Wednesday, April 24, 2013




Dialog is never written the way people speak. Mark Twain shook things up by inserting slang and bad grammar to add more of an accurate and realistic flavor, but even so, it wasn’t true to life. If you don’t believe me try a simple exercise. Go to a coffee shop and transcribe exactly what is said at the conversation at the next table. It will be something like:

“…I don’t know.”

“Well, you could say…ah…well. If you were to really think about it—”

“No seriously, I’m not going to—”

“Hold on, hold on! Just listen. Just yesterday I was—okay, wait—no—I mean—okay forget that...”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“No it’s not! He’s just—you know.”


“So what I was going to say is this…if you were to…ah…you know—what’s that thing?”

“What thing?”

“You know—that thing. That we always—never mind. It’s just that—well before I get into this, okay—hold on—there was—no before that—I was at Target and…oh wait—no. That was Thursday right? So…let me think…ah…okay…god I don’t know why I can’t remember that thing. It’s driving me crazy.”

“What thing?”

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I just—it’s stuck in my mind now, you know?”

“I hate that. Do it all the time.”

“I know! It will drive me crazy now. I’ll be thinking about it all day.”

“You know what will happen? You’ll think of it two hours from now and—”


“You know?”

“It’s so aggravating!”

“Wait—what were we talking about now?”

Imagine trying to write a novel using this sort of dialog. As you can see, in 149 words the point of the conversation never establishes itself, because in real life so much of conversation is false starts, broken sentences, short hand, repetitions, and interruptions. Some of it can be clarified with inner dialog, but then you’re putting more words on a page and less substance. Readers aren’t any more inclined to enjoy reading a hundred erroneous words than listeners are interested in hearing them.

Have you ever wanted to shake someone and say, “Just get to the point?” or “please, organize your thoughts and get back to me?” In essence that’s what writers often do, because authors are in just as much a hurry to get on with the story as the reader is.

Watch a talk show sometime. Notice how fluid the host tends to be. They don’t repeat words, pause for long periods to think, have too many false starts, or use phrases like: you know, ah, okay, um, well. The guest does. The guest, who most often is not a polished public speaker, stumbles constantly. So do people in the wild. People in their natural habitat aren’t prepped, aren’t conscious of trying to sound intelligent or even rational. In the rush to stay current with the stream of thought flowing in the mind, crap just pours out in high gear.

Writers, like professional speakers make an effort to clean up the language. Ninety percent of the “ahhs, you knows, ums, and just plain …s” are removed.  Also people tend to get to, and stay on topic—unlike in real life.

This is the first way in which dialog fails to mirror reality, and I for one would not advocate altering the trend. Realism is nice up to the point but becomes a liability where it begins to harm the work. The question is, where do you draw the line?

In an effort to tell a story, writers are prone to streamline too much. Not that I think they should introduce more “you knows” in dialog necessarily, but it’s just as bad to write just-the-facts Dragnet dialog (or for the younger generation Law & Order?):

“He asked me out on a date at ten forty-five last night.”

“Where were you?”

“We were at Arby’s.”

“What did you say?”

“I said yes.”
Okay, so don’t write dialog so accurate that it’s boring, and don’t stick to the script so tight that you lose all flavor or realism. That’s all fine and good, but I actually assume everyone knows all this already. The actual point of this post is that I think there is still something else missing—an element that makes dialog sound and feel more real and entertaining.

If you listen to people talk, or just pay attention to conversations you have, you might discover they are very different than what you read in books or hear on Law & Order. You might not even be able to figure out what’s missing. It never occurred to me either until I started thinking about comments made about my own writing.
Readers almost always comment on my character’s banter. I am praised for the clever back-and-forth witticisms—the jokes the characters throw at each other even in dire circumstances. Some have even asked how I do it. The truth is—I don’t do anything. I’m not writing banter. I’m just writing how people actually speak. I’m starting to wonder if the people I talk to are different from the norm. I hope not. I’d hate to think everyone else is locked into the dire and ultra-serious Law & Order dialog (where laughter has been outlawed), but that might explain all the commercials for anti-depressant drugs. 

Some people certainly are more witty than others, but even the slow and humorless make attempts at being funny, using bad puns, drawing silly analogies from books, throwing out an appropriate movie quote, (which is always followed with, “where’s that from?”) or taking advantage of a perfect set up for a too-funny-to-pass-up insult. This is the language of dialog. This is often what makes talking to people a desirable thing.  

