One of my few strengths as a writer is dialogue. I rarely use an outline or definitive plan. Instead I focus on knowing the characters, watching them move and interact. Most important of all is knowing what their motivation is for the scene (why they there and what they want) as well as their background and relationship with the other(s).
I spend a great deal of time in thinking about how the scene starts, the exact lines and scene, and keep that moment in my head. It is almost like a moving snapshot – a gif as it were – that goes around and around, anxious to get out of the loop. And then I let them go and do what they want. At that point, it’s just a question of keeping up with what they say, basically transcribing as they go. They can get stuck, repeat themselves and run down blind alleys. It’s all a matter of trying to keep them on track.
The trick is to move ahead for as long as their voice stay strong. And when the momentum is gone, to step back a little and start again, like getting a car out of the muck, rock it back and forth until it’s back on track. Once the scene is done, it needs to be run through again a couple more times. Time is needed after that, a few days to do a proper edit, focusing on the structure and repetitions and that oh-so-impossible satisfying arc.
I admit that I might have taken it too far with my editor – now former editor – a while back. I mean, he had really given it to me, saying that nothing in my writing worked, not the scene arcs, character development, narrative, not even the dialogue. And that’s when I lost it.
“My dialogue?” I stared out at the apartment buildings, mute in the late morning sun. “You don’t like my dialogue?”
“My dialogue doesn’t work? Is that what you said”
There were tinny sounds in the background of his phone, clicks and adjustments. I was probably on speaker phone so that he could do something else. “Phed, this has nothing to do with my personal opinion of your writing.”
“I thought I was paying you to do that. Isn’t this the point of the call?”
There was a long sigh. Or a gas leak. I pictured him in the basement in an oily shirt. “My job is to look at your book through the readers’ eyes.”
“But not you?”
“Like I said, this has nothing to do with my opinion of you as a person.”
“But what about a writer? Aren’t you judging me as a writer?”
The sigh was more of a wheeze now, like he might cry or the furnace could explode. “I am glad if it is working for you. I am. I can’t say anything about how it works in your head.”
“But my dialogue isn’t working in yours?”
“Your characters tend not to listen to one another. There’s a lot of cross talk.”
“Uh, now? I wouldn’t write this scene. Would you?”
“Andy, listen, I get that you have a job to do, to make my work more accessible and everything, but I’m not looking to write the next Avengers movie. My work is focused on something different that.”
The wheeze was gone, the sigh too. I saw him strangling himself with an oily sleeve. “My comments are solely on the craft of writing.”
“My dialogue is excellent.”
“In fact, nobody writes dialogue better than I do. Nobody. Not Joyce, not Hemingway, not The Avengers people, not anybody.” This is where I admit I might have lost it. “Words are the key, right, Alan? And then they aren’t. We use them, but they don’t mean what we want, what I want, Alan. That’s what I mean by that.”
“Phed, listen, I…” It sounded like he was breaking up with me. I mean, he was.
“Words are constructed, ideally, in an arc, conveying what is desired or implied to manipulate. To which we say, well done. Right, Alan? Well done!”
“My job is to focus on the craft of writing, Phed. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
“The alternative is dire and difficult. It takes too much effort. It demands. Let’s get back to those spandex babes saving the universe from ultimate destruction and send all checks payable to the propagandists. Maintain status quid pro quo.”
“I never said anything about The Avengers, Phed.”
“Are you saying that The Avengers have no craft either?”
The clicks and wheezes were gone. It seemed like he had finally just hung up. “Is there anything else I can help you with, Phed?”
I stared at the buildings, mute as ever. This went on far to long. I thought he would say uncle first, but he didn’t. “Well, good luck to you, Alan.”
“If you want to follow up with anything, Phed, just let me know.”
“You mean about my writing craft? Or did you have something else in mind?”
“I am available for a follow-up call, Phed.”
I waited another interminable moment before hanging up.
The best thing about my writing is the dialogue. It flows.
“Who says that?”
I watch how people interact. I listen to how they speak.
And so I replicate that interaction. I make it sound real.
“You know something I realized?”
Should I identify you as a voice?
“Covid’s always been here.” The disembodied voice was both gruff and shrill. “It’s not a new thing.”
Cross-talking. That’s one of my things.
“We just found out about it now. That’s all. That’s it. But it’s always been here.”
That’s when one person is talking about one thing, and the other one talks about another, and they barely listen to each other, if at all.
“I had Covid.” The voice was irritated now, probably because it wasn’t being listened to like it wanted. “I was one of the first. I went to a bar in Rhode Island. The whole state had it two weeks after that.”
My editor said that it doesn’t work.
“What doesn’t work? I’m telling you I was Case Fucking A in Rhode Island.”
Cross-talk. He says that the reader doesn’t like it because they have to do too much work to figure it out.
“I don’t know who the hell your editor is, but I agree with him.”
I had a feeling you would say something like that.
“If you listened for half of a second, you might maybe understand half of one thing. Covid is a thing, all right. But it’s just one thing. I mean, they say it’s 19, but I bet you there’s been 2,000 of them already.”
2,000 what? 2,000 people you infected?
“Covids, man! Strands, all strands of the same thing!”
What is that based on? You know anything about biology?
“It’s not just humans and plants. It’s everything, the water, the air, the fucking cosmos.”
You lost me.
“You know how I know you’re full of shit?” The voice paced back and forth behind me, always on the side I couldn’t see. “You got nothing published. Zilch, zero, nida.”
“A great big fucking goose egg, am I right?”
“You got something out there I can read? Something I can actually hold in my hands?”
You can’t actually hold words in your hands.
“Actually? You really going to use that word twice?”
Uh, well, you said it, and then I–
“Yes?” It was breathing down my neck. “Or no?”
I thought about saying nothing but I knew that wouldn’t work. No. I said that.
“Ah-ha!” It had gone to the far edge of the room, almost out the apartment. I expected to hear the door close. But it didn’t.
It’s not like I’m not aware of that.
“My point is that–“
I know, I know. Covid’s always been here.
“If you’ve never been published, how can you have an editor? That’s my point, Einstein.”
I hired him. I paid him to read my book.
“Why the fuck…?” It chuckled or scoffed, something derisive. “You paid him to tell you that you can’t write? That is so fucked up.”
Don’t you read my blog? I wrote about all of this two weeks ago.
“You writing about Covid?”
Covid? Why would I write about Covid?
“And why would I read your blog?”
Well, I write about what I’ve done during the pandemic, things I’ve read, how Covid has affected me.
“Trump’s fucked. I tell you that.”
“That fucker, Trump.” The voice almost came into view. “He’s done.”
Well, at least we can agree on that.
“You should get him to sell your book. What about that? You could work out some kind of weird deal with him or something.” The voice faded.