That’s What She Said

As I approach revising my second novel, I’m eager to be efficient as well as thorough. I have high hopes for this story and I want to make sure my writing brings out the world and characters I see in my head.

One focus is style. For this post, I want to explore dialogue notation. If you have any suggestions, please list in the comments below. I’m open to experienced readers or writers.

The word “said” is my first victim. The craft classes at conferences lecture us newbies to avoid using “he said” and “she said.” (I do not have an MFA. These classes are the closest I can get to a creative writing education. Microbiology did not prepare me for this adventure.)

In other words, don’t do this: “These grammar rules are confusing,” said the writer.

Using “said” is boring, mundane, amateur. But, whatever you do, don’t replace the word with thesaurus versions: “These grammar rules are confusing!” exclaimed the writer.

Multiple writers tell me to replace the “said” with an action instead: “These grammar rules are confusing.” The writer scratched her head.

I am a people pleaser and a rule follower. Hence, when more experienced authors than myself recommend I do, or avoid, something, I obey. Out of the 50,000 words in my WIP, “said” pops up 29 times. Only six of those are used traditionally; the rest are within character dialogue speaking of another character. I don’t find that to be excessive. Do I really need to avoid the usage so drastically. Sometimes, I stretch to figure out something the character must do, like adjust his crown while talking, to avoid the dreaded “s” word.

“Do I need to work this hard?” I ask.

My reading for pleasure has morphed to extended lessons. I notice the structure of the writing. I peek behind the curtain, even when I’m thoroughly enjoying the adventure.

In The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Dead Man’s Canyon, SS Taylor uses “said,” “I told him,” and “asked” repetitively. When not using those terms, she stretches to “whispered,” “called,” “mumbled,” “stammered,” etc.  You can read the first chapter on her site here. Being a middle grade novel like The Innkeeper’s Daughter, I wonder if I should structure my sentences similarly. Taylor’s story moves through the Old West slash Steampunk universe with ease. I doubt the young readers noticed the forbidden word. Apparently, neither did the publisher.

Maybe I’m worrying about nothing?

In Patient Zero, Jonathan Maberry makes no effort to disguise the word. His “said” tags are thoroughly embedded in the work. Part of the book is written in first person and another part in third person. The point of view seems irrelevant to the constant presence of the “s” word. Maberry is far from an amateur. He has a couple dozen books published by large New York companies in multiple genres (consistently with some sort of horror element). If he is comfortable using “said,” I’m not sure why I need to work around mentioning it.

What do you think? Do I need to stress about using “said” when other authors ignore the advice? Can I allow my editor to deal with the nonsense? What do you do?

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