Sunday, August 23, 2009

Could it really not be all about me?

by Mike Knowles

I’m a teacher so I have a good deal going in terms of my vacation time. I spend every break from work getting in as many hours of writing as I can. It is a delicate balance managing work with the neglect of my spouse. With all of this time on my hands, I was surprised to find that I had a lot of trouble choosing a blog topic this week. All of the trouble came from what I have been working on lately.

I have been writing something new, a stand alone, for most of the summer. I feel like the longer amounts of time spent writing everyday help me get better at my craft, but there are areas that I focus on even when I am not writing. Something I work on everyday is dialogue. Since getting published I listen closer to everyone talking, I watch more reality cop shows, I analyze text that feels authentic. Basically, I’m learning any way I can.

I think my dialogue writing is getting better, but it is breeding problems. The book I’m writing now centers around a real SOB. With each bad thing that comes out of his mouth, and there are some doozies, I feel a little stab in the back of my mind. Is it too much? Have I gone too far? I burn calories worrying that dialogue that I write will not come off as authentic. What if the way I perceive dialogue, and the way I reproduce it in my writing is not in synch with the way the audience will receive it? I don’t want to be a middle class white kid who comes off as ignorant, sexist, or racist.

I think the conundrum of dialogue lies in the skill of the writer. If the writing is good, the characters are well defined and believable. People will love the dialogue for the realism it brings. Ken Bruen and Jason Starr are great at this in the books they wrote for Hard Case Crime. The books shift from characters of different sexes, races, and cultures seamlessly. Everything each character says, even the profane things, feels natural. Conversely, if the writing is garbage the characters dialogue can, at times, come across more as the author’s feelings instead of the characters. Think of Kevin Smith’s Dogma, the dialogue in that movie came off more as one man’s beef with Religion than a movie about two fallen angels trying to get back into heaven.

I thought about dialogue all week and I came to a conclusion. In the end, you have to remember that it’s not about you. You aren’t in the book. You need to take yourself out of the story and let the characters say whatever they want. They would never censor themselves because that is not natural to any characters existence. Worrying about how your dialogue will sound to a third party only makes you hold back, and holding back is the start of taking the story out of your hands and making it someone else’s book.

So I took the gloves off this week and let the characters go. If down the road you hate the book, it wasn't my fault the characters did it.


John McFetridge said...

Yeah, my favourite books are the ones in which the characters tell the story to each other with no narrator.

But I wonder, why does everyone who starts a series - and gets good response to it - want to write a stand-alone?

Mike Knowles said...

The thing about writing a series, I think, is it can be at times constraining. Some ideas I have won't fit in with the characters in the series. I used to hate it when someone would deviate from the series like when Robert Crais did it for hostage, but now I sort of get it. There are stories you want to tell that just won't work with the characters you have built.

The stand alone is not a departure from the series either. I have the third book in the series already done. One stand alone is in my capable agents hands and the one I am working on will wind up there eventually. In October, I will start the fourth in the series and cross my fingers that the publisher wants to continue the ride.

John McFetridge said...

Sounds good, Mike. Good luck. Now we have two books from you to look forward to.

Steve Weddle said...

What cracks me up is when you have a dozen characters in a book and readers pick one character and assign all of your beliefs and loves to that character.