Sunday, March 2, 2014

Observing & Writing Dialog With Cassandra Page

Cassandra Page

Those of you who know me and/or have been following this series of interviews, know that I grew up in the Alaskan bush, but this week’s author lives in the opposite hemisphere in the land of the original back-country “bush”.  Please help me welcome Cassandra Page.


Cassandra Page is a mother, author, editor and geek. She lives in Canberra, Australia’s bush capital, with her son and two Cairn Terriers. She has a serious coffee addiction and a tattoo of a cat—which is ironic, as she’s allergic to cats. When she’s not reading or writing, she engages in geekery, from Doctor Who to AD&D. Because who said you need to grow up?

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

I write young adult and new adult urban fantasy. There isn’t a better way to establish your characters’ voices than through dialogue, in my opinion. (There are other, equally good ways, but better? Nope.) Dialogue is also a brilliant way to tell the reader about backstory without having to resort to the dreaded info dump. The trick is to do it in such a way that you don’t have two characters who both already know something discussing it as though it was new. Because awkward.

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

The truth is somewhere in the middle. I’d like to say I do it automatically but I’m self-aware enough to realise I’m an introvert and often lost in my own thoughts, so the truth is that unless I’m already part of a conversation, it takes something to catch my ear before I tune in and focus. Eavesdropping is like research for writers, right? (Hey, at least I don’t go through people’s trash cans!)

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?

As a participant, I’m averse to conflict. I hate confrontations. At first that seems like a no-brainer, but I know people who thrive on it, loving a good argument. I’m not one of those, which means I’m most sensitive to cues that let me avoid it if I can: raised voices; hard inflection—the sort of thing that would be indicated in writing by an exclamation mark or a dialogue tag like “she snapped” or “he barked”.
As an author and observer (and the two tend to be the same thing, because when I observe it tends to be with my author brain on), the question is a lot harder to answer, because I don’t think there is any one thing I notice more than the rest. I know my characters tend to mumble and speak softly when they are sad or worried, so maybe that’s it.

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

Writing dialogue is absolutely my favourite thing about drafting—especially the kind of dialogue that is a back-and-forth banter between characters. It flows most easily from my fingers, and I can easily write pages without knowing it. The challenge for me is to break up the dialogue with sufficient action or description of what the characters are doing so that the reader doesn’t get dialogued to death. Usually I have to go back and do that later—otherwise it’s all “he said, she said”, which is blah. But that’s what editing is for!

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

As previously mentioned, I’ve learned from real life dialogue that I don’t deal well with being the target of hostility or forced into confrontational situations. I like to imagine myself as a strong, confident person, but I still take things to heart more than I should. As I’ve grown older and (possibly) wiser, I’ve learned to give myself the space to calm down and think about how to respond rather than just leaping in there and saying something I might regret later—or letting myself get harassed into agreeing to something that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t flustered. (“Flustered” is a great word, isn’t it?)
As far as fictional dialogue goes, the answer again isn’t as clear cut. I have definitely noticed that I love the smart alec characters best—the ones with witty dialogue and wise ass comebacks. I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, and the testosterone-driven banter between Jace and Simon is a great example of that.

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

My main character in my forthcoming debut, Isla’s Inheritance, tends to argue with herself. So she’ll say something and then think about what she just said—especially when what she’s said is a prevarication. She also loves the word “awkward”.
As do I. Awkward.

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

I use this technique a fair bit, either as an interjection or an interruption. In real life, people talk over and interrupt each other all the time, often without even realising it. It’s part of the pattern of speech—we so rarely speak in discrete turns. I try and represent that in my fiction, although I tone it down for the sake of readability (in the same way that my character say “um” and “ah” a little bit, but nowhere near as much as real people do).
As for deliberately changing the subject, I tend to reserve that for when a character is uncomfortable with something. Otherwise, I’ll try and steer the conversation in such a way that it happens more naturally.

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

The conversations that stay with me in real life are the same sort as my favourites to read: those with funny banter. It may be because I’m stereotypically Australian in that I have an irreverent sense of humour. In Australia we call it “taking the piss”—making fun of something or someone, but not in a malicious way. And the funniest banter I’m involved in is usually not safe for work. Ironically, work is where a lot of it takes place (but only when the boss isn’t listening)!
One that stuck with me from last week was between my boyfriend and me. I was telling him about some medical trials I’d heard about, for a possible cure for Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s Diseases. (I know, right?!) His reply made me fall off my chair laughing: “A cure for Alzheimer’s? That’s fantastic news! … What were we talking about again?”
That’s the kind of humour I love. Self-depreciating and irreverent.

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?

This is from the first chapter of my YA urban fantasy, Isla’s Inheritance, which is told in the first person from Isla’s perspective. I chose it as an example because it shows the difference in personality between Isla and her cousin Sarah, and because it’s fun.
(My publisher, Turquoise Morning Press, would want me to add the disclaimer that these are draft words and the final words may be different or contain more awesome. So please consider those added.)

“Oh my god.” Sarah gave me a hug and pulled me into a little dance. “First kiss, first kiss!” she crowed.
“Shh, Sarah. Not so loud!”
“Why not? It’s great news.”
“But not that I’m seventeen and had never been kissed before,” I hissed. “That’s humiliating!”
“Pfft,” Sarah said, but lowered her voice. “You should invite him in when you get home.” She waggled her eyebrows.
Sarah! I’ve had enough firsts for one day, thank you very much.”
She laughed.

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

My pet peeve when I’m reading is the sort of dialogue that is the furthest from real life—where one character will speak for eight or nine lines, presenting several theories and asking a couple of questions, and then the other will reply, again in a huge chunk of dialogue. Maybe it’s just me, but if people really spoke like that, I’d forget half of what I was meant to reply to by the time it was my turn to speak. So my advice? Don’t do that. ;)



Cassandra’s debut novel, Isla’s Inheritance, comes out with Turquoise Morning Press in the (Australian) spring of 2014. If you want to hear more about it, you can cyberstalk her via the following links: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Pinterest

Congratulations on your upcoming debut, Cassandra!