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Jordan Brown is an executive editor with the imprints Walden Pond Press and Balzer + Bray at HarperCollins Children’s Books. In the ten years he has been in children's editorial, he has been fortunate enough to work with such esteemed authors and illustrators as Jon Scieszka, Anne Ursu, Gris Grimly, Steve Brezenoff, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Chris Rylander, Erin McGuire, Laura Ruby, Kevin Emerson, Christopher Healy, Greg Ruth, Dan Wells, Lois Metzger, M. Sindy Felin, and many others. Amongst the books he’s edited are New York Times bestsellers, ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults, an NPR Backseat Book Club Selection, and a National Book Award finalist, in addition to other accolades. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Your voice is the way you distinguish yourself as a writer.
With everyone hanging onto every word, Jordan defines voice as what comes between the objective facts of your novel and your readers. He leads us in exploring
what voice does,
the elements of narration that define voice,
tasks and challenges to help our voice stand out,
and some examples that do voice well.
1. Readers want to feel the character they're reading is emotionally real. And the way to get that authenticity is by being specific.
Authenticity = Specificity
2. Think of voice as a camera in a movie that chooses certain things to focus on over others, like leaving the room with one character while leaving the others behind.
3. The idea of psychic distance. Using five sentences from "The Art of Fiction" by John Gardner, Jordan walks us through the different distances of voice, from the helicopter view that's the most remote and objective to as close as it gets, no outside world at all. Each distance has its own feel and strengths and things to be aware of. And the point isn't to choose one level and stay there the whole book.
"The key is to know when to make moves between levels within your manuscript."
The session is packed with information and tips, covering first versus third limited points of view, how knowing something your character doesn't can disconnect readers from your story, the benefits and retraints of present versus past tense, and much, much more.
As an editor, I find that a lot of writers don’t fully comprehend what “voice” means in fiction or how it pertains to characterization. So I’ll try my best to explain it in the terms that I understand them.
Just as everyone has their own characteristic way of speaking or expressing themselves, a writer’s characters should also have a distinctive “voice” that clearly comes across in the narrative. How the character reacts or responds in a given situation should be unique to their personality. So choose your nouns and verbs carefully. Being specific about even small details, like facial expressions can create a strong impression of that character’s unique POV. Plus, using a deeper POV can greatly enhance any scene.
Each character’s voice personifies more than their speech or internal-thoughts. The narrative should express it as well. When you write a scene in a certain character’s POV, each sentence in that scene has to read as though it is being experienced, felt, and expressed by that character. Everything that happens in a scene is processed in a unique way by that character, so even the narrative must have “voice.”
I looked at the cream envelope on the kitchen table. I’d first thought that it was a wedding invitation. I hated being unmarried and having people give me a hard time about it. I didn’t understand why being single and in my late twenties made my married friends give me odd looks. I was just independent.
My gaze rests on the cream envelope lying on the kitchen table. The one I’d first thought was a wedding invitation. Yet another nail in my unmarried-still-tragically-single coffin. Why does being single equate to being tossed in the bargain bin at Target? I’m a sophisticated and independent New Yorker, dammit!
* * *
Each sentence presents the same scenario, but how the character handles it and the way it is shown in the words used to convey her thoughts is different. The first one is “telling” the reader info in a bland way, but in the second version, we get a glimpse of her personality and “voice.”
Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of your narrator, like a persona. Because voice has so much to do with the reader’s experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements in any piece of writing.
Here's an example of teen "voice" through close third-person POV from Lucky Tby author Kate Brian.
On a warm and sunny Saturday morning, Carrie Fitzgerald stepped out of her walk-in closet wearing a lime green miniskirt. It was so short, she was positive she could never, under any circumstances, bend over in it. Her blond hair was held up in an impromptu bun with a No. 2 pencil. She had just run up to her room with her best friend, Piper Breslin, and begun trying on a multitude of eye-popping outfits that they bought during their crack-of-dawn shopping spree. The Westfield San Francisco shopping center had never been hit that hard that early in the morning before.
“Does this make me look sexy or skanky?” Carrie asked.
Piper checked herself out in Carrie’s floor-length mirror and stuck her tongue out at her reflection. The electric blue tank top that she’d grabbed off Carrie’s reject pile was clinging in all the wrong places. While Carrie had a very sleek figure that would make a supermodel envious, Piper was on the shorter, slightly rounder side.
“How do I put this without hurting your feelings?” Piper said with a smirk. “There’s a hooker in LA that wants her skirt back.”
“Hey, I can’t help that I’m all legs.” Carrie tugged at the hem of the skirt, hoping a few more inches of material would magically grow.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Piper said as she watched Carrie gawk at herself in front of her mirror. She could totally tell that Carrie was admiring the lift of the push-up bra she had bought at Victoria’s Secret.
“Do what? Look like a streetwalker no matter what I put on?” Carrie joked, her brown eyes teasing. “Why do I have to be so tall and skinny?”
* * *
To me, “voice” is more about how a writer has their characters say something by the slang they use, or the character’s tics, gestures, unique way of speaking, and even expressing themselves.
Now compare the following two examples, which should help inspire your creative muse. The first is shallow writing with lots of tellingand hardly any “voice” or sensory details.
Sam Harrington glanced up from his comic book. A fat man with brown hair and eyes and a big nose walked into the bookstore. The man was wearing jeans with thick socks and sandals with a faded T-shirt. He walked past the bookcases and toward Sam.
“Can I help you?” Sam asked as the man approached.
“Here to pick up my book,” he said loudly.
“Sorry, this week’s order hasn’t come in yet. Do you wanna give us a call next—”
The man leaned across the counter. “What do you mean my book didn’t come in yet?” he asked raucously.
Sam opened his mouth to respond but stopped.
The guy straightened up and tugged on his shirt. “Where is my book?” he repeated more calmly.
It was a slow day at the Book Shark. Sam Harrington stood at one end of the bookstore in the self-help section, stuffing last week’s shipment of books onto the shelves. The bell over the door chimed and Sam glanced up. A waft of car exhaust and brewing coffee entered the room as the door opened.
The customer maneuvered around the bookshelves with a heavy limp. When he caught a glimpse of the man’s clothing, Sam’s eyebrows rose. It was the middle of summer and the guy had on jeans with socks and leather Birkenstocks. Crazy.
Sam hurried past a guy sitting on the floor reading a book and an old lady with blue hair—well, it looked blue—scanning the covers on the romance novels on sale.
Sam walked behind the counter and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”
“Here to pick up my book,” the man said.
“Sorry, this week’s order hasn’t come in yet. Do you wanna give us a call next—”
The stocky man leaned over the glass counter, and glared down at Sam. His dark-brown hair fell into his hazel eyes, and the man pushed the strands aside with a pudgy hand. He lowered his head, his breath soured by stale beer and cigarettes. “Whaddya mean my book didn’t come in yet?” His bulbous nose twitched with anger.
Sam’s shoulders slumped. Great. Another pissed off customer. It’s not my fault the freaking shipment is always late.
