Thursday, April 30, 2009

Well, that was a time sink! Albeit a fun one. At long last I created a Facebook page. And although my Facebook ignorance is astounding, I have to admit it’s a lot of fun. (For example, I had to sign up as Robin L LaFevers because they wouldn’t let me use my initials, but I also saw that J. R. R. Tolkien was allowed to use his initials…and periods, which they said I had too many of. So clearly some research is in order!) But if any of you are on there and are looking for friends, I can be found here. I think. And no, I have no idea what I'm going to do with a Facebook page, but I was tired of being the only author left on the planet who didn't have one.

I also did some cyber de-cluttering today, de-coupling myself from a lot of old yahoo groups and chat thingeys that I no longer actively participate in. Streamlining is good, it helps me focus.

I also had a great writing morning, which was a bit of a surprise, When I woke up I wasn’t feeling the writing love, at all, and thought I’d give myself a day’s break. But before I took the break, I just wanted to write down this one transition sentence so I’d remember where I was going to insert this new scene chunk. One sentence led to two, which led to my 1,000 words in about an hour. Love that. The scene was sitting in my subconscious where it had been steeping for a couple of days and just needed me to get my butt in the chair and get my head out of the way.

Kind of the story of my life, really.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

That Magpie Stage

Okay, so here's a tip: Never leave a complexly plotted book for a year and a half without leaving yourself very detailed, explicit notes. Jeez. I feel like I've been wandering for years, lost in the Labyrinth like Theseus, only I don't have Ariadne to help me. More's the pity.

However, I have finally become fully emerged in the book. How can I tell? Because I am now officially in The Magpie Stage. It's that stage of writing when everything feeds the book. Wherever I turn, there's an image or the perfect word, or a glimmer of human nature, that is just exactly what I need for the book so I snatch it and quickly store it in my waiting nest. Whether it's stumbling on just the right reading material, finding the perfect resource in a most unexpected place, tripping over a website that shouldn't have anything to do with the book, and yet it turns up a perfect detail.

See? Even searching for an image of the Theseus myth turns up a wonderfully medieval picture of the myth, even though it wasn't medieval at all.

It feels like the very Universe itself is lining up to help me write this book. I adore this stage, truly. And it doesn't always last long, so I try to soak it up while I can.

In other news, I have vowed to leave at least five comments a week on other blogs. Okay, three. Five might be biting off more than I can chew. But I vow to leave three comments a week on other blogs. The thing is, I love the blogs I read and I want the bloggers to know that I'm there, reading, appreciating their efforts. So that's my new almost-May-Day-resolution.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Questions to Reveal Character

One of the things I need to know kind of early in the process of writing a book is my turning points. I write to the turning points and acts, rather than to the end. The benefits of this are that I am writing three or four smaller stories within one larger narrative, and not having one long endless slog through a never-ending middle.

It is also the way to check and be sure that the events of the story are forcing the necessary character changes so that they will have undergone a true transformation by the end of the book. Which is why I am so married to the idea that plot is character—the external plot is often the construct an author uses to effect the internal change in their characters, which is where I think the true juice of the story is.

And I know all my turning points for this medieval French book—except the first one, which comes at about the 1/4 mark in the mss. That first TP is so important! It launches the character on their external journey, or if the character is already moving along that path, it ramps up the action, increases the urgency, or throws a major kink in the works.

Or it should, anyway. Mine? Not so much.

I have a really soft turning point, which is bugging me because it should be, at the very least, the moment the two forces in the novel, the protagonist and antagonist (or antagonistic force) cross swords and agree to duel

And I got nothin’. Well, there’s something there, I’m sure of it, I just have to find it.

Which is where these questions I mentioned the other day came in so handy. They are from a workshop Michael Hague gave at the RWA National Conference a couple of years ago. He suggests that the internal journey of a character is a transformation from persona (the construct that they show the world) to their essence (their true nature). Now, I’ve looked at these questions before, and they never really clicked for the Theodosia books or the Beastologist books. Maybe because those are series and the process happens throughout the course of bookS rather than A book. But boy, the questions clicked for me with this manuscript. Which is one of the reasons I like having a collection of writing processes and approaches up my sleeve, you just never know which one will coax which story into being.

So, onto the questions. The first two are ones I already ask myself, but the way he worded them triggered something this time. I think one of the reason these questions worked for me is because they echo something I do instinctively, but give it a bit more form and cohesion.

