ThinkB4YouSpeak & Revision Tip #17 – consider the reader

Wonderful news of positive change from GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network)! After one year of their hard-hitting "Think Before You Speak" campaign, teens attitudes about anti-gay language have significantly shifted.

From the GLSEN website: "For instance, findings from a recent survey conducted by the Ad Council in 2008 and 2009 of teens aged 13-16 suggest that a higher percentage of teens in 2009 think that people should not say "that’s so gay" for any reason (38% in 2009 vs. 28% in 2008) and a higher percentage also report "never" saying "that’s so gay" when something is stupid or uncool (28% in 2009 vs. 18% in 2008).

"In the Ad Council’s nearly 70-year history of creating campaigns to raise awareness and change public opinion and attitudes, we don’t often see shifts of this magnitude in just over a year," said Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council. "We’re looking forward to building on this success with a new series of PSAs and online tools that will help to further raise awareness and engage teens online."

Here is one of the videos that made the huge impact:

I adore Wanda Sykes. Just saying.

GLSEN is now started their second-year of education and awareness about the devastating effects of anti-gay hatred and language. Their website has information for parents and educators, along with all kinds of stuff you can put on your blog or website, plus polls, videos and lots more. Please take the time to check it out nd pass the word. (Thanks to School Library Journal’s Extra Helping for the heads-up!)

Revision Tip #17

I keep thinking about the slightly different approaches Barry Lyga and I have to writing dialog.

I forgot to mention one part of that.

Your audience might affect your decision about how you structure dialog.

Many people are not sure who their audience is when working on the early drafts of their novel. Nothing wrong with that. But as you revise, you need to know who your reader is. The way you tell a story to olders teens will be different than the way you tell it to middle grade students. At least, I hope it would be.

My theory is that teen readers (ninth grade and above) have enough reading and life experience under their belts that they do not need as much visual action details accompanying dialog as younger readers do.

(This could also account for part of the difference between the Lyga and the Halse Anderson Schools Of Proper Dialog; Barry only writes for teens.)

The danger, of course, is that your middle grade (or younger) reader will get bored if you layer on the descriptive action with a heavy trowel.

Try this: Pull out only the action words from your dialog scene. Here’s an example from a page I am working on now:

Character A speaks.
Character B gives reader visual description of Character A.
B speaks.
A reaches into sack and speaks. Hands apple to B.
B grabs apple, bites and speaks (note: he hasn’t eaten for more than a day). Apple juice runs down his chin.
A removes hat, nods and speaks (introducing self)
B swallows, wipes faces on sleeve, speaks
A speaks
B speaks
A speaks
B chews and thinks
A speaks

I know – it’s kind of boring to look at it that way, but by putting it under the microscope, I can make sure that the action details are an integral part of the story. They reinforce the fact that Character B is hungry, that he needs help, and that Character A might be a person he can turn to. It also balances a debt, because B helped A out of a bind in an earlier scene.

Bonus tip: since action in dialog scenes needs to be minimal and precise, it is a great opportunity to hone in on that perfect tiny detail that says volumes about the characters, setting, or conflicts at hand.

17 Replies to “ThinkB4YouSpeak & Revision Tip #17 – consider the reader”

  1. Good morning, Ms. Anderson. This week I heard “That’s so gay,” three times in our classroom. I have been quite surprised to learn anyone still says that. My mentor teacher’s response is, “If it doesn’t have a penis, it can’t be gay.”

    Unrelated: yesterday our class went to the school library, where our teacher-librarian recommended Wintergirls to our classes. All five copies were checked out. I have yet to read it, but he said it’s great, so congratulations!

    1. I would, with respect, point out to your mentor teacher that quite a few people who are gay (i.e. homosexual) do not have a penis.

      Whenever I hear it, my response is, “Really? That (filll in the blank: ad on TV, binder, hat) is a homosexual? Why woud you think that?”