Before Sam could respond, the man straightened, tugging at the collar of his faded Aerosmith T-shirt in an attempt to collect himself. “Now. Where’s my book on ritual human sacrifices, boy?”
* * *
Do you see what I mean? The second example clearly reveals “voice” in both the speech, internal-thougts, and the narrative, and even a Deeper POV.
"Voice" can add an extra layer of characterization to any novel, and can avoid making your character seem like the dreaded Mary-Sue type.
Yes, writing with Deeper POV and "voice" often adds more words to your prose, but it is far more interesting and tells the reader a lot more about what's going on and reveals a character's personality aka "voice."
Let’s use another example in order to clarify what I mean. Here’s a snippet from my wildly popular novel, LOST IN STARLIGHT, before revision (no "voice") and after revision. The heroine is writing a story for the school paper on a new guy at school, and she is confused by her attraction to him.
Please compare the two examples.
When my last class ends, I go to my locker to get my Trig textbook. I hear the doors at the end of the hall bang open, releasing students and I feel it letting in a gust of air. I notice fluorescent lights overhead.
Across the hallway and a few lockers over from mine, I can see Zach and Hayden. I look at a red spray-painted slash on the metal door. I decide that someone must’ve spray painted Hayden’s locker again.
While opening my locker, I notice Hayden’s staring at me. I discern that he is taller than most boys.
I can see he has a messenger bag in one hand, and I notice drumsticks in his back pocket. I lift my hand to wave.
As I watch him, he doesn’t respond. He just continues gazing at me with strange eyes. I feel my head go woozy. It makes my limbs feel jittery. Frustration and confusion assault me for having feelings for someone like him. And I wonder why he is staring.
I feel a wave of nervousness because he is watching me. I wonder if there is something wrong. From the corner of my eye, I see him lean into the wall.
I think Hayden’s stare is unsettling. I know there’s something about that guy’s smile that attracts girls. I decide that no one can resist Hayden Lancaster. Maybe not even me.
I see him watching me, and I feel heat on my skin. I notice Hayden isn’t looking at my chest like most boys, which I know will only complicate my feelings.
When my last class ends, I stop at my locker to get my Trig textbook. The doors at the end of the hall bang open, releasing students for the day and letting in a gust of warm air. Several obtrusive fluorescent lights flicker overhead.
Across the hallway and a few lockers over from mine are Zach and Hayden. An angry red spray-painted slash taints the metal door. Some jerk must’ve tagged Hayden’s locker again.
While opening my own locker, I’m suddenly aware that Hayden’s blatantly staring at me. Hard to miss. He’s like a man among boys, at least in his flawless physique. His messenger bag is in one hand, and drumsticks stick out of his back pocket.
I lift my hand in a hesitant little wave. He doesn’t return my gesture, just continues gazing at me through those thick lashes that frame his unique eyes. My head goes all woozy. Even my limbs feel jittery. Frustration and confusion are warring inside me for having anyfeelings whatsoever for someone like him. And what’s with the stare?
A wave of nervousness hits hard. Is there toilet paper hanging out of my jeans? Food stuck in my teeth? Or have Frankenstein bolts suddenly sprouted from my neck?
Being on Hayden’s radar is a little unsettling. I admit there’s something about Mr. Puppy Hero’s rare smiles, lopsided with an edge, that draw girls to him like insects buzzing a bug zapper. For better or worse, no one can resist Hayden Lancaster. Not even me.
Our gazes lock for just one second, and heat rushes beneath my skin. Hayden isn’t gawking at my chest like most boys. He’s only looking at my face, which further complicates my feelings for this strange dude.
* * *
Did you immediately detect the character’s unique “voice” in that last example?
Now one last thing, I think even secondary characters need a distinct personality that separates them from other characters.
This next longer excerpt is from my New adult novel, SMASH INTO YOU, shows how even a secondary character can have their own (and should!) personality, too. Vanessa has a very unique voice, as well as my narrator.
My new roommate and I were polar opposites. Her name was Vanessa Carmichael and she apparently guzzled energy drinks by the gallon, and her tousled copper hair looked like the “before” picture in a Pantene commercial. At least she seemed niceandnormal. I wouldn’t have to worry about her doing anything weird like stealing my underwear or taking cell phone pictures of me while I slept to post on Instagram.
While Vanessa talked a mile a minute, folded clothes on her bed, and sipped a Red Bull, I inspected her—incrediblycluttered—side of the room. I flicked a glance at the red poster with that lame phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” in white lettering over her headboard. Vanessa had fastened a corkboard to the wall above her desk, pinned with snapshots of her high school debate team and blue ribbon awards for science and math. Piles of Old Navy hoodies and graphic shirts and bell-bottom cords were scattered on her dark green comforter.
“…then I laughed so hard, I nearly peed in my hemp underwear…Hello? Are you even listening to me?”
I glanced up. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. What were you saying?”
Vanessa pushed up her glasses. “You don’t care that I took the right side? Because I like being closer to the window and you came a day late—”
“It’s fine,” I said, shifting on my bed and lowering the novel I’d been reading.
“If it’s gonna be an issue, I can move my stuff,” Vanessa said.
“I don’t care. Honest.”
Vanessa took a swig of her drink. She blinked her big owlish eyes behind square-framed glasses. “Awesome. My roommate last year was sooo picky. She was always borrowing my stuff without asking, and making out with her emo boyfriend…”
Chatty Vanessa would be my cellmate for the next year. Oh, yay. I already wanted to duct tape her mouth shut.
Lifting my paperback, I shoved both earbuds into my ears and turned on my iPod, the soft melody drowning out her voice. My roommate had started yakking the moment I entered the room after my meeting with Ms. Greene. Her favorite topic? Herself.
In the first ten minutes, I’d learned that Vanessa was a middle child, president of the Earth Matters!—environmental issues—club on campus, wrote The Vampire Diaries fanfiction, used the word “awesome” a lot, and had a boyfriend named Levi who attended MIT.
“…it’s hard with Levi living so far away. We only get to see each other on break. Over the summer we went to this awesome Comic-Con that featured Marvel’s The Avengers in San Francisco.” Vanessa stuffed a hoodie into a dresser drawer. “And you’ll never guess who was there!”
My turn to talk. Yay.
I stretched my arms over my head, lowering the volume on my iPod. “The amazing writer and director Joss Whedon?”
“No!” She waved both hands in the air like a crazed fangirl. “Even better...Loki,Tom Hiddleston! Omigod, he’s even hotter in person and so nice. I asked him to pose for a selfie with me and, of course, he did. I posted it on Facebook and I got a hundred likes within an hour. It was so awesome—”
“Really? Do you have the pic?” I asked, trying to make an effort.
Vanessa rewarded me with a five-second pause while she dug through her slouchy purse to retrieve her iPhone. “Um, it might take me a while to find it....”
“Oh! Awesome! I got two new reviews on my fanfic page.” She stared at her phone, scrolling through the screen with a sparkly green fingernail. “Crapola. I can’t find it.”
“No worries,” I said, pulling my comforter over my body.
* * *
I hope this post helps you revise your own work. If you’re still confused about “voice,” please leave a comment or shoot me an email and I’d be happy to help.
