The dialogue dilemma

Writing dialogue is really difficult. I realised this on the very first ‘writing’ course I went on. One of our tutors was Louise Doughty, a skilled teacher as well as a great writer. She gave us the transcript of an actual overheard conversation to look at, and made her point quite easily that the authentic spoken word is often unintelligible in the written form. The transcript was littered with repetitions, unfinished phrases, interruptions, and other distractions that made it almost impossible to read or make sense of. It illustrated the jerky, random thought process which underpinned the articulation we were reading on the page, which was authentic but unhelpful to the reader. Our task was to take this original transcript and edit it so that the meaning was sustained but the speech was still digestible: it was a difficult but very useful lesson to learn, and if I were teaching anyone to write dialogue I would do the same.

In my own writing I use speech and dialogue extensively and for a variety of purposes; to drive the narrative, to illustrate relationship, and to add to our understanding of a character and their state of mind. That’s a big ask. The structure of a person’s speech can illuminate what we know about them: think of Jane Austen’s characters and how much we learn about them by the way they speak and the words and phrases they use. In fact, almost all we know about Austen’s people we gather through speech rather than description. I try to see and hear my characters speaking and build what I see and hear into the words on the page. Some of the nuances of what is meant as well as what is said are hard to capture without use of adverbs or more explicit ‘speech verbs’ such as ‘murmured’ or ‘explained’ that sound clunky and used sparingly.

When it comes to the second draft, I have to speak the text out loud, and frequently change the dialogue at that stage, to make it sound more more like the spoken rather than the written word. The two are quite different, and I notice in my reading that some authors don’t seem to recognise this. Their characters speak with too much complexity, in sentences that are too finely crafted to sound authentic. Of course it’s a struggle. Sometime you sacrifice narrative clarity to authenticity and hope that the reader will not notice, or forgive you.

In the third part of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’, some of the action takes place inside the nuclear plant at Windscale (as Sellafield was known then) during the reactor fire of October 1957. All the characters we see and hear in those scenes are male, with a science or engineering background and intensely focussed on the task at hand. Their patterns of speech must be – and are – completely different than conversations taking place in the home or the shop or at the Friday night dance at the club. You should be able to hear in their voices the tension they are feeling and their intense concentration on the crisis they face. What they don’t say is as important as what they do. I enjoyed writing those chapters after weeks of detailed research and thought about what it would have been like in that place at that time. I rolled it past someone with a similar background and experience to see if he felt it sounded authentic, and took his advice. I think it’s not bad: you’ll have to judge for yourself when the book appears in June. In the meantime I’ll keep working on dialogue, hoping to improve with practice and experience.




Aversion to formula, or mere perversity?

There’s a book I brought with me on this trip. A real book, not the virtual ones I loaded onto my ipad before I left to save the weight. This real book I want for reference, not for reading: I want to scribble on it, turn pages down, use a leaky highlighter, do all the damaging things we do with real books that makes us possess them and feel part of them. Trouble is I haven’t opened this book yet even though I’ve been away for nearly three weeks and have had plenty of opportunity. I could be reading this book now instead of sitting here writing about why I’m not doing so. Something about this book is putting me off.

The book is about writing crime fiction. I bought it because I want to try this genre and my academic upbringing says that you should do research before you start a new project. So I bought the book, to find out how to do it. What am I afraid of? Part of it is that I have an exaggerated aversion to doing as I’m told. If someone says that this is the way to do something I instantly want to do something else. Part of it also is that I read too much crime fiction and recognise the formulas, which I don’t want to replicate. I don’t want to create a middle-aged protagonist with a dysfunctional family and a destructive personality, even though these create fruitful dramas to spice up the narrative and give it ‘depth’. I don’t want to hide ‘clues’ for earnest readers to find, or to divert the same earnest readers from a final chapter revelation. I don’t want to wrap everything up neatly at the end, tied with a ribbon or a rope, a prison cell or a gun.

And there’s something else I want to avoid. I don’t want to write about graphic violence, and I would love to avoid any violence against women altogether. Oh, and did I say I would like my crime fiction to win prizes and sell big?

If I could stop wittering and read the book on writing crime fiction all these immature assumptions about the genre might be exposed as immature assumptions, and I would be so relieved and inspired that I would start plotting and planning immediately. Or not. Maybe, seriously, I should think first and then read how it’s supposed to be. Reading the book might be easier, but I think I need to let this ‘cognitive dissonance’ fester for a little longer. That’s what I think right now. By next week I may have changed my mind. That’s what comes of being perverse.

