Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

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.

The Writing Road: Inspiration from East to West (a guest blog)

October 17th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

Other cultures fascinate me. I love traveling. But when I married a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, I knew I was signing on for an unconventional life-path. The day we learned our first overseas assignment was China, that unconventionality turned sharply real.

I braced myself for a lot of “news” — new food, new language, new security concerns…. The only thing I didn’t anticipate changing was my work situation. I’m a writer. I work from home. How far could things alter?

How naïve! For someone whose literary endeavors involve history and folklore, research is critical. My introduction to China’s expansive Internet censorship system, the Great Firewall (I wish I’d invented that clever term. Alas, that’s the official moniker.), was not a cordial one. Suddenly, it took ten minutes to load every site I tried accessing. Google—and everything to which it was a gateway—was entirely inaccessible. Progress on my 1920’s novel ground to a halt.

Those first weeks before we installed our VPN, I was not a happy camper. Or writer. Or anything else.

Until it was pointed out that as an author, I couldn’t receive a better gift. Not only was it much harder to anesthetize writer’s block (i.e., procrastinate) via YouTube, but my mind was refreshed and my imagination electrified every time I stepped beyond my Chinese-character embellished welcome mat. When everything around is unfamiliar, life becomes sharper, more vibrant. And for a writer, an energetically buzzing mind is invaluable.

And I discovered The Bookworm, a Western literature themed café that somehow exists in central China. Part restaurant/bar, part library/bookshop, it’s literally wall-to-wall and (ceiling-to-floor) with books. The drink menu is styled like a newspaper, the food menu like a book. Drink specials boast names like “Crime and Peppermint.” Walking into The Bookworm was like wandering into a breathing dream. It’s the place I’ve always dreamed existed in the States but never found. The masters of Western literature had preceded me to China, a reminder that writing is one of the few truly global endeavors, whatever language it adopts. If Austen and Dickinson can flourish here alongside Li Bo and Du Fu, then so can I.

And really, what writer wouldn’t consider forfeiting an appendage for the chance to carry home the research and inspiration only adventure provides?

 

What/where has provided unexpected inspiration for you? When the muse doesn’t sing so loudly, how do you jumpstart your creativity?

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Lauren Peltier

Lauren Peltier is a novelist living overseas. A graduate of Taylor University’s Professional Writing Program, she is working on a novel based on the Irish selkie myth.

What the Bible Teaches Me about Fiction (a guest post)

October 10th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

Most of what I’ve learned about fiction I’ve learned from the Bible. That’s not to say I think the Bible is myth. Rather, the way Moses, Jesus, and its other storytellers craft their narratives has taught me a lot about fiction. Here’s a sampling:

Use limited point-of-view to capitalize on reader identification. Did Bathsheba flirt with David? Bat her eyelashes? Seduce him? There’s a reason the author does not answer such questions. We’re supposed to see the story completely from David’s point of view. And David is 100 percent responsible for his choices, no matter what Bathsheba’s doing.

Use setting to communicate something greater than the place itself. I’m not saying a writer must make the setting exotic. Rather, use the setting almost as you would do a character. Where is Jezebel when she kills the owner of the vineyard she covets? In Jezreel. Where is Jezebel more than 17 years later when dogs snarf her up? Back in Jezreel. Where is Peter when he denies the Lord three times? By a charcoal fire. Where is Peter when Jesus gives him three chances to declare his love? By a charcoal fire.

Give the “good guys” weaknesses. Nobody’s perfect, so use imperfections to make characters believable. Peter is spirited but impulsive—just ask Malchus. Consider what’s often called “The Faith Chapter.” It lists heroes of the faith. Yet with only a few exceptions, Hebrews 11 could just as easily be called “The Foul-Up Chapter.” There we find murderers, adulterers, liars, and hookers. Despite their flaws, however, they have one thing in common: faith. Moses is humble, but he has an anger management problem.

The foundation for the western canon of literature, the Bible is filled with narratives written by some of the best storytellers and communicators the world has ever known. Studying its pages can make us better writers.

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Sandra Glahn, a Christy Award finalist, is the author or coauthor of eighteen books. Her most recent work of fiction is Informed Consent (Cook). You can read her blog at www.aspire2.blogspot.com.

