Sunday, April 24, 2016


My overseas readers may not know what ANZAC Day is. It has to do with the Gallipoli landing during the First World War. It is a very big day in Australia, and seemingly becoming bigger every year.

It is almost sacrilegious and possibly even considered treasonous to say anything that might be regarded as a criticism of this day. Few in Australia regard Christmas or Easter celebrations with anything approaching religious reverence. ANZAC Day is the only holiday in the Australian calendar that attracts this kind of reverence, from the religious and non-religious alike.

I write the next paragraph with some hesitation, because I suspect many in Australia might find its fairly mild wording offensive. Here goes:

‘Today (25 April) marks the anniversary of the attempt, during the First World War, by the allied forces, including Australia, to invade that well-known enemy of Australia, Turkey. The attempt was ill-conceived and disastrous. Unsurprisingly, the Turks vigorously (and successfully) defended their territory. In Australia we commemorate this event as ANZAC Day. I’m not sure how they commemorate it in Turkey.’

Whatever is going on around ANZAC Day in Australia is a little strange and perhaps also a little frightening. Whatever it is, ANZAC Day is not simply a day when we commemorate and honour those whose lives have been lost in war. We have Remembrance Day—or perhaps you know it as ‘Armistice Day’: November 11—to do that. At least that marks the end of the First World War: a suitable time, one would think, to remember the cost of war. ANZAC Day commemorates an attempt to invade another country for strategic purposes: to control the Dardanelles, a strait providing a sea route to the Russian Empire. It is, of course, tragic that so many people lost their lives in that pointless exercise. The Turks who lost their lives during that campaign (does anyone know how many?) were defending their territory. The Australians who tragically died were not defending Australia—despite the propaganda that surrounds ANZAC Day. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the dictum that attack is the best form of defence: easily used to justify any form of aggression.

I am all in favour of remembering the horrors of war, and commemorating the tragic and often pointless loss of life. Remembrance Day is a perfect time to do that. I am less comfortable with the mythology that continues to build around the commemoration of ANZAC Day. I in no way want to belittle the price men paid at Gallipoli—allied troops and Turks alike. But it is a stretch to claim that the Australians (at least) gave their lives in defence of Australia. It’s sad but true—and no fault of theirs—that they gave their lives in a much less worthy cause.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

'Naturalistic' Dialogue

We writers often try to write dialogue in what we regard as a naturalistic style, but this can be fraught with difficulties. The result may not be what we intended.

We know that the spoken word is very different from the written word. We rarely speak in nice, complete, neat, grammatically correct sentences. Our speech stops and starts; words slide together; we leave the beginnings and endings off words; we pronounce words in particular ways; we change direction in mid sentence. It is the ‘words slide together; we leave the beginnings and endings off words; we pronounce words in particular ways’ that causes the difficulties.

The problem with depicting a character as speaking in a particular accent is that we all have accents, although we seldom realise it of ourselves. If we choose to represent the speech of (say) our Scottish or Irish characters in a particular way, why don’t we do so for all the other characters? The result is usually somewhat clich├ęd, and some of the characters verge on becoming caricatures. If we wish to represent a character as being less well educated—for example by dropping Hs or leaving the ends off words—we are being unfair to them, because we probably also do that ourselves!

Consider this sentence: ‘Are you going to eat that or not?’ Now say it out loud. How many of you said ‘you’ and ‘going to’? I imagine most of us (brilliantly well educated or not) said something like: ‘Are y’ gonna eat that or not?’ I suggest that when we write a sentence of dialogue, we can assume that the reader will ‘hear’ the latter (or something like it) without our having to spell it out. When it is spelled out it can become difficult to read (and downright annoying). It is also incredibly difficult to maintain such patterns consistently. If I write: ‘Whad’re y’ havin’ f’ dinna’, am I going to do this every time the character speaks? When I as an editor come across something like this, should I be going through and removing the Gs off the end of all this character’s words, because I can guarantee there will be plenty of them. It is as much a nightmare trying to edit this into some kind of consistency as it is to write it consistently in the first place.

Then there is the question of how you actually represent these sounds. Short of using formal phonetic notation, it is very difficult to properly represent pronunciation. Consider this sentence which I came across recently: ‘I do luv a good soup.’ Why ‘luv’ rather than ‘love’? How am I meant to pronounce it? Is the vowel sound the same as in ‘put’ or ‘cup’? These are different sounds in my particular accent. The vowel sound in ‘cup’ (for me) is identical to that in ‘love’. On the other hand, ‘put’ is a different sound from ‘putt’ (which, for me, is like ‘love’ and ‘cup’). So ‘luv’ is unhelpful. How I hear it will depend on where I come from, which is the same for ‘love’ in any case, so why bother spelling it differently? My mother, for instance, in her Birmingham accent, will say ‘love’ as if the vowel is the same as in ‘put’ rather than ‘putt’, but as far as she is concerned she is saying ‘love’ as it is meant to be said, and who am I to tell her otherwise?

Note that an accent is different from dialect. A dialect uses different words, rather than just pronouncing the same word differently. If you can use authentic dialect (and not just what outsiders often wrongly consider to be authentic dialect) that is great.

I always think that a better way to alert the reader to a particular speech pattern is to point it out in the narrative: ‘I struggled to understand his strong Scouse accent’ (for example). ‘Fred always misplaced his Hs when he was speaking.’ Then you don’t have to write it all the time. The reader will hear it. If the reader doesn’t know what a Scouse accent (Liverpool) sounds like, nothing you write on the page will help!

I would never say never write out these ‘naturalistic’ passages of dialogue. On occasion it might be helpful if you want to create a particular effect. But if you do, do so sparingly and with great care. Ask yourself: Will this sound to the reader the way I want it to sound? To some it will; to others it won’t.