Beginner Is Not A Bad Word

Dan_Wheldon_2011_Indy_500Now that self-publishing is easy, inexpensive, and available to everyone with a computer and an online connection, a growing number of writers are trying their hand at producing fiction. But there’s a basic problem: these aspiring novelists don’t know what they don’t know.

I’m reminded of an experience I had in first grade. As I recall, the teacher was taking us through the beginning steps of learning to read. She put a word on the chalkboard (this was actually back in the dark ages when, yes, they still had chalkboards, and they were actually called blackboards)—something like cat. We were to think of words that rhymed. Easy-peasy.

After a while of this oh, so simple work, I tuned the teacher out and said something to a classmate near me. And that’s when the teacher called on me for an answer. We’d moved past the “rhymes with cat” exercise. Not only did I not know the answer, I didn’t know the question.

The truth was, I was a beginner. I hadn’t mastered a thing and needed to pay attention to every piece of the reading puzzle the teacher was giving us. I just didn’t know it. I thought if step 1 was so simple, surely step 2 would be also. Except, what I overlooked was that I actually needed to know what step 2 was.

I think a lot of writers who have a story in mind make the same mistake I did. They know how to write, and they have a story. What else is there? Well, actually, a lot.

Recently I used an analogy with one of my editing clients to make this same point. Generally adults in the United States know how to drive. Especially out West, there are miles and miles between places and little affordable mass transportation. Consequently we learn to drive and apply for a license as young as possible (not to mention that driving can make a teen feel very grown up).

Imagine that a driver who got his license when he was sixteen and has been driving for twenty years decides he wants to try his hand at auto racing. Is he qualified to do so? He thinks, Of course I’m qualified. I’ve been driving for twenty years, and during all that time, I’ve never been in an accident, never gotten a ticket. I’m a good driver! Sign me up for the Indy 500!

Here’s the problem. Yes, race car drivers do drive, but their type of driving is not the same as the kind of driving that the average commuter does on a daily basis. Race car drivers have much more to learn—about the car they’re driving, the race track, their competitors, the team they’re working with, handling a car at high speeds, safety regulations and equipment, emergency procedures, racing etiquette, and undoubtedly a host of other things I haven’t even heard about.

But Mr. Good Driver doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thinks he’s ready for the races because he’s good at the level he’s been operating at. He doesn’t realize, however, that there’s another set of skills required of the race car driver.

In the same way, writers who have mastered written communication for their job or with friends and family, may be fooled into thinking they know all they need in order to write fiction. They don’t know what they don’t know.

One of the give-aways that a writer isn’t ready to publish their novel is that they are overly concerned about mechanics and formatting. They want to be sure they have all the commas in the right place and the right words capitalized. They want to know how long a chapter should be and if they are to set their margins at an inch or an inch and a half.

I’m not saying mechanics and formatting are unimportant, but they are down the list and are the things most easily fixed. The harder things act like worms burrowing into and eating away at the heart of a story—things like point of view errors, underdeveloped characters, weak description or overdone description, a lack of tension, or a bland voice.

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

The bottom line is this: if you’re just starting out, realize you are just starting out. Yes, you know how to write, but you are just a beginner when it comes to writing fiction.

There is no shame in being a beginner. It’s actually wise to realize you have things you need to learn. It’s wise to sit up, listen to the teacher, and take notes when necessary. It’s wise to practice, practice, practice. It’s wise to get evaluated from time to time in order to know if you’ve graduated from beginner to intermediate. It’s wise to be patient and learn what you don’t know so that you can turn that black hole into a brilliant star.

- – - – -

Photo credits:
Indy Car by Greg Hildebrand via Wikimedia Commons
Black Hole, unknown artist, in the public domain

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Redundancy And Sleep

Falling asleep readingHave you ever read yourself to sleep? I have. Of course, there’s always that great book that makes me want to keep my eyes open, that causes me to fight my own inclination to sleep. But then there are those novels that work better than any over-the-counter sleep-aid you could buy. I suspect few writers would rejoice if they knew their book had achieved such status!

There can be any number of problems with a novel that reduces the interest level—slow pace, uninteresting characters, low stakes, a lack of compelling action. And yet, I suspect redundancy might be writer enemy number one when it comes to creating a story that lulls people to sleep.

Redundancy can occur at the sentence structure level or at the scene level. To be clear, it may include repetition, but the two are not synonymous. In short redundancy means “superfluity,” or too much of a good thing. Or a bad thing. Mostly, just too much. The greatest reason something is “too much” in fiction is because it’s already been done. Or said.

I believe there are three basic reasons a writer allows redundancy to creep into a story.

First a writer has not learned to trust his reader—or, perhaps, to trust his own ability to be clear. Consequently, he puts safe-guards into the story “so readers get it.” This type of redundancy shows itself in a combination of showing and telling.

In reality actions—showing—should replace the telling narrative rather than complement it.

    Example of redundancy: In an angry fit, he stomped from the room, slamming the door on the way out.

In the illustration above, the phrase “in an angry fit” isn’t necessary because the action clearly shows the anger. To eliminate this type of repetition, the author should omit the phrase that explains what the action is supposed to show.

However, the temptation to explain grows when the action is weak.

    Example: With joy in her heart, she followed him into the room.