Ask the Agent: What do you look for in a query?

October 8th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Proposals, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…

What are the three most important things you look for in a query?

A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.

How important are queries to your agency? 

I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very low.

What experience is worth mentioning in a query?

Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.

Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?

Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.

What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?

I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)

Which genres do you deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?

Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.

Which genres will the public never tire of?

We love romance. We love redemption stories. We love justice. We love seeing characters we like grapple with powers greater than themselves and win against long odds. We love a great, pulse-pounding thriller. We love mysteries getting solved, whether by smart amateurs or methodical types. We love people making sacrifices for something greater than themselves. We love people facing the great questions of life and making choices, then exploring the ramifications of those choices.

So when thinking about queries coming across your desk, should we follow the trends or write what we want to write?

I think authors are given stories, and must write the stories they are given. That said, I think authors who read widely, and who read great writing of others, are given more and greater stories. Following trends might get you a deal sometime, but writing what you want to write will help you create a career. My two cents.

What five things do you consider “must haves” when you are reviewing a query or manuscript?

Great, unique voice. Interesting characters that I like. A story structure I can follow. A significant plot or conflict. A great theme.

What five things guarantee a trip to the trash bin?

Grammar/spelling/punctuation errors. Guaranteeing me this will be a blockbuster, or that God told you to write to me. Weird fonts and formats. An arrogant attitude (particularly people who don’t want to listen to advice). Sending me poetry and other stuff I don’t represent. (true story: I just got an email that read, “While I know you don’t normally represent poetry, I thought you might be interested in my epic poem about…” — yeah, because making it longer will get me to love it.)

How much does a killer first line matter to you? Is it a deal breaker?

It’s not a deal breaker, but I LOVE a great opening line. I collect great opening lines. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of great writing. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “It was bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (I could go on.)

What do you recommend for a writer who wants to improve his or her craft?

Write more. (I find most writers write a bit, but the best writers tend to have written a LOT.) Read more. (I find most every writer reads some, but the best writers tend to have read a LOT, and have read WIDELY and not just in their genre.) Shut up and listen to advice. Learn to mimmic others, just to see what it’s like to be someone else. (Great art tends to be derivative.) Study great writers, to see what you can glean from them.

What inner qualities do you see in your most successful authors?

What a fabulous question. Um…. a longing for truth. A willingness to work hard. A desire to improve. An attitude that listens and doesn’t get whiny every time somebody suggests an editorial change. A desire to explore the big questions. A boldness to be brave and try something new.

What attitudes are career killers for writers?

I know it all. I don’t have to listen. I can write now so I’ll wait for my muse. My work is better than all those schmucks selling books because it’s Great Art.

Do you ever tell anyone they do not possess talent for writing?

Not often. But yes, I have, and it’s always hard. And sometimes I just have to say, “There’s nothing I can really do with this. It’s not a fit for me. Sorry.” Think of this as singing — if the person really can’t carry a tune, or has no sense of rhythm, at some point they need to hear, “You can’t sing — there’s no career here. There’s not even a hobby here. Let me suggest you get off the stage and look for something else.”

Do you believe that writing skills taught are more important than raw talent?

Sure. Raw talent puts you ahead in high school. After that it won’t get you very far. You write more, you train, you improve, you develop your skills. Who wants to be 40 and still a fine high school writer?

How much does an author platform play into your decision to represent an author?

For nonfiction, it’s the first question I’ll be asked, so it matters. And now I’m starting to be asked that question of fiction authors. So platform matters to novelists as well. You have to mention it in your nonfiction query — you may or may not in a fiction query. And a “platform” is just a number — how many people read your blog? how many read your articles? your newspaper column? how many hear you speak at conferences? how many listen to you on the radio? how many are you connected to through Pinterest? through your organizations? through [fill in the blank]? Those are all numbers. Add them up, and you have your platform. (And here’s a hint: the bigger the number; the happier the publisher will be.)

If I have a growing platform and a number of 5-star Amazon reviews, how do I make the leap from a small, internet-based publisher to a larger, traditional publisher?

