There’s a game called Probable Proverbs which is actually quite fun. The website where I first learned about this game (quite some time ago, now) provides lots of examples. You take a proverb:
You can’t judge a book by its cover.
And arrive at an alternate that is alliterative. Examples, credited to their authors:
Rating a reading by its wrapping is rather reckless. –William Flis
Base book by binding? Blockhead. –J. L. Mandelson
Articulate authors aren’t always appealing in appearance. –Kathy Shipley
Vying to validate a volume’s verity via it’s visage is a voided voyage. –Rex Stocklin
Note that it’s the sound at the beginning of the word that’s important rather than the way it’s written, and there’s lots of room for creative reinterpretation.
So on Monday I’m going to post a proverb, and anybody who is interested can play the game. I won’t open comments until Wednesday, so you can go away and think about it for a while. As of Wednesday you’ll be able to post your alternate in a comment.
Who decides on the winner? You guessed it: I’m the decider. That person will get a signed first edition first printing of Queen of Swords. I’ll send it anywhere in the world, airmail, so it should arrive well before the official pub date.
Now, if you’ve got a proverb you think would lend itself to this game, drop me an email. Do NOT post it here.* You never know, I might use it. In which case, you’d get a signed copy, too.
*if you post proverbs in a comment to this thread, they are automatically disqualified and will be deleted.
Here’s the good news: I just read the four novels Julie Anne Long has out. Historical romance, mostly regency. And she’s good. She can write a sentence, she can tell a story. The first two novels are light(er) reads. With her third one — Beauty and the Spy — she really finds her footing.
There’s an interesting plot here, one that actually had me wondering how things would resolve themselves — and that is unusual. This is not bragging. This is somebody who reads and writes for a living just stating a fact: it’s not unusual for me to get to page three in a book and know pretty much everything that’s going to happen, and how. Within the romance genre, there are some givens. You know who will end up together, but you don’t know how they’ll get there or what the roadblocks will be.
JAL manages to tweak some expectations. That’s an excellent thing. I think that she has a good chance of evolving into a major name in historical romance if she continues along this trajectory.
So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to report this flaw.
Has nobody ever talked to this woman about how she portrays dialect? Because there’s only one word: sloppy. Or maybe two words: sloppy and uninformed. There seems to be a formula:
1. Is this character of a lower or working social class? If your answer is yes, pepper his or her direct dialog liberally with any and all of the following:
replace every instance of ‘you’ with ‘ye’
don’t stint on the tortured spellings
lots of apostrophes (and don’t forget the exclamation points!!!)
sprinkle with an occasional dinna or couldna
2. Is the character Irish or Scots? If so, double up on all the features mentioned. No need to distinguish between them.
For the love of dog: what the hell? This poor Biggs guy is linguistically schizophrenic. He is possessed by speakers from all over the British Isles. His symptoms:
He’s dropping his h-es as though he just escaped from a My Fair Lady Cockney casting call.
‘avena seen you since’ — What is this compulsion to hang Scots verb morphology like a caboose on the back of working class London phonology?
Poor Biggs, he’s possessed by a torment of second person pronouns, Yorkshire and Middle English and … what, exactly? Some terrible mixture. Tha and ye and your… put the man out of his misery. Please.
I will admit this was a particularly bad bit of dialog, but all JAL’s novels have this sad problem. Looking at this example, I’m wondering how I managed to get through at all. And so here’s the compliment: the stories were compelling enough to keep me going. Though I winced. Winced, I tell you, every time I saw an apostrophe coming.
You might think this is nitpicking. Unimportant to the story. But when you’ve got a duke’s eldest son posing as an Irish groom, it would really help this rather standard plot device if the duke could actually sound Irish. Because it’s likely that the upper class English household that employs him would notice right away if he claimed to be Irish but instead sounded…. confused. The way to do that is not with ye, and absolutely not with dinna, but with lexical choice and syntax. If you really want to pursue writing dialog so it evokes English as it is spoken in Ireland, there are places to go for that information. There’s a great list of features on Wikipedia, which includes lots of examples of regional phonology (you’ll note — the Irish do not drop initial h), as well as word choice and syntax. for example, you might hear:
“Why did you hit him?” “He was after insulting me.”
The Wikipedia article has a nice, concise explanation of the origin of that usage.
Ms. Long will likely never see this post, but if she does I hope she will take this in the spirit it is meant. Such promising work deserves more attention to detail.
So I’ll put down here my rule of thumb, which I have talked about before (but not recently): don’t mess with spelling. Do. Not. Mess with Spelling. Do some basic research about differences between various dialects. Don’t confuse the Irish with the Scots — it will make them cranky.