Do kids’ books have room for one more smart pigeon? You’ll be glad you let this one in, because Speck Lee Tailfeather is another flier with a healthy confidence and a chatty nature.
Speck’s mission is world travel, focusing on buildings from a bird’s point of view. He sees things differently.
His words are a travel journal of sorts to his pigeon friends. To his love, Elsie. And to us.
There’s a lot to look at, from speech bubbles to side bars to fascinating tidbits. The layout and voice are both unusual in the very best way. And if you just shake off what you expect from picture books and settle in, your flight from city to sky and back will be worth it.
Your tour guide, after all, is an expert in the unusual.
This one is for treasure hunters, trivia fanatics, architecture buffs, or anyone hungry for some off-the-wall-pigeon-fare. You never know.
Pair it with A Lion in Paris. Speck travels farther than France, but matching up the Parisian buildings (not to mention the books’ head-to-head size battle and their animal points of view) would be a fun thing for storytime.
Singing like a winner is what every emerging professional aspires to do. Yet there are so many hardships and obstacles; so much competition and heartache; so many bills to pay that more people sing like whiners than winners.
Throughout the month, we’ve been examining the myriad aspects of the human voice. But who better to discuss it than a singer herself? We asked Jenny Forsyth, member of the Sospiri choir in Oxford, what it takes to be part of a successful choir.
Which vocal part do you sing in the choir?
I sing soprano – usually first soprano if the parts split, but I’ll sing second if I need to.
For how long have you been singing?
I started singing in the training choir of the Farnham Youth Choir, in Surrey, when I was seven. Then I moved up through the junior choir when I was about 10 years old and then auditioned and moved up to the main performance choir at the age of 12 and stayed with them until I was 18. After this I studied for a Bachelors in Music, then did a Masters degree in Choral Studies (Conducting).
What first made you want to join a choir?
I had recently started having piano lessons and my dad, a musician himself, thought it would be good for my musical education to join a choir. We went to a concert given by the Farnham Youth Choir and after that I was hooked!
What is your favourite piece or song to perform?
That’s a really difficult question – there is so much great music around! I enjoy singing Renaissance music so I might choose Taverner’s Dum Transsiset. I also love Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine and Bogoroditse Devo from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers.
I also sing with an ensemble called the Lacock Scholars, and we sing a lot of plainsong chant, a lot of which is just so beautiful. Reading from historical notation – neumes – can give you so much musical information through such simple notation; it’s really exciting!
I’ve recently recorded an album of new commissions for the centenary of World War I with a choir from Oxford called Sospiri, directed by Chris Watson. The disk is called A Multitude of Voices and all the commissions are settings of war poems and texts. The composers were asked to look outside the poetical canon and consider texts by women, neglected poets and writers in languages other than English. I love all the music on the disk and it’s a thrilling feeling to be the first choir ever to sing a work. I really love Standing as I do before God by Cecilia McDowall and Three Songs of Remembrance by David Bednall. Two completely different works but both incredibly moving to perform.
However I think my all-time favourite has to be Las Amarillas by Stephen Hatfield – an arrangement of Mexican playground songs. It’s in Spanish and has some complicated cross rhythms, clapping, and other body percussion. It’s a hard piece to learn but when it comes together it just clicks into place and is one of the most rewarding pieces of music!
How do you keep your voice in peak condition?
These are the five things I find really help me. (Though a busy schedule means the early nights are often a little elusive!)
Keeping hydrated. It is vital to drink enough water to keep your whole system hydrated (ie., the internal hydration of the entire body that keeps the skin, eyes, and all other mucosal tissue healthy), and to make sure the vocal chords themselves are hydrated. When you drink water the water doesn’t actually touch the vocal chords so I find the best way to keep them hydrated is to steam, either over a bowl of hot water or with a purpose-built steam inhaler. The topical, or surface, hydration is the moisture level that keeps the epithelial surface of the vocal folds slippery enough to vibrate. Steaming is incredibly good for a tired voice!
I’m not sure what the science behind this is but I find eating an apple just before I sing makes my voice feel more flexible and resonant.
Hot drinks. A warm tea or coffee helps to relax my voice when it’s feeling a bit tired.
Regular singing lessons. Having regular singing lessons with a teacher who is up to date on research into singing techniques is crucial to keeping your voice in peak condition. Often you won’t notice the development of bad habits, which could potentially be damaging to your voice, but your singing teacher will be able to correct you and keep you in check.
Keeping physically fit and getting early nights. Singing is a really physical activity. When you’ve been working hard in a rehearsal or lesson you can end up feeling physically exhausted. Even though singers usually make singing look easy, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes with lots of different sets of muscles working incredibly hard to support their sound. It’s essential to keep your body fit and well-rested to allow you to create the music you want to without damaging your voice.
Do you play any other musical instruments?
When I was younger I played the piano, flute and violin but I had to give up piano and flute as I didn’t have enough time to do enough practice to make my lessons worthwhile. I continued playing violin and took up viola in my gap year and then at university studied violin as my first study instrument for my first two years before swapping to voice in my final year.
Do you have a favourite place to perform?
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around the world with the Farnham Youth Choir, with tours around Europe and trips to both China and Australia. So, even before I decided to take my singing more seriously, I had had the chance to sing in some of the best venues in the world. It’s hard to choose a favourite as some venues lend themselves better to certain types of repertoire. Anywhere with a nice acoustic where you can hear both what you are singing and what others around you are singing is lovely. It can be very disconcerting to feel as though you’re singing completely by yourself when you know you’re in a choir of 20! I’m currently doing a lot of singing with the Lacock Scholars at Saint Cuthbert’s Church, Earl’s Court, so I think that’s my favourite at the moment. Having said that, I would absolutely love to sing at the building where I work as a music administrator – Westminster Cathedral! It’s got the most glorious acoustics and is absolutely stunning.
What is the most rewarding thing about being in a choir?
There are so many great things about singing in a choir. You get a sense of working as part of a team, which you rarely get to the same extent outside of choral singing. I think this is because your voice is so personal to you can find yourself feeling quite vulnerable. I sometimes think that to sing well you have to take that vulnerability and use it; to really put yourself ‘out there’ to give the music a sense of vitality. You have to really trust your fellow singers. You have to know that when you come in on a loud entry (or a quiet one, for that matter!) that you won’t be left high and dry singing on your own.
What’s the most challenging thing about singing in a choir?
I think this is similar to the things that are rewarding about being part of a choir. That sense of vulnerability can be unnerving and can sow seeds of doubt in your mind. “Do I sound ok? Is the audience enjoying the performance? Was that what the conductor wanted?” But you have to put some of these thoughts out of your mind and focus on the job in hand. If you’ve been rehearsing the repertoire for a long time you can sometimes find your mind wandering, and then you’re singing on autopilot. So it can be a challenge to keep trying to find new and interesting things in the music itself.
Also, personality differences between members of the choir or singers and conductors can cause friction. It’s important to strike the right balance so that everyone’s time is used effectively. The dynamic between a conductor and their choir is important in creating a finely tuned machine, and it is different with each conductor and each choir. Sometimes in a small ensemble a “Choirocracy” can work with the singers being able to give opinions but it can make rehearsals tedious and in a choral society of over a hundred singers it would be a nightmare.
