Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Speaking my mind.

It’s been a while since the last posting. The problem is, I can’t think of anything to say. A friend of mine, over the past few years, has been writing his memoirs, which are due for publication next year. But when I say writing, he’s been doing it in a way that I don’t think I could. He’s been dictating them into the computer using a voice activation programme (or whatever they’re called). Nevertheless, just to prove my point, I’m going to try dictating this to see what sort of product emerges.

The trouble with talking is that it moves too quickly. You don’t have time to balance the sentence, structure the argument – or rather, even if you think very carefully before you speak, what you say is not part of a larger batch of words, but simply something separate, independent, expressed in the instant of saying it. That’s OK when you’re doing workshops or working from notes because then you’re interacting with other people or things and that gives you a different sort of continuity. But when you’re sitting here as I am now with a blank mind and no idea where I want to go with this, all it produces is garbage. In fact, it actually brings home the immediacy of speech. That seems a strange thing to say, but the act of speaking is such an instantaneous thing that, once you’ve spoken the sentence, you’re left with silence, just a blank, and nothing to link to what you’ve just said. With writing, it’s different. The words lie on the screen or page in front of you, part of something that’s unfinished and which you can juggle around, delete or add to. It’s only finished and delivered when you’ve shaped the whole thing the way you want it to look and sound. As I’m saying these words, they’re just vanishing and only tenuously linking with what’s gone before.

You wouldn’t believe how painfully slow this process is. I could have written more than this far more quickly than I’m speaking it (and it would have made more sense).

God, this is so dull. I’ll try to think of something more interesting to say for the next one (and I definitely won’t be dictating that). I thought I might say something about the visitors we had but then decided against it, because they’re “followers” (I hate that word) of this blog. Talking here about what we did would seem terribly “cosy”. Private contacts with any of you should remain private. (If that sets you thinking that we got up to things that are unpublishable, wash your mind out with soap immediately.) Part of the conversation with one of them, however, did reveal that writers’ blogs don’t actually fulfil the purpose of attracting new readers. What happens is that the same group of followers tends to leave comments and this gives the impression that they’re part of a clique. And that gives people who come across the blog the impression that it’s a private club, so they feel disinclined to say anything themselves, because they’re outsiders. I certainly don’t want to discourage comments here, but that seems to be true of this blog and most of the ones I follow myself.

I’ve had enough of this. I’ve switched off the mic and reverted (gratefully) to the keyboard. It was the repetitious nature of what I was saying that got me in the end. I always read my stuff aloud when I’ve finished writing it and that always highlights stylistic as well as other flaws. I’ve left in the repetition of ‘gives … the impression’ in the previous paragraph because it illustrates the disjunction of dictating, the fact that it’s a process of regurgitating lumps of words which don’t necessarily relate to those around them.

I’d love to hear if any of you (not just the clique but others) have tried dictating and, if so, how successful or satisfying you found it to be. It’s so utterly different that I’m still not sure how to define it. (The above attempt was woeful.) In a way it’s the difference between thinking in sentences and thinking in paragraphs. (I look forward to the day when I’ll start thinking in novels.)

(And also to the day that I don’t use quite so many brackets.)


  1. Well, I'm one of the clique, hope you won't turn me away, lol. I have tried several voice recognition software programs over the years, only recently having any success with using it. I've used a recorder for ideas for years BUT for creating on the fly, writing forward on a new project or even a blog, I find myself listening to the sound of my voice and becoming self-conscious, or it just doesn't flow. It's like there's a connection from brain to fingers that isn't there from brain to mouth. (As I'm sure my friends can attest.) Then there's the issue of having to insert the words like 'comma' 'new line' 'exclamation mark'.
    I guess that's why they call it writing.

    It would be very convenient, VERY, if I could transfer even my notes from the recorder to MacDictate or Dragon Naturally Speaking but a sentence like 'Hallie has no fire for the newspaper business anymore' becomes 'Hell hath no fury for the newspaper business before' or something even worse.

