Forbidden Fruit: The Great Debate of Said Bookisms

So, this past Tuesday I am reading a piece from my latest work to the members of one of two writer’s circles I kind of frequent. This piece, I feel was quite strong – one of the few scenes I’d written in a long time that I am truly proud of.

At the point where I read a particular line, “What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed under his breath, one of the guys next to me withdraws his laptop from his bag and boots up his word processor.

My first thought is, “Oh, shit! This is boring! I totally lost him!” but I shrug off the anxiety that is a writer’s bruised ego, and finish reading.

After a few compliments on my piece, the fellow beside me says, “Look at this.” He gestures my attention to his laptop screen. There, written in the centre of the word processor is one of the quotes from my piece:

“What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed.

I look at him, confused. This guy is a script doctor and teleplay writer for some pretty major productions. He is kind of a big deal in the TV industry, and I totally respect the guy, because he’s been around the block and offers really intelligent critical advice. Anything with that quote could be wrong. Internally, a number of thoughts bash around, like tiny metal pinballs in a cheaply-made plastic hand-held from when my dad was a kid.

Was it because I wrote “What the hell’s A matter,” as oppose to “what the hell’s THE matter”?

Was the subject-verb agreement twisted into stark amateur oblivion?

Literally anything could have been wrong with that sentence.

“Hiss that,” he instructs me.

Hiss that? I blink. The quote, he means.

“Hiss that,” he says again.

Of course, I’m dumbstruck, and my inner introvert decides to make its ugly presence around the table, uttering an embarrassed, unintelligible sound, not unlike “Durrr … uhhh?”

“You can’t,” he tells me. “You can’t physically hiss that. There aren’t enough sibilants to.”

He was right, there was no possible way anybody could utter that sentence as though a snake would. A snake wouldn’t be able to utter that sentence as though a snake would. But that wasn’t my intention when I wrote the piece of dialogue.

But if J-school has taught me one thing, it’s to see an angle from all sides. Today’s post is not written out of spite or vindication to appease whatever broken ego I have about my unpublished works of pulp horror and fantasy. As I said, I deeply respect the fellow at my group, and take whatever words of wisdom he has with enthusiasm. I am, by no means, as temperamental as an Aaron Sorkin or a Harlan Ellison (nor as successful – but one can dream!). I am merely curious, and am willing to poke the bull with a red-ribboned spearhead.

To me, when a character hisses a piece of dialogue, that character says those words with a harsh whisper, laced with venom. That’s what I imagine, and that’s how it was supposed to come across in the scene that I read to the group.

But clearly, that hadn’t been the outcome, and as a result, the nine or ten of us transitioned to an interesting discussion of dialogue tags (aka, said bookisms) – he said/she said, vs. creative descriptions, such as demanded, inquired – and hissed.

It wasn’t the first time our writers circle had had this discussion, nor was it the first time I had been in the middle of such a debate with a group of writers. What is kosher among the world of fiction? The basic “said,” or something with a little flair? It’s a question, along with others, I find often asked by fledgling writers who want to be more than writers. Writers who want to kick down the door of a traditional publisher and get their name in official print right then and there. The same writers, I find most of the time, who attend more writing-related conferences, seminars, and workshops than they do actually sit down and WRITE.

I’ve read and been told that to end any line of dialogue with anything other than “said” or “asked” is deemed amateurish on the author’s part – that to do so is a mortal sin that will forever chain a fledgling writer to an editor’s slush pile (the same goes for the use of adverbs and adjectives).

The argument here is that using descriptors such as “yelled”, “exclaimed”, “whispered”, etc. take away from the strength of the dialogue, and thusly break the reader’s flow of immersion (who would otherwise unconsciously skip over “said” and “asked”).

Whether this is true or not, I guess, really depends on the reader. But in the long and the short of it, how accurate of a notion is the above? As literary bloggers Anne M. Marble and W.H. Dean point out in their own differing opinions on the matter, many renowned published authors litter their works with said bookisms.

In her article for Writing-World, THE USE AND ABUSE OF DIALOGUE TAGS, Marble writes: “In most cases, the word ‘said’ would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue. … These words make it sound as if you have fallen in love with your thesaurus.”

She continues with, “If the dialogue is strong enough, ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ will do. If the dialogue is not strong enough, rewrite the dialogue instead of using said bookisms to bolster it.”

