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How can we write authentic and engaging character dialogue? How can we incorporate sub-text that deepens our writing? Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor explains more in this interview.
In the intro, the new AudibleGate site; scammers using big publisher names [Writer Beware]; Vellum update for Ingram PDF [Vellum software; my tools and tutorials] ; Do BookBub deals on a permafree first in series work multiple times? [BookBub blog]; audio course on financial independence [JD Roth] and my list of money books. Plus, Secrets and Lies Storybundle; and updates on my books, The Wreck of the Unbelievable, and Damien Hirst's ‘green' NFT [FT].
Today's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.
Jeff Elkins is the author of 12 thriller and mystery novels, as well as over 100 short stories. He's also a ghostwriter, dialogue editor, and a podcaster at the Dialogue Doctor Podcast.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- How getting fired started Jeff’s writing career and how he now manages multiple streams of income
- The two biggest mistakes writers make with dialogue
- Ways to research authentic voices
- How to use subtext in dialogue
- How dialogue helps readers connect with characters
- Making choices about swearing in dialogue based on who your readers are
You can find Jeff Elkins at DialogueDoctor.com and on Twitter @Jffelkins
Transcript of Interview with Jeff Elkins
Joanna: Jeff Elkins is the author of 12 thriller and mystery novels, as well as over 100 short stories. He's also a ghostwriter, dialogue editor, and a podcaster at the Dialogue Doctor Podcast. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff: Hey, Joanna. Thanks for having me on today.
Joanna: I'm very excited.
Before we get into our topic of dialogue, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.
Jeff: My writing and publishing story is a very, I think, odd story. It really started in 2014 when I was fired from a job.
I worked for 15 years as a pastor and a change agent for nonprofits in churches in Baltimore and Texas, and all over the country. And I hated English and writing growing up. I was dyslexic as a kid, and so I marked off my English classes in school as like, this is the one that I just need to survive. So I never tried writing.
I turned 37 in 2013, and I started writing short stories to relieve stress at work. And I just started cranking out one a night. And it was so much fun, and I found it such a stress relief.
In 2014, I was working a job that I was really excited about, and I was only in it for nine months, and then they let me go.
I had no money. I had no savings. I had four kids, and my wife was nine months pregnant with our fifth child.
So, it was this really a critical turning point. The day after I was let go, I was sitting up looking for jobs, because I spent two weeks applying to 100 jobs a day, was my goal. Because I was like, ‘I just need to get food on the table.'
So, I was looking for jobs. And I remember sitting there going, ‘I can't ever be in this place again. I can never be in a place where I'm dependent on one income, and if it disappears, I'm devastated.' And so, I was thinking, ‘What skills do I have that I can market?'
Because my career had been very specific, and to a specific industry, and I didn't really fit in that industry anymore. And so, I needed to change, and writing was the one skill I had. So like Lin-Manuel in Hamilton, I decided, ‘I'm just going to write my way out of this.'
Thankfully, two weeks later, I got a call from a friend who worked in a company that simulated difficult conversations. And she said, ‘Hey, we're looking to hire writers, and you've been writing all these short stories. Do you want to come give it a shot?'
And I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.' And I've been doing that for the past seven years. It's an amazing job. I get to sit down with world experts from all different fields, from the military to physicians, to social workers, to therapists. I lead the writing team there now, and my writing team, we call ourselves professional mimics.
Our job is to sit down and mimic the difficult conversations these people have. And we put them into training simulations that have an artificial emotion component, so that it feels like you're talking to a real person. A big part of my writing life has been with that company, studying dialogue intensely for the last seven years with them, and just mimicking how people talk every day.
At the same time, because I didn't want to be stuck on that one branch of income, I shifted from short stories to trying to work novels, and I published my first book in 2015. And then I published two to three books a year since then
Your advice was really critical during that time. I started researching the industry and started learning as much as I could. And I put my first book out and realized real quick that since I've been working these jobs for no money for 15 years, because in the nonprofit world in the U.S., the joke is kind of like, ‘Your payment is the good feeling you have after the good work you did at the end of every day.'
I realized, listening to you and to others, that this was starting a small business, but I was starting a small business with no seed capital.
So, I've been thinking of my books as assets. And each one I publish, I'm like, ‘Well, this may not make me money right now, but it will make me money in 10 years. And if I can get enough assets out that when the money does come, I can start funneling it toward that asset.'
