Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

Favorite Books, Christmas Edition: “A Christmas Carol”

December 17th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, in between hurriedly throwing a few Christmas decorations at my walls and attending “The Nutcracker” for approximately the 1,247th time, I managed to keep my yearly date with A Christmas Carol. I always caution myself that it cannot possibly be as good as I remember, but every year it’s better. With each successive reading, the charm and earnestness and pure skill of the writing is more apparent, and if you doubt this book’s place in a blog on the writing craft, you probably haven’t read it in awhile. This book was a labor of love for Dickens rather than a serial written to pay the bills, and it shows. Free from the need to sustain a story for months/years on end in order to keep the paychecks coming, Dickens demonstrates a previously unsuspected ability to tell a story taking place over a time span of less than twenty years (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield), and he lets himself go on description and characterization in way he was unable to do in a serial installment expected to advance the plot each week. We see him revel in this independence in the gleeful abandon with which he describes the riches of London shop windows at Christmas time, the passionate cries of the narrator which interrupt the story from time to time, and the flights of whimsy he indulges in in a book not expressly written for children.

Basically, Dickens wrote the story he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it, regardless of how well it fit the mold he’d found most of his success with, and 160 years later, it’s still his most popular work. The longevity of the book (it’s never been out of print) should serve as a lesson to those authors who are navigating the tricky issue of how to balance profitability and passion–  writing to pay the bills is all well and good, but the books that are going to resonate the most with readers are going to be the ones that you were most personally invested in, in which your skill set and your fervor for a story intersect and hone each other to a finer edge than either could achieve on its own.

William Makepeace Thackeray was right when he said that the Carol was, “to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” Even if you’ve seen every movie version ever made and you think you’re sick of the story, you’re cheating yourself if you haven’t read the book. It thaws out the little places where your feelings about Christmas have become frosted over by the annoying Christmas music remixes playing in the mall and the sniping over the political correctness of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” It’s not preachy, it doesn’t have any kind of “presents and food and parties aren’t important” nonsense, but rather, it reminds us why our celebrations are important, that things like compassion and hospitality are graces that we should revel in being able to employ during our time on earth, that it is okay to occasionally warm ourselves from the winter. A few passages to begin the thaw~

  • Scrooge’s nephew Fred defending the profitability of Christmas: 
”But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
  • Jacob Marley, lamenting his wasted opportunities for compassion: 
”Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed…not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I!…Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
  • And on the changed Scrooge, post-spirit-visits: 
”Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It’s quite as well that we should wrinkle up our eyes in grins, and gain weight from food eaten in good company, and go broke buying gifts to delight the people we love, as have these maladies in less attractive forms. Merry Christmas!

Choose Your Own Final Draft: Applying Reader Feedback

December 9th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught the last couple of Tuesday posts, you’ll know I’ve been talking about the final stages of manuscript preparation– knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, finding beta readers, etc. I pointed out that finding beta readers who are a good fit for your skill level and your genre is an important step in ensuring that the feedback you get from them is worthwhile and relevant so you don’t go crazy trying to apply conflicting or uninformed advice. Even when you’ve selected your beta readers wisely, however, it can still be overwhelming to revisit your manuscript with three or four different sets of feedback from three or four unique readers– even if all your readers are published sci-fi authors, each one is going to have a slightly different reaction to your book, and deciding which advice to apply and which to ignore can feel like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which every decision you make will result in a different outcome. (The good news here is that the editing decisions you make are highly unlikely to result in being thrown into a volcano or trampled by elephants, unlike CYOA.)

So, how do you decide what feedback, and how much, to apply? Here are a few guidelines to help you as you CYOFD– Choose Your Own Final Draft!

  • Decide in advance how much rewriting you’re willing to do. If you don’t have the time and the fortitude to make major plot changes, or to rewrite the entire book from a different character’s perspective, you can cross off suggestions on this scale right away. Don’t waste time agonizing over whether or not a large-scale change would be a good idea if you know realistically that you’re not in a place to make a change like that. Turn your attention to smaller-scale suggestions and don’t drive yourself crazy with “but what it…?”.
  • Create a plan for whose feedback you’ll apply in which area. For example, if you gave your manuscript to three readers and you know one of them in particular has a gift for dialogue, look at what that reader had to say about your dialogue before you look at anyone else’s dialogue notes, . Obviously, you can get good advice from more than one source, but if you don’t want to spend your life in re-writes, starting with the “expert” advice in a specific category can be a good strategy for making the most of your editing time.
  • When readers give conflicting advice, go with your instincts (within reason). It’s one thing to have had twelve different readers tell you a scene isn’t working, or that your dialogue is unnatural, or that a plot point is unclear, but if one or two readers have an opinion that isn’t shared by another, you probably don’t have to agonize over who’s “right.” Which feedback makes the most sense to you? Which reader seems to know you better as a writer/really “gets” your book? Let your instincts drive editing decisions and be okay with having made the “right for you” decision instead of the “objectively, mathematically right” decision.
  • If a piece of feedback doesn’t make sense to you, and you’ve only gotten it from one source, throw it out. Like I’ve said before, actual problems with your manuscript will probably be caught by more than one quality reader, so feedback you get multiple times probably merits consideration, but even from an intelligent, articulate critique partner, you will occasionally hear a suggestion or a piece of criticism that just doesn’t make sense to you or that you strongly disagree with, and that’s okay. Don’t stress out over it; it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re blind to some major flaw in your work or that you’re an arrogant jerk (though you should probably double-check with someone, just to be sure), it just means that something that makes perfect sense to you doesn’t to one individual reader. Guess what? That’s going to happen as many times as the number of people who read your book. Either learn how to be okay with the fact that not everyone will perfectly understand every artistic choice you make, or prepare yourself for an exhausting career.