To improve this sentence, the author must strengthen the action, making the narrative phrase unnecessary.

    Example: She danced into the room behind him.

A second reason a writer may allow redundancy to seep into her work is because she has forgotten her own lines or plot points and replicates them, or perhaps she hasn’t stretched her creative muscles enough to develop new and fresh dialogue, description, and events.

As a result, events may take on a similar shape. For example, the character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from . . .

Either the writer has forgotten she used this same last-second distraction earlier to save the character, or she hasn’t dug deep enough to find something unique.

Finally, characters themselves create redundancy. Well, of course the writers do, through our characters, but in an effort to be true to the people we have created, we allow them to struggle with what they’re experiencing, often through internal monologue. Nothing wrong with using characters’ thoughts.

However, those thoughts must move the story forward, not recap what happened in the past. If their musings bring nothing new, nothing the reader doesn’t already know, they are redundant and therefore sleep inducing.

At one stage of my writing, I was good at lots of rehash internal monologue. My character needed to understand what was going on. He needed to analyze and come up with a motive that would explain his next decision. The latter is true, except in many cases his thoughts stated the already stated. At one point I realized the particular chapter I was working on was boring me! That’s a sure sign that something needs to change.

As a corollary to this last point, some writers utilize “echoing” dialogue, which amounts to redundancy. Often times the writer wants to reflect an emotion such as surprise or disbelief, so he has one character repeat some part of what another character just said.

Such interaction may be true to life, but restatements don’t tell the reader anything new:

    Example: Tyler shook his head. “You can’t go, John. Didn’t you hear Mom?”
    “I can’t go? What do you mean, I can’t go?”
    Tyler stared at his brother. “Just what I said. You can’t go.”
    John’s tone turned to the whine he’d used as a little boy. “Did Mom really say I can’t go?”

This example may stretch the point, but clearly echoing dialogue isn’t necessary to move the story forward, and there are better ways to show surprise, anger, or dismay.

I can only think of one instance in which writers appropriately used redundancy. In the TV program Monk, the title character suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and did many things redundantly, helping to establish his quirks and foibles. There may be other proper uses of redundancy, but for the most part, writers would be wise to eliminate them from their fiction. Unless their promotion plan includes something about inducing sleep. ;-)

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How To Avoid Choppy Prose

waves-on-beach-1432430-mChoppy prose can be a story killer. If the prose doesn’t flow and the action doesn’t follow a logical pattern, a story can become tiresome or even confusing. Happily, there are fiction techniques available to avoid choppy prose.

One such technique involves sentence structure. Too often writers fall in love with their favorite type of sentence—a simple sentence with a single subject and verb, perhaps, or one with a participial phrase modifying the subject.

In addition, some writers begin all sentence types with the basic subject-verb pattern. The writing, then, becomes somewhat static, with a monotonous, repetitive beat. Below is an example of this latter, “See Spot run” type of writing.

Smoke filled the sky. Brad walked outside. He looked left and right. Flames leaped upward in the distance. He raced back inside and yelled, “Fire! Everyone out.” He grabbed up his phone and car keys. He dialed 9-1-1 as he fumbled to put his key in the lock of his old SUV. His phone went dead.

There’s nothing wrong with the storyline in the above example, but each sentence starts with the subject (smoke, Brad, he, flames, he, he, he, phone) followed by the verb.

Repetitive sentence structure can be effective for short periods, especially if the author wants to create a staccato beat, but when such a pattern continues for any length of time, the choppy nature of the prose can become tiring.

The way to alleviate the problem is to do a draft revision with sentence structure in mind. For those who consider themselves grammar challenged, length of sentence is one sign to look for that your sentences are all fairly similar.

Also, if you read the manuscript aloud, you can often hear the repetition. Finally, you can break paragraphs apart and put the sentences in a list to see if they look a lot alike. Here’s what the sample above would look like in a list:

* Smoke filled the sky.
* Brad walked outside.
* He looked left and right.
* Flames leaped upward in the distance.
* He raced back inside and yelled, “Fire! Everyone out.”
* He grabbed up his phone and car keys.
* He dialed 9-1-1 as he fumbled to put his key in the lock of his old SUV.
* His phone went dead.

A second way authors can make their prose more readable is by utilizing transitions. Writers sometimes forget that they know more about their story than readers do. The writer, after all, is visualizing the place. She knows the characters. However, what seems obvious to her isn’t necessarily clear to the reader.

Transitions can go a long way in clearing up muddled prose. A simple phrase like, “When Dan arrived,” can let the reader know time has passed, who’s in the scene now, and where the scene occurs. Those specifics keep a reader from becoming confused. Notice how the absence of transitions can lead to confusion in the following example:

Sally slapped a hand on the table. “We need Dan, and that’s all there is to it.” She grabbed up her phone and punched in his phone number.

#

Sally picked up her revolver. “Somebody is stalking this place. I’m certain of it!” Dan placed a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, Sal. Relax. Tell me what’s been going on.”

Without a transition in the sample above the reader would have no way of knowing that Dan had arrived. As a result, after the scene break there may be a moment of confusion.

If there’s an accumulation of such omissions, readers may become discouraged because, as a general rule, they don’t want to fight confusion throughout a novel.

