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Yesterday I introduced my friend Jennie Nash. It was the first post in a three-post series that spotlights Jennie's Author Accelerator, a singular program that helps steer authors toward their own finished books. Today, we're continuing that series with Jennie's reflections on process, structure, tone and voice. What gives a book lift, shape, foundation? What makes a story soar? Who is that soul with the voice in the cathedral, finally ready to sing?
As you read, please remember Jennie's offer—a discount to try out Author Accelerator for a month. The normal price is $199/month, which gives writers four deadlines against which they turn in ten pages for review. Jennie is offering a discounted price of $150 for the first months. Authors can write to Jade@Authoraccelerator.com and ask for the Beth Kephart special offer. That will be good through November 15, 2015.
Author Accelerator encourages authors to think before they write—to map out their desires as writers, articulate their hopes for their projects, ponder requirements like structure and tone. You’ve published eight books yourself. When did you begin to recognize, in your own work, the power of the authorial pause?
There has been a certain frantic-ness in my own work for a long time. I was one of those people who wanted to be published before I was 25, because I was restless for success. Each time I wrote another book I would think, “THIS is going to be my big breakthrough book!” I would set arbitrary and very ambitious deadlines for myself – like, “I have to finish this draft in three months.” That can sometimes be good for staying motivated, but if you never let the work breathe, or let yourself breathe, it’s hard to find your voice.All that pushing and striving didn’t help me to become a better writer, in the end, or to find any wider success. In fact, it was one of the things that led me to my biggest publishing failure – my last novel, which did not sell. I was so frantic to get the book done and out there and sold, and my desperation was my undoing.
When I began coaching other writers, I often saw that same frantic energy, and I began to believe that it was the thing that was harming them the most. Rushing to begin, rushing to finish, rushing to publish – these were the biggest problems I was seeing.
I began to build into my coaching process systems for helping writers to slow down and to THINK. I came to believe that taking the time to be intentional was the most critical step for any writer in any project.
It doesn’t mean you have to necessarily add time to the creative process; stopping to think actually savestime, in the end. I recently had a client complete a rough draft of a book in about six months of very intense work, but she was very intentional, and she followed the strategic process, and it worked out very well in the end. So pausing to be intentional doesn’t have to mean your process is slow.
We all think we know what some words mean. But maybe we don’t. How do you define structure?
Oh my goodness, this is such a hard question, because structure is such a complex thing! While we might start out by saying structure is the shape of the work – how it unfolds in time, what territory it covers – that is only one small part of it, the surface part of it that we can see, and perhaps graph or outline. Structure is much bigger than that.I think of it more like a writer’s intention for their story.
I recently heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creativity (because of her new book, Big Magic, which is an exploration of the creative process) and she said the most extraordinary thing about the beginning of that book idea. She said it took her awhile to start work on it because she didn’t know what the book was going to be. She knew that she would write about creativity, but she didn’t know HOW she would approach the subject. She said that she asked herself,“Does this book want to be a self help, `ten steps to creativity’ book, or `I travel around and interview creative people’ book, or a novel, or an academic neurobiology of creativity book? I had to find out what this book wanted to be.”
That is, in many ways, a perfect explanation of structure – deciding what the idea in your head is going to be, how it’s going to exist in the world, what your intention is for the work. You can see very clearly that Gilbert couldn’t start writing, and couldn’t sketch out a graph for the work or a table of contents or anything representing physical structure and shape, until she knew what the book was going to BE.
Once you make that decision, you create a kind of ecosystem for the work to grow into. It now has certain parameters and limitations. It is going to follow certain conventions – or perhaps break those conventions. That is when you can start looking at how it’s going to do its job. For memoir and non-fiction, you can begin to ask what is going to be in the book and what is going to be left out, where it’s going to start and where it's going to end. For fiction, you can begin to think about who is going to tell the story, where they’re going to stand in time and how much time is going to unfold in the course of the story.
Voice, to me, is an understanding about who your narrator is and where she stands in time and what her agenda is – her point, her purpose, the reason she is speaking to us in these pages. Voice, in other words, is not just how the narrator sounds or how she (or he!) speaks. It’s all the things the narrator believes and cares about and fears. It’s everything that makes the narrator who she (or he! or it!) is.
Every book has a narrator, which is obvious in fiction, but in memoir and non-fiction, it’s slightly less obvious. In memoir, the narrator is YOU, of course, but is it you, the twelve year old? You, the thirty year old? You, the person who has justlearned the lessons the story is showing, or you the person who learned those lessons last year, or you the person who is experiencing those lessons as they unfold? You have to chose one narrative voice and stick with it.
