Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The art of voice

As a writer you hear a lot about voice. These are often vague concepts. People can tell you whether they like your voice or not but can't tell you what it is or how to fix it. For the purposes of this blog, I'll define voice as the music of your prose. Vague, right? Broken down it becomes about the words that you choose and the length of your sentences and the way you put your paragraphs together. Some people write in long lyrical prose while others write in short choppy sentences. Some love interesting words while others go for more common place words to express the story they want to tell. No two writers choose the same words. And that, my friends, is voice.
What do you want to accomplish with your voice? You want to seduce the reader.
How do you do this?
Choose your words, paragraph breaks and scenes carefully. Think about them. For instance: need to speed up your pacing in certain areas? Short choppy sentences intensify a scene. One or two syllable words punctuate a dark moment or a bit of humor. very your sentence lengths to engage the readers eye. Your word choice makes all the difference.
Finally, clean up your style with the following five rules:
1) Know the actual definition of the words you choose. Often times someone will write, "the gorge rose in her throat in revulsion." If you look of the definition of the word gorge- it is the throat or gullet in this instance. In other words, the writer is saying that the throat rose in her throat.
2) Do your best to create a clean manuscript free from typos, spelling and grammar errors. (As I've talked about before, this is nearly impossible in a 90,000 manuscript, but you have to really try. More than one proof reader is always a good way to tackle this.)
3) Do your research. There should be no cell phones in the 1920's.
4) Don't forget your theme and premise. Every word, sentence, paragraph and scene must tie directly back to your plot.
5) Omit needless words and repetitive words.
Voice is the ability to lead the reader into your story world using their imagination. Choose your words carefully and do the work of style revision. Remember, the art of voice is found in the white space between the words where the reader's mind creates their own personal connection to the story.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February Book Review by Ted

Well, it's Saturday and I just realized that I did not send Nancy a Book Review for February...Deadline is Monday so it can be on the blog Tuesday. Writers, do you have deadlines??? I'm not used to them, unless it is to make house and utility payments!
I will plead being too busy. We are preparing to leave Kansas where we have lived the last 35+ years. I don't think I will miss it. The last 2 weeks have been something else. Last Sunday in January was sunny and warm ( 55 F ), by Tuesday we were in a blizzard with 5 inches of snow falling sideways at 35 mph with gusts to 45+. Temp dropped to -1 F by Thursday morning. Then it warmed up into the 50s again by Sunday. Guess what! Tuesday it started to get cold and Wednesday it was snowing. It was almost falling straight down or as straight down as it gets in Kansas. By Thursday morning we were -17F and had 15 inches of new snow! Friday (yesterday) brought -8 in the morning and 48F by 5PM. Today we were in the mid 40's. By next Thursday we are expected to be in the 70s !
Anyway, this month I promised you a review of a book by my second or third favorite author. He is also a male author who writes books primarily for a male audience, but I think a female will enjoy then also. Bernard Cornwell lives on Cape Cod and writes and writes and writes. If my count is correct, this is his 46th book. I can say a couple things off the top: 1) This is a lot of writing. 2) This is a lot of books sold! 3) Some have been made into TV shows. Oh yes, and I have read every one of them.
There are 21 in the Richard Sharpe series alone. The BBC has made several of them into movies. They are real action stories.
I'll review his latest: THE FORT.... published in 2010. It is not one of the Sharpe series.The book is set in the Massachusetts Colony during the Revolutionary War ( 1779 ), the story tells of a battle in Penobscot Bay in what is now Maine. There was a small village of mostly loyalists living there and Britain decided to fortify the bay to keep the Americans from taking it and using it as a naval base to attack Canadian and British shipping.
The problem was the disjointed colonies were hard put to get troops and ships to build a fort. There was militia from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, 1 regulation U S Navy Frigate, 20 or so privateers, Massachusetts Navy, Connecticut Navy, Indian tribes who all form a coalition to occupy the area . Well, by the time they finished making preparations, the British had landed a force and began to fortify the Bay.
It is interesting to know that basically all the heroes were the British and the villains are the Americans. The book is well researched--I even checked on some of the history-- and presented in a very readable "fiction" work. In fact, I started it and read right through until it was finished.
Interested in historical fiction? Not afraid to find out that one of our biggest heroes for the Revolutionary War was court-martialed for obstructing and then deserting the battle? Wonder how the colonists ever actually won our independence??? Well, the true story makes me wonder. But remember, one battle does not make a war.
Since I am a big fan, you know I will highly recommend reading this book. I don't want you to think I give him a blank check for writing...there were a couple of books several years ago that he wrote that I did not even finish. They bogged down and I lost interest. This will not happen if you read THE FORT...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Trouble with Dreams