What strategies have you adopted for deciding when to apply reader feedback? Let me know in the comments!

Finding Beta Readers

December 2nd, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIn last week’s post on knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, one of the strategies I suggested was to solicit feedback wisely and sparingly. Reader Laura asked this question in the comments: “How do I find beta readers? I don’t have a writers’ group, I don’t know know any serious writers in my ‘real’ life… the local universities don’t offer [many] creative writing classes… I don’t have a lot of money to spend on a professional editor or to go to conferences… I’m at the point where I need quality feedback on my third novel, but I’m baffled as to where I’d find it.”

Great question, Laura, and thanks for providing the topic for this week’s blog post!

Location, contacts, and limited budget can definitely be some challenges to finding quality beta readers. Not everyone lives in a mecca of artistic fellowship or can spend $400 to attend a conference once a month to meet other writers and writing professionals. So how DOES one find quality beta readers under these conditions? Here are a few ideas.

Local universities— Laura mentioned that the colleges in her area don’t offer a lot of creative writing classes. Even when that’s the case, any community college or liberal arts school has at least a few faculty members who are (hopefully) qualified to give you feedback on your writing, even if they’re not experts in your genre, so even when there isn’t a writing class available for you to enroll in and connect that way with other writers, you can still try to connect with the adjunct or full-time faculty members who teach the literature and composition classes, and you at least know that these readers have a lot of experience in reading and editing. You can usually find contact info for these faculty members on the college’s website, so consider sending a polite email explaining that you’re a writer looking for quality feedback and wondering whether they might be willing to take a look at your writing. If a college you have some connection with (you’re an alumnus, you live nearby, etc.) has a graduate writing program, offer some chapters for use in class, either for discussion or editing practice, and ask if you can sit in on the discussion or receive notes on the class’s feedback.

Published authors— Published authors are very accessible in this day and age– they’re on Twitter, they have an author Facebook page, they have websites and blogs— if you’re not trying to connect with someone who’s major hugely successful (don’t hold your breath waiting for Stephen King to get back to your request to review your manuscript for free), you have a really good chance of being able to connect personally with them, and there’s a good chance that the average published author will be willing to offer some feedback to a reader. If you plan to approach a published author, it’s a good idea to spend some time engaging with them on social media, first– comment on a blog or two, mention them on Twitter, link to their website from your Facebook profile, etc., and then use whatever contact method they specify as their preference (this is usually mentioned on their website) to reach out.  Be specific about why you approached them—what is it about their writing that you admire, why would you value their feedback? Be clear that you’re NOT seeking an endorsement or an introduction to their agent (if they like it enough, they’ll probably offer), simply a more experienced writer’s eye than yours, and be open to alternatives— if they can’t review your chapters but can recommend a friend or another resource, that can be helpful, too.

Writers’ Groups– Laura mentioned that she isn’t part of a local writers’ group and that the online group she was part of was a disappointment. While it’s true that not every group is going to be a good fit (or helpful in any way at all), the beauty of the Internet age is that if there IS a group out there that’s a good fit, you can probably find it if you’re willing to put some time into the search. A Google search of “writers groups” turned up dozens of pages of resources– sites that connect you with local writers in your area, sites that connect you with similar writers online, groups organized by genre, publishing status, area, etc. “Writers’ groups (state or city name here)” will return even more specific results, possibly of local groups with physical meetings you can attend to get a feel for the dynamic. There’s nothing wrong with shopping around, either locally or online, for a writers’ group that’s a good fit– you should feel challenged but not overwhelmed, you should feet like your input and your contributions are respected, and you should feel like the other members of the group have the same amount of motivation as you do.

 

When a quality beta reader says yes, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be clear (and reasonable) about your expectations. Are you looking for feedback on the plot? the writing? the mechanics? Are you expecting an edit, or just some comments/direction? How much of the manuscript would you like them to read? Five chapters? Fifty pages? The full manuscript? Make sure the person you’re asking knows what you’re looking for so they make an informed commitment. If you can’t pay them for their service, or can’t pay much, be up front about it, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Rather than asking for a full edit of a 100,000-word manuscript, ask them to take a look at a shorter selection. If you can pay $50 for a manuscript review, ask them how many pages or how much review time that would buy.
  • Don’t rush them. Everyone is busy, and they’re doing you a favor (if they’re doing it for free or low cost). Don’t expect an immediate reply, and don’t pester them for a response—it’s perfectly all right to follow-up/check if they’ve had your ms for a month, but be patient!
  • Accept their feedback politely. I know letting other people see your writing can be terrifying— you’re sharing something very personal that you’ve worked really hard on, and so every piece of criticism can feel like a personal attack, but your readers are just trying to make your book stronger—at YOUR request, I might add. If you’re confused by a comment, you can ask the reader to clarify, but don’t come back with a defensive response or an argument. You don’t have to agree with them, but you DID ask for their input, so accept it graciously.
  • Say thank you. Even if you can’t pay or can’t pay much, send them a nice thank-you note, and maybe a token like a gift card to let them know you appreciated their time.