Highsmith: of course. I need to read Highsmith. Any other genre-busting suggestions?

Telling the story: pace or depth?

I’ve had the good fortune to learn from some wonderful writers in the past few years. It’s been pretty quick learning, mostly through a short presentation of conversation, but I’ve soaked in as much as I can. One of the interesting things has been hearing about other writers’ reading habits: some of them have said that once they start on a new book they have to stop reading, in case the style of what they’re reading seeps into what they write.

But I still keep reading every night whether or not I’ve got a writing project on the go. If I’m not actually writing I’m thinking about it, dreaming about it even, and the need to read is too strong to be resisted. Sometimes I choose something from a different genre completely: recently it was Hallett-Hughes’ wonderful biography of d’Annunzio, and now I’ve started on William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of the King’, a factual account – also beautifully written – of Britain’s early involvement in Afghanistan. At the same time – I usually have more than one book on the go at one time – I’m reading the first story in Peter May’s ‘Lewis Trilogy’ set in the Western Isles. I chose it for the setting, remembering the time I spent there a few years ago. And I wanted to see how he handled the issue of writing ‘linked’ stories that I talked about in this blog a few weeks ago.

The sense of place in the first of May’s stories ‘The Blackhouse’ is very strong, with long passages of description of the landscape and the weather that add a dark context to a gruesome event. After the gripping introduction the main character is introduced very slowly, with lengthy flashbacks. I’m now in Chapter Seven and beginning to hanker after a faster pace. Just at the point where our ‘hero’ is about to meet his childhood girlfriend  we circle round into another flashback and I want to flick forwards for some real-time action.

That’s why I’m asking myself the question: as readers do we want pace or depth? Of course, we want both, but the balance between the two is hard to find. I wonder how much influence an editor might have on the writer’s choice, or whether any of the descriptions or flashbacks are added on after the first draft, to flesh out the story or lay more foundations for what is to follow.

Much of the feedback I’ve had about the first two books in my trilogy – A Good Liar’ and ‘Forgiven’ – has mentioned that the stories rattle along, and people want to keep turning the pages. I take that to be a good thing, but should I be re-considering the balance, aiming for ‘slow story telling’ in the same way and for the same reason as we are urged to choose ‘slow food’? Do we need to relish what we read rather than devour it?

The book cover: telling and compelling

You may have gathered that since the ms. of my third novel in the trilogy went to the editor last month I’ve been thinking about the details of publication. This past week, driving around the flat wintry landscape Manitoba, Canada, I’ve been watching the colours of sky and snow and thinking about the cover image that will make my new book jump off the shelf or the page saying ‘Read me’ and, better still, ‘Buy me’. This is the image that will appear on my Amazon page and Twitter and everywhere else, and it has to be both telling and compelling.

One of the great things about self-publishing is that you get to make these decisions for yourself. Writing a book is such a personal endeavour: it’s always bothered me that someone else – or worse still a ‘committee’ – should decide what the finished book actually looks like. I don’t want to use images of people: the reader should be able to imagine what characters look like from the text, or from inside their own head. The cover of this new book set in such a wonderful location should reflect that place, and say something too about the events between the covers. In the case of ‘Fallout’ – yes, I finally decided to keep that title – the image could represent two central themes, the importance of the beach and its ever-changing light and tides, and the fire deep in the nuclear reactor burning red, orange and blue. Sunset over the beach could fulfill both of these hopes in one image, if we could find the right one and not have to pay too much for the copyright. If that sounds mercenary, it is. Self-publishing a real book, as well as an electronic one, is an expensive business, but it’s what I’ve chosen to do. I love books, the look and feel of them as well as their contents. Creating a book continues to be a real pleasure, and one that has to be paid for.

When ‘A Good Liar’ was published, the cover captured the key elements of what lay inside. There was a stunning image of Wastwater under a stormy sky, contrasting with a faded grey picture of rural schoolchildren, taken in the very year of the book’s setting. The cover of ‘Forgiven’ was a gorgeous photograph of a lush green Lakeland valley and a granite  wall, taken by my book designer John Aldridge, combined with a bright sky from a different location. This third cover, on the last book of a trilogy entitled ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’, will focus on the Irish Sea of the West Cumbrian coast. Somehow I hope we’ll find the image that delights me and anyone who chooses to read the words inside. Let’s hope the bookshops will find the space to display the cover rather than the spine. I can’t wait to see it.