Do you have any advice for someone thinking about joining a choir?
Do it! I think singing in a choir as I grew up really helped my confidence; I used to be very shy but the responsibility my youth choir gave me really brought me out of myself. You get a great feeling of achievement when singing in a choir. I don’t think that changes whether you’re an amateur singing for fun or in a church choir once a week or whether you’re a professional doing it to make a living. I’ve recently spent time working with an “Office Choir”. All of the members work in the same building for large banking corporation, and they meet up once a week for a rehearsal and perform a couple of concerts a year. It’s great because people who wouldn’t usually talk to each other are engaging over a common interest. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a CEO, secretary, manager, or an intern; you’re all in the same boat when learning a new piece of music! They all say the same thing: they look forward to Wednesdays now because of their lunchtime rehearsals, and they find themselves feeling a lot more invigorated when they return to their desks afterwards.
Lastly, singing in a choir is a great way to make new friends. Some of my closest friends are people I met at choir aged 7!
Header image credit: St John’s College Chapel by Ed Webster, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
In late 2014, one particular video of a singer became immensely popular on Facebook. At first I thought my perception of its popularity might be skewed; I’m a singer, and have many friends who are singers, so there’s probably some selection bias in my sampling of popular posts on social media. But eventually I actually clicked on one of the many postings of the video on my feed, and with its 7.4 million views, it seemed likely that it was more than just my singer friends who had been watching it:
Overtone singing, defined in Grove Music Online as “A vocal style in which a single performer produces more than one clearly audible note simultaneously”, has been in existence for thousands of years, most famously in east central Asia. But I had never seen this much attention focused on it at once. The video is jaw-droppingly cool, in part because what’s happening doesn’t seem possible. But then, not that many people understand how singing just one note at a time actually works.
Simply trying to explain everything that happens when we breathe and phonate (i.e., make a vocal sound) requires discussion of various complex, unconscious physical phenomena. As the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments article “Voice” puts it:
Phonation takes place during exhalation as the respiratory system supplies air through the vibrating vocal folds, which interrupt and break the air stream into smaller units or puffs of air. The resulting sounds are filtered through a resonator system and then transmitted outside the mouth. Singing, speaking, humming, and other vocal sounds usually involve practised regulation of air pressure and breath-stream mechanics, and balanced control of the inspiratory (chiefly the diaphragm) and expiratory muscles (chiefly the abdominal and intercostal muscles).
Even after understanding all that, it’s clear that what’s happening in the video above is not a typical vocal performance. So when you hear those overtones coming from Anna-Maria Hefele, just what exactly is happening?
Fortunately for all of us, Hefele also made another video which addresses the physics of this phenomenon:
When you sing different vowels, your mouth changes shape to form those vowels. You pull your lips to the side to make an “eee” sound, and your tongue arches up in your mouth; when you make an “ooo” sound, you purse your lips and your tongue flattens out. When you do this, you’re actually changing the shape of your instrument, which in turn changes the harmonics that are stressed above the fundamental frequency (the pitch at which you’re speaking or singing). This is why the vowels sound different from one another. This is clear in Hefele’s training video, where the loudest overtones change from vowel to vowel.
Stress of different overtones is one of the ingredients of timbre, or the quality of a sound beyond its pitch and amplitude. Timbre is what allows us to distinguish between, say, a flute and an oboe playing the same pitch. They simply sound different. This is partially (no pun intended) dependent on the stress of different overtones due to the varying shapes and materials of each instrument.
The neat thing about the voice is that, while we don’t usually change the material, the shape is very flexible, and we can manipulate it to change our timbre. Overtone singing like Hefele’s takes an element of vocal sound and turns it into a new sort of instrument, inverting the typical relationship between instrument and timbre.
Anyone who’s listened to master impressionists or Bobby McFerrin (beyond “Don’t worry, be happy”) can attest to the versatility of the human voice. Vocalists are the shape-shifters of the instrument world. But comparing the 52,251 views of Hefele’s visualization video with the 7.4 million views of her performance video, it seems like we also appreciate the masters of timbre-bending the same way we appreciate magicians; most of us would rather watch the trick than see it explained.
In the newly published second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the voice is called “The quintessential human instrument.” But while almost all of us have voices, very few of us understand what is happening when we use them. Every once in a while I think it’s beneficial to see something extraordinary, if only so we remember to look at what seems ordinary a little more closely.
Headline image credit: A Sennheiser Microphone. Photo by ChrisEngelsma. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A child learns early on to recognize tone of voice. The mother's soft, sweet coo means she is happy with him. The low growl utilizing his middle name means he pushed the boundaries a tad too far, but what does tone have to do with fiction?
Tone is the emotional atmosphere the writer establishes and maintains throughout the entire novel based on how the author, through the point of view character, feels about the information she relates.
You may not have thought about how you actually feel about your story. Take a moment to consider. Are you writing about ghosts with a wink and a nudge or are you aiming for chill bumps? Is the story serious and bittersweet or a satirical exposé?
1. Tone can be formal or informal, light or dark, grave or comic, impersonal or personal, subdued or passionate, reasonable or irrational, plain or ornate.
The narrator can be cynical, sarcastic, sweet, or funny. A satirical and caustic tone plays well in a dark Comedy. It won't play well in a cozy Mystery.
2. Tone should suit genre.
Are you writing a shallow Chick Lit comedy or a dark and mysterious Gothic novel? If you write a mixed genre, the tone should match the genre that takes precedence over the other.
If you are writing a funny romance, you have to decide if you want your reader to belly laugh her way through it or have a few moments that make her belly laugh while worrying about the outcome of the relationship. Some Romance fans love a frothy, light tone. Others prefer the melodramatic tone of Historical Romance. Yet another prefers a heart-wrenching Literary love story.
Some paranormal stories are eerie and set an ominous tone. Light Horror feels almost comic to the reader. Readers who prefer ominous, creepy paranormal might not enjoy the comical version.
3. Tone is demonstrated by word choice and the way you reveal the details.
It informs the narrator's attitude toward the characters and the situation through his interior narration, his actions, and his dialogue. If he does not take the characters or situation seriously, the reader won't either. Word choice, syntax, imagery, sensory cues, level of detail, depth of information, and metaphors reveal tone.
4. Tone is not the same as voice.
Stephen King writes horror. His voice is distinct. At times he employs quirky, adolescent boy humor (his voice), but his aim is to chill you and his quips impart comic relief in a sinister story world. Being heavy-handed with the humor can ruin a good horror story, even turn it into parody.
5. Tone is not the same as mood.
Tone is how the author/narrator approaches the scene. Mood is the atmosphere you set for the scene. If you are writing a mystery, a scene can be brooding and dark leading up to the sleuth finding the body. The mood can lighten as the detectives indulge in a moment of gallows humor. Tone defines your overall mystery as wisecracking noir or cozy British as they solve the crime.