A third prose technique necessary for fiction has to do with cause and effect. Apart from intentional variations, a story should unfold in a logical progression. An inciting incident occurs to which the main character reacts.

His response might take the form of a decision or an action or an attitude, but regardless of its form, it in turn affects the people and circumstances around him. Their subsequent response causes the character to act again. Once more, what he does affects his world in a way that comes back on him, prompting him yet again to a response.

In that way, the story logically unfolds, one action causing a reaction which in turn leads to a new action and the subsequent reaction.

When an author writes without that natural progression, however, a reader can easily become confused. Here’s an example to illustrate how writing in isolation rather than in cause-effect connection can be unclear.

Martha hurried home. The principal said something about . . . what was it? A tragedy? No, he hadn’t sound that concerned. But he thought she should get home right away.

She pulled into her drive and couldn’t believe what she was seeing—Jefferson, crying? That hard-hearted old coot had a soft spot after all?

She strolled up the porch steps and flopped onto the swing. “I can hardly wait for summer. I want to have a party as soon as school is out.” Jefferson was the best set-up man around. She couldn’t have asked for a better gardener/handyman. He’d get the place ready and cover all the details she’d forget.

In the example above there is a disconnect between the various plot points. The only cause-effect that is apparent is that the principal told Martha she needed to go home, so she did. However, what the principal said is not connected with Jefferson crying. And his sadness is not connected with what Martha says or thinks once she gets home.

The connection could just as easily have been negative if the author wanted to show Martha as a selfish, uncaring person. But as it is, the events stand in isolation and the reader is left to guess how they are connected.

Again, if this is a pattern throughout a novel, the story can become so confusing a reader may choose to set the book aside.

Finally, a novelist can create smooth prose by avoiding abrupt point of view changes and/or an excessive number of point of view characters. Readers need to settle in and identify with the characters of a novel. When point of view changes occur too rapidly or in a chaotic manner or are too numerous, readers may disconnect.

Choppy prose can be effective occasionally, but generally it makes fiction waters hard for readers to navigate. The wise novelist will employ the necessary tools to smooth out her prose.

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Online Writing Courses

Girl Writing at DeskWriting conferences offer the aspiring or published writer a wealth of needed input, from writing craft instruction, marketing tidbits, and manuscript critiques, to editor and/or agent contacts. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, some writers may not be able to attend a conference. Whether the obstacle is money, time, or location, a good alternative to consider is online instruction.

In the last decade, as you might expect, online writing courses have proliferated. Now someone looking for beginning how-to information to advanced hands-on help can find reputable instruction.

For some, the best place to look is at writing courses offered by universities. You can find individual classes or degree programs, depending on what you’re interested in. Notable universities offering writing programs include UCLA, Purdue, University of Washington, Harvard, Stanford, New York University, and the University of Phoenix.

Notable is the University of Michigan because they include classes that are free. But they’re not alone. Diploma Guide has a wonderful listing of free writing courses, and an equally impressive list of links to schools offering degree programs in writing.

For those looking for a less academic approach, with interaction with an agent or editor or experience writer, there are any number of other options, depending on how much money you are willing to pay. Classes run from those in the free range on up to $500.

Length of courses vary as well. Some are short workshops, others two week classes, a month, or longer.

Another consideration when looking at online classes is the feedback a student might expect, whether critiques by other students or by the instructor. Writing, after all, depends on the response from those reading the work. Many writers have no opportunity for feedback from writing professionals. Some may wish to find online classes emphasizing their small size which enable students to have more interact with the instructor. Someone ready to look for an agent may wish to look specifically for a course taught by an industry insider.

Below is a list of online classes I either am familiar with or have discovered in doing research for this article. I wish I could offer a first hand endorsement, but since I haven’t taken any online classes, I’ll have to present this list and let you decide which you think might bear consideration.

  • WOW (Women On Writing). Classes are offered every month. “WOW! handpicks qualified instructors and targeted classes that women writers will benefit from. The instructors are women we’ve worked with on a professional level, and these ladies offer high quality courses on various topics.” (Never fear, not all the courses listed are gender specific).

SallyApokedakI do know one of the instructors for their June line-up: agent Sally Apokedak. She’s teaching FOUR FIRST-CHAPTER ESSENTIALS FOR NOVELS which starts June 2. “You will come away from the class with four hour-long taped lectures, with an in-depth critique of your first chapter, and with an understanding of how to carry what you’ve learned, from the first chapter on to the rest of the book.”

  • The Writer’s Workshop. Introduction, intermediate, and advanced levels of instruction are offered. “These fiction writing classes will help you develop your own habit of art, mastering the craft of fiction writing essential to creating compelling stories. The Writer’s Workshop’s online fiction writing classes will give you the skills and techniques to take your fiction writing to the next level.”
  • Elizabeth Ayers Center for Creative Writing. “Our online writing courses are small, intimate … and lots of fun. The nurturing atmosphere means your creativity can flourish in safety, no matter how intimidated you may feel.”
  • Writers.com. “We can help you improve your skills, explore new directions, ready your work for publication, or simply provide a community, inspiration and deadlines to start you writing and keep you writing.”
  • Gotham Writers. Specializes in creative writing. “We focus on teaching you the fundamental principles such as plot, structure, character, voice, dialogue, description, and point of view. These principles are taught through lectures, class discussions, writing exercises, and in-depth critiques of your writing.”
  • Writer’s Digest University. Offers courses on a wide variety of writing: copywriting, essays, blogging, basics of novel writing, and more. “Whether you’re writing for publication, extra money, or to tell personal stories, Writer’s Digest University can help you get your writing career underway. Our expert instructors will provide advice, specific instruction, real-world experience, expertise, and the motivation and drive to help you achieve your goals.”
  • LitReactor. Covers a variety of genres—from New Adult to horror and fantasy. Also offers courses dealing with specific aspects of writing such as writing query letters and crafting characters. “LitReactor offers a unique approach to a writing education: You study what you want, when you want, at your own pace. We bring in veteran authors and industry professionals to host classes covering a wide range of topics in an online environment that’s interactive and flexible.”