What is my character's longing? What is their deeply held desire they’re only paying lip service to, that they’re not pursing. Now some characters are so shut down or disconnected from their selves that they don’t even have a longing. Instead they have a need, a hole inside that must be filled.

And that hole is usually caused by the answer to the next question…

What is my character’s wound? What past traumas have shaped them and profoundly altered the way they see the world?

Third question, What is my characters belief? How has my character’s wound shaped his way of seeing the world? Of seeing other people? This is the one that really helped me this time because it gave me a sense of what the scenes needed to reveal about my character.

My character’s belief is that her only value or worth is in her usefulness as a tool to her organization. In fact, she clings to the fact that she’s a tool and uses it to disconnect from her emotions, her self. If she clings to the fact that she’s a tool—separate from the needs and desires other people are subject to, then she doesn’t have to admit they are lacking in her life, that she isn’t worthy of them.

This belief is used to keep fear and terror at bay.

The fourth questions is What is your characters’ identity? Which for me was answered in the belief question. She is naught but a finely honed, fully committed tool.

And the fifth question, What is your hero’s essence? When you strip away all the roles they play and the beliefs they protect themselves with, what are they at their core?

Now I have to admit to not being certain what essence was, so I rephrased it like this:
Who would my character be if she had the courage? If she wasn’t afraid of anything? It turns out my heroine’s essence is that she is a merciful, compassionate person who is being used for the purpose of judgment and punishment.

And then of course the story is about her movement from her persona to her essence, learning to step away from being a tool for a punishment she finds she doesn’t actually believe in.

Again, this doesn’t work for all stories, this is the first one of mine that it really generated an aha! moment for. Maybe it will be helpful to you at some point.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Plan B

Well, I had a lovely post all typed up and ready to go, but the Alpha Smart I used to type it up can't connect to this ancient computer without lugging the stupid thing away from the wall, so that will have to wait a bit. Sorry!

However, the good news is (well, for me, not so much you) is that between the threat of jury duty looming over me and an ancient (read: s-l-o-w) computer, I've gotten tons done this week. I wonder if it was Fate's way of getting me to focus on the basics of storytelling. You know, the old, butt in the chair, pen and notebook, get off the frackin' computer kind of basics. Whatever it was, it worked.

Speaking of fracking, my buddy Katy Cooper has turned on to the wonders of Battlestar Galactica. I'm totally loving this show! And thank god it's on DVD so we can gobble them up as fast as we want. It is well written; excellently plotted and the characters are all delightfully complex and multi-dimensional.

I am also reading seven books at one time, which is a lot, even for me. A sure sign that I am deep in a book and being the world's most finicky reader. I am currently reading:

Mysteries of the Middle Ages
World Without End
New Moon
The Hallowed Hunt
Lady MacBeth
Book of Unholy Mischief
Kushiel's Justice
and have just started The Hunger Games.

Oops. That's eight.

And speaking of that...brings me to e-readers. You know, I've never thought very much of them, nor been tempted in any way to own one. I love books--real live books--way too much. However, does anyone else get reader's thumb or book lover's elbow?? The former is usually from forcing open fat paperbacks and feels like two sprained thumbs, and the latter is akin to tennis elbow from holding up books that way six pounds or more (I seem to be drawn to 500-1,000 page tomes). The physical hazards of being an avid reader have me at least pondering e-readers and wondering if they eliminate these injuries.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Best Laid Plans....

Well, we're going to have to wait a bit for the show and tell (with pictures!) of my colored index card plotting because . . . wait for it . . . my frackin' iMac crashed again. Only this time it took the entire hard drive with it. I swear, I have the worst mac luck ever. I know they are supposed to have better no-fail rates than PCs, but I've sure not found that to be the case. My first iMac crashed and burned (literally) three times, and this newest one has crashed twice in less than a year. Maybe I have the wrong kind of electromagnetic field or something.

Anywhoo, I'm typing this blog post from one of my son's old computers, tucked away in a spare bedroom that is stifling (we are having 94 degree weather today my So Cal coastal community!?) and I am not even sure it can accommodate my camera's software for loading and organizing photos, so that will have to wait until I get my machine back from the shop.

Speaking of computers, I saw one of those tiny ones and boy, are they tiny. Not very usable, I think, so I guess I will shelve that idea.

