Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eliza Graham Redux

Just a short post to note that Eliza Graham has announced that her second novel has been picked up by MNW for publication next September.

I throughly enjoyed her previous novel, Playing with the Moon, and I'm glad to be able to look forward to her next one.

Friday, September 28, 2007

What Book Are You?

I'm not sure who started this, but Faye L. Booth and Roger Morris have both taken the What Book Are You? quiz. Six questions, and--zing!--you know what book you are. (I'm sure you've been wondering.)

Faye herself turns out to be Joyce's Ulysses. (A surprise to me. Offhand I would have guessed she was Poe's Fall of the House of Usher. But you can't quarrel with scientific results like these.)

Roger Morris turns out to be Vonnegut's Mother Night, which is a brilliant book, and Vonnegut's least Vonnegutesque novel. I wouldn't have thought Roger would be anything quite so dark...but, then, I recall that's he's a Dostoyevsky fan...

So, in my typical spirit of me-too-ism, I'm puzzled to report that I seem to be:

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT SOUNDS LIKE THIS!

Hunh. Who knew?

And what's with the "you inspire faith in almost everyone you know"? Almost? Can I get a list of the people who know me who are slackers in the inspired-by-David category? And what effect do I have on the holdouts? Despair? Incredulity? Hilarity?

I also have my doubts about the last sentence. Anyone who has met me will testify that, unless I have a microphone, when I speak, it sounds like this.

I'm pretty jazzed to discover I'm an agent of higher powers, though. Do I get 15%?

I'm a little skeptical. If you asked me what book I was, I would have suggested The House at Pooh Corner or perhaps Levy and Salvadori's Why Buildings Fall Down.

Pamela took the test, and was told:

You're Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Considered by most to be depraved and immoral, you are obsessed with sex. What really tantalizes you is that which deviates from societal standards in every way, though you admit that this probably isn't the best and you're not sure what causes this desire. Nonetheless, you've done some pretty nefarious things in your life, and probably gotten caught for them. The names have been changed, but the problems are real. Please stay away from children.

A woman like that is hard to find. Am I one lucky guy, or what?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

So Long, Charkin Blog

Ulp. This makes three posts in a day. That's all wrong...

But, if you haven't heard already, Richard Charkin, the CEO of Macmillan (and a big supporter of the Macmillan New Writing concept from the start), has moved to a job as Executive Director at Bloomsbury. (Mike Barnard, MNW's founder, will be emerging from retirement to take up the job of Deputy Chairman for the moment.)

I haven't any idea what this means to Macmillan, Bloomsbury, or publishing in general. But what it clearly means is the end of the Charkin Blog, one of the more prolific blogs on the web, and one of my favorites (despite the disproportionate number of posts on cricket). Without warning, Mr Charkin filed his brief farewell post today.

If you never visited the Charkin Blog, you've missed out on a lot of good information, as well as some rather snippy controversy and a whole lot of fun. Perhaps the finest moment was the occasion on which, to prove a point about intellectual property rights, Mr Charkin and a partner in crime stole two computers from Google at Book Expo America.

In any case, good luck to Richard Charkin--and I hope that Bloomsbury will devote at least a few of their Harry-Potter bucks to establishing another Charkin Blog over there.

Favorite Books

No, not mine. Tim Stretton's. Over on his blog he has listed his ten favorites, and is now in the process of writing fairly lengthy essays on each on and why you should read it.

I know some other visitors to this blog are following Tim's list already, but if you aren't among them, you may want to drop on by and catch up with his very eclectic list.

Eight Things About Me

No, I'm not trying to top Aliya Whiteley's novel Three Things About Me. In any case, in the Three Things game, one of the facts is supposed to be false.

No, in the present case, Charles Lambert tagged me to write "eight random facts/habits or embarrassing things" about myself. Don't blame him. Rather improbably, this one traces back about a year from him to the Fiction Bitch herself, Elizabeth Baines, and before Elizabeth supposedly to Roger Morris (though I don't find a post from him on this topic), and to I don't know where before that. Charles couldn't come up with eight folks to pass it on to (he managed four of us). I won't even try to do the tagging; I'll just issue a formal challenge to anyone passing through.