It doesn’t matter if the conversation is casual or serious. Unfortunately I’ve spent a good deal of my youth in funeral parlors group-grieving for hours. Some of the funniest, most spontaneous jokes erupt in such an environment. This is one of the reasons why I think The Big Chill has some of the most believable dialog of any movie. Likewise, in moments of fear and dread, I and my friends, and sometimes complete strangers will make jokes. Sometimes—oftentimes, this is the best means of handling the stress.
But all too often I don’t see that depicted in movies or books. The writer is so intent on showing tension, and moving the plot that humor is ignored. This is especially true in regards to villains. Villains are evil, and the best way to display their wickedness is to eliminate the ability to be funny. Funny people are nice. And yet, one of my all-time favorite villains is the Mayor Richard Wilkins III from the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. More than any other villain, he felt real, and rounded, because he was pleasant and funny.  Something about a happy, funny antagonist makes them far more threatening than a more two-dimensional “evil bad guy.” There is the impression that the character possess a greater intelligence and self-confidence, and that’s scary. 
Still I get the sense that works that contain humor are considered “comedies” and classified as less serious, more frivolous. I find this strange since what makes a written story powerful is its reflections of real life, and so much of our lives are filled with humor. I’ve actually found “serious works” silly in their false depictions of reality for this very reason. Fantasy is often hampered by its need to be seen as serious, and one of the ways writers try to achieve this is by populating their stories with overly stern personalities living in harsh worlds. Still, I would imagine even the most poor, starving people make jokes about their situation. Laughing is sometimes the only thing a person can do that doesn’t make them cry.

So I really don’t write banter. I just write the way people speak. Then again, maybe I just know a lot of witty people.








Monday, April 15, 2013

When Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Large airy waiting room filled with inoffensive furniture and the talk of drugs as if the names on all those commercials were ballplayers and everyone in the room were diehard fans. It’s two weeks before Christmas. A five-foot listless tree sparkles near the entrance to the gapping Outpatient Surgery door. All the doors here are massive capable of swallowing gurneys and wheelchairs, but cut with the narrowest of windows—no more than four inches of wire reinforced Plexiglas. There’s an angel on top of the tree. No one complains about angels in a hospital waiting room.

Four years ago my wife went into surgery. Such things are about as much fun as that scene from The Deer Hunter where the POWs are forced to play Russian Roulette. I’d rather suffer back-to-back root canals where the dentist can’t quite numb the right nerves. My wife insisted on leaving the hospital the night after her surgery, because I looked so awful.

What’s this all about? Why am I bringing up a four year old story?

As a writer everyone struggles to one degree or other to “be honest” with their writing. Honesty in writing is a sort of spiritual goal, a term that might not make much sense at first. What does it mean to be honest in fiction? Granted, I think it’s an odd phrase. Fiction is a series of lies to begin with, a prevarication, an invention. How can it be honest?

The idea I think is derived from the concept that the more closely a depiction of a character or situation mirrors real life, the better it is. When most people drop a gallon of milk on the kitchen floor and it bursts open, they don’t say, “Oh, darn!” Maybe some do, but if the author is honest, a character facing this situation will usually exclaim something a bit more offensive.

This concept extends to deeper, more complex subjects. When trying to instill emotion into a scene, drawing on real life events and honestly portraying how those events made you feel—even if the feelings are embarrassing (especially if they are embarrassing)—can frequently result in a scene that resonates powerfully with strangers. People often share hidden secrets but don’t know it, and having the courage to admit things, even in fiction, makes an unexpected connection that can move readers.

Being honest is not contriving the story or characters, but creating real things—even if those things are invented. There is however such a thing as too much realism, which brings us back to the hospital waiting room.

It was December 2009, my wife had just been taken into surgery and I was left with an hour to wait. A very long hour—hard time, you might say. I had nothing to do but stare at the clock. I decided to do something else. As hard as it was, I pulled out my laptop and began writing. I knew that one day I would need to describe what it was like to sit in a hospital waiting room. I was wasting a perfect opportunity if I didn’t record everything I experienced. That’s what I told myself. The truth—if I wanted to be honest with myself—is that I hoped focusing my mind on words would distract me and make the time move faster.