For the first four years, I really published with very little impact at all. I just steadily built my newsletter, sent it out every month, tried to build a following of readers. And that's happened slowly, and they're fantastic. I've built this small tribe of people that follow my work.
And then just putting these assets into the world, waiting for moments when I can capitalize on them. And then in 2019, that finally started happening. A friend called me that I hadn't talked to for over a decade, and he said, ‘Hey, I've been reading your novels, and I really love them, and I was wondering if you would ghost write a manifesto for my company?'
And I was like, ‘Does it pay?' And he's like, ‘Yeah.' And I was like, ‘Yes, I will do… I will ghost write for your company.' I didn't know how to do that either. I called a friend who did it. And I said, ‘Do you want to partner in this with me? We'll split it. We'll do it together?'
He taught me ghost writing. We finished that book, and it's summer of 2020. And I was sitting around with a pot of money. For the first time I started really strategically marketing my novels, and that's been fun. And then I also started building a fourth leg of my writing business.
If I've got the submersion, the writing simulations, and I've got my novels, and now I'm ghostwriting some, and I said, ‘What else can I do with this pot of money that I have to start building this business out?'
I was talking to a mutual friend of ours, J. Thorn, and he encouraged me. He's like, ‘You need to take what you know about writing simulations, and dialogue, and how people talk, and start applying that to the indie author world, and start providing that service.'
At first, I didn't trust him. I was like, ‘That's crazy talk. Nobody wants to hear what I have to say.' And then he was like, ‘Well, let's do a book together.' So, he wrote a book, and I edited it as he wrote it. And he found so much value in it. I was overwhelmed by how much he got out of our times together.
So, just to make sure it wasn't just a J. thing, I went and found 10 other people, and I did free sessions with them, too. I was like, ‘Hey, send me something. I'm going to edit it and then we're going to sit down for an hour and talk about it. And hopefully, at the end of our session, you can come out being a better dialogue writer than you are now.'
And they all were thrilled with what was going on, and several more were like, ‘Can I just put you on retainer?' And I was like, ‘Well, I don't know that I'm ready for that.'
I did launch a website and started a podcast, and that was all in August. And it's been going since then. So, that's dialoguedoctor.com. It's the fourth leg of this stool that I'm building for my author career. And it's fun.
We do the podcast. I put out a weekly newsletter for it, where I give dialogue writing tips. And I do sessions. If somebody wants to book a session with me, they can.
My goal with that really is to take what I've learned from this other world, in which we write nonlinear, and we focus on emotive writing, and we focus on simulating reality, and taking what I've learned from seven years of doing that and really applying it to the novel setting, and a more linear story.
Joanna: That is a great story, Jeff. I'm really thrilled that you shared the difficult times that you were having there with your family and your kids. I don't know, because I don't have five children. I don't even have one child, but I can't imagine how hard that must have been.
I always find it terrible that people who are serving the community, like pastors and nonprofit people, are just meant to get paid by the goodness of their hearts. But I'm glad that you have managed to turn this around and turn this into such a brilliant, multiple-streams-of-income business. So, your story is very inspirational in so many ways.
I do want to get straight into dialogue, because it's brilliant in a way that you work in this job simulating difficult conversations, because I imagine that you also had that as a pastor, a lot of difficult conversations. So, let's just start with the very first question.
Why do we have to learn to write decent dialogue, both for fiction writers, and also for nonfiction authors, too?
Jeff: That's a fantastic question. It's one of those things that, when I first started helping people with it, I was shocked at how little we actually talk about it.
If we're talking about what makes a great story, there's kind of two things. There's plot and dialogue. You gotta hit the plot beats. They gotta make sense. If you're writing genre fiction, the plot beats have to match what your readers expect.
But that plot is really just a skeleton. You can have the greatest plot in the world, and with terrible dialogue, it's just a statue that's not going anywhere. The dialogue is the muscle that moves those bones around, and it's the dialogue that our readers actually connect to. They enjoy the plot, but they connect to the dialogue.
And when I first started doing this, Joanna, I had that in my head, but I was like, ‘Is that real?' So, having a background in science, I was pre-med in college and worked at some hospitals here and there, doing internships and stuff, and having a background in that, I decided to test it out.
