Meredith Efken is the owner of the Fiction Fix-It Shop, exclusively serving writers of adult and YA fiction. A multi-published novelist as well as freelance editor and writing coach, she is passionate about great stories and about empowering other writers to reach their full potential. Actively pursuing that desire, she started Fiction Fix-It Shop in 2006 where she has helped many fiction writers achieve their personal and professional goals. Her clients include award-winning Christian fiction authors such as Deborah Raney and Randall Ingermanson. She is also a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers as well as Word Sowers Christian Writers – a local group she has cofounded. Meredith currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband, Jason and 2 lively daughters.
The Trusty Stand-In
I am sure she will see the futility of this offering...
Meredith stares at me in my kitchen. If she were a cartoon character, she’d have spirals churning in her eyes.
“I need to write my column. It was due at the beginning of the month.”
I pop a chunk of havarti in my mouth. “It’s only three weeks late. You’re good.” I’ve become cavalier about deadlines of late, namely because I’m not on any—a fact that makes me want to jump up and down and shout, “Neener neener!” at the world.
“Lucky Baby’s due in January.”
“Oh.” As a friend, I remain empathetic if emancipated. In truth, I forgot how soon her manuscript is due. I wince. Meredith nods. She has that haunted look.
I look around, scratch my head of dirty hair. “Well, uh—” Normally I would warn myself. Kick myself before saying what I’m about to say. I have learned from experience, from so-called maturity, what my limits are—the abject lesson of which is to never volunteer for anything.
But this is my friend who midwifed Havah through long nights of panic when all I could do was mumble incoherent patheticisms interspersed with shallow, exhausted pants on the receiver at midnight.
“I could help. I mean, maybe I could write it for you. Like a guest spot or something.” I am sure she will see the futility of this offering—after all, I am not an editor. I am a writer who dreads the process as much as she loves it, and has typed egregious sentences no human should ever have to read—my best credential, I suppose, for knowing what not to do in some of these matters.
The spirals go away. Meredith clasps my hand. “Oh, you are wonderful!” Color is in her cheeks again. I give her a weak grin and feed her some cheese.
So here I am, not the Fiction Fix-It Lady at all but her trusty stand-in. And today we’re talking about talking.
Dialogue, that is.
Entire books are devoted to writing dialogue (check out Write Great Fiction: Dialogue by Gloria Kempton and the chapter on dialogue in James Scott Bell’s Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing—both by Writer’s Digest), with great examples of stellar dialogue and dialogue-not-to-dos.
As for me, my short, down, dirty, and sometimes contradictory laws are as follows:
1. Write like people really talk.
Slang. Conjunctions. A few uhms and wells. This is how people talk, assuming they are not robots, aliens, or mad professors unable to exist in society. People in general do not speak
perfect English, use twenty-five-cent words, spout perfect flows of prose, or even speak in complete sentences. Your dialogue should approximate real speech. That said...
2. Dialogue isn’t real speech.
It’s true. We stutter. We uhm and uh a lot. I recently taught a seminar to a group of new college grads, and I swear one gal used the word like no less than six times in a single statement.
“So, like, it’s kind of like, when we, like, used to go to, like, the beach, and we would, like, all get together to, like, hang out . . .”
This is true-to-life speech, but trust me, you do not, like, want to read this. One or two instances is enough to give the general idea. The human brain does a very good job of filling in the blanks on its own.
In that same spirit . . .
3. Give us dialect we can read.
If your characters speak with accents, drawls, brogue, broken language, or other dialect worthy of subtitles, give it to us in prose we can still read. The trick is to convey the rhythm and flavor of the character’s speech without slowing down the eye so much that we’re deciphering as we go.
At the very beginning of Meredith Efken’s SAHM I Am, Veronica says:
“Hey, Honey Sis! Just little ol’ me, letting all y’all know we’re home from Italy.”
Just a couple written clues, that’s all it takes. Y’hear?
Join me next month, as Meredith races toward her deadline, for Part 2 of the Down and Dirty of Dialogue.
Tosca Lee is the author of Havah: The Story of Eve (NavPress 2008) and the 2008 Christy finalist and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year silver award winner, Demon: A Memoir. When she isn’t on deadline, she does indeed shout, “Neener neener!” much to the chagrin of writing friends who will no doubt get her later.