I was terrified, a bit sick to my stomach, but I began pressing keys.

A widescreen television drones from its perch on the wall in the corner. No one is watching as CNN discusses the holiday shopping season as if it was the stock exchange, speculating on what the lack of buyers will mean to the nation’s faltering economy. The sound is low, but easily heard. It blends into the white noise of the ventilation system that blows with the constant rush of a highway or a passing jet. None of those waiting talk and the library silence is cut only by the brutal violence of the receptionist’s voice. She’s a large black woman and sounds like it. Her candid tone, so bright and forceful rings as callous as laughter at a funeral. She squats behind a shelf of standing pamphlets within a square window cut in the wall and wreathed in a border of white Christmas lights that displays the beauty and charm that only naked electrical wires can. There is a sparseness to the decoration that evokes dead trees and empty offices, a home left bare by the Grinch. A red bow dangles in the middle like mistletoe, a blood red noose hovering amidst the pallor of a monotone desert.

The people waiting sit curled up in seats. Arms folded, heads tilted, wrapped up in blankets of winter coats. Bags are stashed between their feet, guarded by sneakers or winter boots. Magazines and newspapers remain neat, untouched on coffee tables. Several have books that sit abandoned on laps as would-be readers stare with vacant expressions. One well-tanned woman carries a small beige poodle in her arms as she frequently checks the status board. Another large woman in red spotted glasses knits with pearl-white earbuds and a book entitled  “How To Knit,” open on her lap.

Neon light circles the reception desk and recessed lights punctuate the room, but the real light comes from the washed out morning sun that floods in from the bank of windows framing winter trees, the light made sterile the moment it breaches the glass. The air moves, a constant breeze flowing through the space, cool and fresh, but there is a scent underneath, that speaks of cafeteria food, and harsh cleaners.

Sitting in the room it feels like I am falling, the same sensation as the downward swing of a Ferris wheel, stomach buoyant and a tingling like excitement, only not. I’m conscious of breathing, sucking air rather than drawing it.

There’s a clock on the wall behind the receptionist. Round with big numbers and a red second hand, it looks like the same clock in every classroom I’d been in. I don’t know who manufactures these, but they always run slow. They took my wife to the OR an hour ago. OR is the term they use on all these emergency shows—the shows that she watched—and it sounds strange to hear it spoken by real people. It reminds me of her. Everything reminds me of her. After thirty years there’s no part of my life that is just mine anymore. We’ve fused together like two trees, grafted on each other—becoming one. I wait and the feeling is strange. Sitting without pain waiting to learn if half of me is dead. It feels like flooring a car through a fog with no idea if I will punch through to blue sky or halt on impact.

I haven’t eaten. I don’t drink. I don’t walk. I don’t remove my coat, watch the television, or read. I don’t even allow myself to think pleasant thoughts, thoughts of tomorrow or nice memories. Somehow, by denying myself everything of comfort, maybe that comfort will go to her. I envision that there is a finite pool of benefit and my denial will leave extra for her. It might just be that fine grain of sand that makes the difference. It is what I can do when I can’t do anything.

The surgery is minor—if such a thing is possible. Anesthetics alone have been known to kill. Too much of this, too little of that and a perfectly healthy patient never wakes up again. Then there’s the cutting. It isn’t heart surgery. She has a ruptured disc and they need to scrap the expressed fragments out to relieve pressure on the nerves. It sounds simple, something you might use a spatula for, only this is a hospital and nothing is ever simple or without risk.  I spent my youth watching people die in hospitals. Sitting here reminds me why I hate the smell of flowers. The scent of pine brings the rush of Christmas joy; the scent of flowers—indoor, cut flowers—is the smell of funerals. Both scents inexorably linked to the innocence of my youth where all things are giant, primitive, and inescapable. Hospitals are the uncomfortable waiting rooms for death, a medicine scented overture.

When I was a kid, I was forced. I sat alongside my mother monitoring the pain of fear like a spectator at a torture chamber. Now I’m alone, waiting, watching as the giant clock with the blood red second hand ticks wondering what it measures—the time I have left before I see my wife again, or the time I have remaining.

Days of Our Lives is playing on the television now. No one is watching.

Did you notice it?