There are any number of other writing courses, some offered to members of writer organizations, others provided by individual instructors. This list will hopefully provide hope to those looking for instruction but unable to attend a conference. Online help is available, and there’s a good chance you can find something at your level of expertise, in your area of writing, and at a price that meets your budget.

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Parallel Structure

apples and orangesHow many times have you heard some variation to the old adage, You can’t add apples and oranges? I dare say, we’ve all heard it repeatedly and may have used the phrase ourselves. It creates a good image and is helpful in understanding a variety of concepts. As it happens, I think it also helps in understanding parallel structure, also called parallel construction or parallelism.

Of course with parallel structure, we’re talking about words and phrases and clauses, not fruit, but the concept is still the same.

The point of parallel structure, like most grammar, is to create clarity and readability:

Parallel structure adds both clout and clarity to your writing. When you use parallel structure, you increase the readability of your writing by creating word patterns readers can follow easily.(“Parallel Structure,” Evergreen Writing Center)

The key, I believe, to utilize parallel construction consistently is the idea of creating word patterns—or putting all the oranges together and all the apples together.

At the word level, parallel structure “adds” nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, and adverbs with adverbs. Hence, in a list, all the items need to be of like kind:

Parallel:
Catlyn enjoys writing, reading, and sleeping.

Not Parallel:
Jordan likes books, movies, and to take long walks.

However, these words must also be in the same form. Hence, a verb ending in -ing should not be “added” to a verb in the infinitive form, or the to- form.

Parallel:
Oscar gained a reputation for his blocking, catching, and running.

Not Parallel:
DeShawn likes hitting blockers, tackling ball carriers, and to strip the ball from the runner.

At the phrase level, parallel structure “adds” phrases of like kind, constructed in a similar way.

Parallel:
Whether at the ball park or at the skate rink, he was always on the go.

Not Parallel:
Whether at the mall or shopping on line, she’s always looking for a bargain.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
Whether by himself or with a group of other guys, he always found something to do.

The last example is not technically lacking in parallelism—the conjunction and “adds” two prepositional phrases. However the first one has no modifiers and the second one has another prepositional phrase modifying it. If the rhythm in the paragraph requires strict parallelism, this last example doesn’t do it.

Here are a few similar example.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
He pulled out a box of toys, a pile of comics, and a couple shoes. [The first two nouns are described by prepositional phrases, the last one is not].

Ary prefers driving fast cars, drinking strong drinks, and lounging in front of the TV. [The first two verb forms have objects, the last one is described by a sequence of prepositional phrases].

Parallel structure also applies to compound clauses, that is, to a group of words with a subject and verb.

Parallel:
Dad often spoke of his older sister who put herself through college but who never did anything with her education.

Not Parallel:
The coach told his players that they should play as a team, that they should share the ball, and not to be selfish.

As with words and phrases, form also matters in the structure of parallel clauses.

Not Parallel:
The shopper expected that she would find a new dress, that a salesman would ring up her purchase, and that the item would be bagged. [The first two verbs are active, the last is passive].

Apples and oranges. Keep them separate. Your readers will thank you, though they probably won’t know what you’ve done to make your writing so clear and so easy to understand.

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Construct Your Sentences; Don’t Let Them Grow Like Weeds

scaffold-770382-mIn my capacity as a contest judge, an editor, and a book reviewer, I do my fair share of reading fiction. Of late, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a growing trend—less attention to sentence structure.

For instance, in a novel I’m currently reading, I saw one paragraph with four of its five sentences all starting with He. In another, the opening two sentences were constructed identically. In others, authors lean heavily on a favorite construction which appears with frequency.

Some writers might think, Nit-picky, nit-picky, nit-picky.

Once upon a time, I may have thought this as well. But what’s at stake is a reader’s attention. Most readers, perhaps without realizing it, are affected by sentence structure.

For example, structure that is repeated with frequency can become tedious. If that construction happens to be simple sentences, the effect is often so simplistic that readers may feel as if they’re back in first grade reading their primers:

Jack Silversteen unbuckled his gun belt. He let it slide to the floor. The belt landed with a bang. Jack stared at his enemy. He crossed his arms.

But even more complex sentence construction can become tedious, too, because it creates a distinct rhythm:

Martha poured a cup of coffee, being careful not to spill. She waited for Jack to sit down, tapping her finger on the edge of the saucer. She glanced out the window, humming a little tune. A bird landed on the sill, flapping its wings against the glass.

