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Taking Dictation

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 - 07:00

I have a list of blog prompts that people have suggested, and though I always mean to address them first in/first out, usually some other intersection causes one to pop up to the top. In this case, when I mentioned dictating stories during my commute, Sara Uckelman asked: When you dictate, do you write like you talk? Do you edit a lot when transcribing or is it faithful? How much is it "these are the ideas I want to convey" and how much "these are the words I want to convey the ideas with?"

I love this question, because in fact I had to train myself laboriously how to dictate fiction. I tried it a few times when I was writing the first draft of Daughter of Mystery--especially after I’d found out how well MacSpeech works to convert speech to text. But faced with a live microphone, my brain utterly emptied itself of story. Nothing would come out.

In part, I think it was because my story composition process was so thoroughly tied up with text and the physical act of writing. At that point, I was still doing all my initial drafts longhand and then transcribing to the computer. Trying to create story by speaking was like the difference between being able to write a foreign language and being able to talk in it.

Another part of my block was what I tend to think of as a “buffering problem”. One of the reasons writing longhand worked better for me than typing was because it more closely matched the speed at which I could actually compose in my head. So if I wrote longhand, I’d always have the next sentence buffered in my brain and ready to come out, whereas if I typed, my typing might outpace my composition. And dictation would seriously outpace my composition.

But I clearly remember the first time that dictation did work for me, though I don’t recall exactly which scene it was. I think it must have been during my last push to finish the first draft of Daughter of Mystery, because it was Christmas time and I was at my brother’s house in Maine and I was simultaneously focused entirely on getting the story down and too fidgety to just sit and write. So I got out the cross-country skis and skied over to the nearby college campus that had a big network of cross-country trails, and I’d ski and think up the next sentence, then pull out my iPhone and dictate it, then ski and think up the next sentence, then pull out my iPhone and dictate it, and so on until the scene was done.

And that’s not a bad outline of how it still works for me. The pause button is my friend. I still can’t manage to just turn the recorder on and spin a tale, but I can jerk through it sentence by sentence. (I’ll digress a moment and note that I had much better luck dictating ideas for blog posts, because I can blather on about process and structure and ideas at great length without pausing for breath.) And I still can't use MacSpeech for transcribing, because I do my dictation on a little tiny handheld recorder and the file format isn't compatible. (I can't dictate on my iPhone while driving, not only because there are laws against interacting with a phone while driving, but because I need tactile controls for the pause/continue function.)

Getting back to some of the specific questions: When you dictate, do you write like you talk?

I try. Because one of the things I worry about most is that specific wordings and turns of phrase will come to me only once and they fly away forever. So when I dictate I try very hard to capture those exact expressions as they come to me, whether or not I keep them. But it doesn’t resemble ordinary talking. And the clearest way I know that is because in the middle of dictating story, I may drop in a note about needing to explain something earlier, or changing my mind about something in light of the bit I’m dictating, or simply a footnote about needing to come up with some name or backstory or other detail. I drop into my ordinary voice for those things and when I’m transcribing, they’re instantly recognizable even if I’m not paying attention to the words.

Do you edit a lot when transcribing or is it faithful?

I definitely edit as I transcribe. For one thing, once I see it on the page, I’ll realize that I was repetitive, or used the same word or phrase twice in close proximity, or I’ll know that I shifting things later in the dictation session, and will go ahead and modify them as I type.

How much is it "these are the ideas I want to convey" and how much "these are the words I want to convey the ideas with?"

I’d say about 30:70. Sometimes I’ll shift into summary mode, especially if I know I have detailed thoughts for the next scene. But mostly I’m trying to get down the specific words I want to use. If I dictate summary, then it’s going to get transcribed as summary and I’ll have to expand it later. I don’t want too much of that to deal with on the first serious editing pass.

One of the reasons I decided to pull this topic up to blog about, is that I had an interesting dictation experience this week. I mentioned above that I worry a lot about catching the perfect words and then losing them if I don’t get them down. Well, maybe that doesn’t need to be as much of a worry as I think it does.

Back in March, I had an inspiration for a Beauty and the Beast reworking. It came to me in a bit of a wholistic flash, and I laid out a basic outline with various plot and character notes in a Scrivener file. And then I set it aside to ripen while I worked on Floodtide. Now, having finished that ugly first draft of Floodtide and having decided to let it sit until I get back from Worldcon (and adjacent travels), I found myself casting about for a writing project to spend my commute-dictation time on. And I dictated the opening scene of “The Language of Roses”.