The italic text is what I actually wrote while sitting in the hospital waiting room. My wife came through just fine and I immediately forgot about what I wrote. Three years later it turned out that a character of mine was sitting in a hospital waiting for his mother to come out of surgery, and I remembered the pages I wrote. I searched the file down and used it as reference for the scene.

Without knowing where I drew my facts and inspiration, my wife read it and scoffed.

“It’s not believable,” she said.

I was dumbfounded. How could she say that? Everything was drawn from real life!

“What’s not believable?”

She looked at me with an appalled, you’ve got to be kidding, smirk. “There’s no way anyone would have a dog in a hospital surgery waiting area.”

“But they did!”

I explained that I saw it. That this older woman walked around with this little dog in her arms. She couldn’t argue with that, but I realized it didn’t matter. She was right. No one would believe it. Even though it was true, readers would scoff just as she did, because sometimes the truth is just too crazy to believe, and when you’re writing fiction there’s a believability bar, a line that you can’t cross or it breaks the all important suspension-of-disbelief. Whether something is true or not doesn’t matter nearly so much as if people will accept events as plausible.

The dog in the waiting room was my red dress in the matrix. It pulled the reader out of the story.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and when it is, the best course of action might be to just accept that and go with what readers will believe. So if you want to include dragons, talking chairs, or flying pigs, you’re fine, just don’t put a dog in a hospital waiting room—because that’s just crazy. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Down to the Wire

As I write this, there are 61 hours left on the Torment: Tides of Numenera Kickstarter and they have raised $3,424,278...oh wait...$3,424, it's now...$3,424,787.  Well who knows how much it will be by the time I post this blog entry, but it'll be a lot.

Also as I write this there are 41 hours left to go on the Hollow World Kickstarter and I have raised $24,643. While I'm a backer of the first, I obviously am more interested in the later, and while it has only earned a tiny fraction of what Torment has, I'm very pleased with the result. In fact, to say that the project exceeded my expectations would be a huge understatement, and I want to thank everyone who has contributed to its success.

This has been a real eye-opening experience for me, and I hope other authors will start to use Kickstarter as well. So it was very interesting that when I looked at the "Popular this Week in Fiction" list I found these three titles:

Each one of which is being done by a traditionally published author. I'm so glad to see others taking advantage of this technology to connect directly with readers.

When you look at most of the projects on Kickstarter, games and movies are the big earners. In fact the highest earning Kickstarter for Fiction was only $75,457 (for an enhanced ebook application). As it stands right now Hollow World is:
  • #14 in most funded fiction projects 
  • #4 in most funded novels
We are just $357 away from the stretch goal which will provide backers with signed Riyria bookmarks, and one of my short stories.  If we earn $2,389 in the next two days then Hollow World will take the #1 spot for most funded novels.  It seems like a lot to do in 41 hours but considering $2,808 has come in the past three days it's not inconceivable.

The Kickstarter offers a variety of funding levels and you can choose your format (ebook, paperback, or limited edition hardcovers). For those that haven't been following the progress so far we've unlocked 10 stretch goals...10!  While the primary perk of being a backer is getting your copy early (six to seven months before the January 20, 2014 official release), there are some other perks for contributors. This is what we have so far:
  • A 24" x 36" poster for everyone who buys a printed book (ebook only orders can get the poster free in the US or if they pay for shipping for those who are overseas)
  • 3 signed Hollow World bookmarks
  • All those receiving a print book will get free DRM ebooks
  • All those receiving a hard cover book will get a bonus trade paperback and their DRM free ebook 
  • A bonus short story from me
  • Acknowledgements in the book for helping to make Hollow World Possible
  • Hollow World screen savers for computers, iphones, and ipads
Also there are raffles for bonus prizes.  The number of "tickets" in the raffle are based on the dollars contributed and while more prizes may be added if we hit more stretch goals this is what we have now:
  • An original watercolor painted by Marc Simonetti
  • 4 chances to appear in one of my books or short stories (I'll use either your name or create a character based off of you)
  • 6 chances to receive the ORIGINAL Crown Conspiracy (that I made even before it was published by AMI - where were only 300 of these printed and they've never been made available for sale)
So if you want to get in on Hollow World - act fast. Only those that pre-order will be able to get the book in June/July everyone else will have to wait until the official release on January 20,2014.

And for those who have already contributed....again my thanks for making this so I have to go back to proofing The Rose and the Thorn.