6. Tone is not the same as style.
Style reflects the author or narrator's voice. It is also revealed through sentence structure, use of literary devices, rhythm, jargon, slang, and accents. Style is revealed through dialogue. Style showcases the background and education of the characters. It expresses the cast's belief system, opinions, likes, and dislikes. It is controlled by what the characters say and how they say it. Tone is revealed by the narrator's perceptions, what he chooses to explore, and what he chooses to hide.
Stay tuned for examples of tone next week.
For these and other tips on revision, pick up a copy of:
I keep hearing people talk about descriptive narrative as though it's something different from internal dialogue. I suppose if you're writing some kind of literary fiction from an omniscient POV, it might be. But for the most part--especially in children's and YA fiction--it is the same thing.
Interiority and description are the same. It's all in the POV voice. It's all about what the POV character is thinking. Sometimes they're thinking about their feelings and motivations, sometimes they're thinking about what they're seeing/hearing etc.
All of it needs to be written from the mindset of the POV character.
Remember this poem by Wordsworth?
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
This is good practice to think about description in your own writing. Imagine a huge field of daffodils. Now ask yourself, how would a lonely or depressed person see that field verses an angry person, a betrayed person, or a happy-go-lucky person. Then write the description through their eyes and in their voice.
It's easy to try too hard to write a snarky narrative voice, but then when it comes time for description, wax into an eloquent Dickensesque voice.
It should be all the same voice.
All writers struggle with this, so practice and always keep it in mind.
Thank you everyone for your kind words about the wedding pictures. I hope that everyone had a restful and invigorating Thanksgiving celebration with loved ones! Now, unfortunately, it’s time to get back to business. There’s something I touch upon a little in my book that I want to discuss it in more detail: melodrama.
Sometimes I’m cruising along in a story and I encounter melodrama. It can happen in interiority, description, or the overall prose. Here are some examples:
My heart dashed into a million jagged pieces as thoughts of betrayal swirled like a thunderhead in my frazzled mind.
I cried out, my breath rasping, my voice desperately pleading, “No!”
He snapped his neck toward me, his eyes laser-beaming me with an intense glare. “Leave. Now.”
It’s actually quite tortuous for me to write this way. There’s not a whole lot that bothers me more in prose. Melodramatic writing works so hard to convey emotion that it goes completely over the top. You may be guilty of it if you’ve developed a finely tuned adjective thesaurus. Or if you have a lot of physical clichés in the work. Or if you’re taking great pains to describe a tone of voice.
Melodrama is going above and beyond to hammer home a certain emotion. It almost always reads as false to me. Here’s my real issue with it. Real drama comes when a reaction matches the situation or stimulus. If I stub my toe, I swear a few times under my breath and walk it off. If my car rolls down the driveway and into the lake, I will swear…well, not a few times. But if I stub my toe and I’m on the ground, moaning and wailing and thrashing around, then the magnitude of reaction doesn’t match the situation.
Most of the time, when melodrama strikes me as especially fake, it’s because of this disconnect. If a situation is not particularly intense because there’s not enough tension or the stakes aren’t high enough, but the writer is trying their best to make it seem intense: melodrama. Whenever you see a lot of purple prose coming to the party, you’re likely trying to create a mountain out of a molehill.
But tension isn’t created with a lot of over-the-top adjectives. It’s created when a situation puts a character further away from what they want. So if that tension isn’t naturally there through how you’ve set up your characters and plot, you might find yourself (even if it’s subconsciously) compensating by tying on the window dressing of intense descriptions and heavy physicality. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve created adequate objectives for your character, and whether or not you’re frustrating them in an effective way.
Remember, your characters shouldn’t get to win that often. Struggle and frustrated desires are par for the course with a plot that’s going to really challenge your character. This is not the same thing as a superficial wound that sets your protagonist into a histrionic hissy fit. Where there’s intense emotion, there should be intense tension underlying it, and a real cause for concern that’s driving your character crazy. (Even if you have a really good set-up for a dramatic reaction, you may want to play it more reserved, to begin with. The sooner writers wean themselves off of purple prose, the better.)
If you’re worried that maybe you more flamboyant writing style is coming across as melodrama instead of desirable tension/conflict, ask your critique partners if a scene ever starts to feel fake or over-the-top. This is a very serious issue. Despite teens and kids getting a bad rap for being melodramatic in their personal lives, they are also really good at sussing out what’s authentic and what isn’t. You don’t want a flare-up of dramatics to alienate the reader.
Short, practical instruction from Darcy on a specific topic
A simple “Walk the Talk” action to take
Over the course of the month, you’ll receive the entire text of Darcy’s book, 30 Days to a Stronger Novel (November, 2014 release).
We can’t guarantee that you’ll end the month with a publishable novel; but we can guarantee it will be a STRONGER novel.
We can’t guarantee a publishable novel; but we can guarantee a STRONGER NOVEL!
Writing a Middle-grade Masterpiece Ain't Easy! Originally posted in The Purple Crayon – on "Musings" by Margot Finke
Libraries, bookstores, and online shops offer middle-grade novels of all types: inspiring, good, bad, and that iffy area in-between. I am sure every writer starts out with the intention of writing a story that inspires as well as entertains young readers. However, it soon dawns on them that hard work, imagination, and dedication are just small parts of what it takes to write a middle-grade book that inspires and entertains.
Like any other job or career, a potential writer must spend time learning the craft of writing for children — an apprenticeship, if you will. The rules are available for those who take the time to learn them. And once you learn the rules, you can take an occasional deep breath. . . and break them with impunity.
Secret Ingredients for a Middle-grade Masterpiece:
Trying to write for the older half of the middle-grade range? To appeal to kids on the cusp of adolescence: with raging hormones and today’s fast pace your main competition? From 10 to 13 years of age is the range I mean. However, kids find their own reading comfort level, so some 10/11 year olds might read YA books, while older teens might still be into middle-grades. It all depends on their maturity and individual reading level.
Here’s a preview of the ingredients you’ll need to dig out of your imagination, and your well-honed craft box, if you plan to whip up a great middle-grade book for those fickle 10-13 year-olds:
Active and powerful verbs.
A plot that’s cool and fast paced.
Characters who are alive with authenticity.
Dialogue that is true to the characters.
A background rich with possibilities or mystery.
Your own unique writing voice.
Hints and clues that are woven into the fabric of the plot, and tell of past history and things yet to come.
End of chapter HOOKS that keep readers turning the page.
When completed, your middle-grade masterpiece needs to be somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 words. Yes, I know Jo Rowlings upped the ante with her succession of Harry Potter books, and if your plot and characters have the same appeal as Harry, you too might get away with a larger word count. However, first-time authors might be wise to err on the side of fewer words.
Ingredients — How and Where to Find Them:
If it’s been a long time since you sat in Mrs. Learnit’s English class, take a basic English/Writing course. You can do this online, through a nearby night class, or your local college. Writers must have confidence in their basic grammar and punctuation skills.
Haunt your local bookstores and library. Read every middle-grade book you can get your hands on. Dissect the plots in these books, and the way authors create their characters. Look at the sentence structure, the way they describe events and places. Make notes. If a book grabs your interest, find out what it is the author does that has that effect on you. Is it their richly crafted characters, their sharp and fast moving plot, or their attention to all those small yet vital details?
