If I had not changed the dialogue in my first submission, I would not be published today.
At the other end of the phone my agent was thrilled, yet cautious. ‘Sara loves the setting and the characters. She loves the story. But she has a problem with the voices. She says they all sound the same.’
It was a light bulb moment. I had written my book without going to classes or attending any courses. I had not thought it would be published and yet now there was a real chance of it being so. Most importantly, I knew Sara was right.
I had been scared off dialect, knowing it was annoying to a lot of readers, yet it was far more than that. I had failed to bring out the unique voice of each of my characters. Obviously, I was in a spin. My book was set in 1793, in Cornwall, among shipbuilders and merchants and I had to capture the essence of their accents without it sounding overdone. I needed better divisions between the classes, different vocabulary, and, to be honest, I needed to inject energy into their conversations.
So out came the Sellotape. Most would do this on their PC but I needed to see all the characters at once. I divided each A4 paper in four and stuck the pages together, spreading them out on my dining room table. Name and age first, then I set about deciding what was unique about each one of their voices.
I needed something each of them said enough times to make a pattern. I needed their accent and the rhythm. Dialects had to be hinted at – some would drop their last ‘g’ as in goin’ and some would use the old Cornish yer instead of your. I decided to use very few old Cornish words but the ones I did choose must be recognisable, for example Mamm when referring to Mother. I chose not to use thee or thou but I did use the speech pattern like, ‘Honest to God, I were that worried.’
Many reading this will be wondering why I didn’t do this before. I wondered myself, and I think the reason was that I had concentrated too much on the setting and the plot. The characters were well-formed but not coming across as real. But as I worked through each character, they came to life in a way that I had not allowed them to do before. With each box filled with their unique voice, I began to hear them clearly. They now spoke for themselves.
My agent suggested I change the first three chapters and she would re-submit my manuscript but I could not stop at three chapters. It was honestly like switching on a light. With my grid in front of me, I changed every conversation and with it I changed the book.
I tell you this because I love dialogue and yet I was scared of it when I wrote my first book. However, five books on, I still struggle with new voices at the start of a novel. You’ll be glad to know I have now studied articles on dialogue and try to heed the very good advice that is out there, but even so I stumble on the first ten or so chapters. My characters sound two dimensional, almost flat. There is no rhythm to their voice. I see them clearly and I know what they should be doing but I don’t hear them and therefore they are not real.
I used to worry about this but I don’t anymore. Suddenly, everything changes and they start to speak for themselves. That is when I bring out my Sellotape, metaphorically this time, because I now use index cards threaded with bright ribbon. I hear them so completely that I go back and change their dialogue so they sound right from the beginning. That is when the book takes off.
Interestingly, I have been fortunate enough to have all my books made into audiobooks and I realise how much dialogue I use – perhaps because I heeded the advice that readers may skip long descriptions but they never skip dialogue! One thing I do enjoy about listening to the audiobooks is how clever the voice actor is with the accents.
It’s not just the words that convey the accent, but the rhythm. My mother was Irish, one of my grandmothers was Welsh and I hear their voices when I write characters from both Ireland and Wales. I have studied tapes of old Cornish voices and, to be honest, I have loved my dialogue journey. The advice is out there. Never information dump. Never too long. Let them interrupt each other. Hint at things. Use menace. Leave a lot unsaid.
Every conversation needs to be relevant. It must convey your characters’ motivation, their feelings. It has to reveal their relationships and add information about their character. Don’t waste words. Bring in humour.
Always read it out aloud.
I had no idea when I got that phone call from my agent that my life would change so dramatically. Nor did I realise that most of my dialogue in that first draft was rubbish. It was just too long. Once I had my ear tuned, I found I could delete most of the second half of what was said. It was embarrassing, like saying something twice.
My advice is to listen to advice. If people criticise your characters’ voices, don’t take it personally. Just get out your Sellotape and draw up a grid because it can all be mended.
(c) Nicola Pryce
About The Cornish Lady:
The fourth novel in a stunning series set in eighteenth-century Cornwall, perfect for fans of Poldark.
Educated, beautiful and the daughter of a prosperous merchant, Angelica Lilly has been invited to spend the summer in high society. Her father’s wealth is opening doors, and attracting marriage proposals, but Angelica still feels like an imposter among the aristocrats of Cornwall.
When her brother returns home, ill and under the influence of a dangerous man, Angelica’s loyalties are tested to the limit. Her one hope lies with coachman Henry Trevelyan, a softly spoken, educated man with kind eyes. But when Henry seemingly betrays Angelica, she has no one to turn to. Who is Henry, and what does he want? And can Angelica save her brother from a terrible plot that threatens to ruin her entire family?
Order your copy online here.