Sunday, January 25, 2009

Write Like You Talk

copyright 2009, Aaron Paul Lazar

Have you ever heard the adage, "Write like you talk?"

I've run across this bit of advice off and on during my career, whether in writing skills articles, or from colleagues who had a "eureka!" moment of their own. One mentor said he didn't write one really good book until he actually put the advice into practice. And let me tell you, it worked. It really worked. Now I devour his mysteries.

"Writing like you talk," is another way to accomplish "pure" writing, to avoid those lengthy narratives, obscure referrences, or highbrow words that most folks don't recognize. Done right, it can be simple, yet profound. Imagine the kind of prose that flows without stuttering in your brain or tripping you up in the middle of an action scene, words that tell a story almost in an invisible way. It's likely that your favorite authors fall into this category.

Ever had the experience where you're reading a book and you keep noticing the actual writing? Okay, okay. I know most writers pay close attention to the writing in every book. But there are superb books whose stories flow so fast you can't stop turning the pages. They aren't always elegant, like Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series (those books make me weak in the knees, they're so beautifully crafted!), yet they propel you forward so the movie plays in your mind and you don't notice the words.

There are others, however, where you can't help but notice the writing, and not in a good way. Sometimes this is a result of writers who are just learning the craft, who are trying way too hard. And sometimes it's just plain old bad writing. These writers want to dazzle us with their vocabulary, their command of the language, or their brilliant analogies. Sometimes it's just too much. One of the first things I learned was to CUT, CUT, CUT. My early prose was filled with glorious adverbs and adjectives which described in no uncertain terms the visions I saw in my head. But they bogged down the story. After all that, after learning to hone and refine and smooth out the sentences, I'm STILL learning to cut the excess and just tell the damn story!

Of course, one must have balance. In literary mysteries, for example, there is room for a bit of poetry, or a scene described in such luscious terms it makes the reader salivate for a meal, or a dip in a lake, or a romantic moment with your character. (You wouldn't believe how many marriage proposals Gus LeGarde has had!)

Once you've learned to simplify the prose (Remember my resolution for 2009? Simplify!), then it's okay to spice it up -- judiciously -- so your own style can shine. Perfectly chosen verbs, sparing yet brilliant analogies, or dead-on-dialogue will help you carve your own niche in your genre.

I just finished a book that drove me to write about this topic. As I read, I heard the author's voice in my head. I recognized the natural style and lovely Southern accent, because I've heard her radio show and have chatted with her. And it worked, it really worked.

Here's the review I wrote for Kim Smith's Avenging Angel:

Title: Avenging Angel
Author: Kim Smith
Publisher: Red Rose Publishing
Publisher Addresses: Red Rose Publishing, 12065 Woodhull Rd., Forestport , NY 13338
ISBN number: 978-1-60435-276-4
Price: $5.99
Publisher website:

Avenging Angel
Review by Aaron Paul Lazar

A great read doesn't have to be fancy, full of literary allusions or deep musings. Nor does it need a ritzy setting, plots that twist your brain into a pretzel, or elite protagonists.

What a great read does need is a story that moves, characters who linger in your mind, and a voice that calls you back to its pages. Avenging Angel by Kim Smith accomplished all three.

Smith has written a suspenseful cozy mystery set in the south in a small lazy town. Shannon Wallace, a spunky, smart, and all-American young woman, is at the brink of disaster. Dumped by her beau, fired from her job, and plunged into the middle of a killer nightmare, Shannon's pluck and smarts carry her forward in a tidal wave of terror that will get your heart pumping in this delightful page turner.

When Shannon's boyfriend is murdered hours after he breaks up with her, she discovers their private video collection is missing. Problem is, the star of the intimate show is Shannon, and she'll do everything in her power to retrieve the embarrassing disks.

The author knows how to write. But best of all, she knows how to write like she talks. It's not easy to accomplish, as most debut authors tend to fall into the trap of using words that sound good but don't fit, or making a sentence far more complex than it needs to be. Smith's simple, straightforward, and quite endearing style is what drives Avenging Angel forward, with hints of colorful Southern dialect and engaging dialogue.

That said, there are select moments of literary prose that shine, as in the following excerpt:

"August in the Mid-South is like summer in the tropics. The crepe myrtles bloom in fuchsia and pink, and old people perch like lazy flies on white wicker swings and cane chairs. In every neighborhood, folded fans gently wave at the heat, and everyone talks about the weather. No one moves too much, or too fast, thanks to the humidity, which turns the still air into a sauna-like atmosphere even before daybreak. The firmest hair spray is reduced to damp stickiness, the best-laid plans are set-aside until evening, and the most even-tempered person will contemplate murdering their friend."

