Posts Tagged voice

What is Writing “Voice”

Voice flowers from the heart.

Voice blooms from the heart.

All agents want one and all writers want to know what the heck it is. If it was easy to define, then we wouldn’t have countless articles, books and classes to demystify “voice.” Today, I will put in my two cents and see if it can help the light bulb go off.

Voice is, in its essence, that uniqueness that we as artists bring to the story. Remember, humans relied on an oral tradition for tens of thousands of years. We are a story people and “voice,” in my opinion, is a holdover from that oral tradition.

Ah, but the original storytellers were not only the precursors of the modern writer, they were also the precursor to the modern ACTOR. I can imagine the one dude in the cave who used the most dramatic gestures and movements and the best inflection at just the right time AS he told the story probably had the best audiences.

Writers are Also Composers/Directors

TIMING, is a HUGE part of being a good storyteller, thus it is naturally a large component of “voice.” Writers must have a natural sense of when things should be tense, versus the times we need to let the audience have a breather. Writing a novel is very akin to writing a symphony.

If everything is crescendo, then nothing is. If every page is mind-numbing tension, then nothing is. Conversely, if our writing is just a character thinking, then thinking some more, then thinking some more, then that is not a story, it’s a diary. It’s the elevator music of story.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

As writers, we are also directors. We need to take charge of the setting, the lighting, the mood and then tell the characters what to do (give stage direction). Our words are what give the pauses between the push. We must choose the right words at the right time to always control the pace, the push and pull of conflict.

We not only must make sure the plot arc is progressing accordingly, but the characters must arc as well. All of this must be balanced until the grand finale, the Big Boss Battle that every chapter has let up to. How we balance all of this is known as “voice.”

Writers Have a Lot in Common with Actors

Just like actors have to get in the head of a character they must portray on stage or in film, we, too, must learn to “get in the head” of our characters…ALL of them. An actor must play a singular part, but we must, to a degree, play ALL of the parts. It isn’t enough to be in the head of our protagonist. If we cannot also learn to empathize with the antagonist and even the supportive characters, our writing will be flat and will lack dimension.

New writers lack confidence and skill, so often what will happen is they parrot a popular author. They become a bad copy instead of an awesome original. But, the bigger mistake I see is voice often comes with preparation, and new writers often fail to prepare. New writers fail to understand the characters before they start writing. They get a flash of a scene in their head and then start typing. This is like an actor not taking any time to study the part before he begins reciting lines.

Not that this way is wrong, but it can make the difference between a Saturday Night Live skit performance versus a performance that brings home an Oscar.

I’ve read many a new writer whose characters all sounded like the same person. They hadn’t taken time to understand the characters–all of them–and really think about GCM (Goal, Conflict, Motivation via Debra Dixon). Thus, either all the characters sounded alike and the dialogue sounded like a bad third-grade play, or the protagonist was the only character with depth (because he was based off the writer) and all the other characters are talking heads or bad knock-offs off the protagonist.

Voice Can Affect Our Career

First of all, voice can affect our career because if we don’t have a solid voice, we won’t connect with readers. Agents love a strong writing voice because they love finding works readers will love. We can have the best plot ever written, but if all the characters are talking heads, it doesn’t matter. We can have the most interesting characters, but if we cannot put them in an interesting and compelling story, we still have a problem (though, granted, an easier one to fix than the former).

But voice can affect more than whether we get an agent. Voice can affect how well we write. Do we have the right genre for our natural voice? This is why we should never write for the market. We shouldn’t write romance because it’s a hot market. We should just ignore trends and write the best story for us to write.

How Does Genre Affect Voice?

Let’s extend this idea of actors being related to writers. Let’s say I have a role to cast. I want a male actor to play a cowboy. I have three different actors. I have Clint Eastwood, Jack Black, and Robert Deniro. Same story, different actors. Can you see how the choice of actor–the choice of the voice–becomes essential to how the story will play out? If I cast the wrong actor for the story I as a director want to tell, I can have a disaster, even though ALL THREE ACTORS are highly skilled and talented.