I went and got a whole bunch of historically bestsellers. I got ‘Pride and Prejudice,' I got ‘American Gods' by Neil Gaiman, I got ‘Harry Potter,' and a bunch of others. And I just went through them page by page. I highlighted lines that were dialogue, and in a different color, I highlighted prose.
I was shocked to find that most best-selling fiction books are 60%, 70%, 80% dialogue. And the prose, the stuff that we do tend to talk about more, is a very small part of what those stories are.
That made me take a step back and say, ‘What is this dialogue doing?' If the stories we love and the stories that we connect to historically are mostly dialogue, why is that? What is that dialogue achieving?
I started doing more research, and it started to occur to me that as a Harvard professor, I really appreciate what Alison Wood Brooks says, ‘Every human interaction in history can be boiled down to a series of conversations.'
That's true for our reader and our characters as well. Every time our character connects to our readers, what's happening? There is a conversation between the reader and character. Robert McKee says in his book on ‘Dialogue,' that what's special about writing over a play or a movie, is that the reader takes the words coming out of our character's mouth, runs them through their own imagination, in a sense, puts them through their own mouth.
When we write words for our characters to say, we're having our readers digest and say those words. And it's this very intimate and personal connection.
As I've been doing this, I found that dialogue isn't just important to our stories, it's critical for connecting to our readers, and for creating engaging stories that our readers want to come back to over and over and over again.
If we can design a character that has a unique voice that engages the reader, and then we can put words in that character's mouth that modulate their emotions and display what that character is feeling, we're going to pull our readers in, and our readers are going to want to come back to our work over and over and over again. And we're going to build true fans.
And that's, I think, what we're all looking for, is to build those true fans that just keep coming back.
Joanna: And I think for nonfiction, it used to be that you could write nonfiction in a more straight way, I guess. But I feel now the best-selling nonfiction book, certainly in self-help, and obviously, memoir has a lot of dialogue that you have to report on those things that happen.
But I even feel with best-selling nonfiction books, by putting in quotes, by putting in little stories, and vignettes, and bringing the teaching alive, almost. So, you need, even if it's not dialogue between two people, it's certainly speech from one person, or that kind of thing.
I actually think it's important for both fiction and nonfiction. But I do know there are a lot of problems. Now, obviously, you work with a lot of people, and I think even in your day job, you would probably see this. You know, so what are the biggest issues that you see in dialogue? You know, what are writers getting wrong? It's probably a massive list, so just pick a couple.
What are the biggest issues that you see in dialogue?
Jeff: I'll just pick a couple. There's two things that stand out to me, that every client I work with, and I'm going on close to 100 clients now, which is fun. But every client I work with, there's kind of two things going on.
The first thing is all their characters sound the same. And I call that ‘mono mouth.' Every character sounds like the author. You can have a great plot and skate through with that, but the reader's going to get tired of all the characters sounding alike.
So, the first key to helping writers is to help them diversify the voices in their story, so that Harry, Hermione, and Ron all have distinct voices, and you can tell which one of them is talking without their name being next to their dialogue tag, right? That's the biggest problem I see.
I've developed some tools to help with that. I use a thing I call a character wheel with writers, which is a chart. You can get it for free on my website. I just have it sitting up there. It's a chart where you describe your character's voice, and it allows you to compare and contrast the other voices in your novel, so you can make sure that your characters sound differently.
The second biggest problem I see is, I think, as authors, we misunderstand what voice is. So, a lot of times, I'll ask an author, ‘Talk to me about your protagonist's voice.' And they'll start saying things like, ‘Well, she's shy. And she's a little scared of people. And she doesn't really want to engage in deep conversations.'
I'm like, ‘Okay. Well, that's the character's personality. That's not the character's voice.' So, I use an illustration of a daisy.
If you can imagine the flower in your mind that has the yellow center and then the white petals coming off of it, the stem of that flower is the personality. The voice is the actual bloom that expresses that personality to the world.
Another thing that I think as authors we get wrong a lot is we confuse the personality and the voice, so we never fully develop the character's voice. So, if a character's shy what does that mean for her voice? Does she use less words? Or does she only speak when she really has something to say? Does she use shorter words?
How does that voice change? How does her using less words and shorter words change when she's in a place of comfort and security? What does her voice sound like then? Because she's still shy, but we need to modulate her voice to express that she is comfortable and more secure.
