It’s that time again.
The Dialogue Demon has reappeared and everything has gone to pot. I am stuttering, sputtering and when my writing comes out on the page it looks like a couple of store mannequins having a stunted conversation which has about as much depth as a puddle of piss left by a miniature Chihuahua as opposed to the effect that I am trying to achieve (see below).
What my dialogue should look like as opposed to the chihuahua puddle it is…
Writing dialogue frightens the hell out of me.
I have nightmares about it, I really do. I feel a sweaty-palmed nervousness when I reach the point where I have to write a conversation between characters and quotation marks (QMs) are my nemesis. My brain freezes when I look at them on the keyboard and what ensues is a lifeless, soulless “noise” of a conversation. My characters talk, but they don’t say anything. They drone on, and my fingers fail at breathing life into the lifeless – there is no mirth in their laughter, no wit in their senseless words, no emotion in their banter.
Here’s how my nightmares started: I began rewriting my book last week. “Why you idiot I hear some of you ask, was it crap, was it, was it?” says the little devil’s voice in my head. Yes and no is the answer. I finished it in April and left it for the requisite three months (that’s what they all say right?) which turned into six months as I thought I would let it mature; who was I kidding? When I revisited it, hoping to read a masterpiece, I found what a famous writer once said about first drafts: “it looked like notes to myself.”
Ninety thousand words and several hundred pages later and all I have is a pile of notes; amateur, often childish, with flashes, albeit few and very far between, of brilliance. So I began again, right from the beginning. I plotted in more detail, I précised every chapter from beginning to end. I rearranged things, made more detailed character outlines and even downloaded a trial version of Scrivener (if anybody uses it, please tell me if I should bother with the learning curve or just stick to my cork board and Moleskine). This time it is looking a lot better, I have to say. More experimental, less funny, more dark humour – an altogether more mature version of my first “book”.
Oliver Gray, whose Blog, Literature and Libation is one of my favourites, wrote in this blog post something along these lines: that we need to practice our craft for ten thousand hours and write five million words before we get good, or at least mildly good, at what we do. Practice makes perfect my granny used to say and how right she was. Oliver, you and granny are right as rain – geniuses, but I digress.
Cover of Wolf Hall
So, I have reached the first meaningful conversation in my book and in doing so have no nails left to bite. I tried the Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall (Booker Prize Winner 2009 and rightly so!) kind of dialogue and I loved it. This is an example of how she writes some of her dialogue:
Yes, he says, vigorously nodding, making his nose drop gouts of blood: yes, he indicates himself, as if to say, Walter was here. Kat calls for a basin, for water, for water in a basin, for a cloth, for the devil to rise up, right now, and take away Walter his servant.
This is great dialogue, in my opinion, and what makes it greater for me is that the dreaded quotation marks are non-existent. Okay, I know that sounds trite and lazy of me to choose it just because of the lack of QMs – but it is exactly that which makes it all the more flowing. Though that’s not all – I love the movement of the conversation, I love the amalgamation of the spoken and the thought, as if the writer is saying that there needs to be thought to explain words. Now don’t all of you go thinking that I am stating the obvious, which I am, think about what I mean: how many times do we think it and then translate that into words but the words sometimes fail the thoughts, the sentiments?
And so we go back to the wisest Granny in the world – “Think before you speak.” I am sure we have all heard grannies and other wiser, older people say something similar to us in our lives but how many times have we actually heeded their advice? I know I forgot it as soon as she said it and it lay forgotten for many, many years, even a decade or so, and then resurfaced when I had made a complete cock-up of something and suddenly the light bulb that was partially screwed in by said Granny got fully screwed in and I started thinking.
So, with this in mind, I have started recording my conversations, writing them down, as best I can remember them as that is another piece of advice I gleaned from a writer friend. How do I talk, how do others talk, what do we say to each other? It was a complete disaster; I mean a disaster of Keystone Cop-ish proportions. We all talk weirdly, well at least I do, and my friends are not much better. Take a conversation I had the other day with a friend, sitting in a café, shooting the breeze (note the lack of QMs and the change of name to protect etc.):
Bob: You have to read this mate…
Me: God please don’t tell me you are going to make me read some horseshit, conspiracy theory bollocks again.
Bob: No you idiot! This, Amin Maalouf’s Leo the African.
Me: Who the fuck is Leo the African a big cat in the zoo?
Bob: God, you are a twat. You don’t know who Amin Maalouf is?
Me: Oh! No. Should I?
Bob: He only went and won the Prix de Goncourt.
Me: Isn’t that the French literary prize?
Bob: Hallelujah, there is a light on inside.
Me: Light? There is a fucking solar flare going on in here mate.
Bob: Someone’s full of themselves today. Got laid?
Me: Yup, you should try it.
Bob: Fuck off!
Me: Give me the book…idiot.
Bob: It’s bloody great! Makes me want to go and visit the Alhambra again. Have you been there?
Me: Yeah, Dad took me there when I was a child.
Bob: Fancy another beer?
Me: Does a bear shit in the woods?
And it went on like this for three hours! Mad right; Completely crazy, yes? I agree. Do other people talk like this or is it just me and Bob? Anyway, that’s how I talk to Bob and how he talks back. How the hell am I going to translate that into talking like real people? I mean we are real people. How am I going to have a proper conversation with proper quotation marks when I can’t do it in my own life. Now, I bet you think I am jesting so I will delve deeper into the “recorded conversation” part of the old grey cells and subject you to another conversation while on the tram heading home after a dinner party and you won’t believe your eyes:
Me: So, how are you really Madeleine ?
Madeleine: I am well darling, how are you?
Me: Oh, you know, not bad, writing and getting stuck with things again.
Madeleine: I thought you had finished your book?
Me: Well I have…
Madeleine: Then what do you mean?
Me: Its crap.
Madeleine: Why, didn’t the editor read it – what did he say?
Me: She. She said its crap.
Madeleine: Oh my poor darling…
Me: It’s okay, I just wasted six months of my life writing crap, shit happens, a lot of it – shit I mean.
Madeleine: What’s wrong with it?
Me: Well, she said I write crap. The story is good but she said she fell asleep reading it.
Madeleine: This is my stop; shall we go to my place?
See what I mean? It just doesn’t happen in my life. Maybe I am destined to have shallow conversations, or maybe they just get deeper with alcohol. BY the way, have you tried that? By that I mean remembering how deep and meaningful the last conversation you had when you were drunk. At least that’s what one remembers the next day. In reality, those are just the weirdest:
Bob: My friend… you are the bessht friend in the world and I mean that from the bottom of my fart.
Me: Yesshh, thanks Bob. I love you mate.
Bob: You know… we should write a book togesher.
Me: As long as you type it. What are we going to write about? I think it should be a romantic love story based in the future, like Wesshtworld with Yul Brynner.
Bob: Yessssss, Like Jesse James and Yoda will be the Massshter teaching all the gunslingers.
Me: Bob, we need to plot this out.
Bob: Here mate, use this tissue.
A nose is blown on the tissue
Bob: You idiot, I gave that to you to write the blimmin plot on!
Bob: The book?
Me: What book?
Bob: Jesse James and Yoda and Yul Brynner…
Westworld starring Yul Brynner
And you can see how that all continues. Writing dialogue just doesn’t get any easier for me… time for a drink.