    I've experienced the same frustrating conundrum with the blog but even though it take work to produce one, it's worth the connection to my many fans and what would we do out here in the coven if you quit blogging, Bill?

  2. I bought a Sony thingamajig which supposedly will record, then offload, MP3 files, or some such nonsense. I used it at DragonCon at Diana Gabaldon's panels so I could the insights. I've yet to figure out how to do that little thing.

    I love technology ... it just that it's unrequited.

    Anyway, last year on the 14 hour drive home from Atlanta my firstborn and I did a book - and when I say 'did' I'm talking the whole enchilada, plot, characters, denouement and by the time we got home we had a bestseller on our hands with most of the good bits forgotten. I actually sat down and pounded out not one, but two books, using the thematic elements we'd so joyfully constructed. Those manuscritps still sit in a draw woefully in need of the missing bits.

    I swore then I would have a way of trapping the immediacy of thought, I would wake up in the middle of the night and record the pearls, later to be sorted, catalogued and applied in new and exciting ways that would take the literary world by storm.

    So far that world remains safe and blissfully unawares.

    I suspect that artifice is useful for lists: buy yogurt, pay the electric bill, the lights got shut off last night, that sort of thing. Not so useful for coherent thoughts. Have you ever recorded a conversation with the ums and uhs, ya knows ... even from nominally erudite people? Duller than dirt. Speaking alone, at some demonic device, expecting lucidity, coherence and ... insight? Not gonna happen.
    Well, maybe Karen Blixen could compose a story, out of full cloth, and orally deliver it to an enraptured audience but most of the best stuff we hear has been scripted - and that by the simple device of writing it down or typing at a keyboard.

    It's that interaction of nerves tranmitting signals from the brain to the act of tapping in a letter, then a word and a sentence, a coherent thought with purpose and meaning ... it's that time lag, instantaneous as it seems, that makes a world of difference. It forces us to create context, with characters and motivations. Tempered immediacy.

    There's also the small matter of JJ the Demon Cat who disapproves of 'unnatural' conversations - and talking on the phone also qualifies. The firstborn and I have spent hours trying to figure out why a normal conversation between two people sharing contiguous space should be so different from a perceived one-way communication. Apparently there is a huge difference that even the birds can detect and it leads to screeching and other unseemly behaviors [Demon Cat morphs from too cute to resist to knocking something over to divert us from unacceptable behaviors].
    Believe me, trying to edit out "Shut up fer crying out loud",'stop it', 'you're going out' and 'what the ^*#* are you doing now?' can be a challenge, though some of the more colorful and creative phrasings might be worth storing away for a future Elmore Leonard-clone novel.

    Hmmm, where was I going with this? Oh yeah, blogs. Waste of time. Gonna have to do one. Everybody says so, everybody can't be wrong.

    Resistance is futile.

  3. Yes, Marley, I use a recorder for notes sometimes (although when I was in London recently at the V&A, there were some interesting things I could use for my Figurehead sequel. I had no notebook, so I recorded notes into my mobile (=cellphone). But now I can’t find them. There are too many bloody functions on these phones.)

    I like your brain to fingers/brain to mouth connections – they make perfect sense. The act of speaking seems to inhibit the act of thinking but writing enhances it. Please help, somebody. Explain it all to me.

    You’re right, too, about the sort of typos you get. One sentence I dictated for this posting (since deleted) contained the words ‘my regular’. They came out as ‘IRA killer’.

    And thank you for reminding me that the word ‘clique’ doesn’t apply here; it’s a ‘coven’ – a much nicer word with far more promising and productive connotations. (But again, you see how a first-time visitor to the blog might be alienated by me saying that.)

    Now, Diane, I think a wee project would be to dump the manuscripts you mention into firstborn’s lap (you might think of having him christened, or at least named, by the way) and tell him to fill in the blanks. The world needs it.

    As for the ums and ahs of speech, it was interesting when I was writing plays to try to strike the balance between making characters sound natural but (relatively) articulate. When I was recording this lot, though, the problem wasn’t with ums and ahs but just that I really couldn’t think of what to say or how to sustain a thought.