I think those are the two big things. One, we don't plan out our voice. We'll spend weeks planning out a plot, and completely ignore a character's voices. We don't plan out our voice, so our characters all end up sounding the same.
And then the second thing that we miss is, we confuse our character's personality and our character's back story with what our character's voice is, and really starting to nail down that, like, ‘Okay, what number of words does this character use? What's the rhythm of those words? Are they big words, or are they small words? Does the characters ask a lot of questions, or does the character make a lot of declarations?' Starting to nail down, like, what is it this character actually sounds like?
And I find, Joanna, that if I can spend an hour with somebody, nailing down their character voice, and really getting into it, that's really all they need, because once that voice is in your head, as a writer, you've got it, and you can put it on the page.
It's just a matter of really sitting down and honing that voice, so that you can free yourself up. I think the biggest gift of doing that ahead of time, and why I propose doing that ahead of time, is because what I find a lot of writers doing now as they write this draft, where they're really focused on plot, and they're trying to get all the plot beats out, and then they come back and they do a whole second edit, where they're going like, ‘Okay, now I need to make the characters sound unique.'
If we just spend a little bit of time up front, getting those voices in our head, we can skip that second edit, and focus that second edit on other things than really having to rewrite every character voice.
Joanna: I write very international books, and every book of mine has people from multiple different countries, different races, different religions, and obviously different first languages. I write in English, but I do have aspects of other languages that kind of go through my dialogue.
For example, a Portuguese character might use the Portuguese word for mother rather than mum as I would say, or ‘mom,' as you say in America. And you write characters of color in your Baltimore books. And this is a huge question, I think, particularly in the age we live in now, where people are pretty sensitive around this stuff. And we want to get it right.
But you see some really terrible things, like a Spanish character where every second word is Spanish, or it's really stereotypical. I feel like on the one hand, yes, we must write diverse books. We must write diverse characters that are not like us.
How do we not write stereotypical dialogue, where we say things that are stereotypical for what we think are those cultures or races or people?
Jeff: That's a great question. And let me put it to the side just for a second and I'll come back to it, because I realize now that I should have used a different word than ‘diverse.'
When I say a diverse palette of characters, I'm thinking less about the character's nationality, culture, or background, and I'm thinking more just about how they sound. So, rather than diverse, what we want in a novel, like what we want our cast of characters to be, are multiple colors.
If all of our characters sound like the color blue, then we have a very blue book. And readers may love the blue book, but they're only going to read the blue book for so long before they're like, ‘Man, you know, I just want some variety here.'
And so, if we can get a voice that represents a shy character, and another voice that represents an angsty character, and another voice that represents a frustrated character, and another voice that represents an extremely happy character, now we have this palette of colors that we're painting our thing with.
We've got blue, we've got red, we've got purple, we've got green. And the picture of our novel that we end up having is much richer and deeper than the just different shades of one color. So, when I'm talking about diversifying your cast, I don't necessarily mean diversifying nationality or culture.
I loved your ‘Mapwalker' series, and the cast of characters you had there are fantastic. But going to your question about nationality and writing different cultures, I struggle with this a lot. I decided to write protagonists that were people of color back when I started writing my first novel.
I grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the states. And I remember that year that I started writing, my wife and I were helping build a public charter school in Baltimore City, which is predominantly African American. And my son was in second grade or third grade at the time, I don't remember, but his class was mostly African American.
I took him out for his birthday, and I remember we went to go see one of the Marvel superhero shows. And this was before ‘Black Panther' had come out and before those shows had started to show people of color in primary roles. And I can remember my son and all of his friends standing in front of the poster, arguing about which of the superheroes they were going to be.
It broke my heart that these kids who were vibrant, dynamic, and just wonderful, couldn't find themselves in this very large cast of heroes. And they were saying, ‘I'm like Iron Man,' who is a white, male billionaire. So, I said, if I'm going to put stories in the world, I'm going to make my protagonists people that these kids can identify with.
My first series, the superheroes are homeless, because I'd worked with a lot of homeless populations, and there's a lot of people of color in that series. The main character is a reporter who's an African American man. My second series, ‘The Detective,' Moneta Watkins is an African American woman.
But, you know, everyday, Joanna, I question that decision, because I never, ever, ever want to stereotype, or somehow misrepresent someone's culture in a way that would make them feel insulted, or belittled, or minimalized.
