Posts Tagged craft of writing

Brave New Publishing & Attack of the Feral Plot Bunnies

That rabbit is DYNAMITE!

It’s a Brave New World of Publishing out there. We’re no longer locked into only one path to becoming a professional writer. Yet,  despite all the shinies and tools and gadgets, there are core fundamentals that will remain unchanged.

Humans LOVE a good story. One of the reasons I worked so hard to put together a simple plan for author branding is the writing needs to be paramount. Most writers, no matter which path they choose, do not see success on the first book. A standard tipping point is book THREE.

Many of you are hearing stories of writers-gone-indie who are making a really good living. Most of these authors are comprised of two types of writers:

a) Authors with extensive backlists.

They worked their tails off for years and years and wrote A LOT of books and got the rights back to those old titles. Time didn’t change the fact that these were still really good stories. But, reality dictates that B&N can only shelve so many books. 

But note, these authors already put in YEARS of sweat-equity. They are reaping NEW harvest from older works.

b) Authors who work hard and write their tails off and write A LOT of books.

Indie authors Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Aaron Patterson, etc. didn’t see success with Book One. They wrote their tails off and built up a tremendous amount of potential energy. Thus, when word-of-mouth ignited? These authors enjoyed the benefits of compounded sales. They didn’t write ONE book and then beat others to death marketing it.

How To Be Successful in the New Paradigm

Regardless which publishing path you choose, writers have to learn to write good books at a professional pace. Yes, sure it took six years to write that first book, but what if NY loves it and hands you a three-book deal? Are they going to give you 18 years to complete your obligation?

Without certain fundamental skills, it’s easy to get lost in a labyrinth of plot bunnies…bunnies that, over time, turn feral. Plot bunnies, like real bunnies, multiply like CRAZY if left untended.

Our stories can get so complicated we need a team of sherpas and a GPS to locate our original idea. This wastes time and makes it hard to keep writing more books. Thus, to combat this, writers must:

Learn to Develop a Bad Situation into a Solid Core Story Problem

The best way to combat feral plot bunnies is to truly understand the antagonist. What are the different types of antagonists? How do we use them to generate page-turning tension and thus keep the bunnies at bay?

Most new writers don’t properly understand the antagonist, yet the antagonist is the reason for the story problem which must be solved by Act III. If the core is weak, the rest of the story will be flawed. I watch writers rework the same book year after year after year and yet, I can tell in five minutes what the problem is.

No core antagonist. No clear story problem. Ripe breeding ground for plot bunnies.

This is why a lot of writers want to throw up in their shoes when faced with having to pitch an agent.

Lack of a core story problem makes it impossible to generate true dramatic tension, thus what we are left with is drama’s inbred cousin, melodrama.

Plot bunnies LOVE melodrama.

Problem is, we aren’t taught to write commercial fiction in school and so we have options:

  • Read a bazillion books. Read so much story structure is practically embedded in our DNA.
  • Read a bazillion books then write a bazillion books (most of them bad) and then finally write enough books we stop sucking.
  • Read a lot, write a lot, read craft books and get some training in commercial fiction.
  • Read a lot, write a lot, read craft books, break apart movies, go to conferences/critique groups and get some training in how to write good fiction

Notice there aren’t a lot of shortcuts. I was bummed too.

Most of us begin a book with a fuzzy idea, a scene and then we take off writing (Hey, I did it, too). Okay, but I want to make you aware that the story problem must be proportionate to the size of the work. Sometimes we do have a story problem, but it just isn’t strong enough to be a foundation for an entire novel. We have to get good at learning to:

  • Formulate interesting story problems.
  • Develop the core problem until it is strong enough to support a novel.
  • Make sure the problem is clear and actionable.
  • Learn to layer the problem to sustain dramatic tension.

When you get good at spotting good ideas and then developing that idea into something that can make an interesting novel, your writing will be leaner, meaner and faster. You will be able to write multiple books because you won’t be duct-taped in Act II by a hoard of rabid plot bunnies.

To help you guys, I am offering a class to train you to understand the antagonist and create solid plot problems quickly and easily.  As a gift to you, I am offering a 15% discount Wana15. Class is July 23 and in our WANA International Digital Classroom. I know it took me years and a lot of pain, heartache and cookie dough to grasp the concepts I will be teaching in this class.