In other news, I did get a lot of great work done this weekend, culling my Cast of Thousands down to only a dozen or so noble families. Again, I want to evoke the court politics and plotting of the time, not drown the reader in medieval French lineages. And I figure if I was drowning, the reader would absolutely be drowning.

I also got some great character work done using some questions from a plotting template method from Michael Hague, screenwriter extrodinaire. Which may seem somewhat contradcitory--to get character answers from looking at plotting structure--but since I think plot IS character, it actually makes a fair amount of sense. You can check out the template here, but I'll talk about the questions he discussed in his presentation in tomorrow's post. Well, if there is a post tomorrow. I also got a jury summons and may have to go in for jury duty. This might just be my lost week. Thank god it didn't happen while I was on deadline!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Having The Courage of Your Convictions

I know tons of people have already seen this, but it makes me tear up every single time I view it. If ever there was a vivid reminder to writers--to all artists--to step up to the plate, grab our dreams by the short hairs, and just do it fer gawd's sake, this is it.

You can clearly see the judges and the audience think she is slightly ridiculous, and she is awkward, but carries the absolute courage of her artistic convictions. And in the end, she receives a well deserved standing ovation. ::le sigh::

In other news, I am spending the weekend with brightly colored index cards in an effort to wrestle this latest mss into submission. I will report back next week. With pictures!

(For those of you who are seeing this twice, no you're not imagining things, I accidentally posted it over on Shrinking Violets this morning, the dangers of a split blog personality!)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Writing Lesson #37

Do not let people see your work before you've finished the first draft.

Or, as Stephen King says in his book On Writing, write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open.

I know this, KNOW it, and yet still I succumb to show-it-to-someone-itis. It's like my inner four year old has just drawn a picture with a brand new box of crayons and can't wait to show it to someone. More often than not, if incorporate their feedback, I end up taking it out because they haven't read the entire thing so don't know how it all ultimately fits together.

Not to mention it can wildly sidetrack one's creative vision. For example, I've lost a year with this mss because I let myself get tangled up in too early feedback.

Some day, I will learn. Or more importantly, remember. But I share this with you, grasshopper, to spare you similar headaches.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

::head desk::

Gah! I have too many old versions of this accursed manuscript! What's worse, I don't think the most recent ones work. I have to go back to an earlier version and start from there which means, in the quest for the strongest story, two versions of general line and copy edits and polishing are lost. Oh woe is me!

Thank god for colored printer paper or I'd never make it out of this maze alive.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Back Away From The Research!

This next project I’m working on is set in Medieval France and requires tons of research. I mean, tons! It needs way more than even the Theodosia books, which were extremely research heavy. Research is also one of the means through which I enter my story world. By immersing myself in research, the world of Edwardian England or Medieval France becomes real enough to me that when I close my eyes (which I do a lot. It’s called napping and is highly valuable exercise!) I am there.

One of the reasons this project requires so damn much research is that the worldview of someone who lived in Medieval France is radically different from our contemporary mindset, or even the mindset of a hundred years ago, and its that radically different worldview that attracts me to that age. But in order to evoke it on the page, I really have to know more than what sorts of clothes they wore, houses they lived in, and food they ate. I need to know how they thought of themselves in relation to the world.

The other thing I find is that there are wildly different interpretations of medieval life, with some authors claiming love was never a part of any marriage or betrothal and others claiming that theory is ludicrous and that while noble marriages were political beasts, there is evidence that some love matches occurred. At first this can be wildly frustrating, but after enough of these contradictions, it ends up being very freeing to me as a writer because if the experts can’t decide, then it means we don’t know with absolute certainty, so I can pick which theory works best for my story.

Of course, there will be some reader whose read the theory I didn’t choose, and will take me to task for getting research incorrect, but one of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t please every reader. It is impossible. For every story decision you make, for every character attribute you select, for every piece of research you incorporate, you risk alienating some reader somewhere. The thing I think we have to come to grips with is that it is okay, expected even, to not be every readers’ cup of tea. Ultimately we have to make the choices that resonate the most with us and trust that there is a sufficient body of readers out there for whom our choices will also resonate.

