Love this quote.
DebbieAdd a Comment
Love this quote.
DebbieAdd a Comment
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!),
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.Add a Comment
Note the four exciting announcements at the bottom of this post (including this: today's the last day to enter our current book giveaway.)
|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
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 story Bingo 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.
Also please consider checking out my upcoming ebook PLUMB CRAZY from Swoon Romance. Thanks!
This week the doodle is on a egg. Here is "Spidey Egg."
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."
The Illustration Friday word of the week is “voice.” So I decided to redraw yet another oldie. I better get off my duff and come up with some new ideas I suppose, eh?
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?Add a Comment
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.
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.
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.
The post Learning to sing: lessons from a yogi voice teacher appeared first on OUPblog.
When a reader first opens your novel or story and reads the first line, the first paragraph, have you welcomed the reader and tried to put them at ease? It is imperative to invite the reader into a story in a way that puts them at ease. This means clarity must rule. The reader must never question where the story is taking place, or what—exactly—is happening in this scene. You do not have to spill all the backstory at this point—that doesn’t work. But the reader should know when, where and who and a hint of why.
Setting. The setting should be clear and specific, with sensory details appropriately sprinkled throughout the opening scene. This includes information on the geographic location, time frame (e.g. 6th century BC or 2017A.D), and something about the emotional territory.
Character. In the opening pages, the reader should meet a character that intrigues. Please, don’t name five characters on page one and expect the reader to stay oriented. Instead, give each important character a grand entrance. The inner life of the main character should start to come alive, as well. What does s/he fear, love, long for?
Cautions: The worse drafts hide information, wrongly believing that just giving a hint here or there is the best strategy. Instead, the reader becomes confused and closes the book, never to open it again. The great sff writer Orson Scott Card wisely said, “The only thing to withhold is what happens next.” Within the context of a scene, this is exactly right. The reader should understand exactly what is going on—and be so enthralled that s/he turns the page to find out “what happens next.”
Don’t use this as an excuse to include backstory, though! Backstory comes ONLY at the point at which it will create an emotional crisis in a reader. Instead, when the reader is deep within a scene, they should only care about what happens next.
In the search for a great voice, some writers fall back on their English class and write too formally. Great fiction is informal writing. This means you can use slang, jargon, curse words (when appropriate), incomplete sentences, sentence fragments. You can, and should, interrupt someone when they are speaking. Characters can be rude. A great novel is not a tea party! Stop being so polite, so formal.
Try making up rules for yourself–play with the formality of your novel; keep what works and discard the rest. Don’t like my rules? Make up your own. But play!
Yawn. What happened in this chapter?
Then, why is the reader turning pages?
A good exercise is to go through each chapter and write one sentence that summarizes what happens. Something important must develop or change in some way in every single chapter. Novelists do not have the luxury to stop and give us back story or tell every single detail of the setting. You must pick and choose from among the myriad of details, bits of dialogue, actions, thoughts and arrange them in an exciting, fascinating, intriguing order.
For every action, your main character should have an emotional reaction. Why else is the reader following this character around? OK. Not every single action. But it’s a good exercise to try: underline the actions, and circle the main character’s emotional reaction to what just happened. How do they correlate? Do we have 100 actions and only one emotional reaction? Where ever you are on the continuum from no emotional reaction to 100% emotional reactions, evaluate it in terms of your character, your novel. Is the reader getting enough of your MC’s inner life to keep turning the pages? From my experience as a first reader, most novelists err on the side of not enough emotion. If this is hard for you, push yourself toward too much emotion and you may wind up about right.
Writing a novel is a continual decision-making process. For each detail you might include, there are dozens of great ways to put that into words. We go from words to sentences to paragraphs—and each word selection carries connotations and denotations. It’s complex! The variety of ways to tell a story are amazing. What scenes do you include/exclude, and why? What character is the main character? The point of view character?
Throughout the process of writing a novel, it’s a balancing act all the way. We walk a tightrope upon which we build a story. One misstep and the reader falls off.
This is one of the main reasons why first pages go wrong. 90% of a story may be working, until a sentence here, a word there, a questionable emotion in the midst of the scene—and the reader puts the book down. Fine tuning the novel is crucial. Here is where first readers can really help, by marking the places that are “off.” Even if they can’t articulate WHY this section is OFF, they know it when they read it. You don’t want an English teacher marking up the story with red marks. You want a sensitive reader saying, nope, this doesn’t fit. Don’t know why, just know it doesn’t fit.
It’s a matter of balance: every word must belong. Nothing must be out of place. The reader must keep turning pages with no interruptions in the flow.Add a Comment
When I first learned about alliteration in a writing class, I couldn’t believe there was a word for it. I used it in my poetry all the time! Then I learned about anastrophe and deus ex machina and I began to discover a whole world of literary devices and techniques.
Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds of accented syllables in a phrase: dancing dragons.
I discovered literary techniques that I’d seen in storytelling but hadn’t used in my own work. For example, anastrophe is when the usual word order of a sentence or phrase is reversed. One of the most famous characters in the movies speaks almost exclusively in anastrophe: Yoda doesn’t ask “Are you ready?” He says, “Ready are you?”
There were also literary devices that I’d neither noticed nor used. Deus ex machina is when a character or event is suddenly introduced in a narrative for convenience. For example, when all the main characters are trapped and some long-lost cousin who has never been mentioned suddenly appears and rescues them, this is deus ex machina, and it’s usually seen as a cheap way to resolve a sticky situation.
So what are literary devices and what applications do they have for writers?
Wikipedia defines a literary device as follows: “A literary technique (also known as literary device) is any standardized method an author uses to convey his or her message.” According to Wikipedia, this can include foreshadowing, flashbacks, and plot twists, things we all recognize as elements of storytelling.
I’ve found some resources that make a distinction between storytelling techniques, which deal with the structure of a story, and language techniques, which deal with how we choose and use words.
Have you ever come across a word, phrase, or sentence that mesmerized you, but you couldn’t figure out why? It might have been a line of dialogue that stuck with you or a compelling scene in a story. You know there’s a reason it was so effective but you can’t put your finger on it.
In these cases, there’s a good chance a literary device or technique is at play. And if you can identify these devices and techniques, you’ll gain a better understanding of how to make the best possible decisions in your own writing.
For example, we all know there are a dozen ways to write a sentence. If we’re trying to choose the right word for a sentence and there are several to choose from, we might make our decision based on a literary device.
Let’s look at an example. In the sentences below, would you choose the word store or market?
I have to stop by the store.
I have to stop by the market.
I would probably choose store because of the alliteration that occurs with the words stop and store.
While this is something a lot of writers do naturally—choose a word because it’s the one that sounds the best—it’s immensely helpful to have a more concrete reason, to know that you’re choosing a phrase because it applies alliteration rather than “just because it sounds good.”
When we adopt literary devices and techniques into our vocabularies, we can talk about writing, language, and story more efficiently and intelligently.
Let’s say you’re working on a novel and trying to polish a sentence that’s giving you trouble. You’re looking for the right word—the perfect word. If you have studied literary devices, then they are at your disposal and can help you make smarter choices about which words and phrases to use.
Literary techniques can also be immensely helpful in storytelling. When I’m working on a story and get stuck, I often turn to a list of storytelling techniques to see if any of those techniques could help me get unstuck. I almost always find a solution, something that propels me past whatever obstacle I’m facing.
Literary devices and techniques are valuable tools that we can use to better understand literature. By applying these concepts to our own writing projects, we can strengthen our work and make it more compelling.
Fiction Notes has posted before on How to Use Words: 8 Literary Devices, How to Arrange Words: 20 Literary Devices and How Winston Churchill Used Literary Devices. (That’s 28 literary devices to study and use in your next piece of writing!)
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About the Author: Melissa Donovan is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas. She has also authored a book of creative writing exercises and works as a web designer and copywriter.
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell is an expertly crafted biography that can be used to teach students a variety of craft moves during a biography writing unit of study.Add a Comment
What do editors mean when they say they are looking for a strong, unique voice?
Reading would be boring, except for the person behind the writing. YOU make it interesting. Your voice.
Even the federal government recognizes the importance of YOU: ideas can’t be copyrighted, rather, the particular expression of an idea. What you copyright is your voice. You.
This means several things:
Voice. As you write, be aware of your particular ways of thinking, of what you notice, of how you express what you notice. Try to foster those interests and expressions. Of course, this isn’t a call to be sloppy in grammar or word usage or sentence structure. Just as a jazz player plays a riff on a song, so you must experiment in your writing, while still making sure the song is recognizable.
Match voice to genre. Your voice–who you are–will also determine the types of writing at which you can excel. Nonfiction or fiction, horror or romance–you need to find a place where your voice fits naturally and allows you to exploit your voice. Experiment with genre, style, length, and venue (online v. print, for example), to find the “highest and best use” of your strengths.
Editors. We all need feedback and early editors. Be careful, though, of line editors, those people who think something must be said their way. Unless they are extremely skilled, line editors mess with voice. And you must not allow that.