The lack of variety becomes tiresome, no matter how well constructed the sentences are.

The truth is, some sentence construction can be problematic even if it isn’t repeated too often. For example the use of present participles (verb forms ending in –ing) in the example above can easily go awry. The –ing form of a verb implies simultaneous action, but some writers use this construction as if the action carried by the participle follows the action carried by the verb:

EXAMPLE: He wolfed down his sandwich, burping with satisfaction.

Clearly the character couldn’t wolf down the sandwich and simultaneously burp with satisfaction, but the construction of the sentence says that’s what he did. The author’s intention was to show a sequence of events, but the present participle doesn’t accomplish that purpose.

Participles are also problematic when they introduce a sentence because they are easily misplaced.

The rule of thumb for phrases that describe is to place them in close proximity to what they describe.

EXAMPLE: The man wearing the baseball cap climbed to the top of the bleachers.

When a participial phrase (a group of words beginning with a verb form such as walking or written or talked) begins a sentence, therefore, it is positioned to describe the very next noun—the subject of the sentence.

EXAMPLES:
Walking in the park, the little girl spotted her first squirrel.
Written before he had his coffee, the email didn’t make much sense.
Talked about as if she’d already won, the gymnast became careless.

When a modifier is misplaced, however, it is positioned before a noun which it is not describing.

EXAMPLES:
Walking the last mile, her finish time was well above the goal she’d set for herself.
Written on a napkin, she cherished the poem as a spontaneous expression of his love for her.
Talked about for days, the reader looked forward to the release of the new book.

Inattention to sentence construction can also lead to redundancy, a lack of parallelism, and a host of other awkward or inerrant grammar issues which may confound readers. But it can also mean an author has missed an opportunity to communicate more effectively.

For example, sentence construction contributes to the pace of a story. In action scenes, when the pace should be fast, short sentences, even fragments, can be most effective. Nothing stalls action more than long, leisurely sentences that meander.

Sentences, like scenes and chapters and books have a “sweet spot,” a part that delivers the greatest punch. Consequently, a well constructed sentence will deliver the key piece of information in that sweet spot—the end of the sentence. Yes, the beginning is important, but the point here is, after the key bit of information, the sentence shouldn’t go on with less important detail.

EXAMPLE
Weak: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book that would help her finish her research paper on time.

Improved: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book. Now she could finish her research paper on time.

In the first example above, the thing most important to the character was the book, but the sentence doesn’t stop with that important information. By breaking the long sentence up, the writer can create a second punch. The book, it turns out, is important because it is the key to a second goal—finishing the paper on time. The construction of two sentences instead of one allows the writer to escalate the importance rather than simply moving past the first important object—the one the character has spent all day looking for.

Finally sentence construction is key to the creation of voice, whether the author’s voice or the various characters’ voices. For instance, in the previous paragraph, I ended the last sentence with a preposition. While grammar rules now allow such, a more formal writing style would still require rewriting the sentence to read . . . the one for which the character has spent all day looking.

weed-plant-1161347-mThe choice to construct the sentence in a formal manner or in a more colloquial manner is not an issue of right or wrong but rather of effect—what effect does the author hope to create. If he prefers a more academic, precise tone and wishes his audience to see him as careful in his usage, he most likely will opt for the formal construction. If, on the other hand, the author is going for a more relaxed tone, the preposition at the end of the sentence will be just fine.

Much of the problem with sentence structure, as I see it, is that writers may not be aware of the importance of writing from the ground up—choosing words purposefully and building sentences with intention. Rather, sentences seem to be left on their own, to grow as they wish. Like weeds.

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Filed under Pace, Sentence structure, Voice

A Character’s Voice

    Agents agree: the single most important factor in getting their attention is a strong, unique, and personality-heavy narrative voice. Voice is what defines both your story and your narrating character. Think of voice as kind of like your story’s unique fingerprint. If your book were a band, this would be the sound that makes it recognizable.
    —K.M. Weiland “How to Find Your Character’s Voice”

mouth-837375-mOver and over I’ve read or heard straight from writing professionals’ mouths that voice is one of the elements that sells a book to agents and editors. But what is “voice” when you’re reading words on a page?

The briefest explanation is, voice is personality. In fiction, of course, there are two personalities front and center–the author’s and the point-of-view character’s. In this post, I’m interested in the latter though the two overlap.

First, why is a character’s voice, a character’s personality, so important? Because readers care about characters. They don’t want to read about stock, two-dimensional, plastic people who all act and sound the same. Rather, a character who engages readers comes across as one of a kind, not a boilerplate copy.

Writers, therefore, need to look for ways to bring their character’s personality forward. But how to do that?

The most obvious way is by what the character says. In dialogue each character, not just the point of view character, needs to sound like himself. His personality needs to come out in what he says but also in how he says it.

Voice in dialogue, then, is the fusion of content with delivery.

Content has to do with what the character says–does he swear, apologize profusely, speak in analogies, brag, comment on every particular, ask lots of questions, take conversations on tangents, and so on.

Delivery has to do with her word choice, sentence structure, tone, and manner. Does she bark out orders, clip her words, speak in fragments, drawl, elaborate her answers, speak with urgency, use humor, use down-home sayings, spout job-related jargon, and more.

In other words, each character should sound like an individual with his own way of speaking.

