Category: Voice

Point of view, dialogue, tone, character internals, and so on.

Write Like Your Parents Will Never Read It

… But, um, they probably will.

It all depends on your subject matter, and on your parents. In our case, with books featuring so much vivid sex, profanity, violence, drug use, and trashing of religion, we felt pretty confident encouraging our moms not to read our stuff. (That didn’t work. It probably never does.)

Despite all our subtle warnings, our moms still wanted to read the books. So, we had to hand them over. Jen told her mom, “Kent wrote all the yucky parts,” and Kent told his mom to blame those sections on Jen.

The weirdest thing happened. Our moms liked the books.

Sure, they sort of have to. It’s in the mom job description. Of course they’re proud of us as writers. But we knew — or thought we knew — that our content wouldn’t be to their tastes. First of all, they don’t read much science fiction. And as mentioned above, it’s all stuff we’d never bring up in front of them. And we surely wouldn’t use such caustic language with them. They’re our moms!

We just don’t quite know how to process all this, and we probably never will. Happy to have happy readers? Absolutely. Glad not to have upset our moms? You bet! Wondering how well we really know these women? Little bit.

Having a writing partner means being able to disavow the parts your mom doesn’t like.

Don’t Turn Your Novel Into a Turducken

The other night we had a conversation in the writing cave about ways to flesh out a story. We know there are things we neglected to spell out, or perhaps omitted altogether, because of being a little too close to them. However, not everything that you could add is something that you should.

Obviously, you don’t include the stuff that’s irrelevant or uninteresting. But sometimes you need to hold off on making additions even if they’d be fantastic. Because not every nugget of gold belongs in the tale you’re telling right now.

Consider a scenario where your main character makes a decision after tons of soul searching, a decision that’s going to determine the direction of the narrative. You can feel the turmoil of your character throughout his sleepless night. It’s tempting to try to bring the reader into that space of conflict, share the doubt and trepidation of the protagonist. To show (not tell!) all the alternatives that were contemplated, all the attempts to bargain away the painful but inevitable outcome. And in many cases, it’d be the right call. But not always. All that’s essential for the reader to know is what the decision is, and that reaching it was difficult.

Forcing the issue will hurt the whole book. If this moment falls during escalating kinetic tension, then inserting a digression into someone’s interior world is likely to kill the mood. Dwelling on this particular moment for this character might detract from the image you intend to create. And in such cases, no level of prose quality will change the basic fact: it doesn’t fit.

Including a scene that’s a tonal or thematic mismatch is like stuffing a different story inside the one you’re trying to tell, like jamming a bird inside of another bird. Maybe turducken is delicious, in which case the metaphor falls down. Just be sure that all your ingredients really do work together.

Yin And Yang

Good prose is often described as “efficient.” Eliminating extra words helps the reader by letting the author get out of the way.

Conversely, “designed by engineers” is, at best, a backhanded compliment.

Your text has many jobs to do, but it can all be summed up in terms of form and function. Functionally, text must convey a semantic payload. That is, meaning with a little m. On the flipside, the form of the message is your style. It’s the flavor that makes your work uniquely yours. Both are important: have something worth saying, and then say it well.

Where to draw the line between spare and terse is subjective. It’s also genre-dependent, and at the mercy of fashion There is no one right answer. Writing clean isn’t about brinksmanship, skimming the event horizon of a flat voice. It’s about not burying the message under ten feet of fluff. (Or substituting prolix phraseology for actual content.)

Blurry lines become a bigger concern when you write with a partner. What if one of you suggests taking out “some extra words,” referring to a passage that’s essential to the other’s identity as a human being? Not that it’s been that extreme, but this issue is relevant in the writing cave lately. Jen is nearly three-quarters of the way through an editing pass on Book Three of the Divided Man series, and it’s a manuscript that hasn’t been workshopped as much as the other two. Translation: there’s a lot of cutting to do. Kent is, for the most part, on board with those cuts. Really, 99+% of them are things he agrees with, even when the overabundant descriptors being excised are things he lovingly placed there to begin with. When it comes to that sub-one-percent, though, he takes a stand.

Your writing partner can help you rein in your verbosity, or provide the missing sizzle for the steak. You can do the same for her.

Becoming More Human-like

Writing is many things, but maybe more than anything else it comes down to recording — and transmitting — the experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s the essence of “show don’t tell.” And it’s the essence of voice in your fiction.

Kent reflected on this, and on our process and all the different sets of eyes he’s looked out through, and formed the opinion that the act of writing has increased his capacity for empathy. For context, his workplace nicknames have included Spock, Data, and more recently, Sheldon. (His high-school nicknames were less flattering.)

He’s convinced that empathy has become easier for him, sometimes involuntary, and he blames it on the writing. It’s also possible that it’s just a symptom of getting older, or a side effect of spending so much time with someone as compassionate as Jen.