Regardless the publishing path we choose, we need to be experts at our craft. My goal and WANA’s goal is to give you what you need to be successful.

So, are you being held hostage by feral plot bunnies? Are you stuck? Can’t seem to make it past a certain point in your novel? Is your work getting rejected and you’re unsure how to change it to make it work?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. 

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Right now, I am flattened with a cold or flu or something that just makes me want to crawl off into a dark place and die, so I will announce last month’s winners sometime this week.

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of July I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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41 Comments

How Boxing Can Make Us Better Writers–Lesson 3 STICK & MOVE

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of MartialArtsNomad.com

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of MartialArtsNomad.com

Are You Quick on Your Feet?

When I trained as a boxer, we did a lot of footwork. Dart in, hit, then get out of the way. Best way to win a fight? Simple. Don’t get punched. Or at least get punched as little as possible. When our opponent takes a swing? Don’t be there. The skill of sticking-and-moving requires endurance, strength and flexibility. Being a successful Digital Age Author requires the same.

Learn to Stick and Move

Get quick on your feet. Change, adapt, overcome. The lithe survive, especially now in the Digital Age. The big traditional publishers are suffering because their size doesn’t allow them to adapt to the rapid changes that come part-and-parcel with explosive technological advance.

Indies, in this sense, have an advantage. An author can change covers if one isn’t working. He or she can respond directly to what consumers want.

A friend of mine, who happens to be an insanely successful indie author, broke each of his three LONG novels into three SHORT ones. Why? Customer feedback. Readers said they preferred shorter books. Instead of three 120,000 word books, Aaron broke them into nine 40,000 word books. Not only did readers prefer this, but now Aaron was making money off nine books instead of three.

Stick and move.

Knowledge is Power & Helps Us Adjust and Adapt

Knowledge is power, especially these days when everything is shifting at the speed of light. Today’s trend can be gone tomorrow, thus we need to pay attention. Make friends. Read blogs. Be humble. We can learn from anyone.

Be a good listener and never think you are too big to listen to “little people.” Sometimes it’s the outsider, the novice, who holds the most insight. Readers are who told Aaron they wanted shorter books, not NYTBSAs.

When I wrote my first social media book, I didn’t get a bigger, better “social media expert” to read it. I recruited my 60-year-old mother and my 92-year-old aunt. If they could understand it and enjoy my book, then I’d done a good job.

My mother now rules Facebook. Befriend her at your peril.

Experts Can Be Overrated

I always shake my head and laugh at people who think only multi-published fiction authors can teach/comment on writing. Some of the best writing advice we will ever get is from readers.

Teaching is a Different Skill than DOING

Just because someone is a marvelous storyteller, in no way means this person knows how to teach or how to give constructive feedback to others. If best-selling authors with high sales numbers were the only ones qualified to teach or comment on good fiction, then why would the world bother with agents, editors, reviewers, book bloggers, English teachers, or even readers?

To stick and move, we need to be open and know that there are a lot of different forms of expertise.

YES! Listen to multi-published successful authors who also teach, just don’t learn from them exclusively. If we only listen to one type of expert, we’re in real danger of being myopic. We risk falling into groupthink and miss opportunities to plan and act creatively.

We lose the ability to be innovative.

This is part of what has gone so wrong in “big publishing.” They failed to listen to outside opinions and their tunnel-vision has cost them dearly.

Teaching is a totally different skill set.

I’ve met mega-authors who were phenomenal storytellers, but mediocre or even dreadful writing teachers. On the other end? I’ve met people who’ve never published fiction who were masters of understanding and teaching the craft of writing.

Margie Lawson is a stellar example. She’s not a novelist, but her classes have taken newbie writers and shaped them into best-sellling powerhouse authors. I strongly recommend her classes.

Remember, Experts are Experts, Not Omniscient

The indie movement is full of writers who have had staggering success after they finally self-published. Theresa Ragan was rejected by the traditional publishers for EIGHTEEN YEARS. The “experts” told her she wasn’t good enough. Well, 300,000 books sold in 18 months shows me that maybe “experts” don’t know everything.

She didn’t keep standing there in one spot getting pummeled black and blue by agents (“experts”). Theresa learned to stick and move. She did something different. She tried new things.

Think FAST!

