Blogging with Methuselah, Day 159: So I Sez to My Mom, Mom, I Sez . . .

March 8th, 2011

Oscar Wilde (generally acknowledged as the wittiest man in England):  “I wish I’d said that.”

James McNeil Whistler (actually the wittiest man in England):  “You will Oscar, you will.”

A would-be purchaser, shocked at the price of one of Whister’s pantings:  “But it’s not even life-size.”

Whistler:  “Yes, but you know, few men are life-size.”

I hate guys like that.  Guys who never, just before they drop off to sleep, sit bolt upright and think, “That’s what I should have said.”  Because they actually said it.

Guys who never tell others, days later, “So then I sez to him, I sez . . .” and then say the thing he couldn’t have thought of even if God had mercifully frozen time for 30 minutes, leaving only that person’s mind in motion, free to consider, reject, and reconsider what to say.  Guys who, even then, would have thought of it on the stairs going down.

Guys like me.

One of the great joys of writing is that you get hundreds of chances to come up with just the right response. Le mot just. Draft after draft, and you don’t even have to confine yourself to “your” line — you can rewrite his or hers, too.  And I have, over and over.

People who meet me after reading me are sometimes disappointed that I’m not much of a sparkler conversationally.  All I can say is, come back tomorrow and say the same things, and I’ll knock you out of the park.

Dialogue, I think, should be like real conversation, only better. One of the things that makes it better, obviously, is the ability to rewrite it in a way that would be really obtrusive in an actual interaction; it’s hard to imagine a group of live people putting up with something like, “Wait, wait.  Let me come back in and say hi and then you say that over, okay?”   Even the most sympathetic of our listeners would peel off about halfway through.

But in writing, there are all those neural pathways with all those brightly dressed little neurons holding loudspeakers, fighting over which response you’ll choose.  So where, in a real conversation, you have a moment of dumbstruck, panic-sparked What? What did he say? What should I say? in writing, you have hundreds of little wise-asses waving suggestions at you: “The last time I saw that color, it was on the Queen.” ” So that’s why they call it the windy city.” “I’m sorry, what instrument did you say you play?”

They may not be crowd-stoppers, but they’re better than, “Oh, yeah?”  And if you think of something better in the shower, you can always go back and do it over.

But only so much.  Dialogue goes rancid when it’s overthought, as I discover repeatedly while editing the Simeon Grist books.  Every copy should have come with a little sound track: just a rim shot after every third line Simeon says.  It’s enough to make me cringe at times, although there’s also lots of stuff in all the books that I like.

But I keep trying, hoping for something half as good as (Whistler again): “It takes a long time for a man to look like his portrait.”

By the way, I’ll send a signed copy of the next Poke book (sometime in 2012) to the person who can come up with straight lines for the three context-free knee-slappers I suggested above.  SORRY, FOLKS — CONTEST IS OVER.  DON’T EVEN TRY.  THEY’RE TERRIBLE LINES ANYWAY.

11 Responses to “Blogging with Methuselah, Day 159: So I Sez to My Mom, Mom, I Sez . . .”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    Whistler does sound clever but my goodness, man, so are you!

    Now, what don’t you like about Simeon’s dialogue?

  2. EverettK Says:

    Alice let loose a smelly honker of hurricane proportions, her face flushed bright red, and in a barely audible voice said to the Rabbit, “Excuse me?”
    “The last time I saw that color, it was on the Queen,” the Rabbit said.

    “I swear, in every Chicago restaurant we ate at, the people at the next table kept passing gas!”
    “So that’s why they call it the windy city.”

    The fat man in the next seat leaned away from Tim, and his butt cheeks performed a perfect imitation of a tuba.
    Tim jerked away, banging his head on the side of the plane, then said, I’m sorry, what instrument did you say you play?”

    Once you get a good train of thought going, the boxcars just keep rattling on by…

  3. micael hallinan Says:

    The only thing worse than regetting what you didnt say is regreting what you did say. Or as Captcha so often says victil reitz. Move over Whistler.

  4. Larissa Says:

    Ok, so here’s my lame-duck, spur-o-the moment attempt to give those knee-slappers a home. Sorry if I tarnish their awesomness.

    1.”Well! Isn’t that just a royal bruise!”
    “yah, the last time I saw that color, it was on the Queen”
    “I thought I could take him”

    2. “so that’s why they call it the windy city” said in response to a particularily long Mayoral Candidate speech in Chicago.

    3. “It’s called a hemidemisemiquaver and it’s not an instrument, you idiot.”

    At least my mom thinks I’m funny.

  5. Laren Bright Says:

    Well, Everett sets the bar pretty high (unless you don’t go for flatulence references).