When I opened up the Scrivener file to transcribe it, I discovered that I’d already drafted up the same exact scene and forgotten I’d done so. Four months between the two compositions, and here is how they compare. (Please excuse the occasional *placeholder*. That’s just part of my process.) There are things that are entirely different, but it's striking how many of the details (and even exact phrases) were "sticky".

Draft 1 (March 2017)

She wore white—the white of the snow that lay thick at the sides of the castle steps as she picked her way slowly down into the garden. The white of the ice that hung from the eaves of the copper roofs and overflowed the tiers of the fountain at the center of the paths. It was not the white silks and laces of a bride, but the white of frozen winter that covered all the castle and the land around in a blanket of silence and waiting.

She pulled the hood of her cloak over her head so that the pale fox fur framed her even paler face. Her white-booted feet crunched on the path that wound past the sleeping outlines of the formal beds, past the dormant fruit trees, and toward a small iron gate set into the stone wall. A gate to the outside. There: just to the right of the path, a mere handspan from the latched gate that would have meant freedom, a briar grew, trembling under the weight of the ice that rimed every leaf.

One thorny limb stretched out toward the scrolling ironwork, pointing the way. Straining for release. The only message came in the form of a frost-touched bud, new-sprung since the day before. Since the last time the White Lady had come to visit.

“What is it, Rose?” she asked. She stretched a hand clad in white kidskin out to cup the bud gently and leaned closely and breathed on the tightly folded petals to coax them into revealing their message. Her breath, too, was cold. Cold enough that no vapor hung in the air, but warm enough to stir the bud to life. It shifted within her fingers and unfurled halfway, releasing just the faintest trace of perfume.

“*Color*,” the White Lady breathed. “A visitor, then. We haven’t had one of those in years.”

There was nothing of hope or anticipation in her voice. She released the *color* bloom that was already wilting and curling around the edges. But as she did, she saw a second bud, larger and swollen with blushed meaning. This time the White Lady’s hand trembled as she lifted it to her lips and breathed out. It opened eagerly: the deepest crimson, almost black. The color of heart’s blood. No frost rimmed the edges of those petals. The scent they offered up was deep and intoxicating. The Lady brushed her lips against the velvet softness of the petals. The rose was warm. A single crystal tear crossed her cheek and she whispered, “And I.”

Draft 2 (July 2017)

Grace picked her way along the graveled path that led toward the small wrought-iron gate at the back of the garden. With an effort that she felt, but no longer considered, the invisible ones trailed behind her, sweeping the path free of leaves in her wake. Erasing the traces of her visit. She felt the effort like an ache in her bones—an ache like the weight of the curse that hung over the manor.

Dawn was the best time to walk in the garden, when her limbs felt less heavy, less stiff. When there was no chance that he would be watching. Even so, caution led her along a roundabout path, past the low hedges of the maze and the beds where the kitchen garden had once been, the silent fountains. She could have asked the invisible ones to tend the gardens, but what was the use? He provided food for the table with an effortless gesture. Why should she spend her hoarded strength just to have some small bit of sustenance that didn’t rely on his pleasure?

She came to the briar that grew beside the gate as if by chance. Caution was a long habit. The rose twisted up from its roots, stretching thorny branches in two directions: one toward the gaps between the iron bars, seeking escape, one reaching toward the manor house, pleading for release. Here and there on the brambles, leaves trembled in the breeze. But only one unexpected bud swelled at the tip of a stem.

Grace reached out to cup stiff fingers around the bud and breathed a kiss of warm air across it. “Hello Rose,” she said. She looked anxiously over her shoulder at the upper windows of the house. They still showed shuttered against the light. He didn’t care for light in the morning. She returned to the rose. She had no skill to work with matter. That was his domain: the transformations, forcing one thing into another. She had only the invisible ones.

“What is it, Rose?” she asked softly. “What message wakes you?”

The bud swelled between her hands, cracking the sepals apart. The petals unfurled: half-blown, then just enough more to show the colors within. *Description of colors*

A tremor fluttered through her heart. Not hope, not precisely. She didn’t dare to hope.

“It has been long and long since you showed that message,” Grace said.

She hadn’t counted the years. And the last time—that had not gone well. But any change brought…curiosity. That was the safe thing to call it.

“Thank you,” she whispered and brushed her lips gently across the petals. In response, a crimson blush suffused the bloom before it faded back to *original colors*. “And I, too,” she said.

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