Monday, September 18, 2017

Finding Your Voice

I've read somewhere that an author doesn't have a voice or true style until they have written over a million words. This is true to a certain extent. By that time, we've stopped trying to copy our favorite authors or second guess ourselves, etc., if for no other reason than we're tired of doing that.

Some writers don't read the kind of fiction they write while they are working on a book for fear that they will start copying a writer's voice instead of using their own.

Voice is more than just the use or misuse of metaphors, etc. I know I choose the language I use because of the character's viewpoint I'm in. (I write strict third-person viewpoint.)

One character might see a small plane wreck and describe it in my narrative as

The plane's pieces were scattered over the valley like clothes dropped by a drunk on the way to bed.

Another character who is more analytical would think

The gouge of earth left by the plane's moving fuselage led him to a boulder. The left wing tip lay against it. The furrow veered violently left there, and bits of wing then fuselage littered the area around it. When there was nothing left of the plane to break apart, the gouge ended.

The author must also choose voice by the genre expectations of the readers. Choosing the wrong voice can be quite jarring.

Can you imagine a romance novel written like a noir detective novel?

I can say this for Lord Garven, he was built, built like Cleopatra's Needle, but I walked away alone in the dark, dank London fog. I had my partner to avenge, and he had a date with Lord Southby.

One big mistake I've seen used by beginning writers is emulating the wrong writers, especially writers from the past.

A friend had a thing for Sinclair Lewis who wrote in the early 20th century.  I had to explain to him that Lewis' style was hopelessly outdated with its languid pace, florid style, and sentence structure, and with the current tastes of editors and readers, he would find no readers.

It's equally disastrous to emulate the current literary style of the moment like writing in first person immediate or second person immediate.

I look at Lord Garven. He is built. Like Cleopatra's Needle. But I shake my head no and walk through the door. I must find my partner's killer.


You look at Lord Garven. He is built. Like Cleopatra's Needle. But you shake your head no and walk through the door. You must find your partner's killer.

By the time you're publishable, the moment is long gone.

What I'm saying is find the right voice for each work, and your own voice will emerge.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Finishing a Novel

QUESTION:  I keep starting novels but can't seem to finish them because I can't figure out how.  Help!

Writing isn't just inspiration. A novel involves a great deal of planning, thought, and preparation. Those who just write instead of doing some form of plan or outline are more likely to be unable to finish a novel, or their novel falls apart. 

Learn how to make that plan, if not an outline. 

To do this, read books on writing. Most are one-size fits almost nobody, but you may eventually stumble on the one idea or method that gives you an "ah ha!" moment. 

Mine was Ben Bova's WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS which helped me understand the relationship between plot and character. It's a good book even if you don't write science fiction. (It's been republished under a number of names.) 

Find a good teacher. The Internet has some wonderful online teaching sites.

Ask questions at blogs like this one.

And when you find novels you really like, reread them and try to figure out what the writer did and how the novel was structured.  

Take the book apart by writing a short description of what happens in each chapter so you can better see the structure.  

Don't give up if  you really want to tell the story.  Eventually, you will figure out how to finish it if you work at it. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Finding Your Character's Weakness

According to Greek myth, Achilles' goddess mother dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable to injury, but the heel she held him by wasn't dipped.  As fate and story would have it, he died when someone shot him in that heel.   

Most people and the most interesting fictional characters always have an Achilles heel, that one weakness which will defeat them unless they overcome it.

As a writer, you must figure out what your main character's weakness is and attack it through plot.

That weakness can be fear of some physical danger.  If like Indiana Jones, your character is afraid of snakes, then snakes he must face to achieve victory.  

A better weakness is an inner one.  If your character prides himself on his dignity and fears ridicule, he must find the strength, at his high school reunion, to race across the room in his bunny underwear to protect his girlfriend from the same bullies who just stripped him.  

If he fears death, he must find the strength to risk dying for something or someone who is more important than life.

Minor weaknesses and disasters can add conflict to a scene, but that one Achilles' heel of your character and his attempts to overcome it are the heart and soul of a good story.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"Ing" the Merciless

QUESTION:  A published author told me that "-ing" words are weak and should be avoided. Is this right? 

Pick up any book on writing style or editing, and you'll see that "-ing" phrases have a bad reputation.  

As part of an introductory phrase, it's overused and prone to misuse.  

Misuse -- Picking up the gun, she walked across the room and shot him.

The introductory phrase happens at the same time as the verbs in the sentence do so the sentence above is impossible.

Proper use -- Grasping his shoulder, he fell.  

The verb and the introductory phrase can be done at the same time so it's correct.

Overuse -- Too many of them weaken the writing as any overuse weakens writing.  They also slow the reader’s speed so they can screw up the pace in scenes.  Think of them as bumps in the road that make the reader pause.  