That’s a very fair question, but you may or may not like my response… You either sell a boatload of books and say to a publisher, “See? I can sell a lot of books!” (which may mean you don’t need the publisher anyway; that you can just self-pub and make the money you need), OR you put together a great book and proposal, get an agent who believes in you, and approach publishers with it. But, um, I have to tell you that publishers and agents tend to be less than impressed with five-star reviews on Amazon these days. Too many have been generated by the author (or the author’s best buddies), so that they aren’t genuine. They’re nice, of course, but no publisher buys your next book because your last one got a pile of five star reviews. They need THIS book to be great. (And, of course, the first thing they’ll ask is, “Can you tell us about that growing platform you mentioned?”)

If there are no new ideas for writers, how do we come up with original stories?

Who said there are no new ideas? For that matter, who says we need new ideas? Every romance is about two people meeting, getting pulled apart by something, but needing to be together because… geez, because we ALL want to have a magical romantic story like that. Every health book is about eating less and moving more. Every finance book is about spending less and saving more. I think chasing after the latest idea is a trap. You’ll all be better off becoming great writers, and writing the best story you have, in my view. I hope this helps.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask an agent? 

Voice Lessons: Part 2, Finding Your Voice

October 1st, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught last week’s post, you’ll know we’re going to be talking about author voice for the next few weeks in the hopes of demystifying a crucial yet often elusive piece of the writing puzzle. Now that we’ve discussed what elements contribute to the presence of author voice on a page, we’re moving on to some ways to identify what characterizes your voice so that you can direct your writing energy towards refining and strengthening it. To help you in evaluating your voice, I’m going to break down a passage of writing from an author with a terrific voice and then talk you through doing the same for yourself.

In examining the writing of an author with strong voice, I’m forced to revisit an oft-referenced author on this blog, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s brilliant comic novels and short stories very often have similar subjects and settings– the British aristocracy, the English countryside– but the content similarities don’t characterize his voice as much as the way he tells his stories. Don’t confuse topic with voice. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the opening passage to Wodehouse’s Money for Nothing.

“The picturesque village of Rudge-in-the-Vale dozed in the summer sunshine. Along its narrow high street the only signs of life visible were a cat stropping its backbone against the Jubilee Watering Trough, some flies doing deep-breathing exercises on the hot windowsills, and a little group of serious thinkers who, propped up against the wall of the Carmody Arms, were waiting for that establishment to open. At no time is there ever much doing in Rudge’s main thoroughfare, but the hour at which a stranger, entering it, is least likely to suffer the illusion that he has strayed into Broadway, Piccadilly, or the Rue de Rivoli is at two o’clock on a warm afternoon in July.”

Okay, so, just by dissecting this first paragraph, we can identify several characteristics of Wodehouse’s author voice. First, we can say with a fair amount of confidence that this writer’s tone is humorous. The hyperbolic “flies doing deep-breathing exercises” clues us in almost right away that this author’s treatment of a quiet country village is going to be a bit more colorful than average, and primes the reader to be on the lookout for more jokes.

In addition to identifying his writing as comic, the deep-breathing flies set up the type of humor he will be using in the future. Sown artfully among a nice, quiet descriptive passage, this joke informs the reader that the humor to come is at times subtle, less slapstick or situation-based than it is dependent on the author (by means of the narration), and again sets us up to appreciate the humor to come more readily and to look for more hyperbole.

Further scrutinizing of this passage might lead one to say that the author favors long sentences. (You and me both, Plum.) Two of the three sentences above are 50 or more words in length, with parenthetical clauses and a fairly complex syntax. By acquainting the reader’s “ear” with this sentence structure, he lets them know right away what to expect and sets the pace for the rest of the novel. The reader finds out from the start that this author is going to require them to pay a little closer attention than required by certain other authors.

So, after only three sentences, we have gleaned a lot of information about the voice of the author. His tone, his type of or approach to that tone, his sentence length, and his syntax all contribute to the sum of his voice, and it’s this sum that Wodehouse fans can recognize after reading only a few paragraphs, even if they don’t consciously break it down into all these elements every time they read him.