By contrast, take a look at this wonderfully simple, yet engaging, segment:

"My dreams were a mish mash of colors and snippets from my life. I saw myself as a child, orphaned. I relived the pain that accompanied it until it nearly drowned me and woke with tears on my face. The birds of summer played somewhere outside the window and all the sounds of nature seemed intensified as though reassuring me I was still alive."

As much as I enjoyed the plot line-straightforward, tense, great suspense-it was the relationships between Shannon, Dwayne, Salvatore, her elderly aunts, and the broad cast of suspects that sold me.

I was most pleased that Shannon didn't fall into the arms of the handsome local detective, because that would have made the work too predictable, trite, or Lifetime Movie-ish. No, Shannon held her own, wasn't pushed around by the cops, and survived numerous attacks by a very frightening assailant. This woman-while she does show very real emotions that ring true-won't be bullied by anyone. And when Dwayne helps her buy and learn to use a handgun, it may be the key to her survival.

Smith, "a true blue southern gal who was raised on black-eyed peas and cornbread," promises sequels to her captivating world. See more at her website,


Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries savors the countryside in the Genesee Valley in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his websites at and and watch for the fourth book in the LeGarde series, MAZURKA, coming in 2009 from Twilight Times Books.

Double Forté is the founding book of the LeGarde Mystery series and was released in November, 2004. Upstaged followed in October, 2005. His third, Tremolo: cry of the loon, was released via Twilight Times Books in November 2007.

What's next? Healey's Cave, the first book of his green marble paranormal mystery series, Moore Mysteries, will be released in 2009.

He is a regular columnist for FMAM (Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine), and has been published in Great Mystery and Suspense magazine and the Absolute Write Newsletter. Contact him at:, visit his blog at,,, or stop by his websites at and

Mr. Lazar is currently working on his fourteenth book, Don't Let the Wind Catch You.


Marta Stephens said...

"Sometimes this is a result of writers who are just learning the craft, who are trying way too hard."

Excellent points, Aaron. I've put down many a book that had words or phrases that didn't match the character--big and cumbersome words that often made me stop. The narrative should reflect the character's tone as much as the dialogue. Stop the reader for only a second or two and the writer risks losing him completely.

Kim Smith said...

I don't know what to say, Aaron. Thank you seems totally inadequate. I am so glad you liked Avenging Angel, and I am even more glad that you "got" my writing. That is one of the highest forms of compliment that a writer can receive.

I only know to aim higher now, stretch my success into another and another.

I will just let Faulkner say it for me.

"Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself."

William Faulkner
US novelist (1897 - 1962)

Joyce said...

Excellent points. I have a good command of the language, but when I have to stop reading a story and keep pulling out my dictionary, it's really not worth the effort.

Characters have to speak in a way that is appropriate for them, not necessarily that which is appropriate for the writer. We, as writers, need to become each character at the applicable time and speak from their point of view. That is so true that at times, I have come to conversations between characters and before I'm even halfway through, I've skipped the whole section and moved on to the next event because the whole thing was ridiculous, yes, ridiculous. That's because not only would the characters not speak that way, but in some cases, no one speaks that way.

Thanks for reminding us all that there is 'telling a story' and then there is 'telling a story'. It is all in the 'telling'.

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, yeah. You nailed it. :-) Dialogue is one of the hardest aspects of writing to master - and writing like you talk is a great way to make sure your characters don't sound like walking dictionaries. LOL

(Just as long as you don't put in as many 'um's and 'er's and inane phrases as we tend to use in real-life talk, you're good!)

Excellent review of Kim's book, too! I can't wait to read it. :-)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, all, for your comments. Marta - it doesn't take much to lose interest in a book, does it? One or two pages of "overwritten" or "improperly written" is all I can stand.

Kim - you don't need to thank me. I thank you for writing a good mystery!

JR - excellent points, thank you!

Sonya - You are right. Can you imagine all the "ya knows" that would pepper our books? Egads!

Soon I plan to write about dialogue and dialect. Dialogue must sound natural for the person who's speaking, and dialect mustn't be overused. Otherwise we get bogged down in a sentence we have to stop to dissect before we can get the meaning!

Rebecca said...

Very nice review, really like the first two introductory paragraphs. you have a way with words.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thank you, Rebecca!