Joanna: How do you research and write characters that are not just like you, in terms of dialogue, specifically?
Jeff: I think it starts with an attitude of fear and trembling, like going into it with a deep respect. And then I think my next step has been to get people from the minority group that I'm writing to read those characters before anybody ever sees anything.
For example, for my Moneta character, I got a group of 30 African American women that were of the same age range of Moneta, that I know and I'm friends with, and I sent them pages. And I was like, ‘Tell me what I'm doing wrong. Tell me where I need to fix this voice. Tell me how I can make this character better relate to your experience.'
You think you get it right the first time you write it, but they sent me back so many notes on her voice, and on how she would do her hair and where she was buying hair products. And they got in a big debate at one point about where in the United States she was from, because they felt like that would affect her personality in a different way.
What came out of it was kind of a groupthink experience around this character, that I can then try to honor with my work. So, I think the research begins with real people. And I think it's more than just one. I think it's a plurality of voices.
But I think it has to have behind it that attitude of I'm doing this in order to be a good ally, and not because I think it's going to make more money for my books.
Joanna: Absolutely. I think that respect and getting those beta readers is definitely the ultimate way to do it. But in reality, we don't all have people who we can talk to. For example, in my books, I have so many different cultures represented. But what I do is I use YouTube. I mean, you don't actually have to know them.
For example, I was researching a church, one of those snake-handling churches in Appalachia for End of Days, and I was watching all these videos of snake handling, and people there speak in a particular way. And so, I was able to use some of their dialogue. I think that would be my tip for people who don't have people on hand in every way, is to go and watch videos, listen to podcasts, and try and identify people that way.
What are some other ways that we can research?
Jeff: I completely agree that TikTok and YouTube, and the videos; we live in a world where there's no end of research and information for you. A lot of times, when I want to capture a voice of people I don't know, I'll try to go and get in an area where those people are, and sit and listen.
As a teenager, I got to go to the Van Gogh Museum, and I was shocked at his sketchbooks and how he would just sit in public squares, and draw hands all day, or draw noses all day, or draw eyes all day. I think as writers, we need to devote ourselves to listening in that way, too.
If I have a free hour, which there aren't a lot of them, five kids, full-time job, and side gigs, there's not a lot of time to spare, but I'll still take an hour here, an hour there, and I'll just go sit in a public place with a journal out, and listen to people talk, capture phrases, capture words.
I think part of the important tip I would add about research when you're researching online, try not to research other forms of entertainment. Movie writing and realistic speak are two completely different things. Watching a movie with specific people from specific cultures is not going to be as valuable as finding people online who are emblematic of that culture, who are doing something and just being themselves.
So, I think those would be my two big tips is try to get out into the world around groups of people that aren't like you, and listen and take note to what's being said. And then when you're researching online, because right now who can go out into the world anywhere? But when you're researching online, look for real people.
Don't emulate existing entertainment. Because you're going to find that you're making a copy of a copy, and try to get to the real source, as opposed to copying what someone else thought the real source sounded like. I think those would be my two tips.
Joanna: What I would say, though, is dialogue is not conversation, because if you took the transcript of this, the unedited transcript of our conversation would be terrible dialogue, because humans repeat themselves, and they say ‘um,' and they say filler words, and they do all these things. That's another problem I see.
What I get annoyed about in some books is massive, long sentences, or things that you might actually say out loud, but that is not dialogue.
In a book, you do cull a conversation. It has to serve the book, right? You're not just having two people talking in a ‘real' way.
Jeff: 100%. And the key is that transition between research and what you're actually building your character voice out of. We do all this research and we get all this information in order to use it strategically to build engaging and entertaining characters, not just to copy onto the page. You can't just take the raw research and then translate it into your work.
Listening to how people talk is about feeling the rhythm of their words, the length of their words, the words they use, all those tools that we have that we can put on the page, and then looking at your character and strategically thinking like, ‘I heard one person using shorter, clipped sentences, and it gave them the feeling that they were talking really fast. I'm going to have this character talk that way. But this other character, I remember watching this YouTube video, somebody with a slow drawl.'
Like you were saying, watching Appalachian snake handlers, there's a certain pace and sound to their voice. I'm going to give another character a little bit of that. We don't want a whole book of that, but I'll put a little bit of it into this character, and now we have two very different-sounding characters that make for a far more engaging story.
