Today’s newsletter is about an interesting message I received from a science fiction author. A beta reader had told her they’d enjoyed her book but found that “everyone talked like robots.”
This is a really interesting observation because it is descriptive and experiential. It’s like a symptom a patient may present to a doctor. And from a developmental editing perspective, there is no simple answer to this question.
So, what may be going on here?
First of all, beta reading is subjective. If just one beta reader has mentioned this, then you shouldn’t make wholesale changes to your novel based on that feedback alone.
You should get comments from multiple beta readers and look for patterns in their comments. You could also consider a manuscript critique or developmental edit if you want professional feedback.
Second, “robotic dialogue” could refer to any number of problems – some developmental, others stylistic.
If your characters don’t use contractions (“I am” instead of “I’m”) in informal situations, then the dialogue could sound robotic. That’s because people don’t speak in that way – and fiction dialogue should respect how people speak.
Copyeditors should always apply editorial style to fiction with a light touch, and there is much more room for manoeuvre in dialogue (and internal reflections) compared with in the general narration.
— I am so happy to see you, my friend. It has been a long time since I have seen you.
— Yes, let us go hang out in the spaceship together.
This sounds pretty robotic!
But “robotic dialogue” could refer to developmental issues too. If we exclude intentional robotic dialogue spoken by actual robots, then this observation could describe
1) A lack of character emotionality and subtext in your writing
2) A more general problem with stilted dialogue and overtelling through the narration
3) A problem with choppiness (rhythm and flow), which could just be a stylistic issue, or a deeper developmental issue with the story structure
Some of these problems may look very similar to one another. Take stilted “As you know, Bob” dialogue, for example:
— I’m going to walk over to the temple now, and then I suggest we go get an ice cream.
— Yes, I would like an ice cream, then I have to find my escape pod. My hand is in pain, and my medical kit is in the pod.
This kind of overtelling can sound patronizing and irritating to the reader, as it doesn’t recreate how people speak. But it could just be an early draft in which the author hasn’t fleshed out the character motivations or their non-immediate goals. Then the author is simply telling themself the story through this kind of narration.
So, a lack of emotionality and subtext could be a problem with inadequate character development or overtelling, and this could just be about the manuscript being an overtold early draft.
As for choppiness, there’s also a tendency for new writers to overdo the “less is more” dictum and write very short sentences that leave the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Like some copywriters do.
— Tired. I am tired. Problem; over there. What is happening?
So, robotic-sounding dialogue could also be a problem with overapplying writing advice and creating new issues with rhythm and flow.
In short, these comments from beta readers are fascinating because they point out symptoms and provide food for thought. It’s worth looking for patterns in beta feedback, and if you want some deeper insights into a developmental problem, it’s definitely worth hiring a developmental editor.
You can also check out services at a lower price point. Manuscript critiques or assessments are usually much cheaper, and many editors will offer to look at a synopsis or the first few chapters.
The developmental editing competition results are now out. You can find the finalists here, and I will make a final decision next week.
I’ve launched the worldbuilding mini-course. It costs $59 + sales tax.
The London Book Fair
I visited the London Book Fair last week, and it was great to catch up with authors I’ve worked with, and other editors too. The highlight for me was the ALLi party and the presentation by Orna Ross and Joanna Penn. They described how traditional publishing starts with the mainstream and finds new audiences within it, whereas self-publishing audiences start by nurturing a small audience and then works outwards, growing that audience. It was an interesting metaphor that made me think of top-down (trad) vs. bottom-up (indie) approaches.
AI was also a hot topic. What stood out for me was that ChatGPT cannot grasp context at all – it simply follows very specific instructions (prompts). Book editors fearful of AI taking their jobs would do well to remember the radically human qualities that human editors can bring to a book project. Also, ChatGPT and similar devices are best viewed as heuristics for simple reasoning and inspiration. They are not good information retrieval devices and looking at them in that way is a mistake.
Finally, I was excited to learn that some of ChatGPT’s abilities (for example, summarizing) were not programmed but were emergent abilities that its creators don’t fully understand, and that took the creators by surprise!
Newsletter switch to Substack
Those of you who have read this far will also have probably noticed that I’ve switched my mailing list to Substack. I’ve done this as it’s much easier to work with. I don’t need the marketing bells and whistles that MailerLite offers, and as this platform is more public, it will help me focus on answering helpful tips and questions from my worldbuilding and editing/writing community. So please stick around!
I’ll be in touch again in early May.
Thanks for the reference, I'll add it to my pile of craft books. Yes, it's interesting how developmental problems link together like this. And I think subtlety, nuance, and subtext is novel writing doing what it does best. The medium paints a picture the reader can take in at their leisure, so there is lots of room for all that. And as for bestsellers: if the author already has a large audience, then people will read and buy the book. There's lots of bestsellers that could benefit from developmental editing input and feedback, but if a book has a big audience already or strikes a chord, it can become a hit regardless of the quality. I've heard that The Room (2003) is a film full of really bad dialogue, so I'd like to watch and learn from it!
I'm reading Robert McKee's book, "Dialague: The art of verbal action etc etc. (https://www.amazon.ca/Dialogue-Verbal-Action-Stage-Screen/dp/1478938420)
A few things that have stood out so far from reading it: 1) Dialogue has to perform multiple tasks: establish character, move the plot forward, create tension, impart intel, smuggle in subtext to the story (he's super-keen on this one); 2) Dialogue problems are often character problems; in short, wooden, unconvincing dialogue may flow from an imperfectly or poorly imagined character.
On that last point, I'm reminded of a book—a multi-million-copy bestseller with an Amazon series and at least one award—that I was naturally keen to read. But the dialogue within this lauded bestseller honestly made me want to kill myself—or the author. The dialogue was so wooden I could scarcely distinguish the main characters from a pile of 2 x 4s. Apart from anything else, the dialogue appeared to be trying to reproduce actual patterns of speech you'd hear in everyday conversation. "Hello X." "Oh hello Y." "Lovely weather we're having..." and so on. It was terrifyingly bad.