But again, on what grounds do these opinion stem? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt distracted when a character “hollered” or “sang” or “murmured” something. In fact, I felt drawn deeper into the intensity or emotion conveyed on the page – and as an author, it’s something I wish to replicate for my own readership.

In journalism, “said” and “says” just makes sense in the hard news world, as current events should be reported as clear and concise as possible. In J-school, I was always taught to leave the fancy descriptors at home, unless I was writing a magazine feature. To write that Joe Blow “feels” something, or that Joe Blow “thinks” something, is to assume Joe Blow feels or thinks something when maybe he doesn’t – and if he does actually say he feels or thinks, to write that Joe Blow said/says he feels or thinks.

In his article for Plato’s Head, DEFENDING SAID BOOKISMS? “SAY IT AIN’T SO!” HE ASSEVERATED, Dean writes, “Sixty years ago … it was common to find more colourful dialogue tags and it’s not entirely uncommon today. And I would argue that it’s still not a defect; the defect is the not the choice of words other than said, it’s the misuse of words other than said.”

Now, there’s something that makes sense to me: the misusage of creative dialogue tags, versus creative dialogue tags themselves. Dean uses the example of a character INSISTING they are ill – which makes no sense, unless said (ha) character is in an argument in regards to their state of health.

Marble goes on to write about her disdain towards writers who use verbs such as laugh, grimace, cry, or frown as dialogue tags, as it is physically impossible for a person to “frown” or “laugh” words out of their mouths.

Here, I understand where she’s coming from, as this is one notorious finger wiggle-waggle I used to include at end of quoted dialogues (Heiress: The Master of Monsters is riddled with these). I’ve since evolved to …”Said with a laugh” or “said with a sneer”, but in my honesty, I don’t think it really matters all that much.

Of my beloved “hiss”, Marble writes, “The big kahuna of dialogue tags to avoid is ‘hissed.’ It’s used a lot, but quite often, it’s used where it’s unwelcome. We’ve all seen this dialogue tag abused. For example: ‘Get out,’ she hissed. OK, you try it — hiss that line. Something’s missing — the sibilants.”

She brings up the exact point my friend and mentor of the local writers circle mentioned. However, in my research for this blog post, I decided to root through some dictionaries, which led me to an interesting revelation:

[from dictionary.com]:
hiss
1. to make or emit a sharp sound like that of the letter s prolonged, as a snake does, or as steam does when forced under pressure through a small opening.
2. to express disapproval or contempt by making this sound: The audience hissed when the actor forgot his lines.

verb (used with object)
3. to express disapproval of by hissing: The audience hissed the controversial play.
4. to silence or drive away by hissing (usually followed by away, down, etc.): They hissed down the author when he tried to speak.
5. to utter with a hiss.

All right. And how about a list of synynoms via thesaurus?:

Part of Speech: noun
Definition: buzzing sound; jeer
Synonyms: Bronx cheer, boo, buzz, catcall, contempt, derision, hoot, sibilance, sibilation

“What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed.

The use of “hiss” is, admittedly so, a prime example of Dean’s misuse of word choice when it comes to said bookisms. My friend and mentor is right: “You can’t hiss that.” Literally, anyway. But metaphorically, of course you can. And that was the sole intention behind my use of the word.

Does the use of the word make me an amateur? Maybe.

Does the use of the word evoke an emotional painting for my reader? Yes.

And that’s what matters.

Taking a break from writing this post to have dinner with my parents, my dad told me something that perfectly summed up what I feel is the point of this entire entry: “The sole purpose of writing fiction is reader engagement. You write to entertain your reader, and whatever rules you have to break to do that shouldn’t matter, as long as you engage your reader.”

So should I worry so much about “said” vs. “exclaim”, or even “hiss”, or should I worry about telling a worthwhile narrative that draws people in and captures both their imaginations and their emotions?

Editors and literary critics who are too concerned over the misuse of dialogue tags (and even those who stress over the use of adjectives and adverbs) need to do some re-evaluating. If you’re going to slash thin hairs over “said” vs. “exclaim” in lieu of whether or not you have a great story that is otherwise well-written, someone needs to slap you some serious vacation time.

If you’ve found my blog as an up and coming author, or someone who is curious about the life of a writer, I’m not here to tell you how to put words on a page. Talk to some, and they’ll say I’m not even qualified to do so, because I’ve only published less than a handful of stories on the vastness of the Internet, not including a couple of school weeklies.