Okay, that was a tangent, Now where was I? Oh yeah, some people claim that research can be an avoidance technique, but even with the piles of it I do, I have never found this to be true for me. The thing is, my process has had over a dozen years now to mature and take shape and the one thing I know to be true is that writing is my favorite thing ever, and I don’t lack discipline for writing. I don’t need to force it because I will always come back to it. I can hardly force myself to take week’s vacation. So if I don’t feel I’ve done enough research, it is not because I’m avoiding writing, but because I truly haven’t done enough research or I still need time for the story or voice to jell.

If I try to cut the research short, the voice doesn’t fully ripen and it sounds off and clunky or anachronistic. In fact, I sometimes wonder if all the advice to write every day, and that warns against too much research doesn’t contribute to stories being written before their time? I’m a firm believer in the role of the subconscious (read: the girls and boys in the basement) in sending up some of the best stuff for our stories—but they need stewing and fermenting time.

The other reason I’m inclined to keep on with my research is that much of the time I will find the perfect plot element or the answer to a thorny story problem in the research—I consider that the writing gods reward for keeping at the tough slog through the genealogy charts of long dead French land barons (and isn’t google the most amazing thing ever!) and staring at maps until my eyes cross (because in medieval power and political struggles—land IS power and military strategy—it is absolutely integral to the story).

When I do need to back away from the research is when my poor brain becomes over saturated, like a lawn that’s been watered too long so that all the water just runs off onto the sidewalk. When my brain starts dribbling out my ears into puddles on the table, I know I need to stop. For now, at least. But the research process continues throughout the writing of the entire book.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Characterization Worksheet

Okay, just to clarify, I don't answer each of these questions for each of my characters, but this is a list of things I look at when I'm trying to develop their backstory so that I can capture their personality on the page.

Gender - not that you don't already know what gender your character is, but be sure you really consider how gender affects worldview. Boys walking into a situation have very different reactions and notice different things than girls do. Frex, in middle school, a boy walking into the cafeteria on the first day of school might be wondering who is going to trash can him or who he could beat up if he had to. A girl, however, might be looking for who seems the friendliest or which social cliques to approach/avoid.

Family’s social status/income level - because poverty greatly affect worldview

Any ethnic background or influences?

What is their family dynamics? Parents married, divorced, single? Siblings? Birth order?

What sort of student is the character?

How popular are they at school?

Who is his best friend?

Who is their worst enemy?

Do they have any hobbies? If so, how did they come to those hobbies?

Are they athletic? Good at sports? If so, which ones. If not, how does that affect their life?

What is the character’s most treasured possession?

Do they have any superstitions?

What is their general attitude toward life? Optimist? Pessimist? What went into forming that attitude?

What are they afraid of?

What are his hopes and dreams? Both immediate and long term.

What does he long for?

Does he have any food likes or dislikes?

What about pets?

Is there anything he feels guilty about?

What is his favorite book, TV show, or computer game?

What is his relationship with technology? Do they have four TVs? No computer? A cell phone at age 10? An email account? (in historical or fantasy novels, this question is a whopper as it encompasses the other world you're building into your story.)

What are his character strengths?

What are his character flaws?

What about Quirks?

Does he have any physical weaknesses? Uncoordinated, asthma, small for his age, etc.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Finding Your Character's Voice

This is probably the most conscious aspect of voice, adjusting your voice to convey a specific, fictional character. It’s the part where you climb into the character’s skin.

One thing that I’ve learned I need to understand in order to make my characters breathe on the page is what piece of me is in that character. What of my own core emotional truths does this character have? This is usually the key for me to an authentic character voice.

The truth is, pieces of ourselves show up in all our work. I have been surprised many times by unplanned pieces of me that show up on the page, usually spotted long after the book went to print and I acquired some distance from the story. Since this happens even when we don’t intend it to, we might as well consciously choose which parts we include and let them do some of the heavy lifting for us.

It is entirely possible, easy even, to write a complete story using only your author or story voice. In fact, this often happens. That’s what happened to me with the first draft of Beastologist II, I wrote it from my head and heart, not my characters’.

But how do you develop that characters’ voice?

Well, if we agree that Voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom, combined with their use of language, then to evoke a real-seeming, authentic character we need to understand their emotional truths, personal wisdom, and use of language. And while some of ourselves will be in them, they will in large part be wildly different from us, not unlike how kids have some of their parents in them, but are also their own unique selves.

