CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

When I worked for At Second Glance Books in Kamloops I would occasionally receive a complimentary copy of a book from an up and coming local or regional author. The purpose was simply for me to read it so I could speak with some knowledge of the product if anyone asked. Fortunately with some titles nobody asked.

Last week while organizing my library I stumbled on a few of these self-published works. After shelving the other books into a somewhat systematized array I sat in my chair and did some selective reading and, of the three I scanned, I quickly discovered something they all had in common. The characters all spoke in much the same ‘voice’. The same patterns, rhythms, and sentence structure was used regardless of which character was involved in the dialogue. As much as I respect and congratulate people who self-publish we all have to be held to a certain standard and something this simple is actually easy to correct.

I’ve learned to distinguish voice patterns by eaves-dropping in public. If you listen carefully you’ll soon pick out the little oddities that make some people unique. Shorter sentences, a proliferation of ‘ums’, variance in pitch and pattern, a bit of a stutter…it’s all subtle yet obvious when you listen.

I picked up a copy of White Wolf Moon and did the same selective reading and breathed a sigh of relief. Mostly I had managed to create individual voices for my characters but there were a few areas that I could see readers having trouble following the dialogue especially with some of the longer conversations between Evan and Danny. The real life voices of these two men are surprisingly similar but there are subtleties that I didn’t manage to get across throughout the book. Without regular name tags I could see confusion.

The wonderful thing about publishing a first book is what you learn from it. Not just the whole publishing process but the mistakes you made in creating the book, the actual writing. Overall I’m pleased with the way White Wolf Moon turned out but there are some things I’m not anxious to repeat in the second book.

When I discovered the confusion in voice I started (once again) from the beginning of the new book and within three pages found areas where the dialogue needed clarification. As the writer you know what it’s supposed to say but the reader doesn’t know where the conversation is going until they get there. It’s important to make the journey as easy and stress-free as possible so I’ve made some minor clean-up changes.

I have some unique characters this time around. They speak in a specific dialect using colloquialisms and bad grammar. Those are easy to depict but the subtle differences between Danny and Evan need more work to convey. Mostly I believe it’s in the rhythm and sentence length. Evan is a bit of a thinker and his words are generally more deliberate while Danny talks off the top of his head in shorter, choppier sentences. As I said the differences are subtle but they have to be made obvious in order for the reader to hear which character is speaking. Yes I still need character name tags but I don’t want them every seventh or eighth line unless there’s an action involved.

Now comes the part where I digress.

As most of you know I am pro-wolf. I used to visit the anti-wolf pages just to get a laugh, mostly at the impressive lack of grasp of the English language that many of these folks possess. For a year or so I copied some of the more idiotic comments into a file simply called “Stupid Comments”. It is interesting to read these comments as a single unit. They reveal a mentality and attitude that borders on total “nutso” and I would think they could provide an in-depth study into some rather twisted psychological traits if analyzed but I’ll leave that for someone who’s interested in such things.

When I was creating a backwoods, less-than-educated character for the new book I wanted to use some of these comments as they are genuine and grass roots. Two things happened as I was reviewing these little treasures. One…I gave my character Fergus a couple of these lines and it sounded like a Saturday Night Live satirical skit. The words and dialect were actually too unbelievable for a fictional character. My people have to be real and poor ol’ Fergus…wasn’t. The second thing that happened was that I quickly realized the similarity in many of the comments especially the aforementioned speech patterns and rhythms. After grouping these comments I noticed that, even with different names, some are virtually identical. The same words were misspelled, the same lack of punctuation, and the same catch phrases. Some comments were completely identical even down to the placement of the same text shortcuts (lmao, lol etc.). There is no question that at least four of these “individuals” is the same person and is also an administrator on two different pages. One other individual is behind at least three pseudonyms and even has some interesting conversations with himself. Of course there are many other people on these pages who proudly display their shortcomings when it comes to communication skills. That’s pretty sad…especially when you read a comment like: “Its always a good hunting season just as long as your in the hills right, and my bad i didnt mean that bad really i giess i thought you did but now i know ypu wernt sorry.”. The sad (and shocking) part? If you click on his name it takes you to this man’s fb page where you discover that he is a professor at Idaho State University.

I’m not sure what to draw from this experience. These people can’t write and, judging by many of the comments, aren’t all that interested in reading either. Has this computer generation just become lazy or is the education system failing big time? I admit that this is a small segment of the population but it still amazes me that there’s even a segment that managed to fall through the cracks this badly. There’s probably a bigger social issue at play here but again I’ll leave that to someone who enjoys exploring that sort of thing.

I don’t frequent anti-wolf pages any more, it’s far too depressing. When I read the dialogue between Fergus and Evan I feel good. Fergus is fictional but real to me. When I gave him dialogue written by real people that I assumed would be of a similar character he became unreal, a caricature. Perhaps it’s like the old saying “Truth is stranger than fiction” and in this case I think I’ll stick with fiction.

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