Here's eight things about me:

1. I can stick my shoulder blades out behind me to such a degree that they look like the stumps of wings.

2. There was a time when I thought Iron Butterfly was the best thing that had ever happened to music, and could use “groovy” in a sentence without any irony.

3. In college (when we looked better with our clothes off) my girlfriend and I earned extra cash as life-drawing models, often as a pair. One young woman used me for her senior thesis in sculpture. Somewhere out there are a half-dozen two-foot-high statues of me in the buff.

4. I have “hollow palms,” which, in palmistry is generally considered A Bad Thing (either a melancholy temperament, or an overdevelopment of the Mounts under the fingers, leading to Excess. Palmistry is so Victorian.) In any case, my palms are so hollow that when I squeeze my hands together I can create a squeaking sound and even produce a tune of sorts. This talent has not yet made me famous, but it fascinates people. People under the age of seven, that is.

5. Through various accidents and altercations, I’ve had my front teeth knocked out on three separate occasions.

6. We have an ongoing kefir culture in our cupboard, and I sometimes make tempeh. Between tempeh and kefir and cheese and wine, it occurs to me that a disproportionate amount of what we eat around here is fermented.

7. I find it easier and more relaxing to read nonfiction than fiction. Fiction requires an emotional commitment.

8. Not only do I read in the bath, I’ve been known to read in the shower. This takes a certain degree of skill, especially when you wash your hair, but I assure you it can be done.

Any other folks willing to reveal their outermost secrets?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

If You Happen to be Passing Through Sligo...

Brian McGilloway was kind enough to drop me a note telling me he found several copies of Shock and Awe sitting in the Just Published section of Keohane's Books in Sligo. I never expected to hear my book was on the shelves in Ireland--the Irish, of course, being the real owners of the English language--so I'm jazzed to an embarrassing degree.

I'm hoping the fact that Shock and Awe's epigraph is from WB Yeats (we had to pay his estate for four lines of verse, which made more sense back when the title was Smite the Waters, but it was money well-spent anyhow) will give me some street cred with the locals. Yo, Willy Butler--howzit hangin', dawg?

Speaking of Mr McGilloway, his debut novel Borderlands (which was selected by The Times as a Best Summer Read, and I sure can't argue with them) seems to have continued doing good business. A few months ago, it sold to the Japanese publisher Hayakawa, which is one of the top Asian publishers of American and European novels. Best of all, though, it has even broken through the walls of Fortress New York, becoming the first MNW title to be onsold to an American publisher. Thomas Dunne Books, a well-known imprint of St Martin's Press, has not only bought Borderlands for hardback publication next year, but has also bought the hardback rights to his follow-on Gallows Lane (which is planned for MNW publication in April 2008). There are plans for both to come out in US paperbacks as well.

I'd like to pretend my interest in this topic is entirely selfless, but the truth is I'm hoping Brian has blown a big enough hole in the North American defences that some of the rest of us can sneak through the breach behind him. Little Rock, Arkansas, here we come...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Mysteries of Amazon

Matt Curran has been musing (with only the tiniest touch of asperity) on why The Secret War has been absent from Amazon US for so long, and why, now that the book is there the synopsis is attenuated; and finally, he’s been wondering where the thing is published, as it is still listed as Macmillan New Writing.

Helpful as always, I can say with certainty that I haven’t a clue on the first two questions he poses. (There. Glad to be of service.) On the third matter—where the heck is this published?—I can engage in some meagerly informed speculation. People getting MNW books over here from Amazon US seem to be getting the same UK editions; the books seem to be shipped across the Atlantic to one of Amazon’s US warehouses. (Hence the “Usually ships within 4 to 7 weeks” estimate. Even my plumber’s estimates have a narrower range than that.)

But staring at the Amazon US and UK pages for Shock and Awe and The Secret War, I found other puzzles, as my book is now available from both sources as well. I’d been advising folks to order from Amazon UK, as it was available there first, the shipping time was shorter and the prices were about the same. But on close examination, given current exchange rates and the complication of shipping charges, I began to wonder.