I hope that helps, Laura, thanks again for the question! If you have a question on craft or the writing process, I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading!

Polishing a Manuscript: When to Give it a Rest

November 25th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’ve gotten several versions of this question in the past couple of months. This one came from an author at a recent conference: “How long is too long to spend perfecting my novel? My first page and first three chapters, especially? It seems like every time I show them to someone new, I get more suggestions for changes and improvements. At what point should I stop asking for input?”

Great question! Several of them, in fact. Your question actually raises several different issues to consider when polishing a manuscript.

1. You’ve spent too long perfecting a manuscript when you’re not doing anything else to move your writing career forward. I’ve met many writers who have spent years working on a single manuscript, and they generally fall into one of two camps– either they’ve spent those years staring exclusively at that one project, writing and rewriting it and picking it apart and patching it back together, or they’ve spent those years revisiting their idea/novel in between improving their craft by taking classes, attending conferences, writing additional books, soliciting trustworthy feedback, and reading widely.

If you’re not doing any of these things between rewrites, you’re going to hit a plateau pretty quickly in terms of how much you can actually improve with no resources except your own judgment. So if you’ve already re-worked a manuscript a few times and aren’t currently involved in any of these methods of improving your craft, you’re probably at a stopping point in the polishing process. Go ahead and send it out or take it to some conferences and see what the response is.

2. Solicit feedback wisely. You are entirely right when you observe that “every time [you] show [your pages] to someone new, [you] get more suggestions for changes and improvements.” Every person who reads your pages is going to bring a unique combination of education, taste, and experience to the manuscript, and so every set of suggestions is also going to be unique. If you tried to apply every piece of feedback you received from every beta reader, you’d either go crazy or die of old age rewriting your book. So what’s the solution?

  • Choose your beta readers sparingly. Don’t hand out copies of your sample chapters to every classmate in your writing class, don’t post your opening page on your blog and ask the Internet at large for feedback; choose a small set of folks to read your work so that the responses you get are manageable in quantity.
  • Choose your beta readers wisely. Even if your best friend is a fabulous person, her opinion isn’t going to be super valuable if she doesn’t know much about writing, or if she doesn’t usually read in your genre. When choosing your beta readers, look for people who are GOOD writers– ideally, people who are better writers than you are, so you can learn from them. Look for people who regularly read the genre you’re writing– they’re your target audience. And look for people you can trust– you want to know your beta readers well enough to know that they’re not going to plagiarize you or try to sell you expensive editing services you may not need.
  • Look for themes in feedback. Once you start getting suggestions from your beta readers, you’ll still run into conflicting opinions and suggestions and, for some of these, you’ll just have to use your own instincts to decide whether or not to apply them, but if there are legitimate problems/weaknesses with your manuscript, you’ll probably have more than one reader point them out, so give extra consideration to any suggestions you hear from more than one source.

3. A book is never “done.” There is no magic point at which an author discovers the precise combination of nouns and commas and exactly-right adjectives that mean a book is “done.” Even if you get a manuscript to a place where you are really happy with it, I guarantee that if you come back to it in six months there will be things you want to change, sentences you want to rewrite, lines you want to delete. By virtue of simply being alive and interacting with the world on a daily basis, our views and our experiences change, and those changes shape our creative output. The articles you’ll read, the conversations you’ll have, and the places you’ll go in the next week will contribute to your bringing a slightly different viewpoint to your manuscript at the end of the week, and that difference will probably cause you to want to make a change or two.

Does this mean that the original version of the manuscript was “wrong,” or that the new version is superior? Not necessarily. Apart from the typos we catch when we come back to a manuscript after taking a break, many of the changes we make to a manuscript after we’ve already put in our time plotting and writing and polishing it are based on our own shifting perspective and preferences at the time, and don’t hugely affect the story or the quality of the writing. So, if you know you’ve done your part to improve your craft, applied the feedback of some trusted critics, and made some thoughtful rewrites, it’s time to move on– start working on a proposal, get that manuscript out the door to some agents or editors, start writing on the next one– there may be some more rewrites in your manuscript’s future, but let them be prompted by some thoughtful input from an interested editor, or a vast improvement in your novel-writing skills wrought by drafting three more manuscripts. Don’t let ten years go by attempting to create that mythical “perfect” novel.

What about you? What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on perfecting a manuscript? How did you decide how much tweaking was “enough?”