1. I despise those on-the-fly dirt-cheap editions of out-of-copyright classics. The ones so poorly put together they won’t last more than two readings. The ones with paper of such piss poor quality that as far as depletion of the forests is concerned? Insult to injury. I despise the way Barnes & Noble and the big publishers package up Austen and Dickens and Cicero and Moliere like trollops and send them out to make a quick buck.
If you’re dying to read War and Peace, for dog’s sake, don’t waste your money on shitty editions that will sit on your coffee table and look like the worst kind of posturing.
Go to the library. You’ll find a decent edition and you’ll be supporting a community resource. Or, if you’ve just got to have a copy, this is the time to go to a used bookstore, one in your town or online. Tolstoy doesn’t need the royalties anymore, and you might just find a really solid edition. One advantage of finding an older edition of an out of print book: sometimes you’ll get a bonus. An envelope stuck in the middle addressed to Mrs. Mabel Winterbourne, 41 Handcross Lane, Luton, Bedforshire with a 1932 postmark. A receipt for a suit that was drycleaned in 1973, three piece, wool, for six bucks. A movie ticket stub for Easy Rider, Last Tango in Paris, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Who knows, the spark of a story idea may be waiting at the end of chapter four, a simple folded piece of paper with a scribbled note: tell her you didn’t mean it.
Then again, if you’re a serious scholar of Russian literature, you will have to reconsider. You’ll want to look into the translation, and maybe even spring for the critical edition.
2. I heartily dislike bookclub editions, which aren’t much better than abomination number one above. A slightly better quality of binding, bad paper that feels almost sticky to the touch and will turn yellow in less than a couple years. Yuck.
Do you really need a bookclub to tell you what’s out there to be read? If you’re reading this, you know how to get around the internet. There are hundreds of websites and weblogs that will tell you everything you could possibly want to know about books new and old. Don’t let yourself be led by the hand. Go out there and make your own decisions.
3. It makes me laugh (and not in a good way) to see the big chain stores who sell abomination number one (and sometimes even get into the act by coming out with their own shitty editions) complaining to publishers about abomination number two because they don’t like being undersold. For example: U.K. Booksellers Threaten Publishers Over Cheap Book Club Editions
Payback is a bitch, or put much more eloquently by Elbert Hubbard: “Men are not punished for their sins, but by them.”
4. I like independent bookstores and I want to support them. But I find it hard to promote a bookstore who (1) sells my novels at full price and then (2) stocks used copies of that same novel on the same shelf. There’s a lack of logic there that ticks me off. I imagine a reader standing there in front of the shelf. You, maybe. You’re looking at Queen of Swords, new, $27. That’s a hunk of money. You’re thinking you haven’t paid the phone bill yet this month and really, you could get it for ten bucks less someplace else. But wait. There’s a used copy, and wow, only $14.
I can’t blame you for wanting to pay your phone bill. I absolutely understand and appreciate the fact that you really want to read the story, but $27 is just too much of an investment. What I don’t like is that the independent bookstore who wants my support has pretty much forced you to buy used, which cuts me out of the equation. If they only had the new, $27 copy on the shelf, no discount, you might think about it but most likely you’re going to leave and get the book someplace that’s selling it cheaper. But if the used copy is there, what are you going to do? It’s obvious. And it makes me really, really cranky — not with you, but with the bookstore.
This is what historical fiction can — and should — be.
In 1883 cholera comes to Alexandria in Egypt. In France, Louis Pasteur is an old man, infirm, unwilling to travel and so he sends a team of scientists he has trained to try to identify the infectious agent behind cholera — the necessary first step in stopping the epidemic. In that team are Louis Thuillier, a young man who wants to prove himself; Edmond Nocard, a veterinarian; Emile Roux, an odd man but much liked; and a young assistant called Marcus. In Alexandria they must deal not only with the French consul, but also with some competition from the German scientist Robert Koch, who has a head start on them in searching for the cause of the disease. And there’s a local doctor, a Jew whose family has been in Egypt for centuries. The doctor has a daughter who is on the brink of a suitable engagement.
To all this you have to add the most important character, the disease itself. Roiphe wrote this novel in omniscient voice in order to follow the disease through its life cycle, which she does with such vivid, evocative images that I often found myself rereading paragraphs just out of admiration.
So you’ve got multiple conflicts: socioeconomic, cultural, religious/scientific, romantic. You’ve got scientists who understand (for the first time in history) the true nature of infectious disease in one of the dirtiest, poorest cities in the world and a disease that kills horrifically in a matter of hours. You’ve got a young scientist and a young woman who would normally never cross paths, who are thrown together in the pursuit of a cure. You’ve got Germans versus Frenchmen, an age-old rivalry. The superstitions of the older generations and their distrust of the new science. Somehow or another, Roiphe balances it all and tells an incredible story, one that I will be thinking about for a long time.
In its bones, this is a true story. Roiphe takes people and events and reimagines them into something truly wonderful. I suspect it may be one of the best novels I read this year.