Let’s take a look from the US buyer’s perspective, starting with Matt’s book. Amazon UK charges £2.99 to ship a book to North America, plus a £3.99 handling charge, resulting, at today’s exchange rate of £1 = $2.02, in a jaw-dropping shipping charge of £6.98 = $14.10. Amazon UK gives (or, to those speaking British English, who insist that a corporate entity is plural, ‘Amazon UK give’) a discount of £3.90 off the cover price of £12.99 for a price of £9.09, which in our wimpy US currency at the moment amounts to a price of $18.36. Add all that up, and for a US buyer, The Secret War from Amazon UK will cost £16.07= $32.46 delivered. (And probably get you on a Homeland Security watchlist, too. I mean, the title does sound a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?)

Ordering from Amazon US, the charges are somewhat simpler…at first. The book is priced at $26.27, which is very close to the cover price of £12.99, and the shipping is $3.99. Maybe. If you’re one of those obsessive sorts who reads footnotes, the shipping changes include the warning that *Books with listed availabilities of more than 3 weeks may incur an additional shipping fee of $1.99 per item. (Why this should be so is baffling. It seems like we’re being punished enough already by having to wait.) So, a US buyer ordering The Secret War from Amazon US will pay as little as $30.26 or as much as $32.25, depending on aspects formed between Mercury (communication and writing) and any planets you have in Gemini (which governs publishing), and on what was served in the Amazon cafeteria at lunch.

In other words, at the moment, depending on currency fluctuations, The Secret War costs pretty much the same for us Yanks whether we order from Amazon UK or Amazon US. Economists call this situation arbitrage. Other folks I know refer to this situation as ‘you can’t win.’

One would suspect that a similar arrangement would prevail for Shock and Awe. One would be wrong.

Amazon UK is selling Shock and Awe for £10.49 (£4.50 off the cover price of £14.99). That’s $21.19 to us colonials. Add the $14.10 shipping charges, and we’re up to a delivered total of $35.29.

Worth every penny, of course. But Amazon US is selling it for $20.04 (a savings of $10.32 off the cover price of $30.36—exchange rates do strange things). Add in the standard shipping of $3.99, and you’re up to $24.03. Or, with the mystical maybe-you-pay-it-and-maybe-you-don’t $1.99 surcharge, a total of $26.02.

Mathematics has never been my best subject, but even I can tell that $35.29 is a bit more than $24.03 (or maybe $26.02). Like $11.26 more (or maybe $9.27). So, without offering to give financial advice or holding myself out as a chartered accountant, I think I can state with confidence that Amazon US now offers the better deal on Shock and Awe for those living in the US. For now. That could change at any minute.

And, you might have to wait longer than when ordering from Amazon UK. Then again, you might not. Amazon UK has delivered MNW books to me within 10 days, but has on occasion taken up to nine weeks. Roll them dice!

One final note. I have mixed feelings about Amazon. I like the fact that I can order any book from them, and am not limited to what happens to be on the shelves of a local bookstore. And I like the fact that they can be used as a sort of free database. Amazon has done great things.

On the other hand, I’d rather pick up my books from a bookstore. Bookstores are the temples of our art. Many bookstores complain they can’t keep up with Amazon’s deep discounts, but Amazon’s pricing isn’t a favorable as it looks: once you include the shipping costs, Amazon’s delivered prices often aren’t that different from the cover price, and are sometimes more than you would pay in a bookstore.

Anyway, my sincere thanks to everyone who has bought Shock and Awe, from whatever source, despite the fact that the NYMEX market in January heating oil futures looks like a model of price stability in comparison. It's like a typical airline flight these days: every passenger has paid a different price. (Contact me if you want little baggies of free peanuts or pretzels.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Okay, Now I Can Relax....

I just returned home from a long and rather chaotic trip, driving down to Huntington Beach straight-through from Reno. To add to what should have been a nine-hour drive, I decided to take the scenic route by hopping onto Highway 120, which crosses the Sierras. Scenic indeed, but a thirteen-hour drive in all.