Know the Competition: Why You Should Be Reading in Your Genre

November 18th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wA reader sent in this question: “I’ve been told more than once that I need to be reading new releases in my genre (Young Adult), but I have a really hard time justifying spending time on something that doesn’t help my platform or my publishing efforts. Where is the value in reading books similar to mine?”

If you’re a repeat visitor to the MacGregor Literary blog, you know we’re fans of reading around here. I mean, besides the fact that our jobs ultimately depend on people buying books, we have counseled writers time and again to read as a means of learning their craft– to learn how to write dialogue, read someone who does dialogue really well, to develop an ear for voice , read authors with great voice, etc.  Reading to improve in specific areas of your craft is easy in that you can pick up craft insight from any author, regardless of genre, e.g., a thriller writer can glean voice tips by reading literary fiction.

Now, leaving aside the whole “you can always learn from other writers” argument, it’s fair to say that there might be some unpublished writers out there who are writing at the same skill level as a lot of published authors in their genre– folks who don’t really stand to learn a lot about writing by reading their peers’/competitors’ works. And yes, if you don’t have a strong need to improve in a certain area, it can be hard to justify spending your limited time reading authors whose only claim to superiority is that they’ve been published. The key word here, however, is writing– it’s my guess that the people recommending you read in your genre aren’t making the recommendation because they think you need to learn about writing, but because they want you to learn about the current publishing scene for your genre.

Regardless of criticisms that can be leveled at any of the new releases in a specific genre, you can’t argue that the people who are currently being published are doing something right in terms of navigating the market and the interest of publishers. By reading the most recently published titles in your genre, you can discover a lot about the scene you’re attempting to break into and identify some ways you can make your story/proposal a better fit for that scene.

Think about trying to get published in terms of an undercover mission. Like any good heist movie tells us, the key to successfully infiltrating a bank or a technology company or a spy ring is to stake it out– to pay close attention to who is coming and going, what the security measures are, which guards will accept a bribe (note: that’s a metaphor. Do not attempt to bribe an editor.), etc. The more information the rascally-yet-honorable thief has about the target, the greater his chances of success. The same is true for your publishing efforts: the more you know about the kinds of books that are being published in your genre, the types of stories that editors are currently acquiring, the types of approaches that are in vogue, etc., the more productive your efforts are going to be.

If your suspense novel starts with three chapters of backstory/everyday scenes but the majority of new releases in that genre jump into the action on the first page, your manuscript is going to raise a red flag for an editor who is interested in maintaining a certain brand of suspense novel in her imprint. If you’re telling your contemporary young adult story in the third person when the vast majority of contemporary YA is being told in first-person, you run the risk of being perceived as off-trend by the editors acquiring all those first-person stories. You get the idea.

Dos this mean you re-write your entire book just to follow a trend or to make it fit “the mold?” Definitely not; the rule about writing what YOU write best regardless of what’s trending remains true, but at the same time, it’s worth considering whether a tweak such as a new jumping-off place for the action or a revamped approach to your story might make it a more relevant contender in the current publishing environment.  Knowing who else is out there and what their books are like gives you the upper hand when choosing comparative titles in your proposal, helps you get a feel for the taste of individual imprints and publishers, and can help you determine which aspects of your story or your writing you want to play up when pitching to an editor or agent– if you’re leading with the love story when books are selling based on the subplots or settings, you want to restructure your query to highlight the ways you are already “on trend” with your writing.

Though it can seem like an unproductive use of your time, think of it as an investment in your book: reading to know the current publishing scene in your genre can ultimately make your marketing and pitching efforts more productive.

Heed the Book Doctor: Give Your Novel a Facelift (a guest blog)

November 14th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

Since I direct a college writing program and also travel across the country instructing at writers conferences, I encounter a lot of people who have finished writing a novel but are having no success at selling it to a publisher. After a dozen or more rejections, they’ll turn to a person like me—aka a “book doctor”—and ask, “So, what’s wrong with my book?” Often, the answer is simple. These people have not learned that “all writing is rewriting.” They’ve written a novel, but, as yet, they have not rewritten a novel.

If this is your situation, let me offer some guidance in how to turn back to your manuscript and give it the polish it needs to shine professionally.