Recently on a website allowing writers to critique various aspects of each other’s work, there was a session for dialogue. Here are a few lines from one entry which illustrate how content and delivery can create a strong, engaging voice:

“I thought you said you had a dog,” he says, dubiously eying the door.

“I do. I also said she was small.”

“That doesn’t sound like a dog. It sounds like a chipmunk on crack.”

I can’t really argue. She does. The door is barely open before she bursts outside, looping around my ankles and barking at Will, hopping on all fours with every outburst.

“That’s a dog?”

“So I’m told.”

“That is not a dog,” he tells me. “It’s a wind-up toy.” He looks into the apartment’s depths, then back down at the frantic pup. “Where’s the rest of it?” (“Talking Heads #13,” from Miss Snark’s First Victim)

small-dog-745346-mIn just these short lines, a picture of the character Will forms. He’s got strong opinions and expectations laced with humor. But the first person character also shows a bit of her personality, not as much by what she says but by what she’s chosen. After all, this little barking menace is the dog she picked for a pet.

Character decisions, then, are a key component for creating a strong voice. Does she choose to hold her tongue instead of confronting the worker who regularly clocks out early? Or does she go straight to the boss? Does he drive the speed limit when his wife is in the car, then let it all out when he’s alone? Does he promise to be home at six for dinner and arrive a half hour early or does call to say he has a business dinner he can’t miss so won’t be home until late?

Each decision a character makes contributes to his voice. But to create a unique voice for her characters, an author must stretch her thinking so that she doesn’t rely on the done and done again—the cranky school teacher, the stuffy judge, the dumb-blond cheerleader, the inattentive babysitter. To develop a character with a captivating voice, an author needs to think beyond the norm.

At the same time, characters need parameters. School teachers do have certain commonalities. Having a teacher decide to come to school in shorts instead of the usual staff dress code is not a way to show his strong voice. It’s the way to have your character get fired. A writer may wish to show that the teacher is caring instead of cranky, but she can’t decide to leave her class unattended so she can counsel a troubled teen. In other ways, teachers must behave like teachers, to a point, and lawyers must behave like lawyers, firemen like firemen and so on.

There’s a balancing act, then, between creating a character who acts in a recognizable way for his position and who acts in a unique way consistent with his personality.

A third tool writers have at their disposal is internal discourse or monologue, used primarily with a point of view character. A character’s thoughts should reveal his attitudes about society, his friends, God, himself, authority, business, money, recreation—really, all of life.

Is she an optimist or a pessimist? Is she hopeful about the future or is she cynical? Does she love her family or is she trying to find one who will adopt her? Does she care about human trafficking or is she thinking about looking for work in the sex industry?

Who the character is, what he’s struggling with comes out in his “private” thoughts. An author should capitalize on the opportunity to bring the life of the character into these thoughts. They should not be generic, ones that any other twenty-five-year-old police rookie would have or ones that any other pioneer woman heading out West in the 1850s would have.

In conclusion a strong character voice depends upon the author knowing the character’s personality, developing it uniquely, and showing it through dialogue, decisions, and internal discourse.

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Flawed Characters Can Be Too Flawed

Frankenstein_monsterI wanted to chuck the book, but it belonged to my friend. I wanted to quit reading, at least, but he promised me the story would get better. And he was right. Had he not convinced me, I would have missed out on one of my favorite series, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, because the main character acted heinously.

First, the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, was a sick, sad man. He had leprosy, a disease that few understood and fewer tolerated. He was isolated from society, and to a degree, isolated from himself because his illness destroyed his nerve endings, robbing him of the ability to feel. But one day, he fell into a parallel world where he was no longer sick. Believing that what he was experiencing was not real, he did a horrible thing. He raped a girl who had befriended him.

See why I wanted to chuck the book? Thomas Covenant was not someone I liked, and I really didn’t want to keep reading about him. I know of people who, in fact, did stop reading and never picked the book up again.

The point is simple. To be believable, characters need flaws, but if their flaws overshadow their higher nature, readers may not care enough to continue on the reading journey with them.

As Angela Ackerman put it in her February 2014 Writer’s Digest guest article, “When Flaws Go Too Far: Avoiding Unlikeable Characters”

There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikeable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range.

I’ve had occasion more than once to read a novel written in first person–which is fine, except I didn’t care for the protagonist. The character was either too whiny or too morose or complained too much or thought ill of his colleagues all the time or was focused on her own cares to a point of distraction. Especially in a novel in which the reader must live in the character’s head for upwards of three hundred pages, an unlikeable protagonist is a problem.

But a story is about character development–how a person changes. Does the young boy learn responsibility, does the woman allow herself to love again, will the hero find the strength within to over come? These are storylines which demand a character grows or admits failure.

The point is, the story begins with a young boy who is irresponsible, a woman who is cold and stand-offish, a weak person thrust into a situation requiring strength. In short, the story starts with a character in need because of his flaw.

How, then, is a writer to portray this flaw without making it fatal for the book? How can a broken, warped, imperfect character still be someone who engages readers?

First, the character’s flaw must have an understandable reason for existence. Who hurt the character or failed him or bullied him? Who used her or betrayed her or demanded more than she could handle? If readers understand why a character acts badly, often they will be inclined to tolerate more.