Diligent (okay, compulsive) soul that I am, I stumbled into the house and checked my e-mail. To my delight, the redoubtable Roger Morris had sent pictures of Shock and Awe in it's natural habitat. Here it is perched in Goldsboro Books (signed copies, I might add--DHL works wonders).

Sharp-eyed readers will note that it is in the company of Michael Stephen Fuchs' latest tome, Pandora's Sisters.

Here it is in Waterstones Oxford Street, though it has abandoned Mr Fuchs in favor of John Irving.

Roger also saw it in Foyles, though he had to make them drag a copy from the back (and they apparently insisted that it was entitled Smite the Waters--c'mon, who'd give a book a crazy title like that?) Borders suggested it might be on one of their shelving trolleys. In other words, London bookshops work about like US bookshops.

But no matter. I've seen it on the shelves (unless Roger has done some very crafty Photoshop work. He is in advertising in his spare time, you know...) But it's good enough to fool me, so I'm off to bed.

Thanks, Roger.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Favorite Fiction About Writers

On his blog a few days back, Tim Stretton mentions a thriller he enjoyed despite the fact that the protagonist is a writer (which he describes as "usually A Very Bad Sign.")

In general, I have to agree. Telling stories about writers probably isn’t a great idea. As the movies have discovered, there isn’t much drama inherent in the process, and even less visual interest. The best Hollywood can do is to insist that we all still use typewriters, because the hammering of the keys and the bite of the letters into the page (often shown in close-up) at least offer some tiny sense of momentum. Not to mention the growing stack of pages, which can then be stolen, or, as in the 2003 film Love Actually—where Liam Neeson is still, of course, using a typewriter—be blown all over the place by an errant wind.

Word processing has eliminated the limited cinematic value we had, and the situation in prose isn’t that much better. Who wants to read about someone’s struggle to write? It’s like reading about someone’s struggle to get out of bed.

Nonetheless, I do have some favorite tales with writers as protagonists. If you ask nicely, I’ll tell you what they are.

“How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore. A short story included in her wonderful collection Self-Help, but also widely anthologized. Begins with the famous line, “First, try to be something, anything, else.” Compresses a whole career into a few pages.

“Lost in the Funhouse” by John Barth. A short story, in his collection of the same title, where the protagonist must be interpreted as a younger version of the omniscient narrator. The narrator is not only intrusive but self-conscious and keeps interrupting himself with notes on how fiction is composed. Simultaneously hilarious and instructive.

The Hook by Donald E. Westlake. Blackly humorous crime story about a bestselling but blocked writer, plus a fellow writer who has fallen out of publication, and a pact. Grim yet funny.

Foul Matter by Martha Grimes. A writer arranges to have a literary writer dumped from a publisher's list, and the publisher finds the only way to break the literary writer's contract is to have the literary writer killed. Problem is, the hit men hired develop an interest in literature. Hey, everybody’s a critic.

The Calling by Sterling Watson. Hard to find these days. The story of a young writer who attends a writing workshop conducted by his literary idol. The dark side of writing groups, mentor-protégé relationships, and the war between artists and their loved ones. Has an autobiographical feel.

Famous Writers School by Steven Carter. A funny, cleverly constructed epistolary novel built around a fiction correspondence course. The chapters are composed of lessons, student submissions, and letters from the teacher. Pitch-perfect and squirm-inducing.

That’s my list. But no doubt I’ve overlooked some gems. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

As If You Hadn't Heard Enough From Me Already

The estimable Steven North (no relation, insofar as I know, to the enigmatic character in Brian Martin's novel), has published an interview with me in the newish but rapidly expanding Pan Macmillan interview archive.

I do go on, don't I?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Return of the Black Bat

There's one exciting event of publication day I didn't mention. By coincidence, publication day brought a ringing of the doorbell and two boxes of well-wrapped, ultracushioned copies of Shock and Awe from Goldsboro Books. David Headley has been kind enough to send them to me to be signed and sent back. (Don't hesitate to drop through, even if you don't want a signed copy. He'll sell you unsigned copies, too.)