Writing is many things, but most of all it’s projecting yourself into another being. The reader has a keen nose for puppet strings, so the writer must cut them without the character falling limp. You can get away with a little pretending, a little imitating, but it won’t carry you far. To win the reader’s trust, your writing must contain the characters’ honest fears and hungers.

It ends up giving a writer lots of practice standing in others’ shoes. And if you’ve never had a nickname based on an inhuman creature devoid of emotion, you probably have a good head start!

Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a Pair of Scissors Can’t Fix!

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One of the things you need to do when you write with a partner is divvy up the work, and here in the writing cave we often end up each adopting part of the cast. Kent does the POV scenes for his adoptees, and Jen likewise for the other characters. It’s nothing formalized, but we do like it because it helps each characters’ scenes feel more consistent as a set.

So. On our read-through of Son of Music Novel, we agreed that the scenes from one particular POV felt longwinded and over-explainy. And this character happened to be someone Kent had adopted. It was a good fit, because this character’s personality and intellect are similar in some respects to Kent’s, so he felt comfortable with the voice. Maybe a little too comfortable.

There’s no rule against having boorish characters, even boorish POV characters. The trick is to convey them while avoiding boorish writing. We now have to address some issues because this character brought out some of the worst in Kent.* Rather, because when that happened he let it contaminate the prose.

Will we send Kent back to fix the mess he made? Will we bench him and put Jen in for a fresh take on it? We don’t know. But having two of us means we have options.

*note that we are not actually accusing Kent of being longwinded and over-explainy

Sing Like No One’s Listening

r-avatarAn author needs a brand. (No, not social media or “platform.” That’s how you promote the brand; it’s not the brand itself.) This is about the work, about craft. And by brand, we mean more than genre + style, although that’s how a lot of your fans will sum it up — “Oh I love her stuff, it’s edgy scifi with this bleak sense of humor.” That’s not your brand. Neither are your characters, or your Big Ideas, or intricate plots, or deep themes. They’re elements of brand, but it’s more than the sum of those parts.

Your brand is your voice.

Cultivate your voice. Do it your way. Revision is a chance to make your voice more yours with every editing pass. Take out that stuff that doesn’t sound like you, and replace it with stuff that does. Own it.

Weigh all critique input against your voice. Your critiquers’ suggestions might be biased toward their own voices, unconsciously. They won’t set out to sabotage your voice; you need to keep an open mind. But, sometimes the “corrections” are actually mistakes. When you feel like someone really isn’t getting it, you’ll be tempted to try to appease them. Soon you’re trying to compromise with each reader, removing the impediments to their appreciation of your work. Don’t. When they don’t get what you’re doing, that’s a sign that you need to do it more, do it harder — do it so hard there’s no doubt you’re doing it on purpose. You’ll know you’re on track when instead of comments trying to “help” you with how you use language, you start getting comments about how your language makes them feel (good and bad).

Writing isn’t about serving up some mythical concoction that appeals to everybody. It’s about creating something meaningful for some, and that means it will be repellent to some. But it will find its audience and they will be passionate for it. That’s your tribe, and even if it’s small they’re your people. They’re the ones who are called by your voice.

Like Music To Your Ears

r-avatarFunny thing about writing a story that contains a lot of music: sometimes that means you can’t have any music playing while you’re writing it. The right background music can be very helpful, might even be inspiring, but there’s also a potential for the music in the writing cave to clash with the music in the writing. Another danger is that whatever you happen to have on while working on a scene will influence the flavor or even the outcome of that passage.

In the music novel, and now in son-of-same, the goal is to put awesome music in readers’ heads. The conceit is that the band in the story is awesome, that they’re every reader’s favorite band, which, if you’ve ever talked about music with anyone, you can see would be impossible. So comparing the story’s music to any specific real-world bands is off the table. It would backfire at least as often as it worked, no matter which paragons of rock and roll we used as comps.

So, how then to put the magic music in anybody’s head? We use two techniques in combination (in harmony, one might say).

The first and most important thing is to lavish description on the feeling that the music creates, rather than just on the music itself. The proper device for this is the specific feels of a specific character. Showing the sadness Jackie feels when she hears the song is infinitely stronger than saying that it’s a sad song.

The second thing is, when describing the music itself, use metaphor and poetic license. Get across the energy of the sound. Try to describe it without naming any instruments, without using any musical jargon. Pretend you have no knowledge of how that torrent of sonic mayhem was created, you just know it’s a fire-breathing lizard dancing through a forest of giant mushrooms.

Advance readers of the music novel have universally said they want the albums, want to go to the concerts, despite the fact that their personal tastes are wildly different. Sounds like success to us!

Less-Than-Perfect Telepathy

r-avatarWell, that was no fun. (But we’re feeling much better, now.)