This is where backstory comes in. Not because it belongs in the story—it doesn’t! Or only the very littlest bit you can get away with. No, we need all that backstory because authors need to understand what emotional truths and personal wisdom our character has acquired throughout their lives. We need to know his formative experiences, emotional scars and wounds, hopes and fears, what sort of environment he’s grown up in, all those things go into creating our character. In order to get him to live on the page, he has to have a fully developed life of his own in order for us to be able to nail his worldview and, therefore, his voice.

I’m not suggesting we have to account for every moment of his life before he shows up on page one, but definitely the big emotional events that have shaped him.

Personally, I don’t find those character worksheets that ask what color his hair and eyes are, and what pets and hobbies and quirks he has, all that helpful.

What I need to understand is WHY my character has a ferret for a pet and WHY he has a constant tic under his left eye and WHY collecting boogers is his favorite—only?—hobby.

I often joke about not knowing what color my character’s eyes are because I’m too busy looking through them, not at them.

I think one of the secrets to getting this strong character voice is using deep point of view, going deep into the character’s head so that it is HIS perspective that colors the story. Again, Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out Of A Tree is a great example of this.

But how do we get deep inside our character’s head?

For me it’s usually character journaling—creating a “journal” written by my character in which he confesses and contemplates his deepest thoughts. Almost like a therapy session. I'll often do a "therapy session" with the character on how he feels about the plot point that just occurred in the story--that's where I find his emotional juice.

Whenever a story feels flat to me or has flat spots, I go deep. I ask what is the core emotion the hero is experiencing in this scene? And why? Then, more importantly, have I managed to get it on the page?

Either later on today or sometime this weekend, I'll post the characterization worksheet that I use to help me to fully understand my character.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Story Voice

Some authors' voices remain fairly constant throughout everything they write and it is that author voice that holds such great appeal. Alice Hoffman, Jenny Crusie, and Meg Cabot are some that immediately come to mind.

Then other authors create unique, individual voices for each of their stories so that you might not realize they’d been written by the same person. Jane Yolen, Tamora Pierce, Suzanne Collins, K. A. Applegate, Garth Nix.

If you're the former, then the story voice and author voice remain fairly constant and you don't have to wrestle with the idea of different voices for different stories. However, as I said, this need to tell wildly different stories had me wrestling with voice for a long, long time.

So now I consider story voice to be which aspect of your author voice you’re focusing on or which emotional truth you are exploring.

The thing is, we all have many aspects to our personality: funny sides, serious sides, dark sides, places where our deepest fears lay. To me, it makes perfect sense that our body of work will cover more than one side of ourselves, thus different flavors of stories.

However, while we might vary in whether we want to focus on humor or seriousness or hope or despair, WHAT makes us laugh or cry or hope or despair is part of the essence of who we are and that will very likely remain constant throughout the body of our work.

Whether it is center stage or backdrop is the variable.

If you are writing a scary story, you will be drawing on what frightens you, the terrifying moments you’ve experienced, your nightmares.

If you are writing a humorous or light-hearted story, you will probably draw on what parts of life you find absurd or ironic. A romance would focus on how you define love.

Now, having said all that, I do suspect that each of us has a particular type of story that is best suited to our natural voice. As I told Dave in yesterday’s comments, Theodosia is absolutely the closest to my own natural voice to date. But does that mean I’m destined to write only Theodosia-like books for the rest of forever? Well, as much as I enjoy writing those, I certainly hope not, because that character only explores some of the things I know to be emotionally true, certainly not all of them. Perhaps Theodosia is only one aspect of my voice, or perhaps she is only one step along the path to finding my Most True Voice. I can't say for certain which it is.

I do know that I am hugely drawn to writing in the medieval period. In fact, four of my first six books were set in a medieval type setting. And while I don’t think that those books’ voice are as strong as Theodosia’s, I think it’s more because I hadn’t matured as a writer and developed my voice enough rather than because I was writing in a different time period.

The project I’m working on now is a very dark, mythical YA fantasy set against a late medieval backdrop and this voice sounds nothing like Theodosia, but I still feel very much that it’s my voice. But it is my seventeen-year-old voice versus my eleven-year-old voice. My coming-of-age voice versus my still-firmly-rooted-in-childhood voice. I am also exploring a whole different set of emotional truths and thematic issues and they help dictate the tone and feel of the story.

It is also my voice as seen through a medieval lens and worldview rather than an Edwardian one—two time periods with distinctly different flavors. The medieval world was obsessed with finding a path to grace and assuring a place in heaven, while Edwardians were just stepping out of a dark, somber, restrictive Victorian society and embracing a lighter side. Not to mention the beginning advent of modern technologies. If I’m doing my job in developing my characters, the flavor of those different times comes through.