Part of our job as professionals is to learn to critically think. Take in all kinds of information and advice from all kinds of people, because this is what will hone our instincts. Our gut will tell us when to punch and when to back off. When to duck and when to dive. Who to listen to. Who to ignore. What part of the advice is gold. What part is trash.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee ;).

What are your thoughts? Opinions? Has an expert discouraged you? Have you ever had a time a total amateur gave you an amazing stroke of insight? Who do you like feedback from when it comes to your fiction?

 I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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28 Comments

5 Common Mistakes that Will KILL Your Novel

Screen Shot 2013-03-19 at 8.32.10 AM

Our Novel. Rest in Peace….
Image via Debbie Johansson WANA Commons

Yesterday, we discussed the often confused Man verses Self by using the movie FlightAll good Men versus Self stories still have an outside antagonist that generates the story problem in need of resolution by Act III. No outside antagonist? No story problem? Then the novel quickly devolves into pages of navel-gazing.

Literary Fiction Doesn’t Give us a Pass from Plotting

Look to all the top literary fiction and all of them have an outside antagonist that generates tension, conflict and change. The only difference in literary fiction is that the character arc usually takes a higher precedence than the plot arc.

The plot and story problems are there, but they’re purpose is to force internal change.

Some Examples…

In Brave New World, protagonist Bernard Marx doesn’t fit the mold he was engineered to fill. The society around him lacks meaning and he travels to the reservations (of the “uncivilized” American Indians) for answers. There is a lot of push-back from the society he’s questioning, namely The Director of Hatcheries, and that generates the tension and stakes.

In Catch 22 protagonist Yossarian is creative in his efforts to save his tail from dying in war. The problem? The antagonist, Colonel Cathart, keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly in order to complete their service.

Even literary fiction involves some outside force that is causing the contemplation, depression, rebellion, etc. Whether it is the decline of the aristocracy and rise of the middle class as in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or implosion of society, and humans-turned-cannibals in Cormac McCarthy’s Pultizer-winning The Road, we must always have an outside pressure and antagonists to drive the story momentum.

Though I will say Proust is from another time (not to mention absurdly self-indulgent), and modern audiences would probably want to pelt him with Angry Birds.

The Case of Commercial Fiction

Most of us, however, write commercial fiction. Thus, the antagonist tends to be a little less on the existential side. Here are five main problems that I regularly see in new writing, regarding the antagonist(s).

#1 No Core Antagonist (No BBT)—This will create, what I call, “the soap opera effect.” Since there is no core story problem, no Big Boss Troublemaker, each scene is just melodrama. Since there is no clear BBT to be defeated, there’s no way to ratchet the tension.

#2 Antagonist is a Caricature—Always remember that the bad guy is the good guy in his own story. One of the best examples of this is in the movie Law Abiding Citizen. The antagonist is a husband whose wife and daughter were brutally raped then butchered and he was left for dead. A flawed justice system basically gave one of the killers a slap on the wrist and now this grieving husband and father wants revenge/justice. It is really hard not to root for “the bad guy” in this movie because we so empathize.

Antagonists who just want to kill or rule the world get boring quickly. Leave the mustache-twirlers to the cartoons.

#3 Antagonist is Weak—The goal of your antagonist should always present BIG stakes for the protagonist. If the goals aren’t strong enough, your story will suffer. What will it cost your protagonist if he/she fails? This is one of the reasons novels based off diaries of something that’s already happened can be weak.

Yes, but they hold the key to her mother’s killer.

All right, but that killer (or people willing to cover the killer’s identity at any cost) better still be alive and the protagonist must be in imminent danger. The diary better be the key to saving her skin and there needs to be more than just a journal. There need to be antagonists standing in her way. When events and bad stuff are in the past? No stakes. Curiosity alone is lousy fuel for stories.

#4 Not Enough Scene Antagonists—Your story needs a core antagonist, yes. But most of the conflict will actually come from allies, love interests and threshold guardians. In Finding Nemo, Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT) creates the story problem, the abduction of Nemo. She also provides the stakes because she’s known for shaking her fish to death. BUT, we only see her a couple times in the movie. Dori, the fish with memory issues, provides a lion’s share of the conflict that ups the tension, delays the mission and forces Marlin (a control-freak) to change and learn to trust. For more on this, here’s my post.