I blame Walt Disney. He started it. Generations have grown up listening to the words, "When you wish upon a star. Makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come true."
Oh boy, if that isn't a prescription for disillusionment and feelings of personal failure I don't know what is. We hear it all the time. It's the Disney theme song. Schools picked up on it and tell kids everyone can go to Yale and Harvard, anyone can be a doctor or a lawyer. All you have to do is dream it and you can be it.
No wonder so many people are on depression medication. When the world doesn't work that way, we think there is something wrong with us personally. We feel cheated and as if we failed at something that should have been as easy as trying harder. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you can't have dreams. I'm not saying you can't follow your dreams. I'm also not saying you are stuck in the class or world you are born in-What I'm saying that it is harmful to teach our kids that they can be a multimillionaire "star" if they only wish it.
Look at American Idol. Last week two boys who were sweet, nice looking and fun came in for an audition. They couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and were told so politely by the judges. Go out and find your true talent, they were told. But no. The boys answer was. "We'll work harder. We know we can achieve our dream if only we persist." Wow- I find this sad. I think that the world will miss out on their true talent because these boys will be off in a corner working on their Disney Dream.
If you read my blog regularly, you know that I encourage persistence. I encourage everyone to tell their stories. To improve their craft. To keep going.
At the same time I realize there are a lot of people out there who are living in misery because they work hard and can't achieve their dream. The misery boils over into their entire lives. No matter what they achieve they can't help but feel they failed because they aren't published. I say stop the madness. Life is too short to be that miserable. We're not all going to be CEO's. We can't all be rock stars or neurosurgeons. Yes, it is disheartening and a bit of a shock when you realize that perhaps singing isn't for you. Perhaps nuclear physics or gaming aren't for you. Perhaps publishing isn't the business for you. So what! That's what I say. So what if one dream isn't for you. There are so many dreams out there. We each have our own unique talents. Go find a new dream.
What would the world have missed if Einstein had thought he could be an opera singer and threw all his energy into that? Never letting go of his "dream." What about your doctor or your kid's teacher who helped them "get" math for the first time. What would your life have been like if they had spent their time wallowing in self pity because they didn't make it on stage and screen?
Dreams are wonderful tools for finding your place in the world. But they aren't easy. You can't just wish it and be it. Life doesn't work that way and we are doing a disservice to others when we encourage them to keep putting effort in places where they don't shine. Find your shine people. There's no shame if you excel at taking care of dogs. If you excel at tutoring children. If you excel at keeping lawns green or raising children or making your friends laugh. Life's too short to be wasted making yourself miserable because you can't achieve Disney Princess status. Let's stop the madness and teach our children and ourselves to shine with the talents we have. Food for thought anyway. Please discuss in comments below. I'd love to hear what you think. Cheers~

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Improving your scenes

When writing a book, I tend to get caught up in "the book." Which means the overall character arc and the overall plot line. I am a big picture person. When it comes to revisions, I must work hard to become a small item person. Some people are the opposite. They work each sentence, paragraph and scene then put together all the pieces to make a "big picture." Both ways accomplish the task. Both ways look at the structure of each scene. The question becomes, how do you know you are building your scene's right?
Let's begin with a review of basic scene structure. Each scene is in itself a short story and contains three parts. The first part is the statement of a goal which needs to be immediate and definite. The second part is to immediately introduce and develop conflict to the goal. Finally at the end of the scene there should be a failure to reach the goal or a tactical disaster. Keep in mind that this disaster could appear to be a success for the character, but in the long run turns out to be a real problem. If your scene does not have these three things, cut it.
What?! No~ I love that scene, you think. Okay, so cut it and paste it into a separate file. Now read the scene before and after. What, if any, information was lost? Did the scene actually advance the over all plot? Or was it filler? If you decide you absolutely need the scene, it's time to work on it as an individual story. Work in your cut and pasted file. Cut out any sentences that don't immediately and definitively state the goal. Then cut the sentences that don't immediately introduce or develop a conflict to that goal. Finally, end with your disaster. The disaster can be personal or it can be external.
Read the scene again and ask yourself, does it add to the overall character goal? Does it strengthen the overall character conflict? Finally does it make sense in the over all story line and will it keep the reader turning pages?
All the pieces must mesh together. Never write a disaster only because you need to have a disaster at the end of a scene. I had a friend once who had her character slip on her doorstep and fall in the bushes, dropping her groceries. She got up, picked up her groceries and went inside. When I asked the writer why she had the character slip, she said, "There needs to be action in the beginning of the scene. This is my action." But her action had nothing to do with the overall story or characterization. Her character was not a klutz. No one saw her fall. She did not leave an important can of beans out in the bushes that she later needed to retrieve. Retrieving the can of beans did not lead to seeing a murder, or her friend's lover cheating.
Beware the action or conflict for the sake of action or conflict. Every piece must fit together like a puzzle or you will lose your reader's interest and your story won't be told.
Are you a scene person or a big picture person? Does being a scene person slow you down? As a big picture person do you skip the revision step of reviewing each scene with a critical eye?
I'd love to hear what you think. Cheers~