The verbose help guide: dialogue and character

Hey, I have 100 WordPress followers now. Maybe I should do a celebratory giveaway or something.

Last time I talked about setting out dialogue.

Today I want to talk about characterisation via dialogue.

Dialogue, as a reader, is hands-down the thing that makes me engage in your writing (if you write fiction). As a writer, it’s the thing that makes me write. You see, I’m not a visual reader. I don’t see this talked about often, such that it took me twenty-nine years to know this absence of response to visual media (as opposed to a preference for other methods of engagement) is in fact a thing: there seems to be this assumption that everybody has the ability to see things inside their heads on some internal movie screen. I don’t. I don’t have, and never will, see anything I write in my head. It wasn’t until a teacher (speculative fiction writer and poet Tracey Rolfe) mentioned that she also doesn’t have this ability (she knows things on an abstract level, but she doesn’t see), and this is why she works so hard on visual description in her writing, that the penny dropped. Other people see things when they readWould you believe that I had no idea this was the case? It explained so much: visualisation techniques recommended by psychologists and other sundry pain specialists resulted in frustration, annoyance and tension such I’d end up wanting to tear my eyeballs out of my head (sadly, no hyperbole). I never understood why they set such store by this thing or how it was even possible to do. To me it was absurdity.

I don’t interact with the world on a visual level. I can tell by your tone of voice what your mood is, but I’m never going to know the colour of your eyes or how many times you’ve worn that pair of shoes. However, readers who are not me expect (especially in speculative fiction) a moderate to high level of visual description, the painting of images via words. We might laugh at the extremes of Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin, who describe everything and at length, but most of us still expect the words an author writes to provoke a mental image. I work hard to describe as much as I do (and to find the right balance of description: because I don’t see anything or even desire it, I don’t know on an instinctual level what is too much or too little) and I’m nowhere near mastering visual description in the way I need to be a great writer.

Why am I telling you this?

Dialogue is my entry point into a book. I’ve got fantastic auditory processing in terms of memory and comprehension if I’m in an environment where my sensory processing issues aren’t overburdened by competing noise (I don’t go to clubs because I hear everything, which means I hear nothing, and I’ve been to many a restaurant, bar or cafe that’s almost as bad). I can hear and recollect (flashback, even) words people spoke, complete with pitch, tone and emotion. When I read each character has a different-sounding voice in my head (and their dialogue voice sounds different from their prose/narration voice). None of this makes me unique or special, by the way. We all do it. It’s just that for me, in the absence of my inner film screen, I am more reliant on my inner radio to develop a connection with the characters. I can appreciate what they look like on an abstract level – ooh, the protagonist wears metal band T-shirts – but I’ll never see it. I will hear everything they say. Good, human, real-feeling, emotional, distinct dialogue – not necessarily clever dialogue, snappy dialogue, funny dialogue or witty dialogue – matters to me because it’s how I build a sense of your character beyond the abstract. It’s how I slide into their skin and journey with them through your book.

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The verbose help guide: dialogue

I told Julia Kyle that I’d been reading a bunch of self-published and indie queer ebooks, most of which I didn’t dislike but did leave me in want of books about queer, trans and non-binary leads with mainstream-standard (good mainstream-standard, because we can all point to any number of awfully-written mainstream-published novels) copyediting and/or structural editing. I’m not even talking content, here (the amount of women, the handling of queer relationships, the fact non-binary people don’t exist, the way authors slept through Year 12 Biology because they don’t understand how a fever works, the repeated failure to write horses in anything approaching a correct fashion). I’m talking the nuts and bolts of sentence construction and ebook design. I’m talking the things I’d love to never see in a book, the things I’m editor enough that I can’t unsee or ignore, the fiction-writing basics that are in fact not-basic enough they slip past even attentive and edited self-published and indie writers.

Julia made the mistake of asking me if I’d write a post on these things: what to do, what not to do, how to avoid it.

I may have cackled. A lot. And responded with enthusiasm enough she quoted me on Tumblr. Someone wants me to talk about all the things running through my head every time I crack open a book? Someone has given me permission to get on my editorial high horse? Fuck and yes, mate.