  1. Get Outside Perspectives – You know what the book is supposed to say, but in order to determine if it actually is saying it, you need outside readers. Find someone in your writers’ group to read it and give you specific feedback regarding narrative drive, character development, setting, dialogue, and theme. Likewise, consider hiring a high school or college English teacher to copyedit the pages, checking grammar, syntax, punctuation, format, spelling, and transitions. This will reveal tangible aspects of the book that can be improved upon.
  2. Evaluate from Macro to Micro Elements – Read your entire book, but chart it as you go along. How quickly does the lead hook the reader? Does the subplot become evident no later than chapter three? Where are the arcs of conflict, the surprises, the clever plot twists? Is the ultimate climactic scene dramatic enough? Does the denouement tie up all loose ends, answer all questions, and imply what the next phase of the characters’ lives will be? By putting the whole book in your head (macro) while critiquing the individual elements (micro), you’ll be inserting correct pieces that will eventually reveal the finished puzzle.
  3. Examine the Pattern and Flow of the Story – Just because something is perfect in regard to writing mechanics doesn’t mean it is interesting. Consider key structural elements. Is the novel well-paced, motivating the reader to keep turning pages, or are there scenes that drag, passages of dialogue that are cluttered, and set-ups that have too much description and backstory? Are the flashbacks just thrown in at random like narrative sludge, or do they seem a natural foundation for the overall story structure? Is there a consistency in the length of chapters, or are they a hodgepodge of plotting whims? These are all specific areas that publishers will judge harshly, so work to make them smooth.
  1. Scrutinize the Individual Words – If you lean heavily on –ly adverbs to assist your verbs (talked quickly, sang merrily), remove them and insert stronger verbs that can stand alone (trilled, barked, rapped, prattled). Similarly, if you have a tendency to use too many –ing verbs (“She was hurrying to get to work”), replace them with stronger verbs (“She raced to her job”). Weed out dull, indistinct verbs, too. Instead of saying, “She was outside the principal’s office,” say, “She paraded . . . She paced . . . She strode . . . She stood . . . She fumed outside the principal’s office.” Add verbal energy.
  2. Show, Don’t Tell – It’s been drilled into you since childhood that actions speak louder than words. In fiction, this is especially true. For example, don’t have a high-school girl tell her arch rival, “You’re not supposed to smoke in the bathroom. If you light up, I’m going to tell the teachers.” Instead, write, “As Jennifer opened her purse and took out a cigarette and a lighter, Tina reached for the fire alarm.”

Here, what could have been a cliché, has now become a page-turning face-off confrontation. That’s what you want. Don’t lull the reader to sleep with a rehash of what happened, put him or her into the scene ready to witness the unfolding events.

I always compliment people who have shown the discipline it actually takes to write a novel. Most people have an idea for a story but not the professionalism to put it in writing. However, once that first draft has been purged from the mind, it becomes time to go back and fine-tune it.

There is no shame in not producing a masterpiece on the first go-through. The shame is in letting it lose the beauty contest because you wouldn’t give it the needed facelift.

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Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D., is Chairman of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University. His latest book, #54, is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers), which was represented by MacGregor Literary. Dr. Hensley is a monthly columnist in Christian Communicator and an annual judge for the Christy Awards, the Christian Book Awards, The Christian Writers Guild First Novel Contest, and The Evangelical Press Association Awards.

Writing for Yourself: The Value of Journaling

November 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to the still-unnamed Tuesday blog in which I write about craft and mechanics! I just finished up a series on voice, and before I launch a new series, I wanted to take a week to talk about a writing tool that a lot of authors may not have thought much about and look at why you should think about adding it to your writing regimen.

When you think of “keeping a journal,” there are probably a number of scenarios that come to mind: Lewis and Clark recording  bear attacks and typhoid deaths,  Thoreau scribbling introspectively into a notebook on the shores of Walden Pond, or, in my case, your middle-school self in headgear and scrunch socks funneling all her angst into a locking Lisa Frank diary. *Shudder.*

If you WERE like me (hopefully minus the headgear) and you kept any kind of a personal journal/diary during your younger days, re-reading that journal is probably a fairly painful experience. Even if yours isn’t full of pining for Jonathan Taylor Thomas,  it’s probably, like mine, full of spelling errors, incorrectly used apostrophes, and run-on sentences, for a start. (Hey, my long sentences now are a VOICE choice, okay?) Beyond that, there is probably a good amount of just straight-up obnoxious content: sentences you’re disgusted with, sentiments that make you cringe for having expressed the way you did, etc.  It’s easier to excuse those embarrassing entries from your really young self, but I journaled on and off through college, and there are things I’d slap my 20-year-old self for putting in print, if I could, just obnoxious, cheesy writing that I’m ashamed to be the author of.

Wow, Erin, you may be thinking. What a great idea. Journal now, with some of my already precious writing time, so that future-me can ridicule and loathe myself retroactively. Thank you for that great advice.

BUT. I have another journal from high school, a yellow spiral-bound Mead notebook with falling-out pages and doodles all over the cover that my 9th-grade English teacher, Miss Stinson, assigned us to write in all year. Sometimes she’d give us writing prompts, things like “make a list of your favorite things,” or “describe your dream house.” Sometimes she’d give us the beginning of a story and have us finish it in our journals, sometimes she’d put on a piece of music and tell us to write about whatever the music made us think of. Miss Stinson would collect the journals every couple weeks and read over our hand-written entries just to make sure we’d done them, and sometimes she’d make comments, but the only grade we received on them was participation credit. She made it very clear to us that these entries were for us, for our benefit, not for her to correct our grammar or  to criticize our organization.