If I want a Old School Western? Clint Eastwood. But if I want a comedy? Clint might not be the right actor, unless Clint wants to branch out and do some intensive study in the area of comedy. With a lot of work and training, Clint could pull it off. But does he really want to? Does the director want to mess with it when it is simply easier to cast Jack Black?

This is why we must really understand our voice and develop it accordingly. I LOVE thrillers, but I’m naturally a humor author. I find that I might love reading thrillers, but had a tough time writing them. I would get far too sidetracked with comedy that wasn’t appropriate for the character. Traditional “serious thrillers” are not a natural fit with my writing voice, which is why the novel I’m finishing has shifted to more of a Janet Evanovich style.

I made a mistake of believing that because I loved to read thrillers, that I should then write them. Yeah…um, no.

It took writing three “serious” thrillers that I was less than thrilled about (bada bump *snare*) to see what my true writing voice really was. My NF has been a success because I am true to my voice, whereas my fiction was good, it’s won contests, but it never felt…right. It didn’t have that connection that my NF did.

Yet, it is only because I wrote a lot that I figured this out. I experimented and I also gained CONFIDENCE to admit where I really needed to be writing. I was less prone to listen to what other people thought and decided to take my path. Take a thriller and then add in a sympathetic, funny character.

This is why writing and writing A LOT will reveal our true voice. We get time to try the genres we like and if they are a fit? Perfect! If not? We’ll see it sooner.

Voice and Empathy

I feel a HUGE part of voice is the ability to truly develop the ability to empathize. The more we study the human condition, the easier we can get in the head of a character. This is why reading fiction is so vital. By reading good fiction, we are essentially studying people through stories. This is why I can spot writers who don’t read.

Writers who read a lot of fiction are better writers. Ah, but want to get even BETTER?

Broaden the Palette

Read NF, particularly psychology and sociology books. The more we study people, the easier it is to empathize and it will also ring as authentic. Read body language books. Read history. Read as much as you can. Then get out of your comfort zone and live life. Take risks. I jumped out of an airplane (a few times), but, in retrospect, I could have probably taken a pottery class and been fine. LIVE, then bring that to your craft. Get out among people. Listen to them. Study them. Take part in the human condition.

If our voice is our art, then how many colors, shades, textures and tools do you want to bring to the table? Sure, we are free to finger-paint with three primary colors, but it will limit our art.

So, do you guys feel that you finally understand what voice is? Do you have questions? What are your thoughts? Your suggestions? Do you think people are born with their natural voice? Or do you feel life experience shapes voice? If we don’t have a voice can we develop one? Do you believe there are “tone deaf” writers who will never improve no matter how much teaching?

Share! I love hearing from you!

I LOVE hearing from you!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Since it was such a HUGE success and attendees loved it, I am rerunning the Your First Five Pages class SATURDAY EDITION. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off. Yes, editors REALLY can tell everything they need to know about your book in five pages or less. Here’s a peek into what we see and how to fix it. Not only will this information repair your first pages, it can help you understand deeper flaws in the rest of your manuscript.

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU. If you REGISTER NOW, you get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE (and all recordings) for $119 (regularly $149). Sign up today, because this special won’t last and seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.

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Voice–The “God Particle” of Writing

Image via Flikr Commons and contributed by The Smithsonian.

Image via Flikr Commons and contributed by The Smithsonian.

What is “Voice”? In my humble opinion, voice is the “God Particle” that influences and shapes all things. Though we clearly perceive that it’s everywhere and that it holds everything together, we can’t see it. We can’t touch or smell it or even easily define it.

Voice eludes us.

In the world of particle physics, the Laws of Nature include four major forces—electromagnetic, strong, weak, and gravity. The interplay of these four forces governs the universe—creation, destruction, preservation, order, disorder, orbits and entropy. Laymen frequently refer to the force of gravity (Higgs-Boson) as “The God Particle” simply because the Higgs-Boson happens to be this evasive, seemingly indefinable particle that explains creation of the universe (and for the scientists out there, if I botched this, it’s an analogy and I am a writer, not a physicist).

Why do “things” have mass?

