Sunday, March 28, 2010

Real-life Dialog

Dialog is alleged to be hard to write.  I disagree.  I find it easy to write (what I've been told is) convincing dialog.  I studied-up before I started, and I know that helped me to write dialog that works.  In my search for tools to put in my dialog toolbox, I came across some useful items, and some (on the surface, at least) outrageously bad advice.

First the good:  I heartily recommend Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella.  Once you've got your dialog written and you're trying to tighten it up, go for Self Editing for Fiction Writers  by Browne and (not Stephen) King.  Browne and King cover a lot more than dialog, by the way.

Now the bad:  many people suggest that you write dialog that sounds exactly like real conversation.  That is so wrong.
"Hi," A said, "how you doing?"
"Fine.  You?" said B.
"Okay.  Um... I had a cold last week, you know."
"Oh yeah.  I heard."
"Better now."
"That's good."
"I hate having a cold."
"The flu is worse."
"Ain't that the truth."
"Uh huh."

The problem is that real conversation has too much filler, and entirely too much of the remainder is inconsequential.  Fictional dialog should be just like the rest of your fiction:  just like life, but without the boring bits.  [Alfred Hitchcock said the "boring bits" thing about drama.  Smart guy.]  If you take that into account and adjust your dialog just as you adjust everything else in your writing, you'll be okay after all.

Here is some transcribed real-life dialog.  Picture two teenage male video game players...
A: "No -- if you hit it smack in the corner you get x2."
B: (thumbs flying) "They call this section workout for a reason."
-- pause in speaking, thumbs still a blur --
B: "We're working on score so we can do survival?"
A: "Yeah."
B: (half to himself) "Grab many bunnies."
A: "Yeah.  Grab 'em and hold onto 'em."
B: "You can't get hit at all!  Oops."  (all thumb action stops)
A: "That was intense."
B: "That was crazy."

(picking up a bit later, during continued game play)
B: "So I just?"
A: "Yeah, put it in there."
B: "Oh.  Okay.  But the light's still..."
A: "It'll stop in a minute."
Or three engineers:
A: (to B) "I want to know if you think it's okay to send it."
B: "Well..."
A: "The writes or reads have problems --"
C: "But they don't use the same thing we do to get stuff in and out."
B: "No. That's right. So we can give it to them."
C: "There's still the, um, the [piece of software] has to be updated."
A: "That's in there."
B: "Good."
A: "What about the doc?"
C: (to B) "Is there a copy of that other than on your machine?"
B: "It's in the, um..."
A: "Transfer site?"
B: "Yeah, the transfer site. But I was making changes. Not done. Just got started."
The first thing to notice is that there's some filler here.  Not as much as in many conversation -- these are all fairly high-pressure situations.  You'd still want to strip these things down to their essentials.

The second thing is that people don't speak in complete sentences, and often don't get to finish their thoughts.  This can be distracting to the reader at times, but at other times it's essential to make the dialog seem real.  You probably don't want every conversation to be littered with unfinished thoughts, unanswered questions, etc, but when the characters are in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, a sprinkling of tangents and lost threads can be just what the doctor ordered.

Third is average and maximum sentence length.  The sentences are short.  Often single words.  Some of those would be replaced by beats, nodded heads, shrugged shoulders, making the spoken lines even shorter.  Even the long sentences aren't very long -- no one is "holding forth."  A good rule of thumb (I think it's in the Dialogue book) is that you shouldn't ever have someone string so many words together that they'd have to take a breath before they finished.  Unless your character is a long-winded sort of person, you should just keep things moving by keeping their dialog short and clipped.

Lastly, context is vital.  Real people in real conversations don't usually explain what they're talking about because everyone involved already knows.  Fictional dialog becomes stilted very quickly when explanations or observations are offered to participants in violation of conversational norms.  It's one of those "you'll know it when you see it" things.  If your characters have arrived at the conversation naturally, there'll be no need for explanation to suit either the characters or the reader.  Sometimes you can have characters engage in conversation with mismatched contexts (people talking at cross-purposes), but you have to make sure that the reader understands what each of the characters thinks they're talking about -- otherwise you're only confusing the reader.

Have you ever studied actual conversations for clues as to how people communicate?  What changes do you make so your dialog works on the page?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Literary Analysis and You

I was going to write about something else, but I got distracted by a call for help yesterday.  You can thank Leslee for today's topic.  Welcome, Leslee -- glad to have you aboard.

