Friday, May 15, 2015

Terms of Tin-Ear Meant

Several years ago, you heard a writer say of another writer we both knew, He has a tin ear for dialogue.  This term, tin ear for dialogue, stuck with you because it crystallized a complaint you had about dialogue that didn't seem to earn its way.

The writer who made the complaint had anything but a tin ear for dialogue.  You and he were almost exact contemporaries, him having been the editor of the campus humor magazine at UC, Berkeley, while you were causing the UCLA humor magazine to be kicked off campus for a parody on Richard M. Nixon, whose eventual Presidential Tapes would reveal his own tin ear for dialogue.

The writer had begun a slow but steady career in science fiction magazines, being prolific and humorous.  You became the acquisitions editor for two of his books, all the while thinking about the implications of having a tin ear for dialogue and looking for ways to remove any such tendencies from your own.

What good fortune for you that you were editing writers whose dialogue drove  to some dramatic flash point much in the manner of a young dog trying to get at its evening meal.  Reading focused dialogue in books and magazines was one helpful thing, having manuscripts in production before you quite another.  

One writer you were pleased to have on your list--not your friend from university days--introduced another important term to you when he observed that you were doing some close reading on his dialogue.  Close reading, at the time, meant slow-paced focus, a spot check for innuendo, clues, personality markers--a term you could have done better to have understood during your university days.  Better late than not at all.

Soon, tin ear and close reading became concepts that produced a complete change in the way you read, did so to the point where another term, Reading for Pleasure, meant something light years away from its original meanings.

The original--for you--writer with the tin ear for dialogue went on to become a rarity by default.  He was one of the few writers to publish only once in the famed Gold Medal paperback original novels series.  Most of the writers who published once with Gold Medal managed to publish again.  For the time, the price was right and some writers, such as your friend, Day Keene, managed a lively supplementary income on royalties after the novel had sold enough copies to earn back the advance.

The tin ear for dialogue writer--we'll call him Jack--shook his head in disbelief while he was telling you about a refusal from Gold Medal.  "What could possibly be wrong with my dialogue?"  he asked, in the process dislodging a blob of mustard from his Tommy's Hamburger and onto his shirt as we watched passing traffic on Sunset Boulevard.  "I mean, I write plays.  What is a play if it is not dialogue?"

You said, "A play is a story."  While you still believe this to be an absolute truth, perhaps neither of you was able to see how the same thing could also be said of dialogue.  Perhaps you were both still trying to deconstruct the things characters in stories say to other characters, all the while thinking the equivalent of yet another term, elephants in the living room.

The truth is, while you respected Jack's intelligence and his tastes in reading, you were both aware that you'd never encouraged him to submit a novel to you.  You knew something was wrong with his work, part of it related to Tin Ear for Dialogue, but beyond that, you had no words for suggestion, much less for understanding.  At one point, you even found yourself agreeing to collaborate with Jack on a project of his that you loved in concept, but had met with rousing indifference among editors.

After a month or so of meeting and sharing pages, Jack called off the collaboration, telling you that people simply do not speak the way you portray them as speaking.  At last, you were getting the idea about Tin Ear.  His characters, even his women, all sounded like him when he spoke in loud, affected dramatic intent.  

You often did not recognize where the sounds of your characters were coming from.  But you did have the sense they were not coming from you; they were coming from the place where all your characters come from when they are not you.

You believe there are few persons in the world who will admit to being bad drivers, poor or indifferent lovers.  To that list, you will add few writers who would admit to writing bad dialogue.

You may have a tin ear for dialogue, but somehow that does not seem to matter.  Your characters know exactly what to say, and how to say it.

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