#5 No Scene Antagonist—Every scene must have an antagonist (dramatic tension). If we have a scene where two characters are simply talking about a third? Info dump, not fiction. Refer to David Mamet’s Letter to the Writers of The Unit:

THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA. ~Mamet

What are your questions, thoughts? Who are some of the best antagonists? Why did you love them? What made them multi-dimensional? What problems are you having?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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106 Comments

Dare to Be Uniquely You–Final Thoughts About Voice

The Maiden of Whoville

Happy Friday! I hope you guys really enjoyed learning more about writing voice from the master, Les Edgerton. Right now, I am packing and making ready to fly to Tuscon, Arizona to teach, so today, I’ll be brief and just offer some final observations about voice.

We Must Write for the Right Reasons

Motive is very powerful, whether it is in social media or even our writing. If we are writing to make money, we will have a rough road ahead. Courage comes when we let loose of the fear that our work will ever make a dime.

When “making a living” no longer holds us prisoner, our muse can breathe and our authentic voice can surface. I’m not saying that we can’t desire to make money, but it cannot be our motive or it will adversely affect our writing voice.

How?

First, our writing voice will come from fear, and, because it is a fearful voice, it won’t take risks. It will try to sound like The Hunger Games or Twilight or Harry Potter in order to be “marketable.” We will lose our uniqueness to become a bad copy, the “Rotex” of authors.

Be a special you, you are the only one out there. If we lash ourselves to our art, then this is when genius can spark to life.

For Great Reward, Expect to Suffer

I wish I could give you a formula for success that didn’t involve waiting, rejection and moments of self doubt, but it doesn’t exist. Yet, I will remind you that if we aren’t failing, then we aren’t doing anything interesting. Learn to fail. Better yet, lean to fail big. We learn more from failure than we ever will success.

Also remember that those who uphold the status quo. Those who gave up their dreams for the safety of a 401K and a “real job” don’t want you to live your dream, because then your actions will make them look bad. They won’t be able to believe their own self-delusions that their dreams were impossible. So learn to ignore the masses. If we aren’t being criticized then we aren’t doing anything remarkable.

At the beginning of this series addressing voice, we talked about the Impressionist movement. The early Impressionists broke rules, but success hardly came free. Back in the 19th century, the only way an artist could make a living was through commissions. Wealthy patrons often commissioned artists of the day to paint one of their family members or maybe their estate.

Also, painting, up to this point, had always featured noble subjects. Yet, the Impressionists often would paint the loading docks or women washing laundry in a river. Sure we think those paintings are lovely now, because they are over a hundred years old. Yet, if we think back to how those scenes were viewed at the time, it would be akin to an artist painting the front of a Home Depot or a scene from a laundromat. The Impressionist artist faced harsh criticism for what they defined as “art.”

I am certain there are many artists of the day who compromised. They wanted to make money and have the esteem of their peers. Fitting in, making a living, and avoiding criticism were the primary goals…and no one remembers them.

Art Takes Risks

Art, real art, takes risk and often faces rejection. Hopefully if we work hard and hone our skills, our career will take off. H.P. Mallory, a true indie recently made the USA Today best-selling list. She didn’t have vetted back lists for sale. In fact, she couldn’t get an agent and so she gave up her day job and self-published.

Mallory braved rejection and did it anyway. She wrote more books and better books and created her market until NY took notice. She didn’t write one book and magically POOF! to stardom. By being brave and creating her art, she honed her voice. Now she is reaping the well-deserved rewards.

Expect Pain and Criticism

When we are true to our voice and brave enough to break rules, this is no guarantee that others will instantly respond favorably. Many of the now-famous Impressionists lived impoverished lives and had to recycle materials and stretch their own canvases. Many were not highly regarded until the ends of their lives, and they faced years of criticism.

Impressionism as an art form was seen as sloppy and crude. The authorities of the age felt the Impressionists weren’t doing “real art” because they wasted time painting common people and ordinary settings.  Yet, I have to say that the painters who caved and made money by painting portraits, the ones who played it safe…are lost to history.

Sure, they made a living, but they didn’t make art.

But the ones who were brave enough to stay poor? The ones who took rejection square on the chin yet kept painting? These are the artists we will remember for all time.

So what are your thoughts? Opinions? Do you find it hard to remain uniquely you when trying to publish commercial fiction? What ways can you find to be more brave in everyday life? Any tips?