We know gravity is at the heart of all things, but we struggle to see gravity or define it. We also know that the “God Particle”, though the “weakest” of all four forces, seems to be the most important in that it governs the other three.

I believe voice is much the same way. As writers, we are little gods creating worlds, people, empires, magic, dynasties, and dramas all using various combinations of black symbols on a white page.

The Four Forces of Literary Nature could be named—plot, characters, style and voice. Plot, characters and style are easy to see, break apart, define, explain and diagram on a whiteboard.

But voice? It just IS.

It’s our God Particle. We need it to create our worlds and hold things together, to give them mass. We require voice to bring the other three forces into play and guide them in shaping our universes.

Writers are gods over the worlds we create. Some of us might be tiny gods, dreadful gods, absent gods, benevolent gods, generous gods, engaged gods, preoccupied gods, deadbeat gods, untalented gods, visionary, inspiring, or resourceful gods, but, to be gods, we must all have our distinctive God Particle known as our “voice.”

Our voice is our creative particle that is as unique to us as our own DNA. It’s why voice is often imitated, but not well, and why it always betrays our identity.

This God Particle we call voice is how we use all the forces of literary nature, how we employ them, what we include and what we omit. We can be gods as flesh among men (1st person or 3rd person POV). We can be gods up on our throne, looking down on it all, comfortable in our omniscience (Omnipotent POV). We don’t fashion man from dust, rather we fashion them from letters and printer ink. We separate the light from dark and water from land and we do it all with our voice.

…until we admit it is good and rest. You can smite the adverbs later. They were warned ;).

Quick Announcement:

If you want to learn how to create a good author blog that appeals to readers not just other writers, please sign up for my next class. Registration is now open and there are all types of packages for every price range. The class can be done at your own pace and in your own time and you will have a team of support.

What are your thoughts about “voice”? What makes up an author’s voice? Does it change over time, or is it essentially the same only a stronger, more refined version? Who are some of the authors you LOVE simply because of his/her voice? Would this make you buy books if they wrote in a genre you don’t ever read? Btw, if you want to learn more about voice, one of our WANA instructors, Les Edgerton has a great reference out there Finding Your Voice

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, 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 January I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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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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Voice–The Key to Literary Magic Part 1

 

One of my new favorite movies is the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, and I feel all writers should watch this movie. Gil Pender (the protagonist) is a Hollywood hack who longs to live in Paris and become a real writer. He yearns to leave his rich and accepted life as a screenwriter and, instead, finish his novel about a man working in a nostalgia shop.

His fiancee is less than thrilled and never loses an opportunity to snipe Gil and his dream. She deliberately crushes any silly fantasy that might get Gil sidetracked from his healthy income in L.A. She is accustomed to a certain lifestyle that “Gil the in-demand commercial movie genius” can provide. “Gil the novelist” threatens that comfort.

Gil, on the other hand, believes he is a man born too late, that if he’d been born in another time, his life would also be different. He believes the perfect era for him would have been Paris in the 20s. If only he’d been part of the Roaring Renaissance of the 20s, his life would be better…no, perfect.

Fortune and a strange ripple in the space-time continuum permit Gil to step into this “Golden Age of Paris” and finally experience what he believes has passed him by. It is on this adventure that Gil makes friends with all kinds of artists from Paris in the 20s—Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Picasso, and Salvador Dali, to name a few. Through this adventure, Gil begins to understand what is really wrong with his life.

He lacks courage.

In Gil’s real life in 2011, he doesn’t have the courage to claim what is rightfully his…his right to want to become a novelist. He endures the constant jabs and barbs and apologizes for his dream, his novel, his less-than-glamorous protagonist, and even his existence. Gil is so insecure, he can’t see the truth and betrayal before his eyes.

Over the course of the story, Gil learns that the problem rests with him. It isn’t the time period or the choice in mates or even the occupation of his protagonist that are the problem…he is. Until he finds courage, nothing will work. No time period will “fit,” no love will be “right,” and his writing will always be beige.

It takes great courage to write great books. Find your courage and find your voice.

