Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Eye Dialect and Cliches and Rejections, Oh My!

So, as Mike points out, eye dialect is pretty much a dead giveaway of amateur writing these days.  Sure, I can hear all the protesting about those favorite bestsellers where rich and famous authors use apostrophes and "gonna" and "gotta" from time to time and still make millions.  How can THEY get away with it?  And shouldn't we emulate success?

Well, it's like that old TV add for some financial firm--those writers did it the old fashioned way: they've earned the right to be a bit lazy.

Most of those bestsellers are so fabulously plotted they carry the reader along, flipping pages as fast as they can, paying as little attention as possible to such mundane details.  And that bestselling author has another deadline looming for their next six or seven figure advance, so they can't take the time to dig deeper and avoid a little cliche now and then, right?  Boy, don't we all wish we were there!

But, for those of us nudging our way toward publishing a novel, or even a story or two, the bottom line is that eye dialect is one of those "three strikes and you're out" elements that agents and editors talk about when they read the first few pages--if that much--of your submission.  So why is that, and how can we avoid falling into the trap of all too easy eye dialect?  And how, then, can we really characterize our creations with their speech patterns if we can't use it?

First of all, 99% of eye dialect is cliche, which means YOU didn't create it!  Who would begin a novel these days with a cliche like "It was a dark and stormy night" and expect anyone publish it?  (Okay, okay, as parody, I know!)  Well, every time you write gonna or gotcha or drop that final g in goin', you're doing exactly the same thing, as far as agents and editors are concerned.  The cliche gong sounds and you've swung and missed.  Strike one!

Second, and more to the point, eye dialect cliches do NOT characterize your speaker other than, as Mike noted, making them seem, well, rather stupid.  Since, for example, probably 99% of Americans, drop those g's most of the time, how does such a dropped g do anything to tell us whether the speaker is delivering a flat midwestern, a drawling southern, a clipped New England, or any other regionalism, let alone anything beyond the border?  The answer is that it doesn't--and can't possibly do so.  Ever!  I recall reading a first draft of a story from a very solid, published writer, who had characters from Kentucky, New England, and Texas, as well as native Americans and Latinos...and every one of them used the same eye dialect--and no other distinguishing speech pattern--giving the reader nothing at all to help differentiate these folks.

So, how DO we use a character's speech to help differentiate them?

The keys are the rhythms, the syntax, and word choice, plus the key to any great recipe, remembering that great dialogue EVOKES rather than MIMICS speech:  a little spice can make the dish, but overdoing your beloved tarragon can ruin even the finest prime beef!

Syntax and word choice and knowing when to put that shaker down.  Silas House, in his wonderful novel, A Parchment of Leaves, teaches us well.  Set in the hills of eastern Kentucky, the novel shows us memorable characters in such a way that very quickly we hear their lilting drawl, yet Silas drops nary a g and apostrophizes nothing.  Simply, he selects a few words, and carefully applies the spice throughout the novel.  Knowed for knew.  Ever for every.  And set for sat.  A couple more, perhaps, but that's it.  Pure word choice and usage, distinct regionalisms, used sparingly, yet the impact is such that I'll pay any reader $100 (well, in fictional money!) if they can read that book and not hear and be charmed by that smooth, mountain-cooled talk.

So remember, it was a dark and stormy night...NOT!

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