Once upon a time years before I ever met a real editor at a pub house, I got a looksee at what goes on in an agent's office when a scribbler's MS ends up on a newbie's desk. Or on a very tired, overburdened pro's desk who's waiting to move up the ladder and open his or her own agency. Once they figure out how to paw through and ashcan piles of MS slush blocking their view of the Deli Menu taped to their desk, a rare, empathetic soul among their ilk will share their secret with you.
Here's what I learned from one of those-agents who struck out on her own and made it big in the industry, mostly from discovering, coaching and promoting newbie writers. It was all about the talk. The what? Dialog, the to and fro word catch that makes an author's voice something real. Turns out this was the key to everything. Plot weak? Done at least a hundred and ten times already by better writers than me? Too long? Too short? Too whatever the genre du jour is this year? Who cares?
Agent X on the phone: "Gehla, Hi. Just looked at your MS. Super dialog. I can see these characters and hear them talking. Weird sometimes. So there really is a NW accent, funny phrases, huh? Dialog is like music. Tempo, backbeat, lyrics. Like, who gets it, right? And truckers DO talk like that. I've heard those guys at the truck stop driving across Pennsylvania."
"Right. Any suggestions on the plot or the setting or—"
"Look, I don't have time to actually read the submissions. No way, Kiddo. I'd have to live here. Which I practically do for real. I mean, I have all my shit here in the closet, and I can sleep on an army cot I picked up at Navy Surplus. So, yeah. No time really."
"Oh, uh huh so...."
"So here it is, Gehla. I flip through the pages and take a quick peek at the dialog. I mean, you can't believe the trash I see. These clowns haven't a frigging clue. They're making some wino talk like he's Larry Olivier. You know who he is?"
Big sigh, like it's such a chore putting up with deadheaded scribblers who only want to talk about their book. "No. Jesus. This is a long day. Look, it's like I just wanted to call and tell you I was really for real impressed with the way you write dialog. I mean, it's the strongest I've seen, and I've been here a while."
"Thanks." I'm beginning to feel like the next Hemingway. Buttons are popping on my blouse.
"I never waste time reading anything else. I mean, if the dialog isn't real, then what's the point, right? The characters are made up of dialog. That's it. That's the only way we hear these people and then they become real. Like credible. Totally believable. Can you believe that most dialog is written like it came from a Jane Austen novel? You know who she is, right?"
"I have heard the name." Jeez, when was she going to say something good about my MS? The plot? The setting in the beautiful NW? My cross-genre genius? My fantastic vocabulary of idiomatic English? Nope. Not a jot more than she could hear my characters talking.
"lt's nice talking to you, Gehla. I just wanted to reach out to let you know how great this dialog is, and you should definitely keep up with whatever it is you're doing. Oh, but you know I can't pass your MS on to the chief here. Cross-genre stuff is just too hard to sell, you know? It's formula, Honey. Formula. Editors all want formula with no surprises. Get it?"
"But they say they're looking for new—"
"Oh, sure. But that's all crap, pure bullshit. They want a safe pile of crap that any asshole will buy cuz they already know the plot and who gets screwed and who gets offed or survives or whatever BS they've already read a zillion times already."
"Then what should I do differently than what I'm—"
"Just think talking, conversation, all that dialog you do. Who cares about the rest?" Clunk. Buzz.
So, there I was. Advised to forget different plot angles, clever twists, interesting backgrounds and bits of historical gems thrown in for good measure. Seems I was on the wrong track all along. But maybe my lifetime of eavesdropping and kibbitzing on conversations all around me was more important than any of the other stuff. Of course, I was depressed over her quick dismissal and admission she didn't even read my opus cover to cover but only thumbed through parts with dialog to "hear my voice". Okay, I'd accept that. Her advice was No Advice but time was running out, and I decided to turn down the Publishers' Grandma Moses award for scribbling my first book sale at 99.
Now from a better viewpoint, I know this Agent X had hit the mark. I've rejected many an author who drops off their lifetime tome in case I could forward it on to my agent who is waiting breathless by the phone for this masterpiece to show up. So many of these desperate scribblers just couldn't hear the local idiomatic English from wherever their characters hailed. Phony dialog means phony characters, and there's no cure for it. Plots, Sex, Violence, Erotica, Humor—nothing fixes it.
No surprise then that the first agent who took me on started the conversation with "About your dialog, Gehla. Kudos. I can hear all your characters talking. Great. Let's do this. The contract is in the mail." (Before we could PDF all our biz). I had stumbled across success before she even read past the first chapter.
Just a little tip. Be sure you really know how your characters sound. Hang out at Truck Stop cafes, Walmart, Bus Stations, C&W taverns, Square dances, Blue Grass festivals, Denny's and IHop. Check out Courthouses, PBS stations, Libraries, Online College level lectures, BBC shows and nightly news anchors. Power up your ears and listen to everybody everywhere.
Oh, and you know all those "How To" articles and books on advice about reading your dialog aloud to see if it sounds real? How can you judge the authenticity of dialog you've never actually become familiar with?