Listening for Echoes

The Martin Kids

The Martin Kids

When I get stuck with my writing – when I’m not sure how a scene plays out or what happens next – I walk the dog. And while I’m walking, I listen for echoes of my characters’ voices.

It feels like hunting for butterflies with a gossamer net. A scene, a visual, a story line, for me, nearly always starts with a fragment of dialogue.From the words, the tone, the attitude I hear, when the words appear in my mind, I can tell the mood and action of the character.

At the moment I’m finishing the first draft of my third Seren Kitty novel. I knew how the story was going to end (I do planning now, get me!) but sometimes that is more a burden than a blessing.

When I reach the climax my writing falls into, “And then Seren did this, then this happened, then this went wrong, then she fixed it like this…’ It’s all too fast and frantic.

So today I stopped, just as the rain stopped hammering on the plastic roof (My poor daughter has been on an outdoor school trip today through torrential rain. She’s going to be soaked!) I’ve come out to walk the dog (who isn’t happy because the vet has said she’s not allowed off-lead while her foot heals, after a bad sprain.)

Almost immediately after I left the house in sparkling afternoon sunshine and puddles, I could hear Seren’s voice. She was calling her mum from the phone she just borrowed from the baddies. She’s explaining what’s just happened. Her voice is clear in my head. She’s scared, but she’s come through a lot already and she’s a plucky girl. And, besides, the rain has stopped falling on her too (which is even more important when you’re sometimes a cat).

Seren has spoken and I have heard the echo. Now I need to go home and make it real. After I’ve taken a towel to the school pick up, that is.

Advice vs Example: How Best to Write Dialogue

The Tricky World of Children's Fiction

The Tricky World of Children’s Fiction

Ever since I started taking my writing craft seriously, I have read a lot of advice on how to write dialogue. Specifically on dialogue tags.

Whether I’m reading writing advice books, studying creative writing, or perusing blogs on what to do and what not to do, the advice is all the same.

1. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’.

People don’t see ‘said’. More importantly, don’t suffer from Dialogue Tag Thesaurus Syndrome.

E.g.

“Where are we?” Marina whispered.
“I don’t know,” Jacob answered.
“It looks like a cave,” Marina replied.
“It’s too dark to tell,” Jacob murmured.

This is good advice. There’s nothing worse than the obvious ‘trying too hard to avoid said‘ you see in some writing. Although I think there is a place for using some of these words sparingly to help add to the description and texture of the dialogue. Especially where word count is tight, like in children’s fiction.

2. Where possible, avoid using dialogue tags at all. Instead work in some action to help move the dialogue on and make it flow better.

E.g.

“It’s so beautiful.” Marina bent down and looked at the flower.
Jacob glared. “It’s girly.”
“No it’s not!” Marina gave him a furious look.
“Well, I think it is.” Jacob shrugged and turned away.

This is fine in moderation, but used too much I think it slows the dialogue down and makes it hard to read.

3. If you only have two characters speaking, you only need to identify them every few lines.

E.g.

“Come on, let’s go, Jacob.” Marina ran through the woods.
“Okay, I’m coming. Slow down!”
“Can’t catch me!”
Jacob heard Marina giggling and followed the sound. “Oh yes I can.”

I use this a lot in adult fiction, but I would use it sparingly when writing for young children. They read slowly and get lost and it’s easy to forget who is talking, unless it’s obvious from the voice of the character.

Plenty of examples of 'she beamed'

Plenty of examples of ignoring advice no.4

4. Don’t use dialogue tags that have nothing to do with talking. You cannot grin, laugh, giggle, sneer, sigh, groan, moan and talk at the same time. You can whisper, yell, shout, murmur, cry out, but only in moderation.

E.g.

“I bet you can’t climb that tree,” Jacob sneered.
“Oh yes I can,” Marina chuckled. “Watch me.”
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Jacob cautioned. “Girls can’t climb.”
“Don’t be silly,” Marina sighed. “You’ve seen me do it a hundred times.”

Now this is the advice I have the biggest problem with. I hear it everywhere, particularly in the writing course I’m doing at the moment. I’ve trained myself to always put the action separate. “Oh yes I can,” she said, grinning. or to use a full stop. “Oh yes I can.” She grinned at him. But since starting to write children’s fiction, I’ve discovered two things.

a) Using she said, grinning uses too many words. It makes the dialogue slow and static

b) No one else cares about this rule. Seriously. I’m reading a children’s book a day and every single one happily uses, She grinned, she giggled, she chuckled, she frowned. They even use, she hissed, when the dialogue doesn’t contain a sibilant word. (Advice says you can’t hiss ‘Granny’ because it doesn’t contain an s.)