The Writer Inferiority Complex

Many writers suffer from a terrible inferiority complex. We believe we are not “real writers” until we have met some outside standard of approval. Even though we have logged hundreds of hours over a keyboard and written thousands of words and queried dozens of agents, we still aren’t real.

This inferiority complex is dangerous.

If we aren’t writers (one who writes), then what are we? Until we name it and claim it we are merely hobbyists, dabblers and dreamers. Writers write. Confidence leads to better stories. Confidence doesn’t feel the need to parrot J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. Confidence is at the heart of every sort of art. Our confidence must always be dancing along the ledge of danger for our works to be thrilling.

Weak, scared writers don’t dance on literary ledges.

As long as we are pitiful and wimpy and apologizing for having a dream, we won’t take risks and writing without risk is called “crap.” I love the line in Midnight in Paris when Pender is having a conversation about his novel and apologizing that his main character is not more sophisticated. Hemingway responds with this:

No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.

We don’t need to set our stories in Paris, or make our characters bazillionaire double-agents to be interesting. We don’t need to “write for the market” to get published by New York or to become successful indies. We need to find then hone our writing voice, and it is that voice that will make even the most mundane magical.

But this comes with courage and courageous writers don’t waste time “aspiring.”

How Do We Find and Develop our Writing Voice?

There are all kinds of ways to discover then develop our writing voice. Next week we will start exploring them. Yes, I am working on shorter blog posts. Anyway, over the course of this new series, I will do my best to offer tangible, doable tactics and even point you guys to some of the best resources. Yet, I will be blunt with you because I care. No matter how many craft books or classes, a great voice can only be birthed from fearlessness.

Voice Makes All the Difference

Whether we are an indie author or we long to be a successful traditionally published author, we have a choice of what kind of writer we long to be. There is no shame in admitting we don’t care to win the Pulitzer. Yet, even those writers who want to write pulp fiction will find greater success if they develop a voice that readers love and can’t wait to buy more of. Voice is important for ALL writers. Yes, even the NF authors.

Voice is what will make us distinctive from the competition, which is why we are going to spend some time understanding voice. Ah, but when it comes to finding and developing our writing voice, we need to ask the tough questions before we proceed:

Am I humble enough to admit I don’t know everything?

Can I check my ego long enough to learn from those who know more than I do?

Can I face rejection and criticism and keep going?

Can I be happy writing even if I never make money?

What kind of writer do I want to be?

What is most important to me?

How do I define success?

How hard am I willing to work?

What am I willing to sacrifice to live my dreams?

So think about those and we will talk more next week. What are your thoughts, feelings, questions? How do you work on your writing voice, and are there some resources you would recommend? I would recommend Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice–How to Put Your Personality in Your Writing to read in the meantime.

I LOVE hearing from you!

And 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 every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of March 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 will announce last week’s winner later this week. I am having problems with my web site and e-mail and my web people are working to remedy the problem. Thanks for your patience.

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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87 Comments

Ways to Develop Your Unique Writing Voice

Ah, November. National Novel Writing Month. I can almost smell the fresh office supplies, the hint of double espresso and sugar drifting on the wind. The beginning of November is full of hope, promise and inspiration, but by week two?

….yeah.

I have been running a series on structure and sure structure has the obvious benefit of having a coherent plot/story at the end. But, there is another benefit to plotting that we often don’t think about. Voice.

Plotting ahead of time gives a newer writer an advantage that most people don’t think about. It gives us a playpen to contain our baby writing “voice.” Voice is one of those aspects of writing that is tough to define and quantify. Yet, it is at the heart of who we are as writers. The more we write, the more mature our writing voice becomes. Leave an immature, unformed voice to wander off on its own, and it will be wandering around getting into everything and making a mess.

We will get back to voice in a second…

In my opinion, there is a mistaken assumption that creativity is birthed by removing all boundaries. Just a blank page, a keyboard and your wildest imagination and GO! I disagree. I believe that limitations, boundaries, and constraints are necessary for creativity to thrive. Don’t believe me? Take a tour of Alcatraz. There are few people more creative than prison inmates.