I hope you have enjoyed learning about writing voice, and I have to scoot off now to go pack teesny bottles of face wash so they don’t think I’m a terrorist. I’ll see all of you on Monday!

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

As a Reminder!!!

Many of you who follow this blog already know and LOVE Les because I talk about him all the time and make you buy his books :D . So please, for those of you who have loved Les’s work, please go vote for him in the Spinetingler Award. I know you guys have a ton of books, but you have until the end of April to read and vote for The Bitch… *giggle*.Just go to the link. I hope you guys can show some WANA support for a writer who has done so much to help use newbies grow into trained professionals.

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48 Comments

Writing Legend Les Edgerton Teaches Us How to Create a Remarkable Writing Voice

Earlier this month we talked about “writing voice.” All agents want to find it and all new writers want to know what the heck it is. I did my best to educate you guys on voice, but frankly, compared to my writer heroes, I am a mere neophyte. I was at least smart enough to know what I didn’t know and to look to those who could lead the way. Les Edgerton has been one of my writing heroes for a LONG time and, frankly, having him here is making me a wee dizzy. I haven’t been this fan girl since I kidnapped James Rollins in my creepy interview van.

Unfortunately for me, did you see Les’s picture? Does this look like a dude who would fall for the FREE CANDY schtick? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. So, rather than smearing a $50 Barnes and Noble Gift Card with honey and sprinkles and hoping to catch the correct writer, I just went ahead and asked.

Boring, but effective. And come on! Les needed to be here, because, how can we talk about writing voice without a visit from the master?

Take it away Les!

***

Hello fellow WANAs!

Thank you so much for allowing me to appear on your blog, Kristen. I follow it religiously and am amazed at both the wonderful info you impart and the collegiality of the people who gather here. This is a signal honor and I’m stoked to be here!

You asked me to talk about my book on the writer’s voice, FINDING YOUR VOICE: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, and I thought what might be valuable would be to include a chapter from that book. Hope your readers agree. We just made it available as an ebook and you can check it out on Amazon.

I’m very proud of this book, Kristen. It was the first of my writer’s craft books and over the years I’ve received lots of emails and letters from writers who tell me it’s helped inform their own writing and that’s just plain gratifying. It’s why we all write, right? To make a difference in others’ lives.

BTW, if you folks enjoy the selection I’m providing, please consider helping me out with my own writing. My latest novel, a psychological thriller titled THE BITCH is one of six nominees for the Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel award in the Legends category. This is a huge honor just to be nominated and if somehow I’d win, well, I’d be speechless… (For those who know me, you know that’s almost impossible to comprehend…)

I need to explain that the title isn’t a pejorative title towards women, nor is it a term for a female dog, but is what outlaws and criminals call the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” ha-bitch-ual criminal statute. To vote for it, just go to the link, scroll down to the “Best Novel” in the Legends category and click on my book. Then, just scroll to the end and enter it. And… thank you!

I hope the stuff on voice below proves helpful in your own writing!

CHAPTER SELECTION ON VOICE

Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.—RALPH WALDO EMERSON

This, then, is what it’s all about, finally.

Putting your personality into your prose. Truly, the “secret” to getting published.

William Zinsser stresses this in his best-selling writer’s craft book, On Writing Well, when he writes: ”I wrote one book about baseball and one about jazz. But it never occurred to me to write one of them in sports English and the other in jazz English. I tried to write them both in the best English I could, in my usual style.

Though the books were widely different in subject, I wanted readers to know that they were hearing from the same person. It was my book about baseball and my book about jazz. Other writers would write their book. My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you.”

If your finished novel, short story, article, poem, personal memoir, bio of the latest corrupt politician or outstanding statesperson—whatever—reads as if written by another person . . . then it was.

You need to seize it and make it the work only you could possibly have written.

First off, however, you need to determine if your voice has, indeed, been camouflaged.

There are at least three ways to tell if this is so.

Are the Word Choices, Sentence Usages, and Phrases Employed Yours?

The first “litmus test” is to check the language in the piece itself.

Author Jules Renard said, “If the word arse is read in a sentence, no matter how beautiful the sentence, the reader will react only to that word.” He’s not singling out the “olde English” noun except as an example of the sort of word a writer shouldn’t use unless it’s organic to him and is natural to the context in which it’s used. The kind of word that draws attention to itself, at the expense of the fìctive dream we struggle so mightily to create for the reader.