Joanna: And I think the other thing that's important is subtext, because I feel that a lot of dialog is, as they say, on the nose. If I say to you, ‘How are you feeling, Jeff?' And you say, ‘I'm angry,' that is on-the-nose dialog, whereas if I say, ‘How are you feeling, Jeff?' And you say, ‘I'm fine,' the subtext is, whenever anyone says, ‘I'm fine,' they're usually not fine.
Certainly English speakers understand that that's the way it goes. I actually been thinking about this a lot recently is that British people speak a lot more in subtext than definitely Americans do, for example. We have a lot of unspoken dialogue and subtext in what we say.
The more I do my other podcast, the Books and Travel Podcast, the more I understand this, because people tell me this about my own culture, which is interesting. So, how do we use subtext, because subtext still is dialogue, but the subtext has to be shown not in the dialogue? It has to be shown in character action.
How do we use subtext?
Jeff: This is something that goes to kind of a bigger question, which is what is your dialogue for? I would say your dialogue is to inhabit the emotional state of the character. So, I think when we stop using subtext, like, the crime you're describing, of not using subtext, or just saying what the character's feeling all the time, I find most often happens with writers when they're using their dialogue as a tool just to push the plot along.
So, they're like, ‘Okay, I need in this scene for this character to be angry. And I know I need to use dialogue to do that. Somebody's going to ask them how they're feeling. They're going to say, “I'm angry,” and that's going to lead to this “Why are you angry?” and then we can have this conversation about why they're angry.'
And like you're saying, that's not how we function as real people, and your reader is going to notice that inauthenticity, and disconnect from it. When I think about dialogue, we're thinking about like, ‘Hey, how do I inhabit the emotions of this character,' and that's where the subtext comes in.
If I know that my character is angry, my character may not immediately say they're angry, because they don't want to reveal that about themselves, or maybe they don't even understand their own emotions, then when my first character asks my second character, ‘How are you feeling?' my second character may say, ‘I'm fine.'
If I know I have to get them to a place of talking about their anger, my second character can follow up like, ‘Well, you don't look fine.' And then my character can say, ‘I don't know. There's a lot going on right now. And, it's just frustrating.'
Because a lot of times, we'll find that we talk about what's happening instead of how we're feeling.
Now we have a conversation going that will lead to my character being angry, that feels real and authentic, and grabs that subtext. But for me, it's about flipping our minds as authors, that it's not just about getting the plot points done, or moving through the piece to get to the next scene.
It's about inhabiting the emotional state of our characters with their dialogue, to help the reader feel what our characters are feeling. Because it's that emotive state that the reader really connects with.
Joanna: And talking about anger, I have to ask about swear words. This is a clean show, so we're not actually going to say any swear words. But swear words in dialogue are completely authentic for many characters. For example, your young characters of color in Baltimore. I bet you they had some salty language as such.
Jeff: Yeah, they do.
Joanna: So, standard, the way they speak, it's not necessarily the way I might use a swear word either. So, swear words are authentic in that character voice, as you say, but a lot of readers will not tolerate it, especially Americans.
I've found Americans might tolerate all kinds of violent content in a book, but they won't tolerate a swear word.
What are your thoughts on using swear words or curse words to be authentic, and yet, balancing annoying or offending readers?
Jeff: When I first started writing, I would get really upset about this because growing up in the inner city and working with homeless populations and addicted populations, through my career, cussing was just part of the language. It wasn't offensive. It was just how people talked, we just threw those words in all the time.
But then I'd walk into the church that I was working at, and I'd have to turn it off completely, because there, for some reason, it was forbidden, because it's just one of those things that we've weirdly decided this is a line we won't cross. But I used to get really upset about it.
In my first couple books, I wrote a ton of foul language, just to prove that I could. I got notes back from readers that were like, ‘I love this story. I love the character, but I'm not reading the next book, because you were cussing in it.' And I had to take a step back as an author and ask, like, ‘Who am I doing this for?'
Because, like I said earlier about building an asset, if this is an asset for me to enjoy, and to sit on my shelf, and for me to read and say, like, ‘Look, I have this trophy of this thing that I did,' then cuss away, but if this is actually to engage a reader in a story that they want to be absorbed in and they want to go get the next one, then I do have to take into mind that I'm actually writing this for someone else.
