Better You Go Home: A Tense Novel by Scott Driscoll

In January I met Scott Driscoll, a Seattle author and creative writing teacher.  I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him because of our common interest in the Soviet bloc countries.  Scott has written a novel set mainly in the Czech Republic, titled Better You Go Home.  I read the novel eagerly last month.  It is powerful.scott driscoll's book

Better You Go Home tells the story of a Seattle attorney, Chico Lenoch, visiting the Czech Republic a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The Czech Republic is the homeland of Chico’s father, and Chico has become aware that he has a half-sister here.  He looks for the woman partly out of desperation: Chico, a diabetic, is in kidney failure, and perhaps this sister could be the genetically matched kidney donor that he needs.  Yet as he searches for both this woman and the truth about what happened in his family, he unearths the pain that his family endured . . . and inflicted.  More and more, Chico’s quest goes beyond his own immediate medical need and becomes a drive to do the right thing for the sister who was left behind.

The book is sharply written in a close first-person narration, and the reader feels Chico’s diabetic weakness and dread as he walks this darkening path of generations-old hostilities.  The novel is driven by the tensions of family secrets (based in similar events from Scott’s own family history), political corruption and medical emergency.  This book is not light entertainment.  The chain of cause and effect is complicated, and the characters are not always easy to interpret.  But as I told Scott in an email to him after I finished the book, the complicated characters seem very real.  Even the ones that appear most reprehensible have at times done helpful deeds, and the sympathetic characters have had their moments of caving in to despair or compromise.  This conveys the stresses of people who have lived under Nazism and then communism.  In my readings on Hungary, I have encountered similar stories of moral ambiguity.  Sometimes we have to ask not only whether the characters (whether real or fictional) did right but also whether they felt they had any choice.CIMG0779

Scott’s comments about the writing of this book were illuminating.  “It was family matters that encouraged me to set out to write this story to begin with,” he said.  “What I especially wanted to know was what people thrust into a pressure cooker of politics, history, and geography (that was central Europe and the Eastern Bloc countries) did to keep their humanity alive. What I discovered was that there was no easy way to judge either side. There were consequences for my family.  But I didn’t write this for them. I wrote this for my generation, the generation whose parents suffered the worst of these events. The generation whose upbringing bore the weight of unresolved conflict among parents, many of whom were forced emigres.”

Better You Go Home is a deep and beautifully written book. Read it. But don’t read it for escape.  This is a novel you have to think about—and that’s a compliment.

Here is the Amazon link for the book

 

Writing Dialog: –“It’s easy, huh?” –“Well, actually, no.”

It’s called trial and error, the method by which I learned (and am still learning) to write dialog.

I remember my first slap-in-the-face realization that good dialog is hard to write.  I was an undergraduate (way back when) and I decided to enroll in a playwrighting class.  (By the way, that is spelled correctly.  A playwright is a maker of plays, just as a wheelwright is a maker of wheels.)  I figured writing drama would be easier than writing fiction, because all you had to do was write dialog.  Dialog was more fun than narrative, I told myself.  So I began writing a play.  The fun lasted for about . . . half a page.  Then I read back over the half-page.  Hmmm.  Maybe it had been fun writing it, but it certainly wasn’t fun reading it.  These lines were awkward, banal and dull.  I scrapped them and tried again.  And again.  I began to calculate the credit points I would lose if I dropped the playwrighting class.  It was tempting.  In the end, I did end up carrying on with the class and writing an utterly forgettable play.  But I never forgot the lesson I learned:  Don’t underestimate the difficulty of writing good dialog.

One of the sweeter dialog moments I've witnessed--my daughter-in-law Adele with my granddaughters Aydan and Edie.

One of the sweeter dialog moments I’ve witnessed–my daughter-in-law Adele with my granddaughters Aydan and Edie.

I can’t begin to guess how many lines of dialog I’ve written since then, but at least half of them have perished with the trash or the delete button.  Others have been shortened or reworded.  In the novel I am just now wrapping up, very few lines have carried over verbatim from the first draft.  And that is all for the best.  Dialog has to be crafted and edited as tightly and carefully as narrative and description, perhaps even more.  Here are some things that I’ve learned about dialog, usually by doing it wrong the first time.

1.  Writing dialog is a great way to get to know the characters, so try writing it as experimentation, and then be prepared to toss it.  In the first draft while you’re figuring out who your characters are, throw two or three of them in a room together, give them some kind of a problem, and make them talk about it.  Or do they talk around it instead?  What do they say?  What do you as the author learn about them?  Reread the scene and look for the lines that make you say, “Yes, that’s him” or “Okay, when she said that, things came alive.”  Then rewrite the scene based on what you’ve learned, and either delete or edit any dialog that isn’t vivid.

2.  Dialog should advance the story, and an author should only use the part of a conversation that moves the story forward.  A dialog scene doesn’t need to start with hello, end with goodbye and include the decision of what to have for dinner—unless, for example, an argument about dinner will show how the tension between the characters has escalated.  Summary narration can be used to move the scene to the point where the dialog becomes important.  For a long time I wasted too much verbiage opening scenes with dialog that seemed like the “natural” way that people would begin a conversation—“Hi, Paul, good to see you” “Oh, hi, Bill, how’re you doing?”  “Not bad, I guess.  Hey, sorry, but I need to ask you why . . .”—and it’s true that what I was writing was “natural” enough.  But not very interesting.  It can be just as natural and more effective to simply jump in with something like, “Later that afternoon by the copy machine Bill asked Paul why  (etc),” and you haven’t wasted time on the preliminaries.

3.  With dialog, you let the characters speak for themselves.  The author’s narrative voice gets out of the way and the reader listens to the characters.  If the dialog is done right, the reader will not only enjoy the change of voice but will know the characters better because of hearing them directly.  What are their individual speech patterns?  How verbose are they?  How is their age, education or regional background reflected in the way they talk?  It is not easy to give each character an individual tone, but it adds greatly to the depth and richness of a story.

Next post:  Some more points about dialog