You can use this same method of examination to figure out what characterizes your own writing. Take a passage of your writing– probably more than one paragraph, so you have plenty to go on– and look for the answers to these questions:

  • What is my tone? Humorous? Irreverent? Chilling? Gritty? Flowery? Melancholy? Dark? Zany?
  • How do I approach my tone, or where on the scale does it fall? I.e., if your writing tone is humorous, what kind of humor are you using? If your tone is dark, is it horror-movie dark or Lifetime-original-movie dark? If it’s chilling, is it rated PG-13 or R? If it’s irreverent, is it only mildly offensive or are people going to burn your book?
  • What is my rhythm/sentence length? Is the majority of your story written in short, punchy sentences, or in long, flowery sentences? Or are they of average length?
  • What is my syntax? Are my sentences simple and straightforward? Are they complex?

If you have trouble answering these questions for your own writing, farm out the chore to a competent reader. Ask a good writer and reader to look at your writing and pass her observations on to you; see how they match up with your own observations. The better you know your tendencies as a writer, the more successfully you will be able to recognize writing of yours that detracts from or weakens your voice, or that stands out by being substantially different.

I’m going to use this same method again next week to expand the discussion to some additional characteristics of voice, such as word choice and descriptive style, so if you have any favorite authors whose voices are especially distinctive because of their word choice or descriptive style, let me know in the comments and I might use them for examples next week. Thanks for reading!

 

Voice Lessons: Part 1, Defining Author Voice

September 23rd, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wHere at the Chip MacGregor blog, we receive thousands of questions from readers every week. Okay, maybe more like dozens. At least ten. While a majority of those questions have to do with the publishing side of writing– the editorial process, finding an agent, understanding contracts/rights/etc.,– someone occasionally sends in a question related to craft, and probably a fourth of those questions have to do with author voice and how to define/develop it.

Most frequently, readers’ questions on voice are very similar to this one:

“I would find it helpful if you would say more about ‘voice.’ What does that look like? How does one develop and improve ‘voice?'”

I understand the frustration some authors have with the lack of definitive answers about voice– I’m as guilty as the next agent or editor who rhapsodizes about a “great writing voice” or fantasizes about finding the next great “voice” without spending a lot of time talking about this seemingly indefinable quality. That’s probably because author voice is a tricky quality to talk about without being too prescriptive– one of the best definitions of voice in a piece of writing is “the personality of the author as revealed through the writing.” That said, it’s hard for an agent to give specific advice about voice beyond general comments like “your voice seems inconsistent” or “your voice doesn’t come across very strong” without sounding like we’re suggesting you change your personality/writing style. In reality, all we really want is for it to present more clearly and strongly on the page.

What great voice “looks like” is a book that tells me in the first couple of paragraphs what the author’s style of humor is, how intellectual his writing is, how whimsical he is, how seriously she takes herself, how “safe” she is (does she write camera-fade-to-black fight scenes or no-one-under-17-admitted-without-a-parent fight scenes?)– regardless of the type of book being written, the answers to these questions about the author’s personality can be found on virtually any page of one of his books; it shines through the narration, the dialogue, and the description.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about the way that writing style, syntax, word choice, and atmosphere affect an author’s voice and how to use these elements to develop and improve your own voice, as well as look at examples of some great voices already in print. If you have any questions about voice you’d like addressed in the series, leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!

How to End Up on a Facebook List

September 16th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wIf you use Facebook with any regularity, you’ve seen a number of trends take over your news feed in the past few years. We’ve had “change your profile picture to a picture of your celebrity lookalike” week, “change your status to the fruit that corresponds to your relationship status in a bizarre and completely non-effective attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer” month, and the recent ALS ice bucket challenge during which we all enjoyed the sight of our employers, friends, and celebrity crushes being doused in ice water to raise money for ALS research.

Trending now on Facebook is a status which challenges users to post a list of the 10 most influential books they’ve ever read. Not their favorite books, necessarily, just the first 10 books that come to mind when thinking about the books that shaped their thinking, their attitude toward reading, or their taste in literature. When 130,000 people’s lists were compared and studied, a list of the 20 most frequently listed titles was revealed.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a scientifically perfect list– everyone’s definition of “books that stayed with you” is different– but it’s obvious that the authors who ended up on this list managed to connect with readers in a way that left an impression. As any good writing resource will tell you, there isn’t one way to write a great book (or a memorable one, or a significant one, or… etc.), but as we see from this list, there are factors that several of these influential authors have in common that are worth thinking about if you aspire to join them on this list when this trend resurfaces in 50 years or so.

