Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Giving Voice to Your Characters

by Kelley Lindberg

For the last two weeks, we’ve been discussing different aspects of “voice.” Your voice is the unique sound to your writing that sets your story apart from everyone else’s. They say there are only a handful of basic stories. It’s how we tell them that distinguishes them.

Some writers elevate the idea of “voice” to some mythic super-power that you either have or you don’t, like x-ray vision. That there’s dangerous territory. I believe voice is simpler than that. It’s just the way your express yourself. In real life, your voice is a mixture of physical aspects (how your vocal chords are shaped) and intangible expressive choices (what you choose to say or the sounds you choose to make with those vocal chords). In writing, your voice is a combination of the technical prowess you display (with your word choice, sentence-construction, rhythm, and descriptive flair) and what you choose to express with that technical skill (the ideas you choose to describe, explore, or question).

Whether or not your voice grabs the attention of other readers depends on many things, from shared experience to breath-catching imagery. And the best ways to explore and strengthen your writing voice are very similar to trying to establish your singing voice, for example. As a novice singer, your training will include exercises to strengthen the physical aspects of your vocal chords and respiratory system. Your training will also include singing in a variety of genres, techniques, and styles as you build versatility and find the sounds that feel most “natural” to you. Eventually, most singers develop their own style and sound that they believe best fits what they’re trying to express.

Finding your writing voice is a lot like that. That’s why reading and writing widely, in many genres and styles, is so important as you’re developing as a writer, and why even advanced writers continue to read and write often and in many directions.

Your voice is continually changing. It is not a static thing (pun intended). You don’t wake up one day and say, “Ah, there it is. I now have a voice. It’s perfect as is. I don’t need to change a thing.” On the contrary, your voice is not a destination in and of itself. It is a tool, not the final product.

Your voice can and will change over time. More importantly, your voice can – and should – change from story to story. Do you ever plan to tell the same story twice? Probably not. Each story has its own life, its own purpose, its own heart, its own mind. Therefore it will have its own voice, too.

All of this talk of “voice” sounds nice and vague, and about as useful as a wax bicycle. How do you explore voice in your own writing?

One of the most immediately gratifying ways is to take a single scene and write it multiple times from the point of view of several different characters. This exercise lets you see instantly how a character’s own voice can color their version of the story. “But those voices will be the characters’ voices, not my own,” you might be protesting. Um, yeah. Think about that for a moment. Did you invent the character? Did you invent his/her voice? Then it’s yours.

In any story, making your characters sound like individuals is critical. Nothing makes a story fall flat like characters who all sound the same. If the bad guy and the hero both spout sparkling dialogue with nifty turns of phrase and spot-on literary allusions, how is the reader going to tell them apart? And if they sound the same, why should your reader care about either one? After a while, your reader begins to suspect that all your characters are just thinly veiled versions of you, and that begins to feel forced and pretentious, no matter how brilliant your word-choice and sentence construction are. So as important as it is to find your own voice, it’s equally important to make sure each of your characters has their own voice, too.

Here is an exercise in voice:

A thief has just robbed a convenience store, and there were witnesses. Write a one- or two-page description of the robbery four different times, each one from the point of view of a different person in the store:

·         The teenage skateboarder who was getting a soda at the time.

·         The business woman grabbing her latte on her way to work.

·         The middle-aged cashier, who was filling in for his brother-in-law.

·         The robber. (You choose who he/she is.)

As you write their reports of the robbery, pay attention to their word choice, the cadence of their spoken speech, the details they notice, the emotion they express. Do they talk fast or deliberately? Scattered or methodical? Hysterical or bored? Do they focus on physical details or emotional impressions?
As you explore each character’s telling of the story, you will learn aspects of that character’s voice. And the more you learn about your characters’ voices, the more you’ll learn about your own as an author.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Using Voice to Establish Mood

by Kelley Lindberg

Voice – it’s that elusive, yet all-important quality that makes your book uniquely yours. It’s how you observe and write about things. It’s the language you use. It’s the language your characters use. It’s the details that you choose to expound upon, the emotions you sketch upon the page, and the pacing as you weave it all together.

Last week, we talked about how paying attention to the rhythm of your sentences can elevate your writing, which is one particular aspect of voice.

This week, let’s explore how vocabulary and language choices can establish a scene’s mood and emotion.

Remember that every scene is doing multiple things for your story. It is creating the setting, building your characters, and defining the conflict. Preferably each scene is doing all three at once, but it must at least be doing two of them.

So in a scene, you’ll want to blend in some setting information that will not just set the stage, but also create a mood. How do you do this? Pay close attention to the verbs and adjectives you choose, and select verbs that convey intent as well as action (“saunter” has a very different feel than “walk”). Highlight one or two details in the setting that carry extra meaning or that will reinforce the emotion – beta fish fighting with their own reflections in a scene that needs to be packed with tension, for example.

