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Dialogue, Journalism and Fiction Writing by Jonathan Whitelaw

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Article by Jonathan Whitelaw ©.
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The best bit of writing advice I’ve ever been given is as follows: “You can’t edit a blank page.”

And that little mantra has influenced me in both my fiction and my journalism work. It’s a remarkably simple ethos but it’s amazing how many aspiring writers I come across who miss it. And once you get that understanding down, you can focus on more exciting things like characters, plot, set pieces, sub-plots, dialogue and even MORE sub-plots.

I’ve been a journalist for just under ten years. And in that time I’ve seen a lot of talented writers in the field. I’ve also seen a lot of TERRIBLE writers who were great at sniffing out stories. It’s a multi-faceted world and industry that has a place for almost any and every type of talent and skill-level.

But one thing I’ve found in my time as a journo is that writing can’t be done without ACTUALLY WRITING. Again, simple, I know, but I like to keep things as simple as possible.

I’ll digress for a moment if I may. I’ll get back to the advice in just a second.

A writer friend of mine who has been a journalist for over three decades once told me a story. He’s had several crime books published and he’s hugely successful in his fields. I am, of course, hugely jealous.

He was speaking to first year university students and final year schoolkids at an event a few years ago. Talking about his career, he told them all about hard work, dedication, commitment and toil. The usual. At the end he was approached and asked questions by the dedicated few in the audience who wanted to glean some insider information on being a writer and a journalist.

He claims that one said to him the following: “I would love to write this novel I have in my head. But I just don’t have the time. Like I really don’t have the time.”

My friend burst out laughing. The first year student apparently looked perplexed. She didn’t know what she’d said to cause such hysterics.

The hard-nosed crime writer and seasoned hack responded simply: “I have a full-time job. I also lecture, write books, edit new ones, negotiate deals, care for my family, do the shopping, cut the grass and pay a mortgage. Believe me when I say this. I can guarantee that you have A MILLION TIMES the amount of spare time I have.”

Yes, I know it’s easy to scoff. And yes, I know that it’s poor form to play the “I’m older and you’re not/school of life” card. But I think there’s a special message in there somewhere. In order to be a good writer – you have to do some actual writing.

That brings me back to being a journalist and how it’s shaped my creative writing and novels.

In HellCorp, dialogue plays a huge part in not only telling the story but shaping the characters. The Devil and God are a combination of traditional ideas of those characters infused with what I hope is my own original spin and temperament.

The interaction between them was key to their relationship and how they progressed throughout the book.

Dialogue is something that can really bring characters off the page and into the reader’s head. It amazes me when I meet readers who tell me how they imagine my characters actually SOUND to them. Sometimes it’s spot on and other times it’s way off. It doesn’t really matter how they interpret the characters, the fact that the dialogue is doing its job is the important part.

As a journalist, I get to speak to a lot of people on a daily basis. From all different backgrounds, jobs, cultures, countries, creeds and social circles. That’s fantastic exposure and something I know, both consciously and subconsciously, I know I’ve injected into my work.

I’ve read that other writers like to speak out their dialogue, play the parts and enact what they’ve just written. This is something I can’t recommend enough – particularly in arguments – of which there are LOADS in HellCorp.

Now I’m not saying that I can do a fantastic impression of The Devil or even GOD for that matter. But hearing those words you’ve just written out loud will help you to hear what it would actually sound like. Good dialogue is an art form, particularly when you’re creating atmosphere, tension (or relieving it) in a scene. Equally, bad dialogue can suck all of that atmosphere and moment out of the interaction like a giant black hole – leaving the reader out of sorts. The cardinal sin in my opinion is when a reader thinks “I don’t believe that.”

As a journalist, I can honestly say I’ve had the full gamut of emotions thrown at me. From fiery exchanges and white hot rage, to tears of sadness, joy and literally everything in between. I listen to every word, not because it’s my job, but because these are actual people I’m speaking to, speaking with, interacting with in real time. That’s what good dialogue in novels, short stories and scripts does. It tells the story in a way that the reader can picture actually having.

I started with the best bit of advice I’ve ever been given as a writer. You can’t edit a blank page. And I’m going to add my own little pearl of wisdom to that too. You can’t edit a blank page, and you can’t write dialogue without listening to people. As I mentioned – blatantly obvious. But sometimes the best advice is the stuff that you already know. All you need to do is either SEE IT WRITTEN DOWN or HEAR IT FROM SOMEONE ELSE.

(c) Jonathan Whitelaw

About HellCorp:

Life is hard for The Devil and he desperately wants to take a holiday. Growing weary from playing the cosmic bad guy, he resolves to set up a company that will do his job for him so the sins of the world will tick over while he takes a vacation. God tells him he can have his vacation just as soon as he solves an ancient crime.

But nothing is ever easy and before long he is up to his pitchfork in solving murders, desperate to crack the case so he can finally take the holiday he so badly needs…
This is a perfectly-pitched darkly comic crime novel that is ideal for fans of Christopher Fowler and Ben Aaranovitch.

Hellcorp sparkles like a blood-black diamond. Satan’s got his work cut out in this darkly comic crime tale. A cracking read! – Mark Leggatt

Order your copy online here.


Jonathan Whitelaw is a journalist. After working on the frontline media of Scottish politics, he first reached global audiences with articles appearing in broadsheets, tabloids and magazines like The Sun, STV, Daily Mail and The Author. Subjects he has covered have varied from the arts, culture and sport to fashion, music and radioactive waste, with everything in between. He has also contributed to a number of independent almanacs and collaborative works of fiction. HellCorp is his second novel, while Morbid Relations was his first.
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