However, one thing I’ve come to learn in my literary journey as a novelist, journalist, a blogger, and even as just a human being, and that I hope to pass onto any possible reader of my website, is that no matter what you write, no matter what you say – hell, no matter what you do in general – people are going to compare you, criticize you, revile you, and maybe a thin sliver will even revere you. Those who mind, don’t matter – and those who matter, don’t mind.

But what I am getting at is this: Do you think John Grisham, Joanne Rowling, Stephen King, or even John Tolkien worried about grammar, adjectives, or creative dialogue tags? No. They wrote. They wrote, they worked their guts out, and they proved themselves through true effort and humble evolution. Even if some say they are not the most perfect of literary masters, it doesn’t matter, because the people who complain are not the people who they write for – and the same applies to anything.

Don’t worry so much about the rules. Rules, for the most part, are meant to be broken, analyzed, and remodeled – then broken, again. To be a writer is to express yourself fully, raw. To be an artist is to express yourself, fully, raw. Not to say that you should throw away all of the tools and resources that are available to help you evolve in your craft. I cannot enough stress the importance to read, read, read and to write, write, write.

grumblegrumble

Advertisements

Is My Talent Actually Worth It?

It’s difficult to be a creative person in this day and age, I think. I constantly hear the old phrase, “nothing is original,” and as a struggling creative writer who is always on the lookout for inspiration, it can be quite tough to draw quality ideas. So then when it comes time to sit at my computer, ready and willing to unzip the confines of my imagination, I often find myself instead stuck – scared shitless of contrived drivel, and instead deviate to a relentless Google search on how to organically progress in an unfinished story that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
And then I begin to doubt myself.

I begin to doubt my ability as a creative writer, and even though my work is mostly praised by those who take the time to read, and I’ve always loved the craft, and have known since I was four years old that the life of a professional author is what God had in store for me from day one, I can’t help but become inundated with a lack of confidence.

Is my talent actually worth it?

Am I actually talented at all?

I’m not the only one who goes through these states of self doubt. Everybody does, not just exclusive to the life of an artist. The world of Western Civilization thrives off of the negative auras of people, and leaves levels of unwarranted self-centredness of my generation twofold: I am too fat. I am not a good enough spouse. I am the worst parent. I’m not good enough to live. I can’t do anything right. I am nothing but a giant disappointment to my family.

And, as an aside, it’s such a terrible shame that amazing resources like counselling and therapy are so stigmatized, and are not available for free. But in the case of the artist, what is it that continues to bury the hatchet into any form of creative accomplishment? Personally speaking, I have a lot of great ideas for novels, but so many of my works go incomplete. Is it because I feel a lack of creativity, or is it because I feel that an invisible audience that isn’t actually there will pick apart my work and call me a talentless hack?

Obviously there is a faulty sense of narcissism there – that I worry and care so much about bullshit opinions about something I haven’t even shared with anybody yet.

Yes, we live in an unfortunate age of relentless, over-analytical nitpicking by a vast majority that has forgotten how to enjoy something for the sheer pleasure of simple, mindless, entertainment. Everything these days must have a theme. Everything must have some deep, philosophical, message. Every ending must have a happy, red, bow around it, with all loose ends addressed.
That is not how life works. And I understand most people look to the entertainment industry for an escape from life. But as a creative writer, I want to take risks. I want to churn the butter of emotion, possibly make a reader yell angrily and throw the book across the room when a favourite character dies without rhyme or reason.

Because that’s how I know I’ve made an impact somehow. Positive or negative, I’ve made an impact that will last with a true audience, for more than a few minutes.

I want to write with a tone of realism, even underneath the cloak of fantastical elements. Life is one big plot hole. When we die, life leaves many loose ends not dealt with, and many questions unanswered.

But the invisible audience – my inner critic – it scoffs, and it objects, and it picks apart, down to the last trivial detail.

Whatever happened to the sheer literary high of immersing oneself in the shoes of the characters we read about? Kids don’t care or worry so much about bullshit subtext. As an eight-year-old, I never read R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps for the sole purpose of picking out themes and references to his favourite 1950s monster movies. From my standpoint, Goosebumps, just like Animorphs, Encyclopedia Brown, The Babysitters Club, etc., were stories written for the pure sake of entertaining a captivated audience. Sure, yes, the inclusion of deeper subtext can make a story that more satisfying in the end (especially upon multiple readings), but I wonder if there is too much emphasis on such a thing these days.

