’s an affectation of epidemic proportions these days. Imagine what your page would look like if every other or third or fourth line of dialogue started like so:
While you’ve got that notebook in hand, keep track of the abuse of “like.” You know what I mean: “He’s, like,” “I’m, like,” “it was, like,” and the like. Likewise, “I mean.” 
Sometimes writers try to mimic the speech of young people (where most of these language trends start) in an effort to sound “cool” (another word rendered useless to the point you dare not use it, even correctly). It doesn’t work. It’s usually overdone. It sounds phony. It sounds like the author is trying too hard. And it doesn’t fool anyone.
The same holds true when unknowing writers try to mimic the way cowboys talk. Or doctors. Or sailors. Or the lingo of most any other assemblage of folks with a language partly their own, including dialects. As the late, great Elmer Kelton used to say about writing dialect and slang: a little goes a long way.
Fear not. You can write good dialogue. You can create conversations that are realistic, informative, reveal your characters, advance the story, and entertain. It’s not a matter of simply recording the words people use. It requires hearing—listening beyond the affectations and clichés and hearing the characteristics of conversation that define the speakers and capture their lingo.
Then, rather than filling pages with the phony-baloney twaddle a recording device hears, you can write dialogue that sounds like people talking rather than writing the way we really talk. Your readers will thank you.
So, uh, I mean, give it a try. It’ll be, like, um, awesome, y’know.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 29: To learn to write dialogue, listen to people talk.

Writing dialogue is one of the most difficult things writers do. That must be the case, because so much of it is so awful. Think of all the times you’ve looked wide-eyed at a page or the silver screen and thought, no one talks like that!
To cure this ill, many writing instructors encourage students to eavesdrop on conversations and mimic that kind of speech.
Don’t do it.
Writing the way people really talk just might be worse than the stiff, stilted stuff that sometimes masquerades as dialogue.
Think about it. If you write the way people talk, your page will be peppered with “um” and “uh” and “I mean” and “y’know” and other fillers that are as natural as breathing to most people.
Then there are the useless, overused words we use. Decades ago, when I started paying attention to such things, some—many—people used “incredible” to describe anything and everything that struck their fancy. While the word is still overused, “awesome” eventually replaced it in the mouths of many. Nowadays, “amazing” has clawed its way to the top of the hackneyed heap. (Never mind the fact that the way we use those words has little to do with their actual meanings.)
Imagine your characters repeatedly using “amazing” to describe things—almost everything, really. Readers would never know if the object of their amazement was, say, delicious (or tasty) beautiful (or easy on the eyes) or smooth-gaited or soft or hard or warm or fast or thought-provoking or melodious or whatever. The generic descriptions people use in actual conversation—like “amazing” and “awesome”—make for dull, meaningless dialogue.
The trick isn’t to write like people talk. It’s to write dialogue that sounds like people talking—it’s more vivid, more descriptive, more “real” than the real thing. But it sounds like the real thing.
Stay tuned for a future installment on writing dialogue.
It will be amazing.