For me, cussing has become about understanding what audience you're trying to sell to, and shaping the emotive language you want to use in order to entice that audience into your book. If you are writing Christian fiction for evangelicals in Texas, cussing is a very bad idea. They're not going to buy that book. They might buy it and then never buy another one of your books. Because that's how they feel about it.
But if you're writing books, for ex-vangelicals like myself, people who have left that world, and enjoy the freedom of language that we can use sometime, then you probably should cuss, because if you don't have it, we're not going to connect to it.
So, for me, deciding whether or not to cuss, it's just another tool in your arsenal to connect your character to your audience. And if it's not connecting your character to your audience, then maybe pull back on it, even if it is realistic. Because the audience is actually the point.
That was tough for me to figure out. I have a natural knee-jerk reaction, where somebody tells me I can't do something. I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, watch me do it.'
Joanna: It's quite funny, because I had the same thing with my first novel. And obviously, even though I'm not a Christian, my work is very centered around religion, and I write a lot on religious themes and religious history and all of this, and I got a lot of feedback.
I only had a couple of curse words, but in England, and in the UK, it's completely fine to have curse words in your book. British people swear, and it's not a problem. But I made the decision. Like you, I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I didn't even know this.'
I removed all the swear words, and I write in American English. That is also a decision I made for my audience. But I think, for people listening, I think you have to go one way or the other. If you decide, ‘Right, I'm not going to use swear words,' then don't, at all.
And then if you're going to, then feel free. Do it everywhere. But the point is, you can't really mix them up, because readers will decide. This is like a stake in the ground for people, isn't it? It's either one way or the other way.
Jeff: Yeah. And I will say there are certain lines that readers draw for me, that I'm like, ‘No, I'm not. I don't actually care about that line.' For example, we were talking about protagonists of color. After I published my second book, I had a family member call me and say, ‘Hey, I really want to share these books with my friends, but I need you to take the people of color out of them.'
Joanna: That's definitely an unacceptable thing to say.
Jeff: And I was like, ‘No. I'm not doing that.' That's a part of who I am. But for me foul language, it doesn't cross that line. There's other ways I can get across the emotions I want to feel without that kind of language.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely. But to be clear on this those are very, very different things. I feel like the swear words or not is the same as me deciding to write in American English. It's a stylistic thing. It's got nothing to do with characters or plot or theme or anything like that. To be very clear to people listening, there's an acceptable line and there's not.
I love the phrase ‘ex-vangelicals.' I've never heard that before. I really like that. I assume you're still a Christian. Is that correct?
Jeff: I am, although I cringe at the term sometimes.
Joanna: Oh, okay. Well, you are a believer of some kind. And, of course, your books, like mine, incorporate these religious things. And this is also a big thing, this religion versus science, what do I really believe? Because to be fair, I don't really know, either. I guess I'm an ex-vangelical too.
How do you incorporate your faith into your books, or your lack of faith, or your questions about faith?
Jeff: That's a good question, and trying to describe how it is succinctly. I started attending church when I was three weeks old. My mom took me to my first church service then. I grew up in a very religious culture in the United States. In a lot of ways, religion defined my whole life.
I went to college to be pre-med, but instead of going to med school, I went to seminary and got a Masters of divinity, and worked for over a decade in churches. After about seven years of working in churches, I really fell out of love with the institution, and with what religion is.
Seeing the pain that it caused the people around me, the institution, and the choices the institution made, was really hard. Not to get too political, because this is a writing podcast, but it was really tough. And so, I started looking for different answers in my life, different ways to express my worldview and what I found.
It informs my writing in that it is my worldview. Typically the way it plays out is my characters are always outcasts and underdogs, who find themselves on the outskirts of society, and who are often seen as menacing or fearful by others around them, because that was my experience in that institution.
Having that define my worldview, it can't help but bleed out in all my books. That term, ‘ex-vangelical,' is one that's I think being used a lot more now recently, about people who grew up in that evangelical context, and have come to terms with what it is, and have walked away from that in some way, which can be a very painful process.
My characters are that way. They find themselves on the outside of culture. And part of that's just who I am. I tend to lean toward the outcast and the underdog. Show me somebody sitting by themselves, and I'd want to go sit with them and figure out what's going on, figure out who they are, and just let them know that they're not alone. That's a huge theme in my work.