It was gratifying, seeing the books carefully packed, as though they were Faberge eggs, or bottles of nitroglycerin. Between those, and my authors copies, and another dozen I ordered from Macmillan, I'm up to my snoot in Shock and Awe.

(Yes, that is a baby tyrannosaur keeping watch over the flock of books. A cement tyrannosaur, though decoratively painted. Pamela collects unusual eggs, and that one certainly qualifies as unusual. It also weighs an effing ton.)

So, I've been having my own private signing. And, in the course of this I noticed something odd. The Macmillan New Writing logo is an open book viewed from an oblique angle, with the viewer at the lower left-hand corner. In the early days--from Brian Martin's North to Jonathan Drapes' Never Admit to Beige--the book was black. Although a sensible person would have seen it to be a book, my initial reaction was that it was a bat. On closer inspection, though, it seemed to be a male boat-tailed grackle facing right, in threat posture, and with his tail spread wide.

Then suddenly, with Matt Curran's Secret War, the logo turned white, with little outlines to make certain you could tell it was a book. And so it stayed through eight more novels, until Shock and Awe, when suddenly the Black Bat logo returned.

And what does this portend? Is it a message of some sort? Did the Grackle lobby pull strings? Was it unintentional?

You puzzle it out. I'm going back to the living room to join the dinosaur in gloating over the books.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Later on Pub Day

Now here's a curiosity for you, though I discovered it too late to fully enjoy it: a site called BookkooB. It compares prices for a book between different online retailers (yawn), but for lovers of trivia, coincidence, or synchronicity (pick one depending on your philosophic orientation) it also tells you what books are being published on a particular date.

Unfortunately, it isn't archival, and the entries appear to be writ in water. As far as I can tell, tomorrow we will no longer be able to access information about September 7th, 2007. So I hasten to inform you that 66 books were published in the UK on the 7th. In addition to the most important book--Shock and Awe, that is--this was also the pub date for:

The Pan paperback version of North by Brian Martin (congrats, Brian--I always liked that book)

The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis (yes, that David Thewlis)

The Gruffalo's Child by Julia Donaldson (yes, that Gruffalo)

The Boss's Wife for a Week by Anne McAllister (you guessed it, Harlequin Mills & Boon)

The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (no author listed--maybe God wrote it?)

You can look forward easily enough by using the little calendars on the sidebar, so you can see who shares pub dates with LC Tyler (The Herring Seller's Apprentice), Faye L. Booth (Cover the Mirrors), or Peter Anthony (A Town Called Immaculate). Three months seems to be the limit, though; I don't find Alis Hawkins (January) or Aliya Whitely (February--is she prolific, or what?) in the opening months of 2008. Yet.

Meanwhile, a friend has received the following e-mail from Amazon UK:

Dear Customer,

We wanted to give you an update on the status of your order. We are sorry to report that the following items have been delayed:

David Isaak (Author) "Shock and Awe" [Hardcover]

Estimated arrival date: 15/10/07 - 31/10/07

We are sorry for any inconvenience this causes.

If I recall, something like this happened to Eliza Graham back in June. One can only hope that the astonishingly heavy orders caught them off guard. Yeah...that must be it.

And apparently the short supply is bidding up the price--although the Amazon UK website insists the book is "in stock", the price has jumped from £9.89 to £10.49. I guess I'd better hang on to my copies. Guess there's a run on the market.

Hey, Look--It Seems to be September 7th...

There is something mythic about the date of publication, and you actually come to believe that on this one particular morning you will wake up to the phone ringing off the hook and your publisher will be so excited that they will have hired the Blue Angels precision flying team to buzz your squalid little hovel, which you will be moving out of as soon as sales of the book really take off.

Anne Lamott,
Bird by Bird

With Ms. Lamott, as well as a number of published acquaintances, to disabuse me of wild notions, I didn't have overamped expectations for today. So far, though, it's been a pleasant time. Had a nice note from editor Will Atkins, some e-mails from friends and relatives, and, best of all, the first sighting ("in the wild" as he put it) of Shock and Awe.

Eagle-eyed Tim Stretton spotted it--two copies--in a Waterstones in Chichester. (He says there may have been a third, as there was a gap between me and John Irving.)