If an author intrudes on the established voice, we can hear it. If a different “you” shows up in a memoir when you didn’t intend her to, we can sense it. These small gaps result in a breech of trust between the reader and the writer, and once you lose trust, you lose everything. That’s why establishing and maintaining a consistent voice is so key.
Tone is how the voice comes across to the reader, what the attitude or stance of the narrator is as she tells the tale or conveys the information. A book can have a desperate and angry tone, or a sad and melancholy tone, or a light and joyous tone. For the longest time, I didn’t want to read Gone Girl, even though it was all anyone could talk about, because I felt very uncomfortable with the tone of the book. It felt frightening to me, slippery, dark, not to be trusted – and I didn’t want to go to that place. I finally did read it – and of course my sense of the tone was precisely correct. That book had a very strong tone!
Big Magic, which I just mentioned, has a very joyous, lighthearted tone. Gilbert talks about some dark things in the book, to be sure, but she does it in a way that is very safe, and ultimately uplifting. In many ways, that’s a triumph of her tone.
Learning the mechanics of story is pretty straightforward. Basically you need a Beginning, a Middle and an End. OK, it’s slightly more complicated than that but there are many excellent resources that’ll break it down for you – our own Maureen Lynas tells you how in Five Bricks of Story and Life and Seven Steps for Plotting and Pacing
You can even buy software programmes to help: the Snowflake method has been recommended to me on a couple of occasions.
You can learn all this, you can follow it to the letter, and then you can read your story and find it is a dead thing. You may have the mechanics but where is the heart? Where is the spark? Where do you get the bolt of lightening that allows your Frankenbook to rise from the table and live, LIVE, LIVE!
We are thrilled to welcome editor and author Erin Rhew to the blog this month as our columnist for Ask a Pub Pro! Having worked with Erin, I'm amazed at how she tirelessly juggles so many hats. Not only is she an editor and the social media whirlwind for BookFish Books, but she's also the author of The Fulfillment Series, with the last book, The Fulfillment,releasing in just a few days!
Erin's here to answer your reader questions on how to brand yourself across genres, whether to send your own cover art in with submissions, and facing the fear of writing to a group younger than your age. Be sure to check out her newest release below!
If you have a question you'd like to have answered by an upcoming publishing professional, send it to AYAPLit AT gmail.com and put Ask a Pub Pro Question in the subject line.
Ask a Pub Pro with Erin Rhew
1) I've heard the advice that if you want to build a fan base, you need to brand yourself. But my ideas don't all lend themselves to one category or genre, though they all have some similar themes. I'm wondering if you can brand yourself writing across categories and genres but by always exploring a similar type of story question or theme. Or even a similar type of story?
That’s a great question! When branding yourself, it’s important to remember you’re branding YOU, not a specific book or genre. If you have a cause that’s important to you or a theme/message you’re trying to disseminate, you could certainly include information about that in your branding. For example, let’s say you want to bring attention to animal cruelty. As you blog, perhaps blog about that particular topic once a month or so. Highlight and promote charities you feel exemplify the work you’d like done for animals. Read more »
AdventuresInYAPublishing.com | @AYAPLit | @MartinaABoone
Inside Secrets, Giveaways, and Writing Tips from Authors for Readers and Writers of Any Genre
One of my favorite parts of writing conferences is the first-page critique session—when attendees anonymously submit their first pages and a panel of editors, agents, and industry pros critique them for the whole group. It’s interesting, because the panelists always complain about the same things, and one of the common fails on ailing first pages is the voice.
If the voice on a first page is boring or flat or inconsistent, you may not be able to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong with it, but you know something’s wrong. Likewise, when the voice is on, you sense it immediately. It resonates. So if you’re wanting to write a book that people will want to read, it’s hugely important to get the voice right.
That’s why, despite this topic having been discussed already around the blogosphere, we’re going to talk about it again. It’s that important. PK Hrezo is here today to share some thoughts and an exercise on how to write voice well. Thanks, PK!
Courtesy: asboluv @ Creative Commons
Soul. It’s a word applied to many different media. For just a moment, let’s consider it from a musical standpoint. Stevie Wonder. Aretha Franklin. Marvin Gaye. Not just anyone can sing and play this kind of music successfully; a certain je ne sais quoi is required in bringing down the house and moving people to their very souls.
Is it really any different when it comes to books?