Absolutely avoid vague emotion words like “happy” or “scary” or “depressed.” Instead, you can do a lot with a well-chosen verb. For example, “sunlight stabbed across the carpet” feels very different from “sunlight played across the carpet.” See this week’s weekly writing prompt (in the right-hand column of this blog) for an exercise that will help you explore ways your language choices can affect a scene’s mood.

Pick up a couple of favorite novels and find a particularly riveting scene. What verbs does the author use that are doing double duty, establishing both action and mood or atmosphere? What details does the author choose in the scene to describe, and how do those details reinforce the mood?

But remember, you don’t want to bog down your story with long setting descriptions. The right details and language can accomplish much in a few tautly crafted lines.

For example, here is a paragraph from The Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron. In this single paragraph, Pyron manages to sum up weeks of a family’s downward spiral through the eyes of a small boy:
“I burrowed into the nest of blankets in the kitchen pantry. My book of fairy tales rested on a dusty shelf with the ghostly circles of the canned vegetables we no longer had. After days and then weeks, the beautiful golden firebird on the cover of the book was smeared with grease; on another shelf lay a pile of scrap paper, and my favorite pencil. When I couldn’t sleep because of cold or anger, I drew pictures. Drawings of firebirds, a terrible witch named Baba Yaga, houses walking on chicken legs, talking dolls, giants, and wolves with wings.”

The detail of “the ghostly circles of the canned vegetables we no longer had” is a tiny, ordinary detail that takes on breath-taking meaning as a symbol of encroaching poverty and desperation. And the choices of what the small boy draws invoke a growing sense of dread, tempered by the “wolves with wings” at the end, which seems to imply a tiny sliver of hope.

Look closely at your own scenes now. Are your details and language guiding the reader into the emotional state you want them in? Is your description reinforcing your character’s situation, or is your description mostly superficial, generic, or worse – working counter to your needs?

Pull on your revision boots and wade in. Your voice is there, waiting to be unleashed to do what it does best: tell your story your way.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Do Your Sentences Have a Sense of Rhythm?

by Kelley Lindberg

Email question of the week: “How can I better improve the flow of paragraphs and sentences? The rhythm, that is.”
Great question. As you know already, there won’t be any easy answers because this is where it all becomes incredibly personal to you and that mysterious, amorphous quality called “your voice.” (In other words, “Here there be dragons.” But dragons are fun!)

I’ve been mulling this over a bit, and I asked my writing group if they had any good ideas, and the best they could come up with was to read a variety of things to see how other authors do it. Yeah, I know, not really the specific help you were looking for. So here are some of my thoughts. They may not be helpful for your particular situation, but I’ll try anyway.

At the sentence and paragraph level, there are some really simple technical techniques to watch for in your writing. These aren’t new; you probably learned them in high school (or earlier). But it’s easy to forget about them, so it’s good to revisit them. The really important thing about these techniques is to practice them over and over. It’s like guitar. You can’t become a great guitar player by reading about playing guitar. You can only become good by practicing the same things over and over, then moving to new exercises when you master those.

1. Vary your sentence structure. Many writers fall into the very common problem of using the same sentence structure: “He did this. She did that. He walked here. She said ___. He went there. The cat did this.” In other words: Noun verb. Noun verb. Noun verb. Read a couple of your paragraphs out loud to see if you’re falling into the simple subject-predicate structure with every sentence. If so, then go through the paragraph and mix it up. For example, instead of “he walked into the room,” change it to “shaking with anger, he walked into the room,” or “walking into the room, he felt the ripple of interrupted conversation spread out from him,” or “the door slamming open got everyone’s undivided attention before he even stepped inside the room,” or “Walking…moving one foot, moving the other foot…and again…. Who knew it could be so bloody hard to walk into a room?” But be careful you don’t change all the sentences in the same way. And watch for dangling participles.

2. Change the length of your sentences. Mix up long with short. Shorter sentences often have greater impact – think punch lines. Longer sentences can gracefully build a feeling, or they can convey a crazy, rambling train of thought. Play with your sentence length. A writing group I used to be in had this exercise once: Write a long sentence (a full paragraph long!), followed by a short one. The long one can compare or contrast, expand, explore, ramble, drive, whatever. Then the short one should have incredible impact. Try doing this exercise and see what you come up with.

3. Remember that the end of a sentence or a paragraph usually has the most impact. So examine your sentences and identify the piece of information you want to emphasize the most.
  • Low impact: “Carrie knew the unicorn wouldn’t come to her because her heart wasn’t pure anymore, but she still reached out to it.”
  • Higher impact: “Carrie reached out to the unicorn, despite knowing it wouldn’t come to her because her heart was no longer pure.”
4. Eliminate most adverbs and adjectives. They’ve fallen out of favor in modern writing, and most editors can’t stand them – especially adverbs. Rail against this all you want, but it’s just the way modern writing is. Get over it. Sure, 19th-century writing is down-right thick with adverbs. But this isn’t the 19th century, and today’s readers have different expectations. Adverbs are now seen as the lazy way to describe something. Instead of using adverbs or adjectives to modify an idea, explore more specific or interesting verbs, body language, or action.