Or as PJ says, talking about religion instead of relaying a college prank.

Which is why I think asking By what moral authority am I writing this story? helps me be sure I’m telling a story for which I have an authentic voice. That moral authority is the key to my emotional authenticity.

I think the fact that voice is so much more than simply language style is what allows us to effectively explore these different cultures and time periods. And I honestly believe it’s more about capturing the Renaissance worldview or the medieval worldview rather than using absolutely correct language and sentence structure. My intention is usually to evoke the time period through the language rather than to recreate it. I think it can be more accessible to readers that way and it gives me greater creative license to tell the story. And I sincerely believe everything should serve the Story. Especially voice.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Going On a Voice Hunt

Unfortunately, re-connecting with broken or lost voice isn't quite as easy as filling out a worksheet or answering a quiz. However, there are a number of things we can do to explore, identify, and strengthen our voice. All of the below have really helped me get a better idea of my voice so that I could try to make it stronger.

1) Embrace your inner odd duck.

This is the dedication in the second Theodosia book, and something I talk to kids about all the time. Our unique, crazy self is our secret weapon—especially when we’re engaged in creative pursuits. It’s our strange, uniquely individual perspective, emotional truth, and acquired wisdom that makes our work stand out from others’. If you’re a smart ass, or have way too vivid an imagination, or are too sensitive, or have attitude to spare, or have a wicked temper, or always look on the bleak side, whatever it is; embrace that part of yourself and incorporate it into your work. The longer I’ve been writing the more I think that drilling down to this absolutely unique core view of the world we each possess is key.

When I was in Dallas I had a chance to hear Judy Schachner, author of the Skippy Jones books, speak. As she gave her presentation and read from her latest book, I was struck by how this book was so uniquely a product of her. After meeting her and listening to this presentation, I realized this book was such a product of her own completely unique world view that it simply could not have been written by anyone other than Judy. And it seems to me that all our books should be that tied to our own individual perspectives and have our voice stamped so indelibly on them.

2) Ask by what moral authority are you telling this story.

And no, I don’t mean the church lady type moral authority. What I mean is, what authentic emotional route do you have into this story? That doesn’t mean that you must have experienced sexual abuse to write about it, but it will make your story more authentic if you have experienced some sort of abuse—if you are intimately aware of what abuse feels like. Especially if you agree that an author’s emotional truths are part of their voice. (And you might not, and that's okay, too.)

You know that saying that says, Write what you know? It’s talking about the emotional truth of what you know, not whether or not you’ve ever been a fireman or in love with a vampire.

3) What is the favorite thing you’ve ever written?

Do you have one piece of writing, an essay, a novel, even just a paragraph, that you love so much you can’t even believe you wrote it? If not, do you have something that simply stands out from other pieces of writing in such a way that makes you sit up and take notice? What sets it apart from your other writing? Can you identify what makes it sing for you?

4) Try to get a sense of what sort of stories really call to you.

Make a list of your fifteen favorite books of all time, then your fifteen favorite movies of all time. What commonality emerges? Mine were from a wide variety of genres and tones and it took a while before I recognized that one factor was a strong voice (yes, even in movies). Another was that the stories I loved the most took the hero to the mat emotionally, the protagonist was truly reborn by the experience of the story. Big sweeping, redraw your entire emotional landscape, type stories.

5) Looking back in time, what were some of the most pivotal moments in your life? Your childhood? How did that betrayal, salvation, glimmer of kindness, moment of despair, shape you? Pick a couple of these moments and do a quick, five or ten minute timed writing. Timed writing means stream of consciousness, only you will see it, no editing, kind of writing. You’ll be surprised how much truth gets on the page.

Tomorrow we'll talk about story voice--how one's voice can shift from book to book.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Defining Voice

It’s interesting how sometimes one’s reading life and writing life can manage to intersect perfectly. It usually happens when I’m in need of a Lesson, and right now, that lesson is voice. It also probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m working with three very disparate voices, and I find myself getting diluted a bit if I don’t pay attention. So clearly I need to pay attention, which is why I’ve been thinking so much about voice for the past couple of weeks.