For the new book, we’ve bestowed an odd trait on some of the characters, something that alters their subjective take on the world. As we’ve been mentioning a lot of late, the current priority is getting our ear in for the new cast. We want all the characters’ experiences to shine, but it’s crucial that this one odd trait be vivid, and that it be portrayed consistently. It’s a key piece of pseudoscience and needs to mesh with the flavor of the other speculative elements in the story world. We’re mad planners, and we like to know going in that all the edges are going to line up.

So after several conversations, and a few hours of image searches and other web research, we agreed on the basic parameters. A handful of provisional scenes were already in the can, but for a lack of that odd subjective flavor that we had just defined, so Kent went about retrofitting it.

Turned out that our agreement about the parameters was a bit of a mirage. Kent’s take went way out of bounds compared to what Jen had in mind. Of course, Kent had his reasons for doing things that way, and thought at the time that it was exactly what had been established.

This led to the conversations with no fun in them. It’s uncomfortable to be in disagreement over something you’re really invested in, and Jen and Kent don’t get a lot of practice disagreeing. (We like it that way, but it makes for extra friction when things do go south.) Both partners must seek what’s best for the fiction, and not give in for the sake of harmony. That would be false compromise, which not only hurts the quality of the writing but it also weakens the partnership over time. It’ll make you want to keep score, and you can’t keep score. You can’t carry baggage. You need to find the better answer, the thing that makes you both happy.

Which is what we did. Jen shifted to a different metaphor to articulate what she hoped to see on the page, and suddenly the vision clicked in Kent’s mind. We knew we couldn’t really say “That’s it!” until at least one scene existed incorporating the new idea, so Kent got right to work. Success!

What Color Is The Sky

r-avatarBy now, we have a fairly good handle on the background info, physical attributes, and overall personalities of all the major characters for the new novel. Jen has tracked down reference photos and filled in all the details on the character sheets. But there’s a big difference between knowing all about someone, and really knowing them.

We make use of multiple points of view in our novels, usually switching at chapter breaks and sometimes within a chapter as well. It’s third-person, but not omniscient. This goes well beyond just limiting the facts to those that the POV character could know and not letting any subjective details from the rest of the cast slip through. It’s important that each scene really convey what the world is like for that character. Being able to do that requires that we know them intimately, that they become real to us. And getting to know a bunch of people that well takes some time.

On this project, we’re making a conscious effort to mold our process around what we’ve learned on a few previous books. We really want to have the voices dialed in right from the beginning, because it sucks when you have a hundred pages of great material that’s riddled with a subtle, pervasive flaw. So we’re trying to avoid our past mistakes, like the time our readers didn’t feel connected to our protagonist (whom we absolutely loved and couldn’t get why anybody else could feel otherwise — we had neglected to put her feelings on the page) or the time we went back to the opening scene and discovered that that protagonist was behaving “out of character” (we got to know her properly only after the first part was written).

That’s not to say we had no successes, far from it. A particularly good move, which arose organically and then we recognized and formalized it, is the way we tend to divvy up scenes based on their viewpoints. This allows us to deepen our connections to certain characters, and also lets us each play to our strengths by adopting the characters that resonate with us more. There’s no rule that says “that’s a Kent character; Jen can’t write it,” and by the time we’re done there’s typically quite a bit of overlap, but as a guideline it works very well.

A few vignettes have been crafted for Son of Music Novel, things which might or might not get incorporated into the manuscript. Kent’s next project, now that there’s a bit of raw material and now that some psychoanalysis of the cast has been done, is to revise those maybe-apocryphal scenes so their POV characters’ personalities saturate them. This exercise will give us the benchmark for how the “real” scenes should feel once we begin composing the novel per se. We take a holistic view of getting the voices right. It spans all levels, from mechanicals to vocabulary to reasoning styles and even sensory inputs that are unique to each character. It’s a lot of up-front effort, but it will put us ahead of the game later on.

50 Shades of Bad Advice

r-avatarWe’ve been enjoying Jenny Trout’s 50 Shades recaps: all of the shadenfreude and none of the actual slogging through those books. (Thanks, Jenny!) And in the course of those recaps, something that’s always seemed frustratingly opaque has now started to make a lot more sense. While bad advice certainly begets bad writing, bad writing in turn begets bad advice.

The 50 Shades books are written in first person, present tense. And, they’re poor examples of craft. Correlation is not causation, but it’s painfully clear that in this case an inexperienced author got in over her head with the constraints of that mode. We look upon this and see that if someone had just told her not to do it like that, some of the problems could have been avoided.

Some of them, probably. But wouldn’t the world be a better place if, instead of blanket prohibitions, our newbie writers had guidance about how much additional work they give themselves when they choose a first-person viewpoint? (And how to tell if their particular first-person narrator is sufficiently compelling to carry an entire book.) How the use of present tense impacts plot development?

With writers so vastly outnumbering editors, we really need to up our game. We need to see the cause-and-effect of bad advice accurately and break the cycle. Telling novices, “Yeah, don’t do that,” isn’t helping them.