If the structure of a story is the bones and the characters and plot are the meat, then the voice most certainly is the soul. Every reader loves a good plot and riveting characters, and many books have these elements, but with so many to choose from, what makes us select the books we do?
For me it’s simple: if you want me to get past the first page of your book, the voice of the story must grab me. It must be authentic, unique, memorable. It should feel like a real person. So what ingredients make up that magical concoction of a compelling voice?
Courtesy: Matthias Ripp @ CC
Word choice. Cadence. Rhythm. It’s where the real writing comes in, paired with crafty prose and flipped clichés. It requires careful thought and consideration, both when the narrator is a main character, as well as when the story is told in third person.
For newer writers, it can be hard to decipher what those editors and reviewers are saying when they mention a weak or bland voice. It’s like not being able to see the book for the words. (See how I flipped that forest-for-the-trees cliché??)
If you’re struggling with the concept of voice, give the following exercise a try:
Let’s say we send three very different people to the same party, asking all to observe the venue and guests for thirty minutes before reporting back on everything they noticed. Let’s say one of those people is an elderly lady who uses a walker, is blind in one eye, and hasn’t been out of her house in a week. How would she describe what she sees and feels? What words would she choose? What are the things she’d notice?
What if one of the guests was a young dad who’d recently lost his wife to cancer and this was the first time he’d been out since her death? How would his observations be different from the old woman? How would he describe it, in his own overwhelmed, brink-of-depression terms?
What if one of those people was an eighteen-year-old girl who was just elected homecoming queen and this was her third party of the night? What words would she use to make her report relative to her world?
This activity exemplifies the importance of character when it comes to voice. What she notices (and doesn’t notice), the words she uses to describe those things, the cadence and rhythm of her speech (is it lilting, rambling, stuttering, or staccato?)—all of these things go together to define her voice and make it uniquely hers.
Now take the exercise a step further. Make your main character one of these guests who must observe the party and report back. Now it’s your villain’s turn. Now the love interest…Not only will this activity get you in touch with who your characters are at their core, but it will distinguish each of their unique voices and help you decide which one would be the most compelling and/or fitting for the story you want to tell. The individual voices that result can be the difference in an un-put-downable story and one that sounds like all the rest.
When I’m drafting, I work fast. I get that story down and focus on the rise and fall of emotion throughout the plot. But I know that a compelling narrator voice is vital, so during my first and second rounds of edits, I focus on how I can strengthen the narrator (and character) voice. Are my word choices dull? If the sentence or paragraph evokes no emotion in me, then the answer is probably yes. How can I flip my current word choices to add flair to my character and refine her voice in the story?
Example from an old unpublished manuscript:
It’s not crowded, but the noise of the arcade and music makes it seem busy. Glancing around, I notice some of my old video game faves. I haven’t been inside here in ages—grew out of it, I guess. Now it seems kind of fun, though. Reminds me of a time when nothing else mattered—when scoring high at Zombie Slayer ruled the weekend. Back when my brother Jake was still at home, and when Mom and I got along. I realize it now. Something about this place comforts me.
Now, using the same scenario, let’s tweak the voice:
The place is a ghost town, only the whirrs and beeps of the player-starved arcades giving it any life. Glancing around, I notice my faithful old time-killers and a flash of nostalgia sweeps through me. I haven’t been inside this pizza joint in moons—not since middle school, anyway. It reminds me of a time when nothing else mattered, a time when scoring high at Zombie Slayer was the highest honor of the weekend. Of a time when my big brother was still at home, and when Mom and I still got along.
Which narrator would you rather keep reading? Both tell the same story, but the second one gives more insight into who the character is, and it’s more entertaining.
In closing, I should add that, like a fine wine, our writer’s ear for voice matures over time. If you’re just starting out, you may not notice anything missing in your story, while an agent or editor or reviewer may say that the voice was “flat” or “inconsistent.” This just means there’s room for growth in this area.
Ask around for suggestions on books with compelling narrator voices. Read them, focusing on the author’s word choice, cadence, and rhythm. Once you read a story with a strong voice, you’ll know it; recognize the techniques, practice them yourself, and the knowledge will change your work for the better.
Thanks to Angela and Becca for having me here today!
Thanks for being here, PK! Voice is honestly one of those things that can make or break a story, and the best way I’ve found to improve in this area myself is to identify books that have a strong voice and study them. A few of my personal favorites? Chime (Franny Billingsley), The Wicked and the Just (J. Anderson Coats), and Above (Leah Bobet). What books stand out to you as have strong and unique voices?
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!
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.
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!),
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.