So, here’s the rub. As a new writer, do I follow the writing advice or the examples? I have trained myself so well I actually cringe when reading ‘she sniggered’ as a dialogue tag, especially when reading out loud to my children. But they don’t care. To them it’s normal. It makes the writing flow, it adds texture, and – best of all – they understand it.

Anyone who thinks that writing for children is easy is wrong, wrong, wrong. 🙂

Have you come across this? Do you have a problem with ‘she grinned’? Do you always follow writing advice?

Carry your story with you

For me, one of the secrets of the writer/mummy is to always take your story with you in your head. If you carry your characters in your mind you can chat to them, shout at them, fire questions at them – their answers won’t always be predictable and the conversations can be very interesting.

Creative writing advice books will tell you that the more you know about your characters the better your writing will be. If you are the kind of person that makes lists or is very good at being thorough, there are various forms available online to work out all the details of your characters – star sign, favourite colour, place of birth. This is a particularly comprehensive one I have discovered (but am far too lazy to fill out for any of my characters!)

These character maps are useful, they enable you to be consistent and understand how your character might react to a given situation. However, if you’re honest, could you say what your best friend’s favourite colour is or where she was born? That doesn’t mean you don’t know her inside out, though, does it? You learn more about her real character from gossiping over a glass of wine or from watching how she copes in a crisis.

For me the same can be said of my characters. When I’m out and about I like to imagine what my characters would say to each other, how they would handle a range of situations. I fantasize about their futures in the same way I used to fantasize about my own whenever I got dumped (you know, those scenes where he comes back grovelling and begging for you to forgive him, but you spurn him with a toss of your sleek blonde hair.)

It can help if you think of plot and character development as a series of ‘What if?’ and ‘Why?’ questions. What if your female protagonist jacked in her job to take up sky-diving, what if your male lead got dumped at the altar? Why would she take up sky-diving – is it to conquer her fear of heights, because her ex said she was too scared to do anything dangerous, because her mum forbade her and she’s just pissed off at the world. Why did he get dumped? Was he a bastard, did she meet someone else? Has his fiancée found out she’s dying of cancer and doesn’t want to put him through the pain of losing her slowly?

When I’m in the throes of writing, particularly in the early days of a new book, my head is flooded with questions and potential answers. I often don’t know the answer that will appear in the book until I write, (and characters have a nasty habit of not doing what they’re told) but I have already played out all the various permutations in my head while in the supermarket queue, driving the car or lying awake in the night between bouts of teething tantrums.

Another important thing is to always have writing implements to hand – a crayon, a notepad, a mobile phone – to write down that dazzling piece of dialogue or dastardly plot twist. Once you start with the what ifs and whys it can lead you down the most meandering of mazes. It’s best to take notes as you go along, unless you’ve had enough sleep to have a particularly retentive memory.

My mobile phone is my most important writing tool, aside from my laptop. (As I write, my mobile phone is dead; I am utterly bereft and trying to fathom how to work my husband’s spare!) I like the phone because I always have it to hand; it is both pen and paper; it doesn’t get scribbled on by the kids (though often covered in yoghurt or chocolate) and – best of all – I can send my texts to my laptop, thus saving me the effort of writing it all twice.

My favourite time to write conversations between my characters is when I’m walking the dog, as I can text and walk at the same time (us mothers are good at multi-tasking, yes?) and for some reason I find the rhythm of walking sets a good pace for dynamic dialogue.

If you think you don’t have time to write, then think of all the times in the day when you can tap out a quick text message – waiting in the supermarket queue, sitting in the car with a sleeping child, lying in the dark waiting for them to go back to sleep. (I wrote some of this section at 6am, on my mobile phone, with a sickly child asleep on my chest.)

So, next time you’re tired of listening to the twentieth rendition of Miss Polly Had a Dolly in the car, pass your toddler a banana and, while she’s busy eating, have a think about the stickiest situation you can land your characters in. Then work out the most outlandish way you can rescue them again.

I would love to hear about your favourite ‘thinking’ times, or your craziest plot twists. What is your favourite way of taking notes?