Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mama Said Don't Stare

Mama always warned me not to stare at people, but I've gone and become a writer. Here I sit, sipping my Komodo Dragon at Starbuck's while giving every customer the thrice-over.

Who does that woman hope to impress? Why does that man attempt to hide his large bald pate with those wispy long locks? What causes the look of despair in the eyes of that pale girl with the purple hair? Is that young man as arrogant as he seems to be, or has he just had a bad day? Why is that old gal so impatient that she feels justified in belittling the barista?

It's not so much that I stare at people as that I stare at books. I see each person as a potential protagonist or antagonist in a novel. Each one is a round character, an aggregate of comedy, tragedy, romance, melodrama, and mystery. Lacking the facts--I can hardly interview each one--I draw my own conclusions, snatching clues from their dress, stance, expression, and voice.

As I try not to stare outright, I've had to devise ways of doing so without being detected. Even Mama would approve of my latest method. I am seated in the middle chair at a three-person table. Though my back is toward at least half of the coffee shop, I face a glass display case that reflects everything behind me. VoilĂ !

Postscript: Mama also said that it is impolite to eavesdrop. Don't you just love cell phones?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Let Balance Rule," She Said

I enjoyed reading the comments of my fellow American Christian Fiction Writers recently regarding the usage of attribution tags. It seems that the fashion of the day disdains the word said. We should use action beats to introduce a line of dialog:

He scratched the stubble on his chin. "That dog ain't a-gonna hunt, Cloyd."

Last year, we might have written:

"That dog ain't a-gonna hunt, Cloyd," he said.

Action beats have obvious advantages. They help to develop the character or scene. In the example above, we know that the speaker doesn't shave regularly (or has been in a situation where shaving was not a priority). Scratching at his chin may be an idiosyncrasy. Action beats also let the reader know who is speaking while eliminating the need for a tag. I use them whenever possible, if they fulfill their intended purpose.

Conversely, if the action beat seems stilted and artificial, interrupting the flow and rhythm of the work, it becomes little more than verbal baggage and should be checked. I'm in the process of revising and editing a middle-grade manuscript. As I snip, clip, and trim away at it to get it down to around 36,000 to 37,000 words, I find myself weighing every phrase and clause. Exchanging a said for an action beat adds words. If I decide that the beat is worth it, then I try to trim somewhere else.

Of course, if only two people are speaking, the writer can move through a few lines of dialog without either a beat or a tag.

While I am not yet a published novelist, a couple editors have evaluated my manuscripts and commented that they flow well. I use said when it's needed, action beats when they serve to develop and enrich a character or scene, and nothing when possible. As with most things, balance is key. Since both editors requested to see the completed manuscripts, I must be doing something right.