      Which leads to the discussion that what the kid is really saying is that the object is stupid or something very dislikable. Which provides the opportunity for the kid to examine their own values and figure out if they really hate an entire segment of the population, and why.

      But I think Wanda Sykes does all of that better than I do (and in fewer words) in the video above.

      Thanks for the Wintergirls love!

      1. I think he is making a linguistic distinction that “gay” is applied to men (and, presumably, that “Lesbian” is applied to women) only, but I agree with your approach. Thankfully, I think our students get the point, if not expressed as well, that it is not appropriate to equate “sexual orientation” with a value judgement (of any kind).

        I will be sure to watch the Sykes clip when I can.

        You’re welcome. You’re living the dream, Ms. Anderson: success and respect. You are the Anti-Meyer! 🙂

  2. I ALWAYS correct the high schoolers in my class when they start in on the “that’s so gay” AND the “that’s retarded” speech. I taught them that the best phrase to say instead is “that’s assinine.” They love it because now they think they’re getting away with swearing in front of the teacher, bless their little hearts. Thanks for posting– I’m going to add that video to FAVS and share it with my department.

  3. There are times when the beat-filled dialogue is a good way to convey a scene, but there are other times when letting the characters just talk works better.

    In the first Pirates movies, for example, the witty dialogue between Jack and Will while they’re sword fighting balances the action nicely.

    In other parts of the movie, its the words between the characters that matter, not necessarily the minute actions, because the scene is more nuanced or because the word-play needs to be uninterrupted to be funny.

  4. Okay, I’m probably going to get a little tl;dr here… and Laurie, this isn’t really directed at you, I just thought I might offer a different opinion than the ones in your post and what’s in the comments so far.

    Personally, I don’t find ‘that’s so gay’ that offensive unless the person is using it to genuinely disrespect gay people. That’s not okay. However, words do change and evolve over time. It’s called semantic shift. Gay was once used to describe happiness, then homosexuality and things people find dumb. There’s one right there – ‘dumb.’ We don’t consider that offensive to people who cannot speak. What about ‘lame’ and those who cannot walk? How long does it take for a word to no longer be considered ‘offensive’?

    I can kind of understand why people are offended by it – but I think, really, if you’re going to be offended by that, why are you not also offended by the two examples above, lame and dumb? Surely those were once offensive to someone.

    I wonder, how many people that offended by the use of ‘gay’ are offended by the words, ‘retarded,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘ass,’ ‘lame,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘bitch.’

    Why are some of those okay to use, but others not? I’d assume a lot of people would say, ‘It depends on the context.’ And ultimately, that’s what is most important, you know? Always always always, the meaning behind anything you say is what REALLY matters. You can say the absolute nicest thing to someone, but any hint of malice completely negates the meaning of what you’re saying.

    I think ‘Fag/faggot’ is insanely worse than using ‘That’s so gay.’ Why don’t we try reducing the usage of that instead?

    If ‘That’s so gay’ genuinely bothers you, just ask your friends not to use it around you.

    I mean, I get the intention and I definitely appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good cause, but a PSA on ‘That’s so gay,’ of all the possible things someone can say to offend gay people, is just… superfluous to me. I know they might want to start little, but I hear ‘fag/faggot’ WAY more often than I’ve ever heard gay used to mean ‘dumb’ (or ‘uncool’ as the site states). I think that word is far more offensive, and used more often with malice than ‘gay.’

    I don’t intend to start an argument or huge discussion here – just voicing my opinion, why I feel that way, and (at least an attempt at) making some pointers. Anyone is allowed to disagree with me, of course, and I respect that 🙂 I just wanted to put my 2¢ here.

    1. As long as people are being beaten, bullied, and murdered because of their sexual orientation, then words like “faggot” and phrases like “that’s so gay” will be hate speech to me.