On the positive side, if humans were born with the ability to fly, would we have invented such a vast array of flying machines? If we could communicate telepathically, would we have invented the telegraph, telephone, cell phone, or even e-mail? It is our inability to do something that focuses our energy and generates dynamic results. Light is wonderful, but when focused it becomes a laser.

An author’s voice is what defines his style. Dean Koontz has a distinctive voice when compared to John Grisham or even Amy Tan. Voice is defined by how we use words to convey imagery. I believe that when writers are new, most of us possess a voice that is in its infancy. I propose that this voice will develop more quickly if given boundaries. If an author will choose a genre, then whittle all the ideas whirling in her head down to one kernel idea, she will be closer to finding her unique writing voice than had she just started writing.

How is this?

The writer has erected boundaries that will focus her creative energy instead of letting it dissipate like white light.

Think of the preplanning for a novel as a series of lenses. You are going to shine the brilliant white light that makes up the whole of your creative capacity. Ah, but then we erect the genre lens. Genres have rules. Picking a genre will focus that white light creative energy. Then, the next lens is the one-sentence original idea. The energy focuses even more. With these two lenses, it will be harder for us to stray off on a tangent. Then, want another lens? Even a rudimentary plot outline will concentrate our energy even more. Finally? Detailed character backgrounds will add a final lens that permits us to take on that novel with all our energy at laser intensity.

When we are new, many of us have a lot of favorite authors. Our infant writing voice (tucked in its playpen to keep it out of the adverbs) is much like a baby learning to speak. It does a lot of mimicking. I find it humorous when I read first-time novels. I can read the prose and almost tell what author that writer was reading at the time he wrote the section. The voice is all over the place. That’s normal. When we are new, we are experimenting and looking for the influence(s) that will eventually take root and hold. The trick is to get past this stage.

So what are some ways we can develop our author voice?

1. Erect Boundaries

We just discussed this and it could wholly be my opinion. I believe that even pantser writers (those who write by the seat of their pants) will benefit enormously by erecting even broad constructs. You don’t have to outline down to the last detail, but a general idea of where you are going and the stops along the way are great.

Normally, around mid-way through Week Two of NaNo, I start seeing writers hit a wall. I can almost guarantee most of them just started free-writing without even a general plan, and now they’ve painted themselves in a literary corner. Been there, done that and have the collection of T-shirts…and coffee mugs. Their mind locks up and they have no idea what to say next. Not wanting to be “limited” by devices like an outline, in the end, they are “limited” by the word-prison created by failing to plan.

So how can a “limiting” device like an outline actually bring more freedom?

Think of it like taking a road trip. When you begin a trip, how you decide to travel makes a huge difference. If from the beginning, I decide my trip will be by car, as opposed to by plane, train, bicycle, roller skates, or pogo stick, I understand my limitations. By car, I cannot, for instance, go to Hawaii. Then, if I choose an end destination, there are only so many possible logical routes.

Say I am going to go to L.A. Well, from Dallas, TX, there are only so many highways that will get me there. Also, I know some routes are just a bad idea. I-20 East is not a consideration. So I know I want to take certain highways to L.A. Now my path is much clearer. Also, since I know the main highways I need to stay on, if, along the way I decide to amble down a country road (pantser) to visit the Alligator Farm and World’s Largest Ball of Dryer Lint, I know that I just have to be able to find my way back to the highway.

But what kind of trip do you think I might have if I just began driving? Sure, I might uncover some great places and have unplanned adventures….but those unplanned adventures might not be positive. They could involve getting lost in the projects, circling the same landmark 50 times, or having a flat tire in the desert.

2. Read, read, then read some more.

The best musicians study all kinds of music and then blend elements with their own unique style. That is a great parallel to how we develop our own writing voice. Read other writers. What do you like? Try it. What did you hate? Lose it. What could have worked, but didn’t ? Modify it. The more you read, the more hues of color you add to the pallet that you will use to define your voice. You will have more subtlety, nuance and dimension than a writer who doesn’t read.