Furthermore, if the character’s flaw is a result of his own suffering, readers may be willing to forgive him and hope for change.

Showing the character’s backstory provides his motive, including for his flawed actions or angsty attitudes. The key to using what happened in the past in this way is to treat it like any other bit of backstory. It must not be delivered up front or in lengthy paragraphs or presented in a speech. It must serve the plot. It must only be delivered when readers are ready and want to know what happened before. (See previous posts on Backstory).

Besides giving reasons for a character’s flaws, another way an author can keep those from overshadowing a character is by counterbalancing them with winsome traits.

Ackerman explains:

no matter how impatient, uptight, angsty or spoiled your character is, hint to the reader that there’s more beneath the surface. A small action or internal observation can show the character in a positive light and should happen in the first scene (frequently referred to as a Save The Cat moment.) It can be a positive quality, like a great sense of humor, or a simple act that shows something redeeming about the character.

A-Cast-of-StonesRecently I read The Staff & The Sword fantasy trilogy by Patrick Carr. The story opens in book one, A Cast of Stones, with a character, Errol Stone, who is drunk. He, in fact, is the main character, and he isn’t just drunk on that one day. He happens to be the town drunk. How is a character with such an obvious and dominating flaw to be someone readers care about?

First Carr showed other characters–ones who were in respected positions in the story–who sympathized with Errol Stone. They even did all they could to help him. Some provided him with work, some allowed him a place to sleep off his drunk.

They also acknowledged his value and identified an area in which he excelled beyond anyone else in the village. In other words, readers see through their eyes that Errol has value.

Further, Errol Stone suffers beatings at the hand of the local pater, ostensibly to cure him of his public drunkenness. Very soon it’s clear that Errol is suffering unfair ill treatment.

Fourth, Errol faces a life-and-death surprise attack and shows by his wit and agility that he has skills a reader can admire. The reader learns there’s more to him than his addiction.

This latter hints at one of the points Ackerman mentions: if a character faces hardship, readers are more willing to be patient with his bad behavior. However, his reaction to hardship must give some reason to believe he can conquer what he’s up against.

If the hero has a rough road ahead, the reader makes allowances for his behavior, as long as he doesn’t wallow in gloom and doom. It isn’t hardship that creates empathy, it’s how a character behaves despite that hardship, giving us a window into who he really is.

Errol Stone not only survived an attack, but the next day his quick thinking and decisive action saved the lives of two other men. Clearly he was more than the town drunk, and I for one was cheering for him to overcome on many levels. Patrick Carr had made sure that his flawed protagonist didn’t fail by being too flawed.

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Do Your Homework

Harbor_Fwy_One of the reasons why writing fantasy appealed to me many years ago was because I was under the delusion that fantasy writers didn’t have to do any research. Since those days, I’ve learned that (1) fantasy writers aren’t immune to the need to do research and (2) research these days is pretty quick and easy.

As I’ve learned more about writing fiction, I’ve discovered that we all must do some measure of research. Contemporary writers, for example, need to research the places, professions, and devices they include in their stories.

Some years ago I read a novel set in the Los Angeles area–near where I live. At one point there was a car-chase scene that took the protagonist onto a freeway with which I was quite familiar. Sadly, the author didn’t paint the details anywhere near the way they actually are. As I read, I started yelling at the book: A sidewalk? There’s no sidewalk there. Pedestrians? No one who wants to keep living would walk along that freeway. And he wants us to believe there are dozens of people? Paa-leeeze!

Clearly, the inaccurate description of the area pulled me out of the story. Of course, not everyone knows the specifics about an area, but careless handling of the particulars is bound to stand out to any local residents who read the story.

The same is true of activities and events. I read another contemporary novel that featured a basketball player–a professional whose team made it to the NBA finals. The problem was, the author hadn’t done her homework, apparently, and didn’t know that the format for the finals is different from the early rounds. Consequently, the team with the best record opens the seven-game series at home for the first two games. They then move to the lower seed’s home for the next three games before returning, if necessary, to the home of the higher seed. So this author had her protagonist playing games five and six in the wrong cities.

Does it matter? For writers who want readers to immerse themselves in the fictive dream, yes, it should matter. Inaccuracies pull readers out of the story.

Mysteries, military thrillers, suspense, even contemporary romances all have similar requirements when it comes to getting the details right.

Writers of historical fiction or of history or memoirs, for that matter, have an even greater burden. They need to know the details of a place but also the details of the time period in which they’re writing if they are to avoid anachronisms. Hence, they must be sure their character actually could be listening to the radio or talking on the phone–that those things had been invented and were in common use. They must be sure that Benny Goodman had become a national figure, that cars had starters instead of cranks, that bifocals existed.

Again, some might question whether these details are important. My guess is, those who read historical fiction, and surely those who read history or memoirs, are already familiar with the time period in which the story or events are taking place. Consequently, these readers will quickly recognize mistakes. The credibility of the author is undermined with each error. The seriousness of the work comes into question.

Hard science fiction carries a similar stringent requirement. The science needs to be accurate and the futuristic suppositions tied to what already exists. Consequently, the writer needs to know about that science.