Literary analysis involves (among other things) the interpretation of a work of literature.  It's the sort of thing that's assigned in college (and advanced high school) English classes.  It can be daunting to the uninitiated; I know it was to me, back in the day.

There is an excellent little book about the sort of writing you'll do in these classes, and it has direct application to fiction writing.  For today's purposes, we can think of Sin Boldly! by David Williams as a handbook for how to excite your English teacher (your reader).

For your English paper as well as your fiction, you want to excite and entertain your reader.  You can do that by giving them something different.  What -- you don't think your teacher will appreciate being entertained by your writing?  Imagine being the teacher giving an assignment to interpret Moby Dick in 5 pages to 3 sections of 90 freshman students each.  You know you're almost guaranteed to receive 270 nearly identical totally boring papers.  And you have to read them anyway.  No fun at all.

Being entertained sounds better than the alternative.  It will affect your grade positively -- they're sure to notice your work among all that leaden sameness.

But entertaining your teacher/reader by presenting the unexpected is not enough.  In English papers like these, the key is to justify your argument.  You can say that Emily Dickinson was a devil worshiper, but you have to back it up.  Find elements of the work in question that (perhaps with a bit of imagination) support your interpretation.  The birds she writes about are singing to the devil -- that's why they do it in the dark, before the sun rises, and why they scatter before God's glorious light of dawn.

The same is true in fiction.  Your story can and should take twists and turns.  It shouldn't be predictable, and it shouldn't be the same old same-old as some other story.  But you need justification for everything your characters do.  The justification here comes in a different form than in the English paper; you won't be writing out arguments to support a character's actions.  Instead you must have laid the groundwork prior to the action, so that what the character does makes sense.  To take the quiet and reserved Emily Dickinson as a fictional character, she would not slit her neighbor's throat and feast on the heart, with a gleam in her eye.  It would be out of character.

Unless we'd earlier been clued-in that she was a devil worshiper.


Someday, maybe one of my novels will be analyzed by high school students.  What will they think it "means?"  Hopefully they won't all say the same thing.  I want someone to jump on the fact that the heroine always goes barefoot, and say it means that she's the only one with her feet on the ground.  And someone can say that all the rocky paths the characters walk over symbolizes the difficulties and obstacles they're encountering in their inner journeys.  That's all good.

Some of those students, though, will want "the one true answer":  what does it mean?  If they were to ask me, I'd tell them that it depends.  On them.  Every person brings their own baggage to the interpretation, their psychological makeup, their past, their upbringing, their fears and hopes.  They can't have mine.  I don't even know what my own baggage is.  So, I firmly believe that everyone's interpretation is as valid as the author's.  It may not match the author's interpretation, assuming the author has one, but it is valid all the same.  That's one of the wonderful things about a novel or a poem:  it's open to various interpretations, it's multidimensional.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Part 3: Arithmetic

The Statistics of Getting Published

13221 titles were published in the US in 1996 (the latest information I could find that broke out fiction from non-fiction).  That covers all of literature, which seems to cover re-issues, children's picture books, graphic novels, collections of poetry and short stories -- everything, in short, that's not non-fiction.  It seems as though it may count each edition of a given work separately.  It was hard enough to find data that broke the numbers down even this much.  I could not find what I really wanted:  how many new novels are published each year in the US.  

Let us call this (unfortunately) unknown number X.  What will it take for a writer's work to become one single part of that X?

I have a couple of anecdotal reports from separate literary agencies that give some consistent data to work with.  Consistency is encouraging, even if the data is not.

The first is from Agent Kristin at Pub Rants.  Kristin's agency has 2 agents and 25 clients.  Each agent gets 50-75 queries every day.  They request partials from just over 1% of the queries.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford gets about 50 queries per day (including weekends).  Again, just over 1% of queries get a request for a partial.

In round numbers, let's say each agent gets 50 queries per day, and requests partials from 1-2% of them.  I'd assume the number of partials that get a request for a full is fairly low -- say 10%.   I'd also assume the number of fulls that result in an offer of representation is about 25%.  These numbers work out to about 4.5 books per agent per year from new-to-them authors (they also have their existing clients providing them with manuscripts, but we're not considering them).

That says that on the high side we're looking at 1 out of every 4000 queries gets all the way to acceptance by an agent.  Seems high to me, but that's what the numbers say.