3. Write, write, then write some more.

Put it to the test. Does a certain style work for you? Did it feel natural or forced? When did you hit your stride? Can you push it to another level? Practice, practice practice. Jimi Hendrix did not start out his music career playing Purple Haze. Elvis, Axel Rose and Meatloaf began as a gospel singers. Picasso began painting traditional subjects in traditional ways. All of these artists practiced and studied and added new elements until they created something genuinely unique.

Nanowrimo is a wonderful time to mix things up, try new styles, take on a genre you’ve always loved but maybe were too afraid to write. I once wrote a sci-fi fantasy. It isn’t my genre, but dabbling in something was exciting and fun and pushed me in new ways. The story ended up winning a major contest, and this was in a genre I didn’t even believe I could write! Trying new things strengthens those literary muscles, so be brave.

What are your thoughts on voice? Do you guys have a different definition? What are your experiences? Frustrations? Does your voice climb out of the playpen and cover the living room in Cheerios? Do you have some suggestions you’d like to add?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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 October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

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 . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th 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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75 Comments

Developing Your Unique Writing Voice

 

When we begin as new writers, we often just take off like a shot. Who needs to plot? Plotting is for sissies. Of course, failing to plot is a lot like failing to read the instructions. *whistles innocently* At the end of the day, the shelf leans like the Tower of Pisa and we can’t figure out how we only managed to use half the necessary screws.

So nice of them to give us extras!

Yeah…no.

Fail to do at least a general plot, and I guarantee that your plot will have a lot of missing screws. But plotting ahead of time gives a newer writer an advantage that most people don’t think about. It gives us a playpen to contain our baby writing “voice.” Voice is one of those aspects of writing that is tough to define and quantify. Yet, it is at the heart of who we are as writers. The more we write, the more mature our writing voice becomes. Leave an immature, unformed voice to wander off on its own, and it will be wandering around getting into everything and making a mess.

We will get back to voice in a second…

In my opinion, there is a mistaken assumption that creativity is birthed by removing all boundaries. Just a blank page, a keyboard and your wildest imagination and GO! I disagree. I believe that limitations, boundaries, and constraints are necessary for creativity to thrive. Don’t believe me? Take a tour of Alcatraz. There are few people more creative than prison inmates.

On the positive side, if humans were born with the ability to fly, would we have invented such a vast array of flying machines? If we could communicate telepathically, would we have invented the telegraph, telephone, cell phone, or even e-mail? It is our inability to do something that focuses our energy and generates dynamic results. Light is wonderful, but when focused it becomes a laser.

An author’s voice is what defines his style. Dean Koontz has a distinctive voice when compared to John Grisham or even Amy Tan. Voice is defined by how we use words to convey imagery. I believe that when writers are new, most of us possess a voice that is in its infancy. I propose that this voice will develop more quickly if given boundaries. If an author will choose a genre, then whittle all the ideas whirling in her head down to one kernel idea, she will be closer to finding her unique writing voice than had she just started writing.

How is this?

The writer has erected boundaries that will focus her creative energy instead of letting it dissipate like white light.

Think of the preplanning for a novel as a series of lenses. You are going to shine the brilliant white light that makes up the whole of your creative capacity. Ah, but then we erect the genre lens. Genres have rules. Picking a genre will focus that white light creative energy. Then, the next lens is the one-sentence original idea. The energy focuses even more. With these two lenses, it will be harder for us to stray off on a tangent. Then, want another lens? Even a rudimentary plot outline will concentrate our energy even more. Finally? Detailed character backgrounds will add a final lens that permits us to take on that novel with all our energy at laser intensity.

When we are new, many of us have a lot of favorite authors. Our infant writing voice (tucked in its playpen to keep it out of the adverbs) is much like a baby learning to speak. It does a lot of mimicking. I find it humorous when I read first-time novels. I can read the prose and almost tell what author that writer was reading at the time he wrote the section. The voice is all over the place. That’s normal. When we are new, we are experimenting and looking for the influence(s) that will eventually take root and hold. The trick is to get past this stage.

So what are some ways we can develop our author voice?

1. Erect Boundaries

We just discussed this and it could wholly be my opinion. I believe that even pantser writers (those who write by the seat of their pants) will benefit enormously by erecting even broad constructs. You don’t have to outline down to the last detail, but a general idea of where you are going and the stops along the way are great.

Think of it like taking a road trip. When you begin a trip, how you decide to travel makes a huge difference. If from the beginning, I decide my trip will be by car, as opposed to by plane, train, bicycle, roller skates, or pogo stick, I understand my limitations. By car, I cannot, for instance, go to Hawaii. Then, if I choose an end destination, there are only so many possible logical routes. Say I am going to go to L.A. Well, from Dallas, TX, there are only so many highways that will get me there. Also, I know some routes are just a bad idea. I-20 East is not a consideration. So I know I want to take certain highways to L.A. Now my path is much clearer. Also, since I know the main highways I need to stay on, if, along the way I decide to amble down a country road (pantser) to visit the Alligator Farm and World’s Largest Ball of Dryer Lint, I know that I just have to be able to find my way back to the highway.

But what kind of trip do you think I might have if I just began driving? Sure, I might uncover some great places and have unplanned adventures….but those unplanned adventures might not be positive. They could involve getting lost in the projects or having a flat tire in the desert.

2. Read, read, then read some more.

The best musicians study all kinds of music and then blend elements with their own unique style. That is a great parallel to how we develop our own writing voice. Read other writers. What do you like? Try it. What did you hate? Lose it. What could have worked, but didn’t ? Modify it. The more you read, the more hues of color you add to the pallet that you will use to define your voice. You will have more subtlety, nuance and dimension than a writer who doesn’t read.

3. Write, write, then write some more.

Put it to the test. Does a certain style work for you? Did it feel natural or forced? When did you hit your stride? Can you push it to another level? Practice, practice practice. Jimi Hendrix did not start out his music career playing Purple Haze. Elvis, Axel Rose and Meatloaf began as a gospel singers. Picasso began painting traditional subjects in traditional ways. All of these artists practiced and studied and added new elements until they created something genuinely unique.

What are your thoughts on voice? Do you guys have a different definition? What are your experiences? Frustrations? Does your voice climb out of the playpen and eat all the cookies? Do you have some suggestions you’d like to add? I love hearing from you!

Happy writing!

Until next time…..

Give yourself the gift of success so you can ROCK 2011. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. Learn all about plotting, how to write great characters, and even how to self-publish successfully…all from the best in the industry. I will be teaching on social media and building a brand in March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home. It is not too late to sign up for the workshop Selling Your Book taught by USA Today Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. This workshop is for all authors, but any self-pubbed writers would stand to gain amazing benefit.

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38 Comments

Setting–More than a Backdrop

 

For those who follow this blog regularly, first of all—THANKS! Today I will be blogging on the craft side of things. I am making it a goal to write about social media regularly, especially now that my book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is now available in eBook. The print version should be ready for purchase in a week or so. Social media is an amazing tool and it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but, I am going to point out the pink elephant in the room. We still have to write a darn good book. If we don’t write a darn good book, then no amount of promotion can help us. Sorry. That’s like putting lipstick on a pig. So we will talk about craft as well.

Today is an interesting topic. A Twitter pal of mine, Heather Harris (@heatheharris) actually made a request. I didn’t know I took requests, but apparently I do, and I gotta say that it made coming up with a topic MUCH easier. So if any of you wonderful readers would like to pick my editor brain, send in a request.

Anyway, Heather wanted to know if I had any blogs about setting. The funny thing is that, after over a year of blogs (56 posts) I have never addressed setting. Setting is extraordinarily complex, so I encourage your comments if you would like to add something helpful. I try to keep these blogs relatively short, and setting is worthy of volumes. But we will give it some needed attention. Thanks, Heather, for the suggestion. This blog is purely my opinion and based off my years of experience editing hundreds of stories.

Setting is a magnificent tool when used properly.

Setting can help your characterization.

Setting can actually serve a dual role in that it can be not only the backdrop for your story, but it can also serve characterization through symbol. We editors love to say, “Show. Don’t tell.” Well, here is where setting can help you do just that.

Say you have a character, Mitzy, who is depressed. You could go on and on telling us she is blue and how she cannot believe her husband left her for the Avon lady, or you can show us through setting. Mitzy’s once beautiful garden is overgrown with weeds and piles of unopened mail are tossed carelessly on the floor. Her house smells of almost-empty tubs of chocolate ice cream left to sour. Piles of dirty clothes litter the rooms, and her cat is eating out of the bag of Meow Mix tipped on its side.

Now you have shown me that Mitzy is not herself. I know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me that something has changed. And you managed to tell me she was depressed without dragging me through narrative in Mitzy’s head.

She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.

Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. Some of that introspection is great, but after a while you will wear out your readers. Setting can help alleviate this problem and keep the momentum of your story moving forward. We will get that Mitzy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Mitzy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling me.

We judge people by their environment. Characters are no different. If you want to portray a cold, unfeeling schmuck, then when we go to his apartment it might be minimalist design. No color. No plants or signs of life. Someone who is scatter-brained? Their house is full of half-finished projects. An egomaniac? Walls of plaques and pictures of this character posing with important people. Trophies, awards, and heads of dead animals. You can show the reader a lot about your character just by showing us surroundings.

Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and two empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression.

Setting can set or amplify the mood.

Either you can use setting to mirror outwardly what is happening with a character, or you can use it as a stark contrast. For instance, I once edited a medieval fantasy. In the beginning the bad guys were burning villagers alive. Originally the writer used a rainy, dreary day, which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I, however, suggested she push the envelope and go for something more unsettling. I recommended that she change the setting to sunny and perfect weather. In the heart of the village the ribbons and trappings of the spring festival blew in the gentle breeze, the same breeze that now carried the smell of her family’s burning flesh.

Sometimes it is this odd juxtaposition in setting that can evoke tremendous emotion. This is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies on a children’s playground are an entirely new level of disturbing.

Setting is a matter of style and preference.  Different writers use setting in different ways and a lot of it goes to your own unique voice. Some writers use a lot of description, which is good in that there are readers who like a lot of description. But there are readers who want you to get to the point, and that’s why they generally like to read works by writers who also like to get to the point. Everyone wins.

Whether you use a lot or a little setting will ultimately be up to you. I would recommend some pointers.

Can your setting symbolize something deeper?

I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind. Can you employ setting to add greater dimension to your work?

In Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane’s story is set on an island at a prison for the criminally insane. What the reader finds out is the prison is far more than the literal setting; it is a representation for a state of mind. The protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is imprisoned by his own guilt and need for justice. Like the island, he too is cut off from the outside world emotionally and psychologically. Now an island is more than an island, a prison is more than a prison, bars are more than bars, cliffs are more than cliffs, storms are more than storms, etc. Shutter Island is an amazing book to read, but I recommend studying the movie for use of setting as symbol.

So dig deeper. Can you get more out of your setting than just a backdrop?

Blend setting into your story.

When I teach, I liken setting to garlic in garlic mashed potatoes. Blend. Garlic is awesome and enhances many dishes, but few people want a whole mouthful of it. Make sure you are keeping momentum in your story. Yes, we generally like to be grounded in where we are and the weather and the time of year, but not at the expense of why we picked up your book in the first place…someone has a problem that needs solving. Unless you are writing a non-fiction travel book, we didn’t buy your book for lovely description of the Rocky Mountains. We bought it to discover if Ella May will ever make it to California to meet her new husband before winter comes and traps her wagon train in a frozen world of death.

Keep perspective and blend. Keep conflict and character center stage and the backdrop in its place…behind the characters. Can you break this rule? Sure all rules can be broken. But we must understand the rules before we can break them. Breaking rules in ignorance is just, well, ignorant.

In the end, setting will be a huge reflection of your style and voice, but I hope this blog has given some insight that might make you see more to your use of setting and help you grow to be a stronger writer.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

For some good books on this subject, I recommend Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit. Jack Bickham’s Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing) is another valuable resource.

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18 Comments

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