Big_Cypress_National_Preserve_swampWhich brings me back to fantasy. Aren’t the worlds pretty much all imagined? They are. And yet, a swamp must still have the properties of a swamp and a desert, those of a desert. Otherwise, there is no swamp. There’s a new thing that requires a new name with a description of its hybrid properties.

An author is absolutely free to make up a swamp in the middle of the desert–if he can make it plausible and if he is consistent with its use. Certain conditions can’t create a swamdirt, for instance, in one location and a wilderness in a different location. The conditions would have to be different and the author needs to keep track of which elements create which geological feature.

The key to good fantasy, then, is consistency. The real “research” is nothing more than keeping track of the rules of the imagined world. But that, too, my friends, is homework, and it needs to be done.

Fortunately in this age of the Internet, research is easier than ever. I’ve had a variety of magazine article assignments over the years, most on subjects with which I had little first hand knowledge. A few hours on the Internet, however, and I have learned as much or more as I might from an afternoon in the library.

Of course Internet research comes with a few cautions. First, not all information is accurate. Some is intentionally misleading if the subject is controversial–the author may be using the old tricks of indoctrination, such as the use of emotionally charged words, the exclusion of some facts, and the exaggeration of others.

Some information on the Internet is incomplete or lacking supporting data. Consequently, it might be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

And thirdly, some Internet research uncovers facts that are flat out wrong. Perhaps the source is misinformed or ill equipped to present information on the topic.

The point is, a writer needs to verify Internet research or to check the reliability of the source. For instance, in doing research for an article about Victorian homes, I discovered a collection of sites saying much the same thing about restoration methods. The quantity served as a good check, but so did the credentials of the site writers–all owners of Victorian homes who were involved with renovations or had already completed them.

Homework. It’s the best kept secret of good writing–fiction and non-fiction. Writers who do their homework can separate themselves from the crowd.

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Writing In Scenes

Hang_glidingNot everyone has the same writing process. And that’s OK. Still, I think those who plan out their stories in advance or those who patch their stories together once they know where they’re going, can all learn by thinking about their story in scenes.

Years and years ago, I picked up a book entitled Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. To be honest, I didn’t understand much about the book at all because he referred to scenes and sequels, but I didn’t understand the terminology. I associated scenes with plays and sequels . . . I didn’t have a clue what that meant in the context of fiction.

Time passed and I learned more about writing. Eventually I re-read Scene and Structure and benefited from it. And still, I didn’t really think in scenes when I was writing.

During one critique session, a member of my writing group asked me what my character wanted in a particular scene. Well, that froze me. What did he want? I hadn’t thought about it before. I was able to mumble some answer, then set the question aside.

I didn’t seriously come back to it until a few weeks ago. I’m reading/studying Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, and she put me back on the scene track. I was nearing the end of Chapter 5: “Showing Change In Your Characters–If I Knew Then What I know Now” and came across these lines:

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint coverAll of this can, I know, sound overwhelming. Dramatizing motivation, dramatizing emotion, dramatizing change, creating sharp concrete details that characterize–and doing it all simultaneously–can seem too much to juggle (not to mention also “becoming the reader” to see how it all looks to someone else). But there is a way to keep control of your material. It is, in fact, the key to keeping control of many other elements of fiction as well, such as plot and emotional arc.

The key is this: Write in scenes.

You don’t have to think about the whole book at once, the entire emotional arc, or the progressive motivations of six different characters. All you have to do right now is write this one scene. (p. 75, emphasis in the original)

When I read that, something clicked.

Understand, I’ve evaluated other authors as part of my editing job. One section of the form I use is about scenes. Here are the particulars I analyze:

A. Goal
B. Conflict
C. Disaster/reaction
D. Dilemma
E. Decision


However, I’m generally writing an assessment of the novel as a whole, so what I say about the scenes is general.

But what if, in my own writing, I looked at those elements as the pillars of my scene as I constructed it? What if I didn’t start writing the scene until I knew what my characters wanted, what would bring the conflict?

So I tried it.

And now I’m a believer!

Truly, I couldn’t believe how unstuck my writing became as soon as I knew what my character wanted as a short term goal. Rather than meandering from place to place with no particular purpose, grousing about this issue and that situation, spewing his angst and whining about his plight, he became active and purposeful, he strove and struggled, and when conflict arose, he figured out how to confront it.

Did he have to give up something in order to make Plan B work? Therein lies the dilemma. Was he successful? Therein lies the disaster, which leads him to a decision about how to proceed, giving him a new goal for the next scene.

And one follows after the other like a line of falling dominoes. They start going down because someone tipped over that first one.

Writing in scenes can have that same feel. Because the first one went down, the next one must follow. Because Johnny punched Billy, the teacher is calling his parents.

There’s a silly commercial for an alternative to cable TV that plays off this concept. The cable company puts the character on hold, and when that happens, he feels trapped. When he feels trapped, he goes hang gliding, and when he goes hang gliding, he crashes into electric wires. When he crashes into electric wires, the city experiences a black out. When the city experiences a black out, crime rises. When crime rises, the character’s dad gets punched in the stomach by a looter over a can of soup. “So don’t have your dad get punched over a can of soup. Get DirectTV.”

The humor of that commercial is that the resulting actions of each disaster don’t follow a logical progression. The secret to good fiction writing is to make the progression from goal to conflict to reaction to dilemma to decision, a logical progression (just not predictable).

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