How to Not Be Too Annoying

It’s been too long since my last post, but there’s something on my mind that I’d like to share. Those of you who know me know that I stutter, and have done so for as long as I can remember. I can imagine how talking with a person who stutters might feel awkward. Do you guess what they’re going to say and say it for them? (Hint: please don’t.) Do you look at them or somewhere else? (Hint: look at their eyes, just as you do when in conversation with a non-stutterer.)

In our culture, stuttering has an undeniably negative connotation. People who stutter are assumed to be at worst lying, and at best unsure of what they’re saying. Think of this trope as played in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. The great actor Benicio Del Toro plays the hacker DJ, a man who agrees to help Rose and Finn break into the First Order ship and disable the tracking device. But we know DJ is going to screw them over because…wait for it…he stutters. That’s how we know he’s lying.

Benicio del Toro as DJ in THE LAST JEDI

One of the things I wanted to accomplish with my first novel was to show a main character who is intelligent and honest, and who stutters. His stutter is not a part of the plot, it’s just a part of him. So the question is: how should a writer write stuttering in the manuscript? In Beautiful, I strived for accuracy, or at least a degree of stuttering that sounded reasonable to me (a lifelong stutterer) and to my wife (married to a stutterer for 32 years). Now I think that this may not have been the best choice.

Here’s what happened: I shared a chapter of the sequel, Beautiful 2 (haven’t thought of a good title yet), with my critique group. One person told me — and once someone verbalized the thought everyone else at the table agreed — that Adam’s frequent stuttering was annoying. That was the word they used: annoying.

This was interesting and potentially actionable news. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that Adam’s stuttering was annoying to read. The thing about a good critique group is that we have to be honest with each other. Not mean, but honest. So I thought about what my critique partner said. How did I handle the Russian accent in Beautiful? I mentioned that the man spoke with an accent and I left out the articles as Slavic languages do. The character said, for example, “I will release hand grenade.” rather than “I will release the hand grenade.” Subtle, but it gets the point across without beating the reader over the head with dialect.

See, in retrospect, that’s what I’d done wrong: In an effort to show that a stutterer could be honest and intelligent, I was beating the reader over the head with Adam’s stuttering. So I went through all 73,000 words of Beautiful and the 50,000 or so words I have so far in Beautiful 2, and rewrote Adam’s speaking voice so that he stutters much, much less.

I wonder if that may have been, consciously or not, part of why agents have been passing on my query and sample pages. And this is an example of why it’s so damn important for a writer to find a good critique group, and take their critique to heart.

One good resource for best practices in writing a stutter is here. The only thing I disagree with in her excellent article is that, in my experience, there are no specific sounds or sound combinations that are more likely to cause me to stutter.