The truth is, I am a sucker for voice. That is the one thing that can pull me into a book faster than anything. It’s nice to have character development and narrative drive show up at some point, but honestly, if the voice is strong enough, I’ll read just about anything. If a book has all of those? I’m in love.

And I’m not the only one. At conferences and in interviews, time and again I’ve heard editors say they are looking for a great voice. The thing is, everything else—plotting and characterization tools—can be taught. Voice must ooze up from the core of the author and takes time to develop.

The problem is, voice is difficult to define. It’s an, I-know-it-when-I-see-it, kind of thing. It can also, like a favorite fragrance we’ve worn for years, be impossible for us to detect in ourselves. How then do we recognize it? Work on it? Strengthen it?

I know that some people claim you don’t have to find your voice because it’s always there, and that may well be true. However, I do think one can lose one’s voice, either through misuse or because we’ve been educated by workshops or writing programs that our true voice isn’t valid or or because as we apprentice ourselves to the craft of writing, we lose sense of our own unique voice’s value. So while our true voice may not need to be found, sometimes it needs to be excavated or re-discovered. I suspect this may be especially true when writing stories for kids—we have to be able to reconnect with our child’s voice.

Of course, that brings us to the question of what exactly is voice?

For me, voice encompasses not only the words a writer chooses and how they string their sentences together, but also the very subjects they choose to write about, how they view those subjects, and in fact, their entire world view: hopeful or edgy, tragic or matter of fact.

Voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom, combined with their use of language.

And when writing for children or YA, we must try to reconnect with what our emotional truths were at that younger age.

One of the things that made voice so hard for me to understand was that my voice changes pretty drastically (I think) from story to story. So how then, does an author’s voice and story voice fit together? Not to mention the shifting voices of our main characters?

A very brilliant writer and teacher, Barbara Samuels, gave me this extremely helpful analogy.

Think of your author voice as a potato. Your story voice, then, is whether you are baked, French fried, scalloped, boiled, or mashed.

To stretch this poor metaphor even further (and this is me mangling it, not Barbara) then character voice is whether it’s plain mashed potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes; scalloped potatoes or au gratin, chili cheese fries or shoe string fries. (Lord, is anyone else getting hungry besides me??)

Your author voice encompasses your core stories, those thematic issues that you are drawn to time and time again. Perhaps it is finding a place to belong, or coping with great loss, being free of the past, or issues of trust. I know for me, finding one’s personal power shows up over and over again in my work and issues of power are very much a part of my core themes. I so remember being powerless as a kid—and that amazing feeling when I first learned I did have some power. In fact, I think that’s why I write fantasy—fantastical powers create such a great subtext for personal power.

I am also (clearly) drawn to historical settings, although I am unsure why that is. Maybe it’s a distance thing—maybe I need the distance of time to explore issues that would feel too painfully raw if I dealt with them in a contemporary setting? Or maybe that’s simply where I feel fantasy and reality meet in the most convincing way?

How do we reconnect with our author voice? Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? I'll talk about that tomorrow and maybe have a few exercises as well. . .

p.s. Speaking of language, notice how fond I am of clauses and adverbs and qualifiers...

Friday, April 03, 2009


Yes, that victory shout that broke the sound barrier on Wednesday about noon was me meeting my deadline. Phew!

Not only did I meet my deadline, but the Reading Gods sent me two great books to fuel the final leg of the revision. They must have heard me whining. The first book was Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach and was a delightfully satisfying mystery that delved into some fun literary history. What I loved most about the story was its surprising emotional ending and the protagonist, Hero. I thought the author did a fabulous job of really nailing that sense of what its like to not be popular and always have to worry about social interactions.

The second book, Emma Jean Lazaus Fell Out Of A Tree by Lauren Tarshis was equally fabulous. The thing I loved most about this book was the voice. Gawd. I'm tempted to put a sign above my computer, It's the voice, stupid! The book came just in time to illustrate that I'd completely dropped my main character's voice for about half my novel and switched into a more distant author-speak. It made for an extra scramble there at the end with tons more rewriting, but I was able to crawl more deeply into poor Nathaniel's skin and get him on the page.

Another thing Tarshis did extremely well was her use of a concrete object. A concrete object is some physical prop that absorbs emotional meaning throughout the story. I'll talk about those here on the blog in a few days--once I find my brain again. Now I'm off to grocery shop and clean the bathrooms. What? That's not how you celebrate finishing a novel??