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Queering words: a field guide (part 2)

Hello. Last time I discussed the two basic rules for approaching the language used by the queer people in your life, which can be boiled down to don’t be a douche, but sometimes we say things that seem reasonable to us without understanding that they’re not-so-reasonable to the audience. After all, empathy, sensitivity and respect aren’t exactly qualities prized in Western society, and privilege makes it hard to develop these traits with regard to minorities. How does one be a genuinely empathic person if one doesn’t have some experience of pain and suffering? How does one relate to that pain if it is only an abstract concept?

I think this is why so many allies complain about misandry, reverse racism, heterophobia, cisphobia and other such reverse/anti isms coming from minorities. Think about it. If you haven’t been hurt, if you live in a society where you are privileged and prioritised, having somebody call you a cracker or a fucking cishet is probably going to feel like a hit to the face. Of course, there’s no systematic oppression behind those words, nothing but a tired, frustrated and hurting minority voicing their pain, but when one has no or little experience of pain, when society is set up to tell you that you are amazing, special and deserving of having every fucking book written about you, it probably feels like oppression. Imagine a spoiled rich kid getting a shock because his parents tell him he can’t have a new iPad after he threw the old one on the kitchen table and cracked the screen. We, who are not rich, just roll our eyes. Allies who don’t share the minority status in question are that rich kid. We minorities know it’s nothing like the knowledge of waking up in the morning knowing that people loathe you so much they deny you basic human rights, a scratch compared to a broken nose, but allies don’t. In my experience, the best queer allies are those who have hard-earned knowledge of oppression in other ways (my friends who understand chronic health problems, mental illness and misogyny, for example). They are the most able to put themselves into my shoes and do what they can to make life as easy as possible for me.

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Queering words: a field guide (part 1)

Nothing in these posts is in any way new.

However, I’ve had a few interactions with well-intended cishet allies who have missed the finer details on queer, trans and non-binary language terms and their use, so these words aren’t being said loudly enough to penetrate even those who are open to hearing us. Also, as a queer, non-binary person with editing experience, there may be something I can bring to the dialogue, I hope, that explains why we use our words the way we do.

For once, I’m speaking directly to allies on this post. Most of the time you’re incidental to the dialogue, or I’m talking about you, not to you: I’m talking ‘to you’ in the same kind of rhetorical, laden-with-frustration way I go about much of my dialogue about my experiences. However, I seem to have amassed a collection of cishet ally readers, so this one is for you, because my words matter and because I believe – or hope – my words matter to you.

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The imperfections of realness

This is about my struggle to stand up and be an adult.

(If adulthood were easy, everybody would be doing it – but the reality is that a very large percentage of people over the age of thirty aren’t adults. No, a mature body means fuck all, and we need to stop listening to the social delusion that it is relevant to anything. I dare say I’d be much less frustrated with people if I didn’t expect them to be adults.)

But I’ll begin with talking about what I’m doing.

My life has become so much less about the joy of writing and more about design, about programs, about layouts – about widows and orphans, about selecting type, about trying to speak printer and print preset language, about trying to not succumb to the frustration that is the editorial team letting a third of documents go through with incorrect quotation marks, about trying to figure out why InDesign won’t export the TOC in my epub (or when it does, why all the formatting is stripped) when I’m using the school’s computers, about whether or not to use rules and the correct placement of headers, about why a comma after ‘and’ when connecting two clauses is non-optional, about chasing up biographies from authors, about debating hyphens and em-dashes, about production schedules, about coping when my editors vanish without notification. It’s talking and schedules and organisation and keeping on top of things and work.

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On why I ‘queer’, no person to follow

First post. Let’s make it memorable by talking about something close to my heart.

Queer. I use this word a lot. I surprise non-queer people with how I use it: they seem to expect me to use ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or … something. I’m not those things, though. I’m queer. A queer.

Obviously, I like this as a general-purpose term that says nothing about my sexuality via declaring gender/sex. That should be philosophically self-evident. (If you know what book I’m quoting, be sad for me that I had to read it for Novel 1 because wow, another story about a cishet man. Sorry, Ian, but it’s true: the lack of female narrators in our booklist selection was not up to par with the feminist I know you are.) Quite obviously, I am happier with words that don’t have anything to do with what my gender is/isn’t or what bits my body has or hasn’t. Also quite damn obviously, I hate the phrase ‘same sex marriage’ and everything of the kind that assumes queer identity and relationships are about two people of the same bodily configurations and/or gender configurations.

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