Look for those kinds of examples in your copy, and instead of reaching automatically for your thesaurus, try a different approach to coming up with a better word.

One way to do this is by clustering. Write the word that needs replaced in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Draw a short, straight line out from the word, and quickly jot down the next word that pops into your mind. Do the same with that word.

Do this for at least seven to eight words, then sit back and look at what you have. Oftentimes, the word you need emerges. If that doesn’t work, at least change any such word that drastically calls attention to itself to something less intruding and attention-gathering.

As Anthony Burgess says, “People don’t like using dictionaries when they’re reading mere novels.”

Jane Burroway, in her seminal writing text, Writing Fiction:A Guide to Narrative Craft, says much the same thing, but expands the advice even more: “When you are carried away with the purple of your prose,the music of your alliteration, the hilarity of your wit, the profundity of your insights, then the chances are that you are having a better time writing than the reader will have reading. No reader will forgive you, and no reader should. Just tell the story. The style will follow of itself if you just tell the story.”

Check your text for overt evidence of a writer at work. Whenever the reader becomes aware someone is writing the piece—whether it be fiction or nonfìction—then the “fictive dream” (which applies to nonfìction as well) is interrupted and you’ve lost your reader at least briefly, if not permanently.

You’ve created a speed bump, at the minimum.

Five Percent

If you can identify more than 5 percent of the language you used as being essentially foreign to your normal usage, then you’re not employing your own personality on the page. That’s just too many words alien to your vocabulary and it will show up as forced and unnatural. In fact, 5 percent is just about the upper limit. Go back and substitute more of your own language.

Sentence Structure

The structure you give your sentences can show you whether or not you’re solidly within your voice.

If you’re using complete sentences, you’re probably not writing in your natural voice.

In a recent Neighborhood Connections class (local, adult-ed class) I taught, a woman who wrote otherwise wonderful prose had a sticking point with sentence fragments. She simply could not bring herself to write anything less than a complete sentence. She confessed that every time she did, the image of her seventh-grade English teacher loomed large on the screen of her mental Sony.

The result was prose, that, while writ with grace, beauty and interest, nevertheless, was being strangled with formality. She was such a good writer that she was able to imbue her “Tom Wolfeian beige voice” with energy, but it wasn’t  until she was able to force herself to write sentence fragments within the text that her stories really began to sparkle.

She “thought” in sentence fragments at the appropriate places in her writing, but she had developed the habit of editing them as she wrote to render them complete units, with subject, predicate, and all that stuff. It took almost the entire six weeks of the class for her to work through her problem, but once she overcame that inhibition, the traces were thrown off, and she confessed, after her last class, that she felt “wildly free” for the first time in her writing life. She’d been so “conditioned” that at first she couldn’t even bring herself to use contractions in her character’s dialogue!

Clarity

The trick to writing well? Write simply; write clearly. Eschew flowery language.

Aim for the same kind of clarity-bullseye in your own writing, whether it be a lean or lush style. The kind of writing that when the nonwriter or casual reader reads it, thinks, “Man! This writing stuff looks easy; I could do this¦

Look at other writers you admire and see if the simpleness of their language—whether lush or spare or somewhere in-between—isn’t one of their strengths, too.

When rereading your work and you come to a part that has been gussied up by the over-baroqueness of your language, try rewriting it with only one thing in mind—to make it as clear to the reader as a day in Santa Monica after a Santa Ana wind has blown through.

If your style requires ten words to do that and another’s style uses four, that’s all right. Just don’t use twenty words if ten do the job, or eight, if your own style is comfortable with six. Compare the initial version and the rewritten one, and see which one you like the best. Better, have someone else read them and tell you which one they prefer.

Don’t stick a Rolls-Royce hood ornament on your Chevy Lumina and try to fool people!

Second Litmus Test—Get Feedback From Others

Perhaps one of the best ways to cull out those parts of your writing where you’ve strayed from your own trés-cool voice is to solicit the opinions of others. If you belong to a writing group, ask your fellow writers if you can read your material to them, requesting they inform you which, if any, parts “don’t sound like you.” Mark through those sentences and sections with a marker (I’d suggest yellow instead of black), and then later, go through them to see if you agree. If the language has departed from the rest of the piece, you know it needs to be rewritten until it blends with the rest.