5. Choose “lively” verbs – especially avoid “to be” variants, like was, were, is, am, and are. Don’t say “It was a beautiful morning in the valley” when you can say “the morning spilled beauty across the valley.”

6. Better yet, pair your lively verbs with concrete details, carefully selected to convey an emotion or atmosphere. In other words, instead using the vague and near-meaningless word “beauty” and writing “the morning spilled beauty across the valley” (which sounds awfully lame, doesn’t it?) describe something that makes the morning beautiful: “Peach-shimmered clouds stretched in the first promise of sunlight as the scent of lilacs faded with the last of the stars.” (Okay, that sentence is pretty flowery and over the top, but you get the idea – and you get a more vivid mental picture of the morning’s beautiful qualities than you did in the original vague sentence.) Look again at #1 above to see how the boring sentence “he walked into the room” can be made more interesting by highlighting details of the scene’s actions or the character’s reflections.

So those are some of the technical things to watch for. The art form comes in using and varying these techniques a lot, exploring how they affect the rhythm of your language, and being aware of where the impact beats are occurring and how your word choice is coloring your scene. It may feel clunky and awkward at first to go through a paragraph reworking the sentences to vary them, but take a big paragraph or a page from something you’ve written, and try each of these techniques one at a time. First, look for noun-verb structures, and if they’re all using the same structure, change some of them. Next, look at sentence length and vary them. Third, eliminate all the adverbs. And so on. When you’ve gone through all six steps, compare your new paragraph to your old one. It might be better; it might not. But you’ll get a feel for the process, and most of the time, the new version will bring up some bit of rhythm or feel that was missing in the first version, and you’ll begin to see where you can make it even better.

Note: These techniques are just as effective in nonfiction as they are in fiction and are wonderfully helpful for preventing your nonfiction from becoming insomnia aids.

Of course, it turns out that the “wide reading” advice really is probably the best advice there is for learning about rhythm. Read authors you love, and authors you don’t love. Read in and out of your genre. Read poetry. Read plays and study their dialogue. Read both literature and genre fiction. As you read, stop at random paragraphs and study what the author is doing. How do the sentence lengths reflect the narrator’s current emotional state? If the language is taut, brief, staccato-like, is the character under stress? When he feels a sense of contentment, do his sentences lengthen and his observations become more descriptive? What kind of verbs does the author use? Does the author use metaphors, body language, or scenery to show emotion, or is the language so Spartan you have to guess at the character’s inner thoughts? All of that reading will begin to reveal patterns you may have been oblivious to before, but as a reader were affected by nonetheless. You can do the same with your readers as you hone your own sense of voice and pacing.

Once you get beyond the sentence and paragraph level, the concepts of pacing and flow in your story get much more complex. We’ll look at some of those ideas in future posts, I promise!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

World Read Aloud Day, March 6, 2013

by Kelley Lindberg

Today is World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by Last year, LitWorld, “a non-profit literacy organization fostering resilience, hope, and joy through the power of story,” says there were hundreds of thousands of participants in 65 countries.

Are you going to participate this year? It’s easy. Here are the rules:

1. Grab a book.

2. Read it aloud to someone.

Too complicated? Here are some alternatives: Donate a book to a person, school, shelter, or organization. Write a blog post about books or reading. Buy a new book. Read one of those books you have on your nightstand. Tell someone about a book you think they would like. Say thank you to an author. Say thank you to a librarian. Say thank you to a teacher. If you belong to a book club or critique group, have everyone in the group read aloud something they’ve written.

Something magical happens when words on a page are given breath and spoken into the air. Imaginations spark. Eyes widen. Hearts quicken.

In this world of nonstop information and entertainment, we are overwhelmed with media choices and outlets for our imagination. That’s not a bad thing. But somehow, in the face of all the electronic frenzy around us, there can still be something incredibly comforting about a book.

No pop-up ads. No commercials. No upgrade fees. No technological compatibility issues. No noise.

Just you and a story to lose yourself in, or a new world to immerse yourself in, or ideas to revel in.

And sharing that story, that world, or those ideas with someone else is even better. Watching a child begin to see the story world appear around them as you read is an experience that can’t help but leave you a little happier at the end of the day.

If you know a child, someone whose eyesight is failing, or someone who could just use a little company, take some time out today (or any day) and read a book, a chapter, an article, or a poem to them.

And have yourself a happy little World Read Aloud Day.