  • Write more than one book. Almost none of the works in the top 20 titles were the author’s first novel. Jane Austen wrote drafts of Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey before Pride and Prejudice was completed, Margaret Mitchell wrote at least three (unpublished) novels before beginning Gone with the Wind, and Suzanne Collins wrote and published an entire separate series before finding insane fame as the author of The Hunger Games. The takeaway here is, if you’ve worked and slaved over your first manuscript for years and still haven’t found huge publishing or sales success, don’t give up on that first work entirely, but for heaven’s sake, start writing something else! Novel-writing is like any other art; the more you do it, the better at it you get.
  • Write the story you want to write. If C. S. Lewis were writing today, he’d probably be told that his Christian themes were too strong for a general market children’s series. Tolkien might have been discouraged from writing fantasy because it’s not currently “trending.” Harper Lee might have been advised to use an adult protagonist if she wanted adults to read her book. If you have a story you want to write, write THAT story without worrying about which box it might or might not fit into. You can let an agent/editor worry about that down the road, but you’ll write a better book if you let the story and not the market drive your writing.
  • Write for children. Of the top 20, seven of the titles that were most often cited as staying with the reader are books which are classified as children’s or young adult. The books a person reads when he is young shape his view of reading, his taste, his worldview, his beliefs, and the likelihood that he will continue to read as an adult. As evidenced by this not-so-scientific list, a book that connects to a young readership will be remembered long after the flavor-of-the-week erotica-disguised-as-romance or suspense thriller on the “adult” bestseller list.
  • Write books that are just fun to read, period. Two words: Harry Potter.

As always, these elements should be taken as more descriptive of influential writing than prescriptive– obviously, if your story is a depression-era family saga, you shouldn’t re-work it to make it “fun to read” (see: “write the story you want to write”), but it’s interesting to look at these titles and see what elements they have in common that you may be able to harness in your own writing.

Have you posted your list of “10 books that have stayed with you?” What titles were on yours that were missed from the “top 100?” Were any of your titles books for children/young adults?

Real Life Characters (a guest blog)

September 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

What are you afraid of? This was the question I pondered several years ago as I considered giving writing another shot. I’d been writing stories all of my life, but never shared them. One of my worries was that I would offend someone—especially someone in my family. But I also knew that to write a great story, I must be willing to take a stand. If I tried to please everyone, I’d end up with a mushy mess.women's fiction

Recently I heard New York Times best-selling author Elizabeth Berg address this same fear. When she wrote her novel, DURABLE GOODS, about a child afraid of her dad, she worried how her father would react. She asked her mother to serve as a buffer and remind her dad that “This is fiction.” Well, her father didn’t see it that way. Elizabeth Berg admits things were a little stilted between them for a while. But in the end, they had a frank discussion about her childhood and they grew much closer.

This is probably the best case scenario for an author. Personally, I’m not that brave. To err on the side of caution, I decided to create characters so different from my family that no one could be hurt. In my first series, the main character’s parents are no longer alive. And instead of a brother, she has a sister.

But I’ve also found that when I base a character on a real-life person, they tend to become three-dimensional so much easier. Sometimes I think of someone I know, write the character, then change the physical attributes, quirks and of course, the name. In the end, I’m the only one who knows who inspired me.

So, I figure I’ve played it safe. No one can accuse me of slander or misrepresentation. Right? Yet my mother-in-law asked if the mother-in-law in my books is nice or mean. Wait a minute. I wasn’t thinking of her when I wrote those characters. (Let me just say that I have a kind mother-in-law no matter what my books represent.) But this was a scary reminder of what I risk every time I publish something.

women's fictionWhat happens when my daughter is old enough to read my novels? I have to admit she has influenced the children in my stories. The fact that she wanted a telescope for Christmas (which made me so proud) or the fact that she said she swims not like a fish, but like a mermaid (which made me laugh) or the fact that she needed special tutoring to overcome her dyslexia (which broke my heart). In one ironic twist of fate, I wrote of a child who fell asleep chewing gum and woke up with it stuck in her hair. A few weeks later, my daughter actually did this. Once I got over my case of deja-vu, I re-wrote the scene and had the mother work much harder to try and remove the goo before resorting to cutting it out.

