Sunday, March 23, 2014

Observing & Writing Dialog With Amy Lynn Spitzley

Amy Lynn Spitzley

Please help me make welcome this week’s feature author, Amy Lynn Spitzley!

Amy Lynn Spitzley lives, writes, daydreams, and walks by the shores of a Great Lake in Traverse City, Michigan. She has two goofy children and one British husband. She finds writing for teens is where it’s at because they tend to be informal, character driven, and causal. (Plus, the dialogue is really fun!)
When not writing, she can be found creating collages or making faces at formality until it gives up and hides under the kitchen table.

First, please tell us a bit about what you write and why dialog is important in your work.

I write young adult fantasy, or variants of it. My first book, Scrapbook of my Revolution, is urban fantasy, and my upcoming book, Viola Doyle, is classified as neo-Victorian. Why is dialogue important in fantasy? Because it sets the tone, like it does anywhere. A modern teenager speaks differently than one did in the 1800’s. When I’m reading, I notice slip-ups in dialogue immediately. One word can do it. “Guys” didn’t exist in the Victorian days any more than “lads” does in America now…but “lads” still does in England. I like knowing my setting and making sure the people speak for it without sounding stiff.

Listening is an integral piece of "people watching". Do you "people listen" automatically, or do you make a deliberate effort?

Both! When I wrote Scrapbook of my Revolution I hung out in front of a popular bookstore downtown in the summer evenings. It was my only time to write and I think some of the speech I heard seeped into the story. There are times when I try to listen to kids, too, but for the most part I just take in what’s around me.

Humans exchange a lot of information paraverbally, that is, through intonation, pacing/rhythm, volume, and enunciation. What paraverbal cues are you most sensitive or tuned into as an author, an observer, and a participant?

To me these are the most important. If the cadence of your sentence is off, it’ll all be off. I see this in new authors trying to write British dialogue, for example. It’s not about incorporating slang. It’s about using everyday words in a slightly different way. “I’ve not got that,” is going to sound more authentic than “Hullo, guv’nor!” in almost any context.

Do you enjoy writing dialog? Is there anything about writing dialog that you find challenging?

 I do like it. Actually it’s one of my favorite things to write. The hard thing is trying to get rid of stuff like ellipses and dashes. In real life people generally trail off at the end of a sentence but if you show that all the time it’s impossible to read. The balance can be interesting to achieve.

What have you learned about yourself and your relationships by observing real life & fictional dialog?

Well, I mumble a hell of a lot! I embrace some slang words and hate others, and I’m sure it looks totally arbitrary to anyone else. I think, to some extent, we all have our own little mini-languages, you know? Also, I’m very informal. I embrace that in myself. I don’t do uppity well, and I don’t write it well, so my characters tend to be on the casual side, too.

Do you have any characters with catchphrases or verbal habits? What are they? How do these personal quirks add depth to your characters?

Sure. It makes sense to. It was pointed out to me that some of the teens in Scrapbook were sounding a little alike, for instance, so I gave Daniel the phrase “Right.” He doesn’t use it constantly, and he’s not a main character, but I do think it tends to help make him HIM. Also, Bree swears the most, Kev uses the overt sexual references, and Amber ends up being more of the peacemaker than she wants to, even in her dialogue.

Do your characters ever interrupt, cross-talk or change the subject? Do you use communication interference in your dialog? Why/Why not?

Well, yeah, cause I write ‘em real! You can’t do that sort of thing all the time but dialogue without interruption is just an exercise in what not to do.

Please share with us a dialog gem that you've recently overheard or participated in. What do you think makes this dialog interesting?

Oh man. Well…I have a son, age 11, who has mild Asperger’s Syndrome. Most of the things that he says are interesting and unexpected. He loves puns, for instance, so one day when I was saying goodnight to him I came up with a bad pun I thought he’d love. I don’t even remember what it was, but he just looked at me.
“What?” I said. “I thought that was a good one!”
“Amateur,” he told me.
Now, needless to say I tickled the hell out of him for that, but I think it’s interesting because it’s not what you expect a kid to say, and it shows the parent being brought down to size. The kid is clever, I’ll give him that!

This is a delightful example and made me grin!

Please share with us a dialog gem from your own writing. (If published, please share the title & link to purchase site.) What do you think makes this dialog interesting?

“So, how long you all been together, then?” the Hobo asked.
“Not long.”
“Just this year.”
“Amber got us together.”
Three of us spoke at the same time, and everyone laughed. The Hobo thumped his hand on the arm of the recliner he sat in.
“Enthusiasm!” he said. “I love it. Passion’s a grand thing when it’s not misguided.”
“Don’t get him goin’,” moaned Clay.
“Hobo’s met more’n his fair share of misguided types,” David explained.
The Hobo ignored his bandmates. “Heard of a bloke called Baronson, haven’t you?”
“Vaguely,” I said. “Not exactly a friend to us.”
“Not exactly, no. He came to our concert a few days ago, just to complain about our practices. Now, we don’t take kindly to bein’ bitched at…”
“Although some of us are well used to it,” muttered David.
Daniel choked on a laugh. The Hobo plowed ahead, intent on making his point.
“Yeah, well, that one’s a right head case. Finally had to pitch him out.”
“You threw Abraham Baronson out of your concert?” Casey repeated.
“On his arse,” said Clay.
“Nah, we were nice about it,” disagreed Junior, still tapping away with his sticks.
“He left without convincin’ us to change our policies. And he made the acquaintance of a very large, well-paid mate of ours,” said the Hobo. “But he only hurt his pride, as they say.”

I think this is interesting because although accents are implied, they aren’t overused. They differentiate between the characters, but you get other bits telling you that some of these guys speak differently than the others. It’s got some humor and it’s got a lot of people speaking, but I don’t think it’s too convoluted. It’s not JUST speaking, either. There are a few other things happening, gestures and tapping with drumsticks, to set the scene.

Is there anything else about observing and writing dialog that you’d like to add?

I think you’ll know if you do it well.
People will tell you. It’s the sort of thing that’s noticeable, that makes a book sparkle. If you don’t feel like you’ve got it, keep trying! It can be learned. Better to keep polishing it than keep crappy dialogue in a book. Your people need to speak like themselves, but they can’t tell the whole story, either. Good dialogue needs to mesh with the rest of the story. It needs to be GOOD. Anything else is unacceptable.