Does the fact that I wish to toss away pretentious ideas such as subtext and interpretation for the sake of the elicitation of a raw, page-turning, emotion from a reader make me a hack?
Or … am I just over-thinking the whole thing?

Many – countless – books are printed each year. Many – countless – books reach the best seller’s list, and many – countless – books are total pieces of white dog shit.

Twilight, Fifty Shades … how are books like these so publishable? What is it that real talentless hacks have that a wide variety of readers want?

Even deeply-revered authors, considered literary masters of their time, such as C.S. Lewis and John Tolkien, (in my opinion) are not really very great at the craft either – but, like Stephanie Meyers and E.L. James, have somehow captured the emotions and imaginations of countless readers.

All right, all right – comparing schlocky, ill-researched bondage erotica and shiny control-freak vampire boyfriends to the religious, high-fantasy sagas of Narnia and Middle-earth is a bit extreme. But the point I’m trying to get across can be summarized in something Stephen King once wrote: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Stephen King is one of my greatest influences as an aspiring author – but I would be lying blind if I said he himself was God’s gift to talent agencies. Obviously this is attributed to many debilitating factors in his personal life (drug abuse, alcoholism, and getting hit by a car), and although I don’t agree with all of his opinions, I still deeply respect the man as a hard-working, dedicated, writer. As awful as some of his works are, how can you not respect a guy who is so diligent to the craft, that he is able to easily pump out approximately two full-length manuscripts on an almost annual basis?

Whenever I feel like a total shit about myself, and want to set my word processer on fire, I can always rely on a quote related to writing by Stephen King to drag me up through the muck.

David Eddings is another inspiration of mine, and he is constantly ridiculed by dedicated fantasy readers as a hack. It’s true. After the failure of his first novel, High Hunt, and a string of unpublished works, Eddings walked into a book store and was flabbergasted at the fact that Lord of the Rings was in its twenty-eighth reprint. From that point on, Eddings based his future career in the profit sword and sorcery, as he figured that was what sold most at the time.

Regardless of the nature of which Eddings became a well-read fantasy author, the two things he has taught me about the creative venture of pen-to-paper was the importance of dialogue and character development.

But at 1,533 words and counting, what is the point I am trying to make? That due diligence surpasses the importance of talent and meticulous detail? No matter how much I write on the topic of talent, lack of talent, and people who inspire me … the question of whether or not my own talent – as a writer – is still worth anything sticks like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth.

To shut out my invisible audience – my inner critic – and just write whatever comes to mind with literary abandon is easier said than done. Does that make this my downfall? That I think too hard and act far less?

From the ages of four to thirteen, I wrote and illustrated countless short stories and comic books. From the ages of fourteen to eighteen, I wrote a total of five full-length novels. To nobody’s surprise, most, if not all, of the stories I wrote as an adolescent and teenager were total garbage.
But they still matter. They still hold an important place in my growth as a self-published novelist, and I will never, ever, regret their place in my life. For each and every conception, I didn’t care how good or bad the stories were. I found myself deeply involved with the characters and the plots, drawing inspiration from video games and backyard adventures. I enjoyed my craft. And that was what mattered.

As my thirties loom darkly overhead, I feel with each year that passes, inspiration dwindles, and imagination fleets. I am too hung up on structure, on grammar, on finding each which way to avoid the dreaded “ing” and “ly” suffixes … hammered into my head over, and over again by pretentious professors, begrudged editors, and “writers” with nothing to show for it, during my experiences in countless English classes, literary courses, and community writer’s circles.
There is no room for creativity to bloom when one holds himself back by nonsensical rules and regulations of the trade. Rules, as the cliché always goes, are meant to be broken, but I feel they must be broken with intelligent intent.

The first draft is a first draft for a reason. And although I am self aware of the fact that I’m far stronger writer when it comes to revisions … to bash my head wide open over the stress of structuring initial description will be the death of me, and the death of my talent.

It does not matter if I write 1,000 words a day, or 500 words a week. It does not matter what my inner critic says, or what pretentious internet critics say. If I am as dedicated to the life of a progressive writer as I wish to be, that is all that matters, and with that in mind, all I can do is continue to reassure myself and keep the lighter fluid away from the laptop.