Will my daughter someday be mad that I wrote about her misdeeds? I hope not. The truth is I’m a better writer because of her. I owe her so much for opening my eyes to the struggles and joys that motherhood entails. Were it not for her, I wouldn’t be able to relate to a large part of my audience. Were it not for her, I wouldn’t realize what a crazy, emotional roller coaster parenthood is. I used to lean heavily toward the “nurture” camp, but now realize what a wild card DNA is. Who really knows if they’re making the right decisions when it comes to their kids? It takes eighteen years to see the results and even then, are they a finished product? I think not. Oh, this motherhood thing is a challenge! Fortunately, struggle is what makes a good story.

So, if you’re afraid to write because you think you’ll offend someone, just start writing. There’s no guarantee that even if you produce the most innocuous story, you won’t bother someone. Do your best to alter names and any other obvious identifiers, but then go for it. The truth is, the point of literature is to evoke emotion. Some people will love your work and some people will hate it. C’est la vie.

For all of my efforts to write about people that were not at all like my family, here is what my mom said when she finished reading my novel, A SISTER’S PROMISE: “OK, which sister was you and which one was your brother?”

Neither. Both. I’m not saying.

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Karen LenfesteyKaren Lenfestey, a Midwest Writer’s Fellowship winner, writes “happy endings with a twist.” She has just published her fourth novel, A WEEKEND GETAWAY, which begs the question, “Should Bethany track down the daughter she’s never known just to give her bad news?” To receive a free copy of the prequel, FRIDAY A LA MODE, visit www.karensnovels.com.

 

The Future of Private Eye Fiction (a guest blog)

September 5th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

Scrape that gum off your shoe, and try this one on for size: private investigators. What goes through your head when you picture one? A tough guy in a trench coat spouting gruff, side-of-the-mouth dialog that’s sharp enough to shave with? Brassy, wisecracking dames in distress? Fistfights, gunfights, and dark, glistening city streets, all put to the music of a lone, wailing saxophone? Well yeah. I do, anyway. Matter of fact, most of us do. But somehow over the years that mythos turned into a stereotype, and we are all poorer for it. Because make no mistake, there are some gems to be found. The masters from the early years showed us how to do it: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen … even Mickey Spillane had his moments. A lot of their work was magic.

But beginning in the early sixties, private eye fiction began to fall out of favor. James Bond—and don’t get me wrong, I love the guy—and gadgets started taking over. Private shamuses (shami?) waned, and then transmogrified (gotta love them college words) into objects of ridicule. Only in the last decade and a half or so has the reading public decided to give the genre another try. Why? I don’t know. Maybe we simply were ready for heroes again.

Thankfully some good writers have stepped up to the plate. A cursory perusal showcases such talents as Sara Paretsky, Loren Estleman, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, and many others. These writershave helped expand the borders of PI fiction. Now we have lady PIs, gay PIs, midget PIs, kid PIs, part-time PIs, handicapped PIs, just about everything under the sun except for spiritual PIs.

Until now.

Question: can a faith-based private investigator hold his own in a secular market? Answer: why not? Lord knows (excuse the pun) there’s a need. Okay, so what would such a creature look like? How would he (or she) act when confronted by J. Evil Villain? Pray for him? Shoot him? Pray for him and THEN shoot him? I’m not sure. But something tells me these ideas would be a lot of fun to pursue. And someone’s going to do it. Maybe even me. All that to say, the future for private eye fiction looks bright, no matter what brand of gumshoe you favor.

Now enough jawing. Somebody get this dame off my desk, hand me my heater, and cue the sax.
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John Robinson is the author of several gritty novels, including Abyss, Until the Last Dog Dies, To Skin a Cat, and Last Call. He lives in Ohio.