In my freelance book editing world one of the most frequently encountered weaknesses is punchy dialogue that is properly punctuated. So, this week, we're visiting with Matt Posner, a novelist and teacher and author of How to Write Dialogue.
What gave you the idea to pull together a ‘bullpen’ of authors to put together a book on writing dialogue?
Most fiction writing manuals have samples to be analyzed. But I'm not like a large publishing company that can draw upon its stable of authors, so I decided to go a different route by asking my peers to contribute instead. It's a chance for them to get their work in front of more readers, and a chance for me to get a wider variety of examples.
You make a clear distinction between literal speech patterns and crafted dialogue. What’s the difference?
Our daily speech is full of pauses, er and um sounds, and verbal stumbles. People speaking often make mistakes and restart, or make grammatical and vocabulary errors that are more annoying than revealing. These two reasons alone favor dialogue that is crafted, but entertainment value is the most essential reason for me to favor the use of craft. I write dialogue to be entertaining and satisfying on multiple levels. My book explains how to do that.
What is the main pitfall for beginning writers of dialogue and what should they do about it?
The first step a beginning writer should take toward mastery of dialogue is to learn how to punctuate it properly (which is explained in my book with copious examples). The next step is to eliminate clichés that the apprentice writer has derived from TV and movies. Beginning dialogue is often hackneyed because the young writer is still searching for an individual voice and still influenced by her or his favorite entertainments. A third step is to focus on making the dialogue interesting, which is a matter of having conflict and character embedded in it. I used to read slush for a literary magazine and was frequently bored by the way that aspiring writers tried so hard to be subtle that their characters' speech failed to energize the story.
There are dozens of examples of effective dialogue in How to Write Dialogue. How did you pull them all together?
My bullpen selected their own work to send to me, and I matched it up with the various sections of the book as well as I could -- most of the material they sent me would have worked anywhere! Whatever wasn't used elsewhere was put in the examples for study, so I managed to program almost everything! As for the examples from classical literature, I downloaded a lot of text files from Gutenberg.org and put them into the notes section of my Scrivener project for the book, and whenever I needed an example, I browsed till I found something suitable.
What key piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Don't be dreamy or idealistic about a high-paying writing career. Seize opportunities to get paid and to build your market share. Expect that you will have to work another job, make peace with that, and develop as much focus as you can. Regularly review changes to the market. Most important, never pay any publisher to publish your work. Any publisher who takes money from you as an author is more concerned about taking your money than about earning you any back.
What advice do you have for your fellow writers/authors about self-promotion and its importance?
I'm really not sure what works best in terms of self-promotion. There's a lot of advice out there, most of it just noise, and I don't need to add more to the cacophony. Still, since you asked, I'll try a few things. First of all, write multiple books. Have a lot of titles out there. If they are all good, they will help you to establish that you are a reliable content producer worth the investment of readers' time and money. Second, if you want to write more for money than artistic success, then focus on the genres that have devoted followers who devour authors. Right now these genres seem to be thriller and romance. I'm not saying you should be trendy; I'm talking about what genres have reliably sold regardless of trend.
What kind of books do you like to read/your favourite authors?
Most of the fiction I read is from people I meet, either friends or writers who approach me for reviews. I also read graphic novels. Otherwise I mainly read nonfiction. I keep up with the intellectual world using The New Yorker magazine. I also like visual arts and pro wrestling autobiographies, books about the paranormal and about abnormal psychology. I have too many favorites to list them all, but I recently wrote a tribute to one of them, Colin Wilson, who died last year.
Matt Posner is a writer and teacher from
. Originally from New
York City Miami,
Florida, he lives in Queens and works in Brooklyn. Matt is happily married to Julie since 1999.
Matt writes in multiple genres, including urban fantasy, nonfiction, and
general fiction (forthcoming). He operates a busy author-interview series at
his website, and has interviewed beginners and bestsellers alike. Matt is a
dedicated trade unionist (United Federation of Teachers member for ten years),
the son of classically trained musicians, and a devotee of the humanities in
general. Matt and Julie are experienced world travellers; they have so far been
to Austria, Belgium, Canada,
the Czech Republic, Denmark, England,
France, Germany, Hungary,
India, the Netherlands, and , with more travels on the
Web site: http://schooloftheages.webs.com for book information and my interview series!
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