The thing that stands out to me now, reading back over it, is the amazing restraint Miss Stinson showed in NOT making corrections or criticizing that writing in any way. We wrote lots of other papers that year, and she took plenty of points off those for extra apostrophes and misspelled words, but she recognized that, to get any kind of momentum in writing, we had to have a place to write where we weren’t worrying about a grade or a review or someone’s reaction. Miss Stinson’s only notes in that journal are smiley faces or underlined favorite sentences or “love this!”/”funny”/”great thoughts” comments in the margins. She made those journals a completely safe space to write in, and as our trust in that safety grew, our writing became adventurous and creative and unfettered in a way it never would have done in assignments turned in for a grade.

Now, please hear me when I say, the place for unfettered, unedited writing is not my inbox. Obviously, the projects you submit to agents and editors need to have been refined and edited and polished, but the point I’m making is that there IS  place for free writing, and having a space like a journal where there will literally never be another set of eyes on your writing lets you create in a way that you simply can’t replicate when writing blog entries or books or proposals or anything that you know will eventually be read by someone else. Even pages for a trusted writing partner or critique group are written with the knowledge at the back of your mind that someone will eventually be reading and assigning value to your words. You will never create the same content for someone else that you will create for yourself, and even if you never mine that personal writing for any material you can use for your public writing, the process of writing for yourself and the freedom and honesty you enjoy when doing so can’t help but prime the pump for more honest, more creative work in your other writing.

So what’s the “right way” to journal? “Psh, that’s a leading question, Erin, because obviously the point you’ve been beating us over the head with is that every way is the right way!” Very good. Every way is the right way! Buy yourself an awesome leather journal from Barnes and Noble, pick up a good ol’ spiral-bound Mead at the grocery store, open a new Word doc, however you want to do it. You can start by journaling your day-to-day experiences, but don’t settle for just a laundry list of, “today I did such-and-such;” describe what you saw, where you went, what made you mad, what you loved, what thoughts you had in line at Starbucks.

If you’re not that introspective while waiting for your coffee, make a list of writing prompts and use a different one as a jumping-off point each day– things like, “favorite memory,” “best vacation,” “how you’d spend a million dollars,” “celebrity you’d like to be best friends with,” etc. Google “creative writing prompts” or “dating show questions.” Even a trivial writing prompt can get you started on the path to some really good free writing if you just jump in and start scribbling.

Finally, make a rule for yourself that when you go back and re-read your free writing a year or two from now, you are NOT ALLOWED to edit it or make any comments to yourself. Yes, you’ll probably cringe a few times, but the point of this kind of writing is that it enriches your writing going forward. The value is in the process, not the product, so don’t waste any time looking back in judgment.

And thanks, Miss Stinson, for encouraging us to write for ourselves. And for probably trying to cure me of run-on sentences.

Voice Lessons: Part 5, The Need for Voice

November 4th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wToday is the last day of my series on author voice. I’ve spent most of my time over the past few weeks talking about what voice IS– how to define it, how to recognize it, how to develop it– but today, I want to talk about probably the most important factor in developing a strong personal voice as a writer, and that is understanding the need for great voice. I started the series by talking about some of the frustration associated with chasing strong voice, and the nebulous, elusive way we often talk about “great author voice,” and the reality is that the ability to identify or harness a strong writing voice doesn’t come naturally to a lot of writers. Like whatever subject just never made sense to you in school (just the word “chemistry” still prompts a panic response), voice for a lot of people is a frustrating area. You might think you see a glimmer of light when reading a blog post or a how-to article or listening to a lecture on it, but five minutes into trying to critique/improve your own voice in a piece of writing and you’re frustrated, depressed, and ready to forget it. It’s true that voice isn’t as easy to work on as mechanics, or characters, or dialogue, both because it’s less concrete and because there are fewer resources available, but understanding why voice is so important can help keep you motivated to continue working on yours, even if it feels like an uphill battle.

Think about some of your favorite books. If you’re like me, they probably come from one or two of the same genres– maybe your favorite books tend to be romances, or historical fiction, or mysteries. Even if your top five books come from five different genres, each one (most likely) can be categorized with THOUSANDS of other titles in the same genre or sub-genre. Take an easy example: say a couple of your favorite books are mystery novels. Now, you’ve probably read dozens, if not hundreds, of other titles in that genre– when we find a book or an author we like, we tend to look for books or authors with a similar feel to them. That’s the section we browse first at the library or bookstore, and those are the kinds of titles that Amazon recommends when we’re searching one of our favorites.

But not EVERY mystery novel you read ends up on your favorites list– not even close! For every one mystery on your list of books you would re-read and recommend to others and snatch up if you saw it at a used-book sale, you’ve probably read or skimmed ten or twenty “similar” books that were completely forgettable. If pressed to give an explanation for why those books didn’t end up on your favorites list, you’d probably cite a variety of reasons– mediocre writing in some cases, failure to connect with the characters, a plot that didn’t interest you– but at the end of the day, the books that DO end up on our list of favorites aren’t there solely because of their superior plots or excellent dialogue or particularly interesting characters, they’re there because our overall experience with them was special, because the world created therein was one we loved spending time in, because the stories were told in a way that made us want to listen, and THAT experience as a reader is the result of great voice on the part of a writer.

