WARNING: EXTREME PRETENTIOUSNESS FOLLOWS
Ain’t no pretty wordybabble round these parts. And this could be a problem.
I should explain.
From the moment I started writing the story I’m working on (working title, Cuss), it was in first person. The main character narrates the story, and her voice came through clearly and effortlessly. She has a very particular way of speaking and a severe distrust (which is explained, early on) for what she considers “pretty talk”. Cuss flat-out refuses to speak “properly” unless she’s goaded into it (which happens less often than you might expect considering she’s a teenager with a mile-wide ornery streak).
I find it really easy to write her, and I’m having fun doing it.
My worry is that it might not be so enjoyable to read.
At least not a couple of hundred pages of it. On that scale, reading anything written in dialect could become irritating, or, worse yet, feel like work.
My alpha readers (models of patience and forbearance) say they love her voice, and that I shouldn’t change it. Given that those alpha readers are friends and family, I’m painfully aware that they’re unlikely to say, “Yikes, a whole book of this?! Maybe you should reconsider?” Especially since they’re only seeing a chapter or two at a time, twenty to thirty pages, max.
What was a minor, back-of-the-mind worry has started to nag.
For a long time, I had a reflexive “dig heels in” protocol that engaged at the first whiff of nagging. I’m a bit mellower these days, and a lot more open to the idea that I could be “doing it wrong”. If it’s something I really care about getting right, I’m very open to correction.
I signed up to a writers’ board recently (after years of lurking), and asked the good folks there if they’d be open to reading a novel in dialect.
Some would be, some flat-out wouldn’t be. Several people mentioned a need for consistency (I have a spreadsheet for that!) and others offered advice on phrasing that would trip them up as readers (I’ve done a find and replace job on a couple of those).
Others pointed out that it would depend on how well it was done – which is very fair, but also tough for me to quantify with any sort of objectivity. I’m not Irvine Welsh, I’m not David Mitchell, or Patrick Ness or in anywhere near the same league as any of the authors the writers there mentioned.
What I do have in my corner (maybe?) is a degree in Linguistics; during my undergrad years I drove everyone mad with my focus on dialect (I used to want to be a dialect coach – go figure). This does not mean that I don’t have a tin ear, but it makes me a little hopeful that the voice reads true.
But even if it does read true, does that mean I should keep writing in it? It’s not just a question of whether the voice itself is engaging, it’s the possibility that it would become grating, and quickly.
Because some of you are no doubt scratching your heads by now and wondering just how heavy the dialect is, here are a couple of examples from the first chapter:
I guess, if I’m to tell you a story, it may as well be the whole thing, all of it. And so that means I need to explain some about momma and Caleb and me, how we lived and how momma died. I’ll try to do it orderly, like, so you can follow along easy, and I’ll try not to take too long over the borin’ parts, life bein’ mostly made up of those.
See, when momma was bein’ sweet her tongue spun pure silver and you could sometimes forget that momma’s silver words were like soap bubbles, all pretty floaty but destined to go splat afore too long. And when momma’s silver word bubbles went splat, it weren’t with no delicate apologetic tinkle. It were like the chop of an ax fallin’, this real abrupt thwok when some part of her brain crashed into another and everything got all cut up and snippy.
Remember, I have zero objectivity here; that could be goshdarnedawfulterribad. (If it is, feel free to chime in with a comment below and tell me so. I’m a big girl, I can take it!)
Even with all the feedback I’ve already gotten (which I’m incredibly grateful for), it’s becoming clear that this isn’t something I’m going to be able to sort out easily.
For the moment, for this draft, I’m going to keep going as I have been (but incorporating the changes mentioned above). My rationale is that it’s more important to keep up the momentum and have a draft in hand than it is to go back and re-do what I already have. Later, I’ll do an editing pass focused purely on language and see how much of the dialect I can prune back without messing up the voice. For all I know, I could be thoroughly sick of it myself by then.
This has been an angsty post.
I will try to be less angsty in future.
Thank you for your patience 😉
/EXTREME PRETENTIOUSNESS (hopefully)