Location – real or fictional?

The question of whether the location of a story should be real or fictional has bothered me ever since the first idea for my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ several years ago. I wanted to write about where I live, but I also knew my neighbours – many of whom had lived there for generations – were cagey about having their place and inferentially themselves, publicised in this way. So I fudged it. I created a fictional village called Newton at the heart of the story, but all the rest of the locations were real. Many local people who’ve read both ‘A Good Liar’ and ‘Forgiven’, the second of the trilogy, have asked about this decision. Some have asked for a map, which I resisted because of the fudge between fact and fiction.

On balance, I’m glad I didn’t name my village in the books and at least tried to protect its privacy. I’m also glad I checked beforehand with the current owners of a house where some of the action in ‘A Good Liar’ takes place – the Mill Cottage in Boot, Eskdale – to ensure that they were OK with seeing their home both in print and in illustration. They were, as the Mill attached to the cottage is now run as a tourist attraction and publicity is good for business. In the second book, ‘Forgiven’, I wrote about another very precise location, West Row in Kells, Whitehaven. You can check it on Google Maps and see as I did the wonderful view from the houses on that street, looking out over the Solway Firth to Scotland. If – or when? – the story is ever filmed, how would the current residents feel about the tour buses bumping down their cobbled street? I don’t seriously expect that to happen, but it’s an interesting speculation.

So when you’re writing fiction set in a particular area, as I do, deciding about real or fictional place names and details is an issue. In Part 3 of my trilogy set in West Cumberland in the last century I faced this question again, with the choice of Seascale as the main location, and the Windscale nuclear plant (as it was called then) close by. I didn’t ask the residents of Seascale if that was alright with them. Neither the place nor its people were presented in a negative way, and I don’t expect complaints when the book comes out later this year. The question of its title, by the way, remains unsettled, and you can see why if you read my previous blog post, ‘What’s in a Name?’.

With the as yet untitled Book 3 going into production I’m turning my mind to Book 4, and the possibility of switching genre from historical fiction to crime fiction, using as my protagonist one of the characters from the trilogy. If you’re read ‘Forgiven’ – and if not, why not? – you might want to speculate about who the lead character might be. The decision I’m facing now is where to set this new book. I want to stay in Cumbria with its rich history and glorious landscape, but should it be a fictional location or a real one? If it’s crime fiction, the dark side of the place will necessarily be revealed, with bad people doing bad things. If that’s in a recogniseable setting, and only a few decades ago, could that put me at odds with the community I have chosen to live in? If it does, should I care about that?

Fiction writers have always plundered their own lives for people and places and doings and sayings: some of them – D.H. Lawrence for example – knew they would cause upset and didn’t appear to care. But I do care. Does that make a wimp rather than a real writer?



What’s in a name?

Here’s the thing…..for several months I’ve been referring to my new novel by a title. It wasn’t a brilliant title – intriguing, clever, achingly memorable – but it was pertinent, had a useful double meaning and I was getting used to it. The novel is about a continuing family saga, and part of the action takes place in a nuclear plant where there’s a fire and radioactive contamination of the area. All the detail about the nuclear reactor fire is real by the way, and makes a very suspenseful story. My chosen title is – or was – ‘Fallout’. Get it?

So far so good. The manuscript is with the editor; the book designer and I have been discussing the new cover, which has not been started yet. BUT today I hear via Twitter that another novel with exactly the same title is due out on May 1st, and is already visible on Google. No nuclear connection in this one, but it’s a resonant name for a dysfunctional group or relationship, and I’m sure it fits this other novel perfectly well.

Now what do I do? There’s no copyright on titles, so I don’t have to change mine, but do I want my novel to come out with the same title in the same month? The title of my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ was only a prefix away from other book titles, but they had been published years before. This feels different.

I’ve been jotting down alternative titles all afternoon, realising as I do so ‘what’s in a name’. Now the editor and the book designer and I – and you too if you wish to join in – are playing around with the possibilities, with a fairly imminent deadline. If we have to change, I hope it doesn’t cause confusion among my potential readership, and we can come up with something so magical that more readers are inspired to pick it up, and then  also read the two previous books in the trilogy (‘A Good Liar’ and ‘Forgiven’) just to get the full flavour of my heroine Jessie Whelan’s courage, flaws and fierce protection of her independence. By the way, if you’re thinking of suggesting a title, Jessie does find love, even if she’s not sure what to do with it. When a decision is finally made, you’ll be the first to know.