That’s what you’re chasing when you choose to spend another painful hour focusing on your voice, or when you ask your critique partner to give you voice feedback, or when you re-write your opening chapter yet again after getting yet another piece of “your voice isn’t very strong” criticism. Ultimately, your goal and hope as a writer is not simply for an agent or editor to say yes, but to make readers feel the same excitement for your story and characters that you do, to put yourself and your story on the page with such authenticity that no other mystery novel or historical romance or humorous memoir will satisfy those readers in the same way yours does. Voice is the reason readers are going to sign up to receive updates on when your next book is coming out, and the reason they think of your book when a friend asks for a recommendation, and the reason they’ll track down your blog or your facebook page to hear more from you– voice keeps readers coming to YOU, and if you’re one of those weird authors who actually wants people to read his book, that’s a really good thing.

Now, if you have a fantastic voice, that doesn’t mean you should stop reading Thursdays with Amanda. Obviously, you can’t just write a great book, slap it up on Amazon, and then wait for your million dollars to show up in your bank account, but it IS true that your entire writing career is going to be more successful and gain momentum more quickly if you get an early handle on your voice. For published authors whose sales numbers haven’t been as strong as you might like, it might be worth working on your voice a bit before your next book– find out what readers loved about your last book, what they like about YOUR romances or mysteries or thrillers in particular, and see if you can offer that to them in even stronger ways in your next book.

Thanks for reading this series; I hope you found it helpful in understanding voice and that both the concept of “voice” and your understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses in that area are a lot less hazy. Not sure what’s next for these Tuesday blogs on craft, so if you have any suggestions or questions for future topics, I’d love to hear them!

Voice Lessons: Part 4, Responding to Voice Criticism

October 28th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wI’m starting to wrap up my series on author voice, and this week and next week will be looking at ways authors can protect and continue to develop their literary voice.

 

So far in the series, I’ve really tried to emphasize that a lot of these examples of voice are descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that just because one author in your genre tends to use less description or more complicated syntax doesn’t mean that the way for you to have a stronger, more effective author voice is to do the exact same thing. On the contrary, the best way for you to develop a strong author voice is to be as much yourself as possible, but I’ve talked with a  lot of authors who have  received feedback or criticism about their voice that has caused them to second-guess their instincts or believe that they need to change their voice in order to further their writing career, and in most cases, this isn’t true. Below are several common pieces of voice-related feedback authors receive and the do’s and don’ts of responding.

 

  • “Your voice isn’t very strong/you need to develop your voice more.” DON’T: go out and become a caricature of a voice in your genre. If you write thrillers and are advised to strengthen your voice, that shouldn’t be taken as a prescription to go back and re-write your story in over-the-top Gothic style or to add a bunch of distinctive vocabulary or syntax as a way of manufacturing a recognizable voice. DO: start a list of what elements already define your voice (ask a critique group or writing partner to help you) and then write (and read) a LOT more. Voice is largely developed through experience, but reading authors with strong voice can help you develop your ear for voice and make you more aware of the way your own voice comes through on the page.
  • “Your voice needs to be more _________ (humorous, menacing, formal, informal, intellectual, accessible).” DON’T: blindly accept any and all feedback in this line. One reader’s preference of voice in a certain type of book doesn’t mean that you have to (or that there’s any way at all you could) cater to an individual reader’s taste. DO: consider whether that feedback is driven by personal preference or by genre/readership norms. If you write for a younger audience and someone tells you your voice needs to be more accessible, you may want to consider whether you really have a handle on the age/education of your reader. If you’re writing a non-fiction book on accounting, that might not be the place to let your informal Twitter voice drive the manuscript, and you may want to consider the possibility that your voice needs to be more formal.
  • Your voice needs to be more consistent.” DO: ask for clarification, if you can. Do they mean that your voice comes and goes, or that it changes tone throughout? If the former is the problem, take a look at the places where your voice IS evident and think about ways you could apply the same technique in other parts of the manuscript. If it’s the latter, take it back to genre: if the majority of your cozy mystery is humorous/lighthearted except for the two places where you suddenly shift into completely chilling terror-territory, you probably need to re-work the scenes in the minority to better fit with the tone you have more consistent success with in the rest of the manuscript (and the tone a reader generally expects from that genre). Just because you CAN suddenly write a completely hilarious scene or a completely horrifying one doesn’t mean you should– if it’s going to confuse the reader or lessen your authority as a thriller writer (or a romance writer, or a children’s writer, or… etc.), it needs to be excised in the interest of further establishing your voice.

Though it can take different forms, the majority of feedback on author voice is pointing out the same thing: you don’t consistently sound like yourself. Attempting to reinvent your voice  in response to every individual critic is ultimately going to be unproductive as well as completely destructive to the development of your consistent, unique voice. In general, take voice-related criticism with a grain of salt, consider it in light of your genre and potential readers, compare it with your own understanding of your writing voice, and then get back to writing, always the most surefire way to develop a strong voice.