I'm ignoring the fact that not every book that gets agented gets published.  I think the percentage that gets left on the agent's desk is fairly small (less than 20% -- meaning 80% get to store shelves).  Let's be positive and pretend that doesn't change anything, and that if an agent accepts your manuscript it will get published.

Of course you can't just send your query out 4000 times and get a book deal.  This is not a random process.  The vast majority of queries are rejected because they're unprofessional nonsense.  Another part of them are not in the proper genre for the agent they're sent to.  You won't have those problems, right?  Your query's chances just went from 1:100 to, say, 1:2.  Not a bad payoff for doing your homework.

Next, we'll assume you learned how to write somewhere along the way.  Well.  And you can tell a story.  And it's not memoir (which can be a difficult sell).  So instead of 10% on your partial, you can expect more like 30% acceptance, and 50% for your full.  That gives you 1:4.  Some agent's info will be out-of-date, or they'll already have what they're looking for in your area, and you'll be rejected for reasons you couldn't find out beforehand.  Using a 30% "just because" rejection rate, gives about 1:26.  

An average of 26 queries to get yourself published.  Now that's not bad at all.  That's a lot better than the shotgun 1 in 4000.  Do your homework.

The Statistics of Travel Writing

We've all heard it said that writing can take you places:  flights of fancy, treks through the wasteland of abandoned plots, book tours, fame, fortune.  Aside from literary road-trips, though, it takes your fingers on a journey.  Lets see how far they might go.

I calculated the finger throw distance for each key on a conventional keyboard.  That's key travel (4mm for an average keyboard) for a key in the home position where your fingers rest on the keyboard, including the space bar.  Then I added the extra strokes needed to be off home position (like w or m), and here I assumed the required key was only one key away from a home position, which added another 20mm of travel by my measurement.  Of course this ignores the extra reach for punctuation up above the number keys:  in my manuscript, and probably yours too, these are pretty rare.  Capitalized characters require a separate 20+4mm depression of the shift key, but I didn't account for punctuation that requires the shift key.  Call me lazy if you wish.

Then I calculated the frequency of each character in my 96000 word fantasy manuscript, the round-trip distance the finger(s) moves in striking the key and returning to home position, and the total distance in mm that key required of my fingers over the course of the manuscript.

   key    freq  mm    travel
   ---    ----  --    ------
   '/'       4  48       192
   'Q'       9  96       864
   '('      29  48      1392
   ')'      29  48      1392
  '\t'      32  48      1536
   'K'      33  56      1848
   'U'      42  96      4032
   '!'      63  48      3024
   'P'      70  96      6720
   'V'      78  96      7488
   ':'      92  56      5152
   'E'     107  96     10272
   ';'     108   8       864
   'R'     130  96     12480
   'M'     151  96     14496
   'G'     160  96     15360
   '#'     163  48      7824
       (a single '#' marks my section breaks)
   'z'     195  48      9360
   'L'     196  56     10976
   'O'     247  96     23712
   'q'     249  48     11952
   'J'     261  56     14616
   'C'     270  96     25920
   'B'     331  96     31776
   'j'     391   8      3128
   'Y'     450  96     43200
   'x'     461  48     22128
   'F'     515  56     28840
   'A'     606  56     33936
   'D'     798  56     44688
   'N'     832  96     79872
   'H'     872  96     83712
   'S'     975  56     54600
   'W'    1108  96    106368
   '-'    1235  48     59280
   '?'    1298  48     62304
   'Z'    1463  96    140448
   'T'    1526  96    146496
   'I'    1686  96    161856
   'v'    3001  48    144048
   "'"    3181  48    152688
   'k'    4406   8     35248
  '\n'    4721  48    226608
    ('\n' is a newline)
   'p'    5572  48    267456
   'b'    6005  48    288240
   ','    6019  48    288912
   'c'    6645  48    318960
   'f'    7035   8     56280
   'm'    7064  48    339072
   'y'    7696  48    369408
   '"'    8154  48    391392
   'g'    8429  48    404592
   '.'    8542  48    410016
   'w'    9162  48    439776
   'u'   10486  48    503328
   'l'   13561   8    108488
   'd'   19042   8    152336
   'r'   20501  48    984048
   'i'   21609  48   1037232
   's'   22709   8    181672
   'n'   24140  48   1158720
   'h'   25119  48   1205712
   'a'   29857   8    238856
   'o'   31202  48   1497696
   't'   35941  48   1725168
   'e'   50591  48   2428368
   ' '   92836   8    742688

The total is 17.4km, or for the metrically impaired, 10.8 miles.  That's how far my fingertips moved in typing my manuscript.  It adds-up, doesn't it....