Stick with a genre, character, series. If and when you find that sweet spot, stick with it. Careers are built on returning readers, who become fans, who faithfully buy everything you write and furthermore, they tell friends to buy them and they give your books as gifts. Early in your career, don’t worry about bouncing around and writing everything you might want to write. If you are lucky enough to find success in one area, stay there long enough to build a readership that you will take with you to the next step.
You. Your lens, the way you see the world, the way you express what you see–that is what keeps reading from being boring. Let me see the world the way YOU see it. And I’ll keep reading you.
I think there are three reasons most people are drawn to novels. Plot. Characters. And voice.
I'm pretty good at characters and I'm really good at plot. Voice, for me, is nearly impossible to master. Sometimes it happens, most times it doesn't, and my prose is workman-like.
The first paragraph in Girlchild: A Novel is this:
Mama always hid her mouth when she laughed. Even when she spoke too gleefully, mouth stretched too wide by those happy muscles, teeth too visible. I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth. Or lack of them. And whenever I do, I call these people family. I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they’re coming back for their kids. I know if we get into a fight and Johnny shows up, we'll agree that there has been "No problem, Officer, we'll keep it down.
I read that and thought: "I will follow that voice anywhere.
Girlchild is the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix lives with her mom in the Calle de las Flores Trailer Park outside of Reno. Rory's mom was 15 when she first got pregnant, as was Rory's grandmother. She comes from a long line of welfare moms, alcoholics and gamblers. Can she escape her fate?
Girlchild has the feel of a book written from personal pain. The characters are certainly memorable. The plot could have been stronger, but again this book has an inimitable voice. Read it for that.
This past weekend, I attended a writer’s workshop where we had a first pages critique session. That’s when an author panel hears the first 200 to 300 words of a manuscript, and then gives feedback to attendees. Basically, what these published experts ask themselves is, “Would I keep reading after this first page?”
You don’t have to write for children to learn a lot from first page critiques. And you don’t have to write a novel, either. Because the point of a first page is always the same: you have to grab your reader right from the very beginning!
Two hundred and fifty words. That’s the average number of words in that first page. Geez, that’s not much. But that’s all that you, the writer, have to grab that editor or agent or publisher before he or she moves on to the next manuscript. So how do you make every word count?
Here are the top suggestions I heard during the critiques, and the discussion that followed:
“You don’t have to explain the whole plot on the first page, but you do have to give an idea of what the story is about.”
Don’t fill up your entire first page with lovely description of your setting. You can weave that lovely description into the plot (what the story is about). Whoever or whatever is mentioned in the first page should be important to your plot (what the story is about). Resist the temptation to throw in anything that doesn’t relate to…yeah, I think you know what’s coming: What the story is about. Which brings me to the next suggestion.
“The voice or the narrator captures the reader’s attention from the get-go. If we don’t know who the protagonist is, we won’t be interested enough to keep reading.”
Your voice must be strong right from the start! Your audience needs to care about what will happen next—and more importantly, who has something at stake in the story. Read a few of the first pages of your favorite novels, or short stories, memoirs or essays so you can see how the writer manages to invest the reader in the story, right from the very beginning.
That’s what you want in your first page. After that, the rest is easy. Well, easier.
Yesterday we looked at nine elements to check when doing a critique of your own manuscript or someone elses. Today we are going a step further by reading with Writing Style in mind. I want to thank Anita Nolan for writing these ten writing style elements up, so we can refer to them while critiquing a manuscript.
• Voice: Strong? Too passive?
• Any problems with point of view? If there are multiple points of view, are the POV changes handled well?
• Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the dialogue of each character distinct, or does everyone sound the same?
• Does the dialogue move the story forward?
• Were there too many “he said” dialogue tags, or awkward substitutes for “said?” (snarled, hissed.)
• As to back story: Is it woven into the story, or are there any info dumps or “As you know, Bob”s (use of dialogue to dump information into the story.)
• Is there too much narrative? Too many flashbacks?
• Are the sentences clear, or do they need to be reworded to improve clarity?
• Is the story well-paced, or does it slow in places?
• Is there plenty of white space, or is the writing dense? (In other words, are the paragraphs short and interspersed with dialogue, or are they long blocks of type running a half page—or more.)
Tomorrow, we’ll go over what to check, when reading a synopsis. You can find Anita Nolan at: www.anitnolan.com
By Julie Daines
From the first bite, the rich, chocolate cake saturated his tastebuds with mouth-watering flavor.
The chocolate cake was delicious.
The chocolate cake tasted delicious.
Mack loved that chocolate cake from the first bite.
The sun beat down on the road. When I opened my car door, the heat assaulted me, wrapping its burning fingers around me and choking me. The hot asphalt attacked my bare feet trying to burn its way through my skin.
By the time Cami pulled up to the swimming pool, it was beyond hot.