Write as often as you can. Becoming a published author is not for wimps or hobbyists. Sacrifices are mandatory. If it means getting up before dawn, because that is the only time you have to write — so be it. If it means being bleary-eyed at 2 am so you can finish a chapter — suck it up! If it means living with dust bunnies that make your mother-in-law cluck, and teaching your kids to do their own laundry and room clean up — go for it! Most important is a partner who is sympathetic toward your (weird to his mind) need to write, and his willingness to help out around the house when you are suffering from one of your many writing frenzies. Perfect wife, mother and housekeeper, OR great writer? Both demand masses of time — your choice, mate.
If you have no middle-grade children in your family, volunteer at your local middle school. Observe these half-baked creatures in their natural habitat. Body language, peer groups, misfits and lunch room behavior: all this is grist for your writing mill. Moreover, you’ll probably have fun doing it. Make a note of what these kids read for pleasure.
Network with others who write for the same age. This means joining online lists where writing and publishing information flows back and forth, and you can have your many beginner questions answered. Join a critique group that has some advanced or published members. Their support and encouragement will often save your sanity. Critiquing the work of others is surprisingly informative, and you will benefit from the feedback you receive on your own writing. Below are three of many great online lists for children’s writers, and links to join.
Whenever possible, go to SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) writing conferences. SCBWI is well worth joining. They offer many advantages to newcomers, and their branches pop up in every state. This is where you meet editors and agents, and hear them speak about today’s world of writing and publishing. Meeting them often leads to you being able to send your manuscript to a specific editor: and with so many publishers today closed to submissions, this is a real plus. Other writers will also be there, keen to network with you, and share their writing experiences.
The MAGIC of learning MORE will see you through!
If you don’t have a college degree, or even a high school diploma, don’t worry. Talent, perseverance, and a slice of luck can make up for these so-called deficits. A dedicated and talented writer, determined to learn the craft of writing, and stick with it until they become published, will succeed. Boost your writing confidence with an advanced writing class. This will take you beyond grammar and punctuation, and into the meaty realm of plots, character enrichment, voice and pace. Perfect these skills, and acceptances rates multiply like rabbits. Below are three links — two links for great writing classes, and the other to terrific books on how to write for children.
Recommended Writing Class
Anastasia Suen — A wonderful writer. If you want to write for children, visit her Intensive
Other Websites That Will Boost Your Writing Knowledge:
Information about writing, authors, books and publishing.
Writer's Market Research publishers. They update information regularly. They have a program where you can track submissions, but it cost to join. Writer's Market also has a free update site. You don't have to subscribe to the magazine to get the updates.
Jan Field's Website Chock full of writing help, andkidmagwriters.comis a terrific resource for those who want to write for magazines.
This is a note I give a lot in my work with clients. It goes: “Saying something simple in a complicated way.” I know exactly why people do it. But it often has detrimental effects on that one holy grail of writing that people strive for, voice.
The sky is blue.
The heavens swirl with shades of the purest cerulean.
Yikes. I mean, sure, we want to be remembered for prose that has at least a little bit of flair because our unique authorial voices are what distinguish us from the other guy. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance between substance and style. If style trumps substance, often to the point where the substance is almost unrecognizable, you have a problem. The reader will be lost in your Baroque description and lose the meaning. And that’s not good for their overall focus and, as a result, involvement in your story.
Do I feel like a bit of an idiot writing such inane description as “The sky is blue”? Sure. But sometimes the sky is blue and it needs to be described as blue and the simplest answer is the most difficult: just write “The sky is blue” and move on to developing character or plot.
Why does this bother us so much, as writers? Why do we have to twist ourselves into sentence pretzels and dive into the thesaurus to turn out a description that’s unlike any anyone has ever written?
I call this Writer With a Capital W syndrome. A writer’s trade is her vocabulary, natural voice, and ability to express herself. So writing “The sky is blue” feels like a total cop out. Instead we, especially those beginning writers out there, want to really strut our stuff and prove our worth. We lace the sentence with adjectives or adverbs, we choose really zippy verbs, we labor over every image to make sure that the reader is going to see exactly what we want them to see in their pretty little heads, so help us God. I imagine Writers With a Capital W have a lot of steam coming out of their ears after all that darn concentration.
The thing is, though, sometimes it’s okay to loosen the reigns a bit and let the scene we’re creating speak for itself. Our imagery and writing prowess doesn’t need to be on display every second. In fact, that demands a lot of the reader and tends to skew focus away from the story we’re telling. And that, at the end of the day, is the heart of it. Substance needs to trump style. Not all the time, but a lot.
If you’ve ever been accused of trying too hard, purple prose, overwriting, or not killing your darlings, listen up. There’s no shame in simplifying it a bit and letting the content of the sentence, not the flair with which it is written, stand out. In fact, it may be a welcome break from all that wordsmithing!
Sealed with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!),
You know that stress dream that everyone has at one time or another? The one where you’re standing up in front of a giant group of people and something goes horribly wrong? You forget your speech, your voice cracks, you’re not wearing pants. Well that dream became a recurring reality for me my senior year of college (not the pants part thankfully). Mine was the singer’s nightmare. The one where you open your mouth to sing and the voice that comes out is not your own.
As a child and an adolescent I loved to perform. Singing wasn’t something I thought about; it was something I just did and as a result I was totally fearless. When I got to college the concept of thinking about singing as a science was entirely new to me. My teachers taught me to release my jaw and tongue, to inhale into my back and belly, to use muscular antagonism of the inspiratory and expiratory muscles, to keep my larynx low and stable, to lift my palate, and many other mechanics of singing. At first this new focus on technique was interesting, but eventually all of the technical language resulted in confusion. Every time I opened my mouth to sing I was afraid I would do something wrong. The result was a voice that was only a shadow of the one I used to call my own.
What happens when we’re afraid? In his article “The Anatomy of Fear,” John A. Call discusses the body’s reaction to fear: the heart-rate speeds up, our muscles tense, and the breath becomes fast and shallow.
The implications of this for a singer are huge. In singing the first rule of the inhale is release low. When a singer releases and expands through the lower body (belly, low back, and intercostals), it allows these muscles to work in tandem on the exhale. This gives the singer the ability to manage the air much more efficiently than if he/she had begun by expanding through the chest and clavicles. If a person is experiencing fear, the ability to take a low and relaxed or released breath becomes quite difficult.
Certainly singers need to learn proper singing technique, but sometimes I wonder, what is all of this focus on the physical costing us as artists? There was a time in my life when I operated solely on musical intuition. But as I learned more and more about the mechanics of singing I began attempting to operate on facts and science instead of artistic impulse. I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t need to learn the mechanics—I had plenty of technical issues. But perhaps there is a more holistic approach to teaching singing that could facilitate proper technique without the loss of instinct.
After I graduated from college I took some time off from singing. When I decided to return to it I knew I needed a different approach. I had been practicing yoga as a form of exercise for a few years, but I felt confident that with the right guidance it could really help me as a singer. So I sought out a voice/yoga teacher.