    Another strange thing I should have added above is that, before computers, I couldn’t write on a typewriter. I had to do everything in longhand. There was the same inhibition at work. I don’t know if it was the noise of the machine (except that the clicking of keys I’m hearing as I do this doesn’t bother me) or the fact that I was having to do mechanical stuff like carriage returns, but it just didn’t work.

    I like the expression ‘tempered immediacy’ and will steal it and pretend it’s mine.

    And I want to be the first to sign up as a follower on your blog. I don’t mind it when I’m doing the following; it’s the hubristic notion that I have ‘followers’ that I find unacceptable.

    One last thought about the spoken word. I couldn’t help speculating that your final warning might have greater impact if spoken with a British accent. If I’m right, in the USA, it would be ‘Resistance is fyootle’ with the stress on the first syllable; drawing out the ‘tile’ syllable is much more sinister.

  4. "Few*tile"? Oy, fuggedaboutit.

    Ditto on having 'followers' - and they seem to appear out of the woodwork, especially on Twitter, where there isn't a Social Director for FB enforcing inclusion and gawd-knows-what-all. Am I supposed to groove on the Pied Piper vibe?

    I love the idea of a coven. We could have badges sewn onto our robes and secret hand signals - I have a nice supply on tap from driving over in Joisey, the 'circles' we call'em, and a few cheerful phrases that enliven an otherwise dull commute.

    The firstborn seemed resistant [there's that term again] to your idea as he's off on some tangent with Ukrainian monks and vamps and pirates from the Sudan hijacking an arms shipment and the US Coast Guard gets involved and it's gonna be a screenplay that the SyFy Channel will grab up and his fortune will ... Well, far be it for me to interfere with a potential blockbuster.

  5. On the other hand 'frajle' is better than 'fragile' because the sound makes the word sort of collapse in a frajle manner. Whereas 'agile' is much more agile than 'ajle'.

    The firstborn is wrong (unless he turns out to be right, in which case, I think his idea is brilliant).

    As soon as I receive the design for the coven badge, I'll draw up a constitution, logo, corporate identity, 5 year business plan, mission statement, brand recognition and we can all walk the talk together.

  6. Geez Louise, didn't he get the memo to pick up some candles and incense? I ain't doing no Mission Statement. I'll just, uh, sniff this here naturally ocurring substance and see what transpires.

    Badges? We don' need no stinkin' badges...

  7. Recordings of any kind only work for me when I'm interviewing someone in person--which I haven't done for several years. I've also tried work recognition programs and find them amusing as well as frustrating. My best work is done on the keyboard, where my "fingers" are most creative. :)

  8. I wonder if your trouble - he says as he is about to set the cat among the rats with wings - is down to the fact that men are less effective with speech. I have a couple of friends (I know, only 2 - how sad) who are writers and who dictate their novels onto their pc with one of these speech recognition thingies. So don't be too hard on yourself. It's your hormones wot done it.

  9. Oh and I missed the part out that these writer friends with the speech recognitions thingies are women.

  10. I agree about the interviews, Jean, but what a drag having to transcribe them afterwards.

    Michael, I'm grateful that you ascribe to me hormones (in the plural). I've been trying to look after them.
    As for the theory, I'd like to hear what the rest of the coven thinks about it. There may well be men who record/write. I know Barbara Cartland (one of your friends, no doubt), wrote all her stuff that way but you're right, I haven't heard of any men who do.

  11. There's an old mini-essay by Isaac Asimov where he talks about trying to use a dictaphone. The idea was he would dictate and his wife would type. It never worked because he got so worked up along with his characters that his wife couldn't understand his strangled tones.

  12. Interesting, Gary, and it makes me think that I could perhaps use dictation but in a different way. I've done a bit of acting so if it was just a question of playing the role of a character, I could do that and it might have some authenticity. I wouldn't look at the words on the screen. I'd simply 'be' the character and see what developed. But then, it would be impossible to break our of the role-play in order to become the objective observer setting the context or moving the narrative on. Role playing a novelist doesn't work in the same way.