Read your material aloud, and ask yourself if you’d like to be locked up in a room with the person who wrote this and listen to the sound of that voice for several hours at a time. If not, then you’re probably not putting your own personality into your prose as much as you should be. After all, we like our voices when we’re ourselves, don’t we? We hardly ever tell ourselves to “shut up!” when we’re being natural.

Tweety in the Coal Mine

Way back when, coal miners would carry a canary in a cage down into the bowels of the mine with them. The purpose of the canary was to let the miners know if deadly gasses were present so they could get the hell out before they keeled over. They kept a close watch on Tweety, and if he fell over dead (with those little Xs for eyes), they hiked as fast as they could to the surface.

That’s what you need. A canary to let you know if the ”gas” of your prose has become deadly. Hopefully, your friend or writing group won’t fall over onto the floor with those little Xs where their orbs used to be, but they should be able to sniff where your writing has become stifling and beige.

Beige has an odor somewhat like skunk cabbage does when you step into a patch of it. Deodorize your prose until it smells sweet—like you!

Be Alert to Critic Nag in the Room . . .

The third part of the litmus test to see if you’re camouflaging your natural voice is to check the room periodically to see if Critic Nag has crept in under the doorsill or through an open window. He’s usually invisible, so the only way to spot them is to read what you’ve written to see if he was typing while your mind spaced, as it does from time to time with us writer-types.

A good place to look for evidence that he’s lurking somewhere in the room is in your character’s dialogue. If you find your characters never use contractions in their speech, for instance, that’s a solid clue that Critic Nag is sitting over in the corner, smirking evilly at you.

If your characters always use complete sentences, wouldn’t dream of using a contraction, without fail use the correct words or word combinations like “give me” instead of “gimme,” then Critic Nag has probably snuck into the room with you.

Look for Critic Nag’s whisper in your ear when you’re writing emotional scenes. He’ll try to encourage you to use lurid language and not trust your own writing ability to convey the emotion. He’s a crafty little imp!

When you’re writing those scenes, keep in mind the advice of Philip Gerard in his excellent book Writing a Book That Makes a Difference, where he says: “Flatten the language. The hotter the action, the cooler you want the language, to a point.”

You need to choose the word that fits the situation on the page you’re trying to create—whether that be description or the business or action of a scene, but you also need to choose the word that fits you comfortably. It has to carry the intent, but it also has to reflect you and your emotions. That’s the only way it will ring true and be unmistakably yours.

Another clue that will tell you ol’ Critic Nag has been around is if your passages of description have been overwritten and in a too-flowery style. If you read passages full of window-pane, static description, instead of active, page-turning description. This is what one of those many fiends who compose Critic Nag urged you to do way back when. He’s in the room!

He’s also been around if you begin to reread your stuff and unfamiliar words jump out at you. You know, those words you’ve never once used in conversation and look newly-purchased from that sale you visited on Dictionary/Thesaurus.com. (Or, found on eBay, most likely.)

To Reiterate . . .

In summary, there are three basic ways to seize control of your material and make it your own:

1.        Check the language you’ve used in the piece.

Mark the words that leap up at you from the page that clearly aren’t yours and come up with choices from your vocabulary.

2.  Have others read your material and tell you which parts aren’t “you.”

Pick folks who know you well. Don’t use them to tell you if the writing is “good” or make that kind of quality judgment; instead, simply ask them to let you know which passages “don’t sound like you.” That’s all you need—someone to point out where you departed from yourself.

3.        Seek out and banish Critic Nag from the room.

Begone!

Just always remember: Don’t let others rent space in your head! Especially Critic Nag . . .

THANK YOU LES!!!!! Many of you who follow this blog already know and LOVE Les because I talk about him all the time and make you buy his books :D. So please, for those of you who have loved Les’s work, please go vote for him in the Spinetingler Award. I know you guys have a ton of books, but you have until the end of April to read and vote for The Bitch… *giggle*.Just go to the link. I hope you guys can show some WANA support for a writer who has done so much to help use newbies grow into trained professionals.

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note–I’ve been having technical problems lately and am in the middle of rebuilding my web site. Also, my toddler has had an allergic reaction to something and he has been home sick, which is slowing me down.

I will just have to announce last week’s winner on Monday. Sorry, icky sick baby has made it impossible to tally all the comment entries from last week (especially since I had the rare privilege of being Freshly Pressed, which means the comments EXPLODED).

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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