Yoga session at sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park – Warrior I pose. Photo by Jarek Tuszynski. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons
My new teacher, Mark Moliterno, taught me that yoga recognizes that tension in the body is often a result of physical or psychological blockages to the breath. The practice of yoga seeks to release tension and free the breath. When properly implemented in the voice studio, yoga can be a pathway to efficient vocal technique and artistic freedom.
Mark pointed out that all of the confusion and fear that had built up during my college studies had caused me to physically disengage from the lower half of my body. So we set to work using yoga to reconnect me with my lower body and help me feel more secure in my singing.
We used postures like Tādāsana or Mountain Pose and Vìrabhadrāsana One or Warrior One to release tension in the body and connect me with the ground. Feeling my leg muscles engaged and my feet planted firmly on the floor helped me to feel more secure. We used pranayama or breath exercises to release tension within the muscles of the respiratory system. We used hip openers to release the tension in my jaw, and shoulder openers to release the tension in my tongue.
We did yoga and made music. Not once in this entire process did I think about any of the mechanics of singing. My technique improved because my body was open and the breath could function naturally and efficiently. Yoga was like this miracle that freed my voice and allowed me to trust myself again. But it isn’t a miracle, it’s a science that takes into account all parts of the person, and not just the anatomical.
Carrie -Yoga shoot #002. Photo by Joel Nilsson. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons
When singers start trying to function as anatomical machines, seeking after flawless technique, we can lose the ability to sing authentically. Yoga helped me to learn to sing with good technique without focusing on it, and dissolved the fear that kept me from trusting my musical instincts. It released the tension in my body and mind, unleashing the breath, and offering me a pathway to artistic freedom.
Mezzo-soprano, Laura Davis, is a singer, conductor, and voice teacher. She holds a Master of Music degree in Voice Pedagogy and Performance from the Catholic University of America and a Bachelor of Music degree in Sacred Music from Westminster Choir College. Recent performances include Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Dina in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, and Third Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. After spending 10 years on the east coast conducting, performing, and teaching, Ms. Davis has returned to her home state of Colorado where she is in the process of opening a voice studio based on a holistic approach to singing.
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“Young man, don’t speak to me in that tone of voice!”
When you see that bit of dialogue, you know that a boy is talking sarcastically or disrespectfully. We understand that it’s not just the words said, but it’s how the words are used that conveys an attitude.
Humor, irony, satire, pleasantness, excitement, righteous indignation–the audience’s anticipated reaction is what determines the tone with which you write a particular piece. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown has a soothing tone; Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey has an irreverent, comical tone; Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse has a spare, restrained tone that matches the mood of the Dust Bowl.
I’ve been dealing with tone because I’ll have a nonfiction piece, “Don’t Lick That Statue,” in the June 2014 issue of Highlights Magazine for Children. When you turn in this type of manuscript, they require a letter from your sources that states the article is “appropriate in tone and content” for a young reader. Content is easy: just check and recheck your facts, ma’am. Tone is not so easy. What does it mean, anyway?
Definition of Tone of Voice
How would you describe the tone of this photo taken at dawn near the Alamo?
Tone is the atmosphere that holds a story together; it permeates the narrative, setting, characters and dialogue. It can also shape a reader’s response. In a mystery with a dark, gothic tone, the reader is meant to be on the edge of fear.
Tone gives the author subtle ways to communicate emotional content that can’t be told by only looking at what words mean. We also need to look at connotations and how words work within the context of the story.
One of the first ways to get a handle on controlling the tone of voice is to look at the adjectives and adverbs within your story. Specific details can fill the reader’s head with clues about how to interpret the story, but without a physical voice. The tone can be cued by adjectives or adverbs: quietly, he said; angrily, he said; sadly, he said. More experienced writers can convey the same tone with connotations of words and not have to rely on these adverbs.
In other words, the missing words–quietly, angrily, sadly–are communicated by every tool in the writer’s arsenal. That’s a frustrating statement for beginning writers: it’s too abstract. Let’s make it a bit more concrete.
Creating Tone of Voice
Before you begin writing, you should have a tone of voice in mind, so you will be consistent. The tone of voice should shape the story at all stages.
The opening, especially, should begin with the right tone, so the reader knows what sort of story will follow. Descriptions, dialogue, or even first-person statements are all welcome. The opening scene should give the reader a feel for the book that will be consistent throughout. A dark, gothic mystery should never morph into an action/adventure or a fairy tale. Within the dark, gothic mystery, there is room for variation, but there are also boundaries for when it moves outside the right tone. Set your story’s tone early and stick with it.
Recognition and Consistency
Once you have something written that captures the character, the voice of the story and the tone of the story, then you must do two things. First, recognize when that voice and tone is present and working; second, learn to be consistent with the voice and tone.
Put the work aside for as long as you can stand it, then read it with an eye toward where the voice, tone and character are working or not working. Read it out loud, and pay attention to places where there’s a “bump” for some odd, almost indefinable moment. That’s probably a tone or voice problem. Changing mood is fine; changing tone is not. On a very simple level this means that you can’t start a story with a dreamy stream-of-consciousness and end with an action-packed thriller.
Consistency is important even when a story has multiple points of view. For novels that switch back and forth between male and female characters, the tone must still be maintained.
Crafting your Story’s Tone
While much of the discussion about tone of voice revolves around abstract issues, there are some concrete things that can be considered.
Choice of details. Choose the sensory details that bring a story to life. Does it matter that Dracula wears black? Of course! Be sure to include as many senses as possible, pulling in visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and tactile details.
Plot and organization. Often, picture book stories have simple refrains—which present a reassuring tone by suggesting that there is order in the world. The organization of the text always returns to a phrase that is important; the child knows you’ll get to that point again in the story and feels the ordering of events in the story, which reinforces the tone.
Language and vocabulary. The language and vocabulary used must also support the tone of a story. Choosing the right word is paramount, but also consider how the words work in context. Connotations are words speaking to other words in a story. You may want to alliteration, assonance, or other literary techniques to make certain words resonate. But the technique should be subtle enough to work without calling attention to itself.
Dialogue. Dialogue can carry tone of voice, too. Avoid stilted and extended sections of talking heads. Instead, work for a snappy exchange—or whatever is appropriate for your tone. Sometimes, it helps to be intentional and say to yourself, “My story’s tone is XXX and that means my dialogue should be XXX.” Then evaluate to see where you need to adjust.
Write Your Story Your Way!
If all the above feels too abstract, if you want more detailed how-to instructions, if you have trouble recognizing voice much less tone of voice, you aren’t alone. Yet, editors and teachers of writing can’t be more specific. “It depends. . . ,” they say. It always depends on the story, the characters, the setting, the author’s intent, and so many other minor and major decisions about a story.
The tone is the end result, but it is also the beginning. The author must solve the problem of tone of voice in different ways for each story they tell. You have an arsenal of weapons: setting, characterization, language, rhythm, vocabulary, plot, organization. In the end, there are no right or wrong answers; there are only stories that work or don’t work.