Of course, I didn't just type in my manuscript -- I made mistakes and retyped, backed up and retyped again, etc.  I think it's a conservative estimate that the real number is 3 times the straight-through calculation; say 32 miles.

But it gets worse.

I use a special keyboard (the Datahand) because I have arthritis in my hands.  It is a low-force / low-motion keyboard, and I thought when I did the above calculations that I'd have saved some distance.  Not so.  Instead of the 4mm home-row travel, this keyboard has a consistent 7mm travel for every key, with an extra 7mm for shifts.  Essentially every key is a home-row key, but it's got a travel nearly twice a conventional keyboard.   For this keyboard I get 24.2km, or 15 miles, which gives a total 3x travel of 45 miles.

Writing will take you places, even if it's only 4mm at a time.  So remember to be kind to your fingers.

One more thing -- this, the third part of a series posts, the one on Arithmetic, falls on pi-day (3-14).  I didn't plan it that way.  I'm not that much of a geek.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Part 2: Writing

Consider yourself warned: you may find today's entry to be a bit scatter-brained.  A big deadline for my day-job is tomorrow, and last night at 10:45 I finished the work (I think).  Today is my first day off in three weeks.  We now resume our regularly scheduled program....

I took a creative writing class in college. Maybe you did too.  Mine didn't go well.  While I can't say that I felt certain I could write anything worthwhile when I signed-up for the course, I can say that I knew at the end of the semester.  I couldn't write creatively.

The class was a disaster -- a mismatch.  Perhaps the class was poorly taught.  Perhaps I was a poor student. 

What a lesson to learn.  It soured me on the very idea of creative writing.  My own creative writing, that is.  I told myself that writing was not for me, and I didn't look back.

Until a few years ago.

At the time of my disappointment, I fortunately didn't see creative writing in my future.  I say fortunately because if I'd been betting my future on it all my hopes would have been dashed.  That's never any fun.  As it was, the disappointment didn't sting much, and it served to reinforce my decision to pursue a career as an engineer (not that I needed any reinforcement).  What a waste -- of decades.

Except that it wasn't a waste.  My career in technology has been (at times wearing but) fun, challenging and rewarding.  More importantly I wasn't ready to write until just a few years ago.  Maybe I could have written earlier; I don't know.  I feel it was only recently that circumstances combined to allow me to write.  More to the point, it was only recently that I got the urge to write.

Speaking of an urge to write, there were some very... uh... dedicated writers out there in the 1800s.  There still are, I'm sure -- just not the same ones.

Anthony Trollope (if you don't know him, he was a contemporary of Dickens, prolific writer, and inventor of the mailbox) wrote every day.  Before breakfast.  For 3 hours.  1000 words an hour.  And then he went to his day job at the post office.  He didn't believe in rewriting.  He didn't have a computer.  Or a typewriter.  If he finished a book an hour into his morning, he began the next.  Right then, before breakfast.  When asked about it, he pointed out that a shoemaker doesn't finish a pair or shoes and then take a month off -- neither should an author.  Oh how self-indulgent we've become.

We talk about Plotters and Pantsers, but Dickens and many others were Serialists.  Dickens in particular wrote much of his work for weekly publication.  He didn't generally write ahead, and often came hard-up against his deadlines (Trollope published serially, but never till the entire work written).  In fact Dickens listened to reader feedback and then steered the later parts of his stories based on popular demand.  Witness The Pickwick Papers, which starts out with one main character and plot, and then veers off into a (much better) adventure with a till-then minor character.  That's Pantsing using someone else's pants -- everyone else's.  You can forget about your characters telling you what to do when you have people stopping you on the street to tell you how they think things should turn out for their favorite character!

Balzac was the classic manic writer, consistently putting in 14 and 18 hours of writing each day, living on caffeine and cigarettes, producing something like 350 works before his death at 51 in what I can only imagine was a caffeine-triggered case of spontaneous combustion.  He is said to have drunk 50,000 cups of coffee in his lifetime.  Sounds bad, though that's only 5 cups a day for his 30 writing years.  But I digress.

Dedication helps.  I need to get me some of that.  Make sure you get yours too.