I've never been to Chichester. My travels to the UK have encompassed London and Oxford and London and Salisbury and London and London and London and London--sort of like the Monty Python Spam menu. But I'm now convinced that Chichester is a vastly civilized place, with cultivated tastes. (Plus, glancing through Wikipedia, I see that one of the Chichester city fathers was the first man to be killed by being hit by a locomotive. Now there's glory for you.)

If any of you spot my book on the shelves in the bookstores you haunt, let me know. Of necessity I'm living vicariously here.

Ooops, gotta run! I think the Blue Angels are flying over...

Tim Stretton Joins the Blogosphere...

Tim Stretton, whose The Dog of the North is forthcoming from MNW next July, has thrown aside his skepticism and good common sense about how to spend his time and launched his own blog, named (like his website) ::Acquired Taste. It's his first day amongst the chattering classes and he's already posted three times, so you ought to go take a look before you have to run to catch up.

(And, no, I don't know what's up with the "::" symbol. But I'd advise against staring at it for too long. You never know.)

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A Simple Question or Two

Okay, I’m familiar, from watching friends’ books get published, with the fact you can often buy “used” copies on Amazon even before the book is formally available. I assume these are usually review copies the reviewers have dumped on the market.

I haven’t tried working out the economics of this. Do reviewers make the majority of their income from selling their review copies? Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this. (Perhaps my pal David Thayer, who receives review copies by the cartload.)

In any case, I’m not puzzled that Shock and Awe, which is now available on Amazon (subtle hint), should be accompanied by a bunch of offers to buy copies from other sources, in mint conditions, at lower prices. But why would anyone be offering to sell on Amazon for above Amazon’s price? Amazon is selling the book for £9.89. Two people want to sell it for about £8.90—so far so good. But the rest of the offers are all around £11.99. What’s the point of that? Are there people who go onto Amazon but refuse to buy books from Amazon but still buy books through Amazon? Is there a special Executive Edition of the book out there that plays a tune when you open it?

A little over a week ago, Faye Booth updated the ever-expanding list of online retailers handling her forthcoming Cover the Mirrors (subtle hint). She raised an eyebrow at the fact the book was being handled by Computer Manuals.

Being a nosey parker (which I discovered from reading Edward Charles’ In the Shadow of Lady Jane, actually means being a nosey gamekeeper—who knew?), I checked to see if Computer Manuals was also handling Shock and Awe, or if they’d somehow decided that Cover the Mirrors was a new programming language.

Indeed, when I searched on Isaak, I found that they were selling my book (three cheers for them!). There it was, listed right between Russian Space Suits: Soviet/Russian Space-Suit History by Isaak Abramov and A. Ingemar Skoog, and The Compleat Angler by Isaak Walton. Shock and Awe: £10.94. Computer Manuals seems to sell a complete range of fiction, including self-published novels from the United States.

But someone called Computer Manuals is listed twice on Amazon as wanting to sell copies for £11.99…

Is this a shell game? A tax dodge? A system by which terrorist communicate commands to their distant cells?

The book business is really odd.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, V

I asserted (or maybe "said") before that dialogue tags are a convention for accomplishing one thing, namely pointing to the speaker. But the tags themselves, no matter how invisible to the reading eye, have a rhythm in the reader's ear. Rhythm in dialogue is not only a rhythm of beats, but, for lack of a better term, a rhythm of meaning. This is an element of prosody that comes naturally to many writers, but only with experience to others.

There are important rhythmical differences between

"I want them and I intend to have them," Lizzie said.


Lizzie said, "I want them and I intend to have them."


"I want them," Lizzie said, "and I intend to have them."

Because prose, like music, is a linear modality, whatever comes last gets a slight, undeserved (and sometimes unwanted) emphasis. In the first example, we get the dialogue, followed by the tag, which throws the emphasis very slightly to Lizzie rather than to what she said. In the second example, we reverse this, giving the reader Lizzie first and then throwing the emphasis onto what she said, which tends to sound a bit more dramatic.