    2. We no longer use the word ‘dumb’ to refer to deaf people, and we no longer use the word ‘lame’ to refer to disabled people. However, ‘gay’ is still the widely accepted term to refer to people who are homosexual. Therefore, using ‘gay’ to mean ‘stupid’ or ‘uncool’ is extremely insulting. If people went around saying ‘that’s so deaf’ or ‘that’s so disabled’, terms that are generally used to describe certain groups of people, would you find that acceptable?

      1. I really wouldn’t be that offended, no. Like I said, for me at least, it’s mostly how you say it.

        I should probably state for the record that I don’t get offended easily at all. I can certainly recognise why ‘that’s so gay’ is offensive to some, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with them.

        (Also, ‘dumb’ means unable to speak, not unable to hear.)

        1. Yes, I’ve heard many people say ‘I’m not offended by ______ so why should others be?’ I guess we’re on totally different pages.

          Concerning your last point, you’re absolutely right–I have no idea what I was thinking with the dumb = deaf thing when I typed that. Bizarre.

          1. Yes, I’ve heard many people say ‘I’m not offended by ______ so why should others be?’ I guess we’re on totally different pages.

            That’s not what I’m saying at all. In fact, I said in the comment you just replied to that despite not being offended, I could understand why others would be: ‘I can certainly recognise why ‘that’s so gay’ is offensive to some, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with them.’

    3. That’s well said, and with good intention. And as you say, it’s the intention that counts. It’s what I don’t get about swearing. A teenager can wear a new t-shirt into school, and a tough classmate can say, “Hey, that’s a f***ing cool shirt,” and the teen can ride on that high all day. But if a girl looks at him snidely and says, “Oh, nice shirt…”, it kills. It’s far more abusive than any swearing can do.

      As far as saying “That’s so gay” goes, I never heard it much, but it always meant more silly or uncool than anything to do with homosexuals. There wasn’t any thought behind it, which may well be everyone’s point, and I’m glad they’re making changes there, but again, it’s nowhere near as bad as saying “Don’t listen to him, he’s a friggin’ faggot.”

      The only time the word gay really got to me was when I borrowed a Smiths album from my brother and his wife, and he said, “You’re not going gay on us, are you?” It really pissed me off ‘cause the full intention of it was “You better not embarrass us by being that way.” Like they’re the ones who’d be inconvienced by it.

      1. Yeah, this is exactly what I’m talking about 🙂

        “You’re not going gay on us, are you?”

        Ugh. Yeah, stuff like that pisses me off, too. Calling someone gay, or insinuating it negatively – that’s where it goes to the other side of the line. Because there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay, and people who say things like that as if it were, are the ones who need to be corrected.

        I like people regardless of what body they come in, gender included. I have a mostly conservative family, so I’m definitely keeping things under wraps. One Christmas I was visiting my sister, who is 17 years older than me. She asked me if I had a boyfriend. I said no. Then she asked, sarcastically, what about a girlfriend? Like, if she was just asking out of curiosity and because she wasn’t sure, that’s one thing. I still would have said no even if I did have one (I didn’t) because she’s pretty conservative, too, but god. The way she asked it just… pissed me off to no end.

  5. Just a question for y’all–

    Am I eating the wrong kind of apples? I can count on one finger the number of times in my life apple juice has run down my chin. Perhaps I’m an exceptionally neat eater, but for the most part my apples are crisp and self-contained, juice-wise. And yet every time you turn around in literature, someone is slobbering apple juice all over themselves. It’s code for wholesome hedonism, I’m guessing. And I could use a little wholesome hedonism in my life. What gives?

  6. :>)

    Love your tips, Laurie! (Love Wanda, too! She cracks me up.)
    Just finished “Twisted”. It was so good I went out and bought
    another copy for my daughter for Christmas. She’s 27 and married,
    so it’s not just YA!

  7. Agreed

    Though this is an old post, I am so pleased to have just seen it! I just finished Speak, and absolutely loved it, leading me to your website. The only explicit rule in my classroom is to never use hate speech of any form, calling things “gay” included. I didn’t see that GLSEN report in December, so I’m quite glad to have now.

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