    So, let’s see:

    As the two drunks argued whether the pre-storm sky was puce or mauve, they turned to a fellow next to them on the bus bench. “Okay, Wwhuuut cccolor would you sssay the skkky is, bbuddy?”

    He looked down his nose at them and said, “I’m sure I don’t know. But the last time I saw that color, it was on the Queen.”

    As the dumpster flew past the restaurant window spewing its contents like a frat boy after the Homecoming party, followed by a VW bug that had become airborne, Sydney turned to Belinda and said,” So that’s why they call it the windy city.”

    Roderick was finally coming down. Or so he thought. He was fairly certain he’d not been making a good impression on his newfound, slightly overweight friend. Gathering his wits he turned to the elephant and smiled, saying, “I’m sorry, what instrument did you say you play?”

    I can’t believe I actually took the time to do this.

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I’m absolutely speechless. (I like Simeons dialogue too).

  7. EverettK Says:

    I must chime in with support for the “Simeon Dialogs” also. Tim doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That’s the part that first really hooked me on the Simeon books, the VERY witty dialog between Simeon and Eleanor (and later others), dry, quick, intelligent, like stuff out of The Thin Man or My Girl Friday.

    Quit second-guessing your younger self, Growing Older Younger Man!

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    FART JOKES? What I get is FART JOKES?

    Oh, well. Larissa raised the tone, and Laren’s jokes have characters named Sidney and Belinda and – what was it? — Roderick. Pretty toney.

    I admire the courage and inventiveness you all displayed (even you, Everett, although it’s going to take months to raise the site’s Average Tastefulness Index to its previous level). And you ALL WIN a copy of THE GROWING YOUNGER MAN, assuming I don’t abandon it today and go to work on THE FEAR ARTIST, which I’m beginning to think should precede HYM. Decision by close of day, probably.

    The issue with Simeon’s dialogue is that there’s too much of it. My editor for the first three, who is now my agent, told me to go back and cut every third joke, and I think it should have been every other joke. That would have left only the best ones and wouldn’t have created the ghostly image of a writer paddling upstream all the time, a little more energetically than was actually necessary.

    But thanks for all the nice remarks anyway, and thanks to those brave souls who stepped up to take a swing at the three most unpromising punchlines in history.

    and micael,victil reitz, indeed. Whew. I’m still wiping my eyes.

  9. EverettK Says:

    Okay, new day, new thought train:

    Poke enters the bedroom and sees Rose recumbent on the bed, covered by nothing but the brilliant red scarf the Queen had given to Rose as a token of thanks. Poke stops cold and shudders. “The last time I saw that color, it was on the Queen.”

    Simeon hated Chicago, passionately. He shivered in the doorway as the icy blasts off the lake battered at his meager defenses. He watched as she descended from the bus along with the rest of her dance troop, all wearing knee-length skirts, blouses and pillbox hats, like a vision from the 1940s. A sudden blast of air caught their skirts, and half a dozen blew up around their waists. He thought to himself, “So that’s why they call it the windy city.”

    The woman sat on a three legged stool, naked but for the guitar seemingly held in place by her lap and the quite large breasts resting on top of it. After about 10 seconds, Junior managed to find the strength needed to pull his eyes upward, closer to the vicinity of her chin, and said, “I’m sorry, what instrument did you say you play?”

  10. Suzanna Says:

    Thanks for answering the Simeon question. Your agent was clearly right in terms of creating a different kind of tone in your work, especially the Poke series. Your latest success points the value in his advice.

    In defense of Simeon though, he may be too much of a wise ass for his own good and the good of your work but to me his ill-timed humor somehow made him seem more courageous. To be able to crack a joke in the face of danger and usually at the expense of his opponents was probably equal measure foolish and fearless, and Simeon’s humor just made me root for him even more. I don’t think this quality is lost in the Poke books by the way. Just toned down from the Simeon series. My opinion has everything to do with the selfish fact that I love to laugh and nothing more. It must have been fun for you to writing more humor in the Junior Bender series.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Okay, Everett, those are better. I won’t send you a copy of GYM printed in invisible ink. I especially like the detail of the three-legged stool, drawing the eyes, if only momentarily, from the “quire large breasts.” And the way you slipped Junior in there, although I don’t think Junior is actually s breasts man.

    Lil, Suzanna, and all who defend old Simeon, thank you. I like the jokes, too, but I liked them perhaps a little better than they deserved while I was writing them. I’m very grateful, Suzanna, for the observation that they make him seem more courageous. I think that’s exactly right.

    I’m being surprised lately (as I review it for e-book publication) at how funny INCINERATOR is. I’m blogging about the experience of working with the book again, but I’ve laughed out loud a few dozen times at things I have no recollection at all of having written, so that’s a good experience.

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