 

 

Voice Lessons: Part 3, Word Choice

October 21st, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wNo, you’re not hallucinating, I really have returned to my Tuesday blog space. No, I did not forget that I was in the middle of a blog series on voice; I simply chose to be in Ireland the last two Tuesdays instead of here writing blogs on voice, and of course I would have gladly devoted some of my precious vacation time to blogging instead of gazing at those boring ol’ Cliffs of Moher, but wouldn’t you know it, Ireland hasn’t installed the Internet yet, so I couldn’t. Very sad. But happily, I’m back in the USA where the Internet is alive and well and so today I’m resuming my blog series on how to define, identify, and develop your voice as a writer. And Ireland was lovely, thanks for asking.

In looking at how word choice affects/reflects an author’s voice, the biggest question you should be asking is, are your words a fit for your voice? It’s natural for a writer starting out to be a bit self-conscious of his words on the page, much like someone at a new job or on a first date is hyper-aware of how he’s coming across to others. You might tend to check and re-check your responses in order to be sure you’re making the impression you want to make, you’re probably going to dress with a little more care than you ordinarily would in the hopes of coming across the way you want to, and you might find yourself agreeing with opinions or laughing politely at jokes that you don’t actually identify with, all in the interest of being perceived as a pleasant, reasonable person, regardless of what kind of lunatic you actually are.

Around your own friends and family, however, the filters slip, and you’re much less conscious of the image you’re projecting; instead, your actions and words and demeanor reflect your actual views and personality much more faithfully. This version of you might not be as politically correct or as polished as the version that your new colleagues or your blind date see, but it’s much more genuine, and while not everyone is going to love the “real” version of you, the people who WILL like you for who you are will have a much easier time recognizing what makes you unique.

In the same way, newer writers can sometimes write with a consciousness that someone– an agent, a peer group, an editor– is going to read their work that can sabotage or smother the writer’s true personality coming out on the page, especially where word choice is concerned. Authors may choose words to make them come across as more intellectual or more relevant when they should instead be primarily concerned with getting their stories on the page with as much honesty and authenticity as possible, and the words they choose in their attempts to project rather than reveal themselves can be extremely distracting to the reader and create distance between the reader and an author who comes across as inauthentic or faceless.

For example, I often read manuscripts in which it would appear that the author has painstakingly consulted a thesaurus for each and every word on the page, with the result that their meaning, and the heart of the author’s story, is almost completely obscured. If you aren’t using long, complex words naturally, they’re going to be jarring to the reader when we come up against them strewn awkwardly along your story. If your voice/writing style is very informal, more formal language is going to stick out. Your words are those that come fairly naturally to you, not those you choose because you want to sound more “writer-y” or intellectual. The reverse is also true; if your writing style is naturally very cerebral or formal, conscious decisions to try and “dumb down” your word choice or syntax aren’t going to ring true, and prevent the reader who would love your natural voice and word choice from getting a clear picture of that voice.

Consider also the audience that will most likely be reading your book. If you’re writing for children, you’re going to make difference word choices than if you were writing for adults, and vice-versa. If you’re writing a legal thriller that will most likely be read by white-collar men from the baby boomer generation, you’re going to make different choices than if you’re writing chick lit that will most likely be read by 30-something moms.

You also need to consider whether your words are a fit for the time period you’re writing in. If modern slang isn’t a fit for an otherwise very formal historical setting and characters, it’s going to be distracting to the reader when you choose to use it, and if your 1940s characters speak with mostly modern syntax and vocabulary because that’s the voice you naturally write in, period-appropriate slang will probably feel very conspicuous. Your story and your writing are king. Let those elements drive your word choice instead of conscious efforts to be historically accurate or intellectual or accessible or age-appropriate.

Sometimes when you examine your word choice and start to recognize the patterns that naturally occur in your writing, you come to the realization that you haven’t written the book you thought you had, and find yourself reexamining the genre or age group you write for. You may start out thinking you’re writing YA but discover after the fact that your voice is naturally much better suited to an older reader, or you may think you’ve written a thriller but what you’ve really written is romantic suspense. Obviously, there are some other factors in genre-identification, but word choice and the way it reveals your natural voice is a big part of it.

I’ve seen dozens of projects that were pitched as once thing but that were really a much better fit, voice-wise, for  different genre or age group– picture book writers whose word choices and syntax were much better suited for middle-grade, middle-grade authors who were actually writing easy-readers, adult fantasy novels that were a perfect fit for a YA readership, historical fiction with a great voice that was really a better fit for contemporary fiction– the list goes on. I know it seems overwhelming to consider that the genre or readership you’ve worked towards and identified with might not be the best fit for your voice/writing style, but you’ll meet with a lot less resistance on your writing path, long-term, if you figure out where your strengths and the market align, rather than trying to apply your strengths to an area of the market where they’re not the greatest fit.

It’s important, in these discussions on voice, that you don’t let some of the finer points of voice distract you from the big picture; that is, that voice is the personality of the author as revealed through the writing. The takeaway from a discussion about word choice should not be to go back and second-guess each of your word choices and agonize over every adjective use, but to help you to notice the word choice patterns you naturally fall into as a writer and get you started thinking about how those patterns and habits can help you zero in on your unique voice and the unique audience you’re writing for.