I'm prone to using them to avoid having too many sentences beginning with "he" or "she."  That's where rewriting the rewriting comes in.  

The other common overuse is attaching the "-ing" phrase to a dialogue tag.  "I don't like it," she said, shaking her red correction pencil in my face.  

A way to avoid this and write a stronger sentence would be—  “I don’t like this.”  She shook her red correction pencil in my face.  

Monday, August 21, 2017

Proofreading Tips

I read a blog recently where the established author had received her galleys--the final version of a soon-to-be published novel which the author must proofread for one last time.  She was concerned because she’d always received paper copies, but this galley was digital.  

She wasn’t comfortable working on the computer screen so she had the book printed out.  

All five of my novels have been digital galleys so here’s some of my tricks for proofing digital copy.  It works just as well when you proof your work in progress.

  • Use text to speech, all computers come with it, to have your computer read it aloud.  In the preferences, set the talking speed a bit faster than usual so you won't lose focus.  Use a voice that doesn't lull you to sleep.
  • Change the font and text size.  Make it much bigger than normal so those misplaced commas really stand out.  If you begin to skim, change the size again.  
  • If you see examples of lines shorter than they should be because of a misplaced paragraph break, make the text much bigger and scroll the manuscript slowly to look for other examples.  This is often caused by someone's software putting a paragraph break at the end of each page.
  • If the galley or your software puts in hyphens and word breaks for a neat presentation, do a search for vestigial hyphens.  NEVER USE THE HYPHEN FEATURE ON ANY MANUSCRIPT YOU ARE WORKING ON.
  • If you have an ereader, transfer your book to it.  The different screen makes mistakes more noticeable.  
  • Take breaks.

  • And the most important tip:  Don’t leave the edits to the last moment.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Writer and Criticism

In the early days of writers' lives, our works are our babies, and no one wants to be told that the baby is ugly, or has bad manners, or isn't the brightest tot on the block.  It's hard sometimes even for a pro writer to remember that the work isn't really our baby, and we must learn to separate ourselves from our work.

The trick with writing and publishing is to remember that criticism is about the work, NOT ABOUT THE WRITER.  Criticism, constructive or otherwise, also isn't about the dream of being a writer, it's just another part of the work of being a writer.

Learning writing craft is similar to what an athlete does to become good at his game.  We start out with no skills but work until each necessary skill reaches a certain level of competence. 

It requires practice, even more practice, sweat, pain, criticism, the pained self-knowledge that we are not perfect, and a realization that the dream of being published or being on the team doesn't magically happen.  Then the cycle begins all over again as we grow as athletes  or writers. 

As a writer, you may choose to dream the dream and expect the writing and publishing fairy to touch you with her wand to make your dream to come true.  (Reality check: this will never happen.)  Or you can choose to buckle down to the hard work, the criticism, and the incredible learning curve of creating publishable craft so that your dream will come true.  

The criticism, both positive and negative, will never go away if you choose to be a writer.  You need only read the cruel Amazon reviews of some of the best writers to see that even fame, fortune, and success have an ugly side.  Or listen to the stories from pro writers who have to deal with incompetent or control freaks editors and publishers.

The work of improving craft never goes away. It is the same whether you are a newbie without a clue or an established writer.  Nora Roberts and Stephen King have said so, and I imagine any other writer you respect has said the same thing at one time or the other.

Dreaming the dream with no work or emotional toughness may be fine in the short term, but in the long term that dream attracts the predators-- the scam agents, fake contests, and crooked publishers-- who convince you that you are perfect then suck money and your dreams right out of you until even the writing is no longer enough, and the dream becomes a nightmare.  

If you love the writing and want to be published, you need to decide if it's a goal worth fighting for as well as a goal worth the time and distress of learning the craft and putting up with the shit.  If it isn't,  you need to find another goal worth the effort.  

Monday, August 7, 2017

Bad Things and Good Characters

Writers are told to make things hard for their characters.  They must heap on the problems so that moving forward toward a goal becomes increasingly difficult for the characters.  That’s good advice, but there are problems, then there are problems.

The problems presented should be logical within the plot, as well as reasonable.  If a character is on the way to rescue his girlfriend from a bad guy and his car won’t start, you should have shown that his car was prone to starting problems or he’d been in a car chase being shot at earlier, and, unknown to him, his gas tank had been slightly nicked, and now a puddle of gas is on the ground.  

An occasional problem may come out of nowhere, life is like that, but try to keep these down to a minimal. 

Bad things out of nowhere as plot stalling tactics simply don’t work.  Let your hero face obstacles that mean something, that stand legitimately in the way of his goal.  Your character defeating a true obstacle means something to the reader.  A false obstacle means nothing.