Can you suggest stories that portray a certain tone? How would you describe the tone of IVAN, THE GREAT AND MIGHTY? Of HUNGER GAMES?
Hi folks, beautiful springtime is here in College Station, Texas. Blankets of bluebonnets, evening primrose, and Indian paint brush are splashed all over the county like a color-crazed artist needed to spruce up the dull browns and greens. So uplifting.
I begin my April Showers series. This is all about what waters my creative soul. I'm going to discuss the juice of some recent reads. First up comes enrichment from Conrad Wesselhoeft's new book Dirt Bikes, Drones and Other Ways to Fly (HMH). Here's a short synopsis from Amazon: Seventeen year-old dirt-bike-riding daredevil Arlo Santiago catches the eye of the U.S. military with his first-place ranking on a video game featuring drone warfare, and must reconcile the work they want him to do with the emotional scars he has suffered following a violent death in his family.
This is one kinetic read. Here are two techniques in this book that will open your eyes as you create your own work.
1. Leverage language. This is something that Wesselhoeft always does and this book is no exception. Here in the middle of of bruising narrative, high flying action, and heart-rending despair is a peppering of poetic beauty. Phrasing elevates this story --- "book of Job lousy year," "Something rises in me -- something halfway between a fist and a sob" and "the thing about a journey -- it pops you into focus and sweeps the mess of your life under the rug if only for a brief time." Shy away from bland word choice as you create your works, and you will add brilliance to your stories.
2. Say something. Dirt Bikes... is stitched together with references to Mozart, Rossini, Martin Luther King, Buddha, Paul of Tarsus, Marcus Aurelius, Emerson, to name a few, and more obscure voices, like John Gillespie Magee, from his poem "High Flight."
For I have danced the streets of heaven,
And touched the face of God.
Wesselhoeft is circling the idea that "Character is forever." Our choices will scar the world or uplift it. He digs deep into the idea of oversoul from Emerson. Oversoul is the river voices from each soul running together to make an ocean of soul stuff. Wesselhoeft uses many voices within this story to reflect this. Climb on the shoulders of giants as you write and say something. This is the oversoul of fiction.
I have at least a dozen pages of notes of the lessons I learned while reading this book. I hope you realize that you are in the battle of literacy as you create your books. Do whatever it takes to widen the world, to stir up empathy, and a develop a continuing legacy. Use choice language and consider Rodin's "Thinker" at the gates of hell. Be that thinker at the gates. Write stuff that will make a difference.
Thanks for dropping by! I will have more showers next week.
Here is a doodle. "The Wind"
And finally a quote for your pocket.
What lies behind us, and what lies before us are but tiny matters compared to what lies within us. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Add a Comment
I'm continuing my journey of what waters my writer's soul. I love to read books and I'm touching on a few books this month that have added creative water to my work. This week I'm going to chat about Kathi Appelt's TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP. This one fun read and has a swinging beat. In this storyBingo and J’miah, raccoon brothers are on a mission to save Sugar Man Swamp. Two things standout for me in this book -- language and style.
I love the language here. There is a rhythm in the cadence of the language that reminds me of music. Here's a bit of lyricism : "Nosotros somos paisanos. We are fellow countrymen. We come from the same soil." This bit gives me a good chill. I also love that the language uncovers place. For example: “They say that lightning never strikes in the same place twice, but the same is not true for courage. As it turns out, when courage strikes, it almost always begets more courage.” The choice of begets here coupled with lightning puts me in mind of an old time southern Gospel preacher. I also get some Texas swing and Texas drawl on every page. I kept smiling with each twist of phrase. Specific word choice creates universal appeal. It makes the language breathe. Check the similes in your book. Watch out for the cliches. Do better.
The style of TRUE BLUE SCOUTS is all about the southern storytelling tradition with the Texas tall tale tradition mixed in. Multiple story lines weave here, and reminded me of a great uncle of mine who was a master basket weaver. He knew just how to bend a strip of bark or a stalk of sugar cane into the perfect basket shape. Appelt jumps from head to head: raccoons, a rattle snake, humans,feral hogs, the Sugarman and more. She captures in her word basket the need to save our natural places, the preciousness of the world around us, and what exactly it means to be a hero. Style has a job, and in this case it's to bring everyone around to the back porch for a stor, to take the chills, the laughs, and riotousness and learn something too. Think about your style and do more.
I hope that you put you best efforts into the language and style of your work this week. It might just transform into something bigger than you thought it could be. I will be back next week with more April showers. I hope you return too.
I had a wonderful poetry teacher, Tony Lee, who taught us about voice. Describing something, as a journalist does, Tony said, is the reporting voice.That voice comes from the lips, the mouth, the throat.
Writing about feelings comes from the gut, a lower, truer, sometimes scarier place, he said.
This is the deep voice. The deep voice attracts readers. It connects them to your story. Be brave, he told us. Find the feelings. Go there.
So why do some blog and FaceBook posts get nine kazillion comments (not mine!) and some get zip?
it seems to me that getting your work read (or, more to the point, getting your work read and passed on) is about superficial vs. deep.
Just like a book in which the author rips off her shirt and shows us her scars (as Anne Lamott does), FaceBook and blog posts that come from the gut are the ones that resonate.
I was at a meeting the other day; each of us had three minutes to talk about anything we wanted. The first two minutes and 30 seconds I talked about some success I had had. In the last 30 seconds, my mouth opened and an embarrassing truth popped out. I said that Robyn Hood Black had very kindly gifted me homemade granola. It was especially touching because Robyn knows I can't eat sugar, so she made it with sugar-free maple syrup. I could actually have it. Delighted, I sat down for lunch, thinking I'd taste just a spoonful, just to see what it was like.
Good granola is dense, so you don't need much. And you and I know that you're supposed to eat two cups of granola over a period of several days--with fresh blueberries and your pinky finger raised, right?
Not me... immediately my mouth opened, a vacuum turned on, my brain turned off, and nearly two cups of absolutely delicious granola were gone. Gone!
This isn't Robyn's granola. Hers had yummy bits of coconut in it. But...um...I didn't have time to take a picture of hers. So this is from morguefile.com
As we went around the room sharing, do you think others in the group commented on the nicely packaged pithy wisdom in my first two minutes and thirty seconds? Nope. Nearly ALL of them talked about my granola adventure. It hit a familiar nerve. We've all been there.
It was no longer mine...it was all of ours.
During Poetry Month this year, I had what I called a metaphoraffair--I practiced finding metaphors, posting one each day, both on my website (where, it turned out, the comment mechanism was broken) and on FaceBook and Twitter.
The metaphor which drew the most interest was my final post for Poetry Month 2014, written with and about my mother, who is 91 and not doing great. It was hard for me to post; it was true. It was from my gut.
I drew this in November, 2010, after Mom and I walked around a park in Malibu…suddenly I was the parent
There are some elements of life which do not translate well to onto the page. Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene.
My theory on them, frustrating as it is, boils down to: some things are better in life or the screen. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”
The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply to intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life.
Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice, the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.
When you write, for example…
“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.
…you are taking a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? Because ideally you’d be putting the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.
Instead, if you write…
“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”
…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word.
Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool.