Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Writing Words on Wednesday

When last I posted, I talked a bit about chocolate—and voice (but mostly chocolate—I was hungry that day). I gave you homework to do. You were supposed to take down several of your favorite novels, read the first pages, and take some notes about the voice. You were to compare these different novels and see how the voice in each differed (hopefully it did)—then write down what made them different.

I also asked that you print out the first page of your novel/work in progress and compare your work to that of the published authors you chose. Upon comparing, you were to write down anything this exercise told you about your voice—was is something unique that would catch an editor’s or agent’s eye?  Or was it too similar to everything out there?

If you’ve done your homework, make sure you have it with you as we proceed. Hopefully you learned something about your voice. When I did this exercise (yes, I did the homework too), I discovered the books I pulled off my shelves were all written in the first person point of view. I wanted to be fair so I put some of them back and pulled down books written in third person point of view. Still, it was interesting to note that many of my favorite books are in 1st person POV. Mostly interesting because I tend to write in third person.

In Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice, I found chapter six (Elements of Personality or “Voice”) particularly useful (the whole book is great and I highly recommend it). Here he tells the reader that “the most vital element in the writer’s voice is the tone you tell the story or write the article in.” He goes on to say that tone “echoes the emotional stance directed at the material by the author.” Tone gives a clue to the reader (whether they—or you—realize it or not). It helps them connect to the emotion they should be feeling. Look at your page again. Does your tone match the emotion you want the reader to feel? If not, why? My tone didn’t match what I was trying to convey at all. It was dark and serious and rather depressing.

Go back and pull one of the books you chose to evaluate—read that first page again and figure out the tone the author is conveying.

Edgerton says the next element of voice is the vocabulary we use in our writing. Even if the tone is true in our writing, the vocabulary can ruin our voice. You’ve heard someone say a particular author’s writing sounds “writerly,” right (possibly someone said this about your writing)? It’s those darn word choices.

But it’s not really our fault—blame it on the teachers who from the time we were in grade school hammered the “proper” way to write into us. Remember the adjectives and adverbs we were encouraged to put into our writing? The more “writerly” the better! If we strayed from the “proper” way we were penalized with bad grades.

But we’re adults now (or most of you reading this will be). Guess what? We don’t have to listen to our grade school teachers anymore. For our writing to be “unique” we need to use words that are organic to us—words we know and use, not words we’ve looked up in a thesaurus to replace the word we should have used in the first place (come on, you know you’ve done it)—otherwise we end up coming off as “writerly.”

Let me give you an example from my own work. In my manuscript, I had a character running her hand over a wooden chest’s “intricately” carved lid. Okay, so intricately is a word I feel comfortable using in everyday conversation—I didn’t use a thesaurus to get it—but I’m more likely to use “elaborately” (and so is my middle grade aged character)—so I changed it. The sentence reads much better and more “true” now.

It’s not all about you when you’re writing! You may be the most sophisticated, knowledgeable person out there—maybe you graduated top of your class from an ivy league school—but if you’re writing a middle grade character, you’re going to have to watch your word choices (unless your character is a prodigy or something). Use words familiar to yourself—AND your characters.

Pay attention to your vocabulary. Don’t use a word just to be “original” or “unique” because it may come off being “writerly” and no one wants that (okay, maybe someone does—but not most agents/editors)!

After tone and vocabulary, Edgerton discusses imagery. Did you know that’s part of your voice? In order to be consistent with our natural voice, we have to make sure we use images (metaphors, similes, description) that are consistent with what we know—but also with what our characters know. We may have been to a hot springs, but we can’t use that as a metaphor if our character is from a planet with no water and hasn’t ever seen one.

Look at your first page again. If you have any images in that first page (and I’d be shocked if you didn’t), are they consistent with what both you and your main character know? Mine weren’t!

I believe all this talk and the examples and the homework and everything can all be boiled down to one thing:

Be yourself.

You’re probably more interesting than you think you are. And most of us have had so many experiences that we’re a gold mine of characteristics to use when creating our characters. Most if not all of us put a bit of ourselves into our characters anyway—so why do we try so hard to keep our personalities out of our writing? Stop it.

Be yourself.

Let the words flow onto the page as they naturally would. If “depict” isn’t a word that you or your character would naturally use—find a synonym that is.

One caution here. I’m not saying write exactly how you speak. Your writing voice and your speaking voice should be similar, but not exact. Your writing voice needs to be better but still way below the “writerly” level (read pompous, arrogant, and not easy to relate to—using words to impress rather than convey detail).

My eyes were open by these exercises. I mentioned earlier that most of my favorite books are written in first person—but I write in third person. So guess what? I tried rewriting the first chapter of one of my novels in first person. What a difference! My character leaped onto the page. Seriously—things went onto the page that I would have NEVER considered putting in there—but they’re totally consistent and true to both my character and my own voice. And guess what? The tone is now exactly what I intended it to be. It’s amazing.

I’m not saying I’ve never written in first person before—I have—but this particular novel is a middle grade novel, and I read or heard somewhere (probably a long time ago) that third person past tense was the more “acceptable” middle grade point of view—so that’s how I approached this book. But I love the first person present tense for this novel—it works. So I’m redoing the whole thing.

Anyway, I’ve gone on way too long here, so let me close by saying this:

The thing that makes your manuscript the “unique” work the editors and agents all say they want is your own “unique” voice. Without it, you’ll sound just like every other writer out there. And none of us are like anyone else. That’s the point of this world. We’re all unique—and that special uniqueness that makes us US needs to make it into our writing.

Don’t be writerly, be a writer.

Be yourself.


Write on!

Monday, February 04, 2013

Monday’s Muse


Yes, you read that correctly.

Many of you know my brain works in mysterious ways (I know, you thought only God did that). Some of you might question whether my mind works at all. Let me explain my chocolate muse. (hmm is that kind of like a chocolate bunny?)

As I ate chocolate today (part of any balanced diet), I started thinking about chocolate—and writing—and chocolate—and writing. Yes, they’re two of my favorite things, but that’s not the point (I do have one, I promise).

I thought about all the different kinds of chocolate out there on the market—way too many to start naming—and yet there are new chocolates hitting the market all the time.

With so many different chocolates, there’s something for everyone. Sure, there are best sellers out there, but there are also specialty chocolates or lesser known brands/kinds that still have a small to medium sized following. And all that chocolate on the market doesn’t mean they should stop making chocolate—they just need to make it different than the chocolate already out there if they want greater success.

Let’s take Hershey’s Kisses, for example. The company didn’t stop with the basic Kiss in the silver wrapper—it was great, but could be so much more. So they added white chocolate and called them Hugs. They added caramel, cordial cherry crème, airy chocolate, etc. They changed it up and made it new (and they keep doing it).

Now, there are people out there who only like the original Kisses, there are others (myself included) who prefer the “filled” Kisses (cordial cherry Kisses are my favorite). Something for everyone (well, except those chocolate haters out there—you’re DNA is messed up Winking smile).

You probably already see what chocolate has to do with writing, but I’m going to explain it anyway. Just like the chocolate makers have to make their product different, so do we as writers. Not every new chocolate concoction will be a hit—and neither will our writing. In spite of all this, chocolatiers continue to make chocolate, and we should continue to make stories—we’re told to make them unique.

Ugh! There’s that horrible word that’s thrown at us by agents and editors. It’s awful because it’s so open to interpretation. Okay, says “unique” means:

1. existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics: a unique copy of an ancient manuscript.

2. having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable: Bach was unique in his handling of counterpoint.

Three and four deal with species and problems/solutions so I left them out.

5. not typical; unusual: She has a very unique smile.

So we use the Kiss recipe (let’s pretend we read it somewhere) and make a cordial cherry filled chocolate, but instead of shaping it like a Kiss, we make it a square. According to definition five, that’s unique. It was also a fairly simple change—all we did was change the shape. And that’s the problem.

Writing something unique is easy. Writing something unique that an editor or agent would want is much harder. They have so many different varieties of chocolate thrown at them everyday that your product has to really stand out—and making it similar to something else but changing its shape isn’t going to cut it.

Your voice. I’m not saying you can rewrite Twilight using your voice and have it be a bit hit. (would you even want to?) First of all, vampires are way over done—baked to death (which is what used to happen if they went out in the sun).

Still, your unique voice is what will have agents and editors scrambling to represent your writing—well, that and good writing. But I’ve read/heard some agents and editors say that if the voice is there, they can fix everything else. How do we get our voice to be the one they want?

There are books, vlogs, webinars, conference talks, etc. about this topic—but it’s often the most difficult thing to figure out. This post is already way too long, so I’ll stop here for today and discuss voice further in my next post(s).

If you’ve already mastered your voice, fantastic! Please feel free to share any tips or tricks I might miss in my future posts. For those still searching (or if you just want to do it), here’s some homework:

Grab a few (or several) of your favorite books (or bring them up on your e-reader)—they don’t have to be best sellers, but it would be great if at least one was. Make sure they’re from different authors. Read the first page of each book. Compare each author’s work to the others you’ve selected. Do you see a difference in voice? What makes them different?

Now print out the first page of your novel or work in progress  and read it (reading it off your screen is cheating). Compare your writing to the work of the published authors. What does it tell you about your voice? Is your voice something “unique” that would catch an editor’s or agent’s eye? Write down why you think it would or wouldn’t. Hang onto that paper—we’ll come back to it.

Happy Monday!


Write on!