I will also say the opposite is also true. All my villains are typically rich suburbanites. If you want to know who did the crime in one of my mysteries, look for the rich guy. But, again, that's just part of who I am and those decisions I've made about my fiction, this is the kind of story I want to tell and put into the world, because this is the way that I see the world around me.
I also put a lot of magic in my books, because I see a lot of magic in the world around me. I write books full of wonder and weird things. And my detectives read minds, and my homeless superheroes fight monsters from another world that nobody else can see. I love that kind of wonder and mystery around the world around us. And that all comes from my religious roots, and fills my fiction now.
Joanna: It is a very rich vein of inspiration. I'm the same. In America, I think religion is politics. But it feels, to me, if you're going to have conflict in your books, internal conflict around religion can be one of the biggest conflicts of your human life. And it's possibly something that is never resolved.
I also tackle it in each of my books, in a different way than you do. But I think it's something that obviously, none of us may never know even after we die. So, there you go. But it's definitely a big theme that we could talk about forever. We could talk about this for hours, but we'll have to wind up now.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. dialoguedoctor.com is where I'm talking about dialogue and talking about craft. Come over there. You can find the podcast there, and the newsletter, and all that kind of stuff. Hopefully, a book coming out in May, that I'm working on now, which is exciting.
And then my fiction is at jeffelkinswriter.com. You can find all my novels there and engage with my fiction there.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Jeff. That was great.
Jeff: Thanks, Joanna. This was fantastic.
Kev Partner says
Loved this episode so much. What an interesting and engaging person Jeff is.
I had to make the same choice about swearing when writing my post apocalyptic fiction, the audience for which is massively tilted toward the US. After initially resisting, I gave it a go and it turned out to be pretty straightforward, even in an “end of the world” setting. It takes skill and effort, sure, but it’s actually strangely satisfying, as is working with an American editor to eliminate all my Britishisms (that turned out to be a lot more than spelling and noun substitution!)
I definitely struggle to differentiate my characters, and this is something I actively work on. I can’t always get away with just lobbing a Russian in there, however much I might want to. I’m going to give Jeff’s colour wheel a go.
Thanks again for a fantastic episode.
Charlayne Elizabeth Denney says
Wow, love this. I’m one of those types who writes a lot of dialogue. Mine comes from the movie playing in my head. I hear their voices. The patterns they use. One of the best comments I got when I was first writing dialogue was that it’s very seldom that you speak traditionally full sentences. We do “um” and clip things and use contractions “don’t go there…”
As I said, I loved this podcast!
Anna Meryt says
Brilliant episode here – really useful and fascinating. Had a look at Jeff’s web/podcasts and took copious notes. My book that sells best is Writing Memoir. How to Write a Story from your Life – I have a chapter on dialogue, but Jeff has certainly given me more to think about and so has your input into the interview. I really winced when he talked about all the characters sounding the same … I’ll have to go back and re-edit my current second memoir, I’m writing, with Jeff’s suggestions in my mind. Swearing is a tough one, too – my first memoir was set in the 70s – I’m a Brit, we swore A LOT. How can my memoir be truthful and authentic without the swearing? Second memoir is set in 2003 – personal conversations contained swearing most of the time. Again how can the dialogue reflect truthful and authentic dialogue without it? And in my opinion, a memoir should first and foremost be truthful – that’s your contract with the reader.
Anyway, thanks again for a very stimulating and useful interview – it’s really made me think.
Chris Bardell says
Another very fine episode, Joanna. Jeff was a really engaging guest, with a ton of useful knowledge.
The swearing angle is fascinating and often defies expectations – the brilliant (and famously potty-mouthed) Hunter S. Thompson was American after all. But yes, us Brits do seem to have much more of a tolerance for stronger language. Artificially sanitised prose would perhaps seem tame and unrealistic.
Thanks for a real purple patch of great guests lately.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Chris, glad you’re still enjoying the show!
On swearing, of course Americans swear 🙂 but US readers can be more sensitive to it, so it’s a stylistic choice.
Carol Painter says
Thanks for a superb episode, especially powerful for the questions you asked Joanna. I started listening to Jeff’s podcasts, full of good stuff but a more discursive listening experience. Your interview elicited a lot in a short period.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Carol. I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview.