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.
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.
3 thoughts on “How to Not Be Too Annoying”
Hold on there, author boy. You’re getting rid of stuttering because it makes a reader uncomfortable? Okay, okay, that’s not what you said. You said you’re strongly decreasing the amount that Adam stutters because a reader found it annoying. Well, before you do anything drastic you should ponder the pros and cons of your action. In the former category we have that you’ve made a memorable and realistic character who’s a stutterer. How many books are there that have someone like this? And isn’t this a great opportunity to educate your readers, the large majority of whom I would guess have never met a stutterer, about this affliction?
On the down side, the stuttering could be annoying in that it’s making the reader expend too much effort to read the story, or it’s a detraction from enjoying the other facets of the book. If the stuttering truly effects annoyance maybe some editing is in order. But what if the real problem is that it causes discomfort? Consider this – suppose a reader felt uncomfortable that the main character was black? You wouldn’t change the character’s race, would you? Or what if a reader was bothered that the main character always wore hand-me-downs instead of decent clothes? You wouldn’t rewrite the character to grow up in a posh suburb and attend an Ivy League school, would you?
I think Beautiful is beautiful as it is and Adam’s stuttering is not distracting. As for those who find it upsetting, you should remember what a wise T-shirt once said: “Art should challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged”.
I did not make changes in my novel because some troll whined about it. Let me be clear: I made changes because I’ve been querying my novel for a year without landing an agent. Most agents do not bother to acknowledge that they even looked at my query. I send it into the void and I hear NOTHING. A handful of agents responded with a nondescript “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit what I’m looking for at this time.” No agent told me why they didn’t like it or what I might do to improve my manuscript.
Most agents ask that the writer send them a (personalized) query letter and the first however many pages of my manuscript. So I’m thinking there’s SOMETHING they see that, consciously or not, leads them to not request the full manuscript. I don’t know what that “something” is.
I THINK my writing is good. I believe they would like the novel if they read the whole thing. I’m looking for answers.
I agree with the t-shirt that said: “Art should challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged.” But my novel will do neither if it doesn’t get published.
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+1 for “But my novel will do neither if it doesn’t get published.”. Good point!