The third example, of course, is the most dramatic of the three, because it temporarily suspends the dialogue (indeed, suspends meaning), like an actor pausing for a beat in delivery. The suspense throws the emphasis heavily to the last part of the line. The first example imparts a more matter-of-fact tone; the third sounds as though Lizzie is really making a point.

The beat can be added even more effectively (and sometimes overdramatically) by what actors call "business":

"I want them." Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms. "And I intend to have them."

It is also legitimate to insert business through em-dashes, which break the dialogue without inserting a true tag, but let the sentence run without a period:

"I want them—" Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms—"and I intend to have them."

The convention on how this is punctuated is still under debate; you also see

"I want them"—Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms "—and I intend to have them."

and several other combinations. I happen to like the em-dash interruption, but it has had a pernicious effect on how dialogue is written, leading some writers to believe they can write

"I want them," Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms, "and I intend to have them."

That's a comma splice, as is

"I want them," Lizzie smiled, "and I intend to have them."

which, to compound the sin, has her "smiling" her words.

Some writers don't seem to realize that a full stop in the middle of dialogue is legitimate. So instead of

"I want them." Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms. "And I intend to have them. And if anyone wants to fight about it, they can see me in court." She glanced back over her shoulder with a feral glaze to her eyes. "Or, perhaps they'd like to meet me in single combat?"

we get

"I want them," Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms, "and I intend to have them. And if anyone wants to fight about it, they can see me in court," she glanced back over her shoulder with a feral glaze to her eyes, "or, perhaps they'd like to meet me in single combat?"

I have no intention of meeting Lizzie in in combat, since she's beginning to seem a bit daffy (and I have no clue what it is she wants, though she's pretty damned insistent), but the second version of the paragraph is a run-on trainwreck. It's fine to put business into dialogue with full stops. Not everything needs to be stitched together with commas. Honest.

Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Mechanics VI (What, Still?)


Since I’m on a prolonged rant, let me make a brief mention of ordering within the dialogue tag. Technically, both

“Hello,” she said.


“Hello,” said she.

are both correct. And I’ve seen some writers in workshops who switch them around at random moments, said-she following she-said, apparently for the sake of variety.

I find said she jarring. At times, it strikes me as stilted and a bit archaic, with a Quoth-the-Raven flavor. At other moments, it reminds me of a bad children’s book:

“Look, Jane!” said Dick. “See Spot run!”
“Run, Spot, run!” said Jane.

When in doubt, try moving the tag to the front of the sentence. If it sounds odd there, then it’s probably sounding odd to some of us elsewhere:

Said she, “Hello.”

See what I mean?


If you’ve read my previous remarks on dialogue tags, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t care for adverbs in tags. Unusual attribution verbs draw my attention; loading on an adverb compounds the problem. It makes me terribly conscious of the fact that there’s an author lurking on the page.

Now, odd attribution verbs and adverbs modifying them don’t always knock me out of the story. If the author is talented enough, I may gloss right across them. But since I see them as a potential sticky spot in the prose, I avoid them.

If I were unable to live without them, though, I’d worry about where I put them. For instance

“You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet,” he hinted ominously.

By the time I finish that line, I’m thinking about ominous hinting. I’ve pretty much forgotten about the letter. This is especially a problem if the dialogue is good (unlike my example), as the dialogue tag shouts too loudly. At the minimum, if I’d die without ominous hints, I’d at least rearrange it to end on the dialogue (see remarks under DICK AND JANE):

He hinted ominously, “You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet.”

This way we at least get the attribution out of the way so we can pay attention to the dialogue. When I suggest this to writers who are addicted to “creative” dialogue tags, they tend to say, but He hinted ominously looks weird at the beginning of the sentence. True enough. If you pay attention, it looks pretty darn weird anywhere in the sentence, while there’s no problem with

He said, “You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet.”

Of course, if you don’t think the ominous line gets enough ominosity (excuse me—I meant ominosituousness) from the words themselves, you can always add business:

He held his breath for a moment before he said, “You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet.”

