Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Why I Don't Write Fiction...

...for now, anyway. There's one and only one reason: I am the most critical reader of fiction on the planet. I can find the flaws in novels in my sleep. And the one flaw that will kill an otherwise decent novel for me is unnatural dialogue. Here are some examples of the most egregious problems in dialogue:
  • Characters constantly using each others' names. This is especially irksome when the characters are married to each other. You know what I mean: "Jake, did you remember to pick up milk on the way home?" "No, Cindy, I was too busy wondering how long it would take you to use my name in a sentence once I got home." I mean, really. Who else would she be asking that question of?

  • Saying things that the other character already knows. Lazy writers use this device to provide backstory details: "Well, sis, you know I haven't been myself since I lost that lucrative accounting job back in the spring when I lived in Seattle." Methinks that "sis" — does anyone still talk like that? did anyone ever talk like that? — knew the job in Seattle was lucrative and that "bro" lost it in the spring. "It" being the job, his normal self, and his ability to speak like a human being.

  • Speech that is more formal than conversational, particularly when the scene cries out for informal dialogue. I wish I could post a real-live example from a book I just read, but that would be grossly unfair to the relatively unknown author. (Had it appeared in a book by a mega-selling author, I'd have no qualms about it; a bestselling writer should know better.) So here's my made-up example: "I've never told anyone this before. When I was just an innocent child, a beloved uncle crept into my room one night and stole my innocence from me. I could never think of him the same way again. He went from being my favorite relative to my most despised relative." I kid you not; I recently read a contemporary book in which the dialogue in what should have been a gripping scene was just this stilted. Give me a break! This young woman was revealing a secret she had harbored her entire life, and she's going to start talking like, I don't know, a prim and proper Victorian upper-cruster? I think not.

Fiction writers need to be real with their dialogue, and the best writers are those who have a finely tuned ear for dialogue. The others? It's as if they never stop and really listen to what they've just written, never stop to imagine what a person would actually say in a given situation or how the person would say it.

So that's reason number one why I've never written a novel: I'd be so critical of my own dialogue that I'd never finish writing the book.

What are your pet peeves about novels? I don't mean the obvious things, like truly lousy writing and a truly flimsy plot. What are the deal-breakers for you — those flaws that make you want to put down an otherwise good book and never finish it?

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