In addition to being distracting, most of the –ly adverbs that pop up in tags are abstract and judgmental. Excitedly, nervously, ominously, heatedly, and their allies all lean more toward telling and less toward showing. Most of us have learned to dramatize important moments rather than explaining them—having a man leave the room by slamming the door, rather than having him leave “angrily”; but some writers are still comfortable with having those –ly adverbs in their dialogue tags, as though the tags are a nature preserve for endangered abstractions.

These sorts of things can be overlooked or ignored by readers, but they certainly don’t make for stronger writing.

Or so said I.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, IV


Verbs of intonation—though they often become preposterous—at least try to serve the same purpose as ‘said,’ even as they fluster and giggle themselves into cuckooland. There exists, however, another entire category of said substitutes that, rather than trying to show intonation, explain or expand on the dialogue. Most writers are familiar with the old saw, “Show, don’t tell;” dialogue tags of this type are designed to tell what presumably ought to have been shown only a few words previously.

It can be difficult to distinguish writers who fear their dialogue doesn’t convey enough from those who think their readers are rather dense; some may believe both at once. In any case, this kind of dialogue can be hilarious in its redundancy:

“You bet I will!” he affirmed.

“Do you think that’s possible?” he wondered.

“I disagree with this!” he objected.

And, of course, the champion of them all, from Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Ultimatum:

“I repeat,” repeated Alex.

Redundancy is usually just clumsiness. But sometimes writers have other goals. The dialog may not be definitive enough to carry the message—or so they worry—and therefore they prop it up with ‘taunted,’ ‘teased,’ or ‘joked.’ (Or ‘threatened,’ ‘hinted,’ or ‘insinuated.’) And, true, sometimes the reading of even a good line may not be found in the line. “Don’t make me kill you,” could be a genuine threat or a mild joke. But if we need to be told that it is a joke, there must be something severely lacking in the characterization, the atmosphere of the scene, and the context of the surrounding sentences.

The intrusion of the author with a verb in the dialogue tag at such a point is as arbitrary as a laugh-track, and because it interferes directly with the mechanics of dialogue conventions, it is clear that it is the writer telling us what to think.

Some writers defend their “mused,” or “expounded,” or “lectured” on grounds of economy. Indeed, it is more economical than giving full context. It is also more economical to say, ‘John was mad,’ than to dramatize John’s anger and let the reader work it out. More economical is not always more effective.

The purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the reader which character said the words within the quotation marks. It is not the place for characterization, or describing action, or conveying mental states. The tag is a very simple mechanism, and loading more freight onto such a slender bar can deform it.


Said substitutes can endeavor to be funny, or to describe tone of voice, or to tell us something about motivation. Most of the time, such efforts are suspect, and more likely to detract from the story than add, but at least they have a purpose. But some ‘said’ substitutes seem to have no reason to exist other than a writer’s desire for variety. What possible good is “he replied,” or “he answered”? In what context and with what dialogue would this not be obvious?

Even odder are constructions such as “he stated,” “he uttered,” or “he articulated.” (As a number of friends have pointed out, JK Rowling is fond of "he ejaculated." Talk about distracting...) These words may seem to add weight to the wispy verb ‘said,’ but weight isn’t what is wanted. If the message that the reader takes away from your carefully crafted dialogue is not the power and sense of the dialogue itself, but rather the fact that it was ‘intoned,’ then you have cut the feet from beneath your story.

There are greater sins in dialogue tags than ‘said’ substitutes: adverbs that clamor for attention, overlong ‘as’ clauses that try to hitch a ride, and trailing actions that run on so long that the dialogue is forgotten by the end of the sentence. But these bad habits all begin, I believe, when the writer first attempts to be creative with the attribution verb itself. Instead of being a simple pointer to the speaker, the dialogue tag becomes a handy crate, which can be loaded with whatever junk the author finds it convenient to stuff inside.

“A dialogue tag shouldn’t carry much freight,” she cautioned ominously yet imperturbably as she sat at her keyboard, turning occasionally to glance out the window to see if the crows, which had been nesting in the twisted Ponderosa Pine just visible through the dusty glass, had returned with more roadkill to feed to their ravenous, cawing young.

“I see what you mean,” he said.

Oh, and adverbs...well, that's another post or two.