Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Follow-up on Voice

There were a few good questions asked about voice on Monday's post, but my answers were too long to make in comments, so I thought I'd give them the proper attention today.

Kelly Bryson asked: Sooo, what's the difference between the writer's voice and the character's voice?
To me, writer's voice is the overall feel of the narrative, while the character's voice is, well, the character's personality, etc.

This is much easier to see in a book written in third person. Take The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman or Lips Touch by Laini Taylor (one of my favorites last year). Both these books have a strong narrating voice that isn't necessarily the character's voice. I call both these writers Master Storytellers, because it's their voice that draws me in.

It's harder to pinpoint the differences in first person books, since the main character is the one who's essentially telling the story. But the writer's voice it's still there, and if you read several different books by one author you'll see it. Take Sarah Dessen, for example. She writes first person but doesn't write series—all her books have a "feel" to them that comes from her voice. I've written, um, like 7-8 projects in first person, and in every one my voice/style is still there.

No matter if in third or first person, our characters will still be translated through our unique lens. Our voice. I've read a lot of my friends' works, of course, and I know what to expect from each of them. And what's cool? They most always deliver (I smack them if they don't). Kiersten is always witty and fast-paced. Carrie is consistently ridiculous in the best way possible. Steph is a pro at simultaneously making my heart ache and flutter. Kasie never fails to make me smile the whole way through. In "darker" work or tense situations, in a myriad of character voices, whatever—their voices shine through.

Is it possible to know an author's voice in just one book? I can recognize Kate Dicamillo. Is voice just the things that make you go 'this sounds just like...'?
I think it's possible to know an author's voice on the first page, even. And it should be there from line one until the end. Voice is kind of like your brand. Sure, not everyone will like it, but those who LOVE it will expect it and crave it and be angry when they don't get it.

L.T. Elliot asked: Do you feel like you can have a different "voice" for different projects, though? I have two VERY different stories (okay, a lot more than two) and the voices are way different. Is that bad?
You might be thinking of character voices, which can be vastly different from book to book. If so—not bad at all! You'd be surprised how much you can stretch your voice and still keep it in tact. My "darkest" book is still soaked with my dry wit and sarcasm. It's like I can't help myself or something.

If you mean that you honestly think that your voice has changed with each project, then I'd say maybe you aren't quite sure of what your voice is yet. And that's okay, too! I wasn't sure of my voice for a long time. Like, years. It wasn't until I began writing a lot that I started to pick it up, which is why I'm a big proponent of free writing.

After having written about five books, I went back one month and read them all back to back. This was one of my biggest lessons in voice. Seeing so much of my writing in one dose, I noticed my tendency to "subtle humor," sparse yet punchy description, plucky characters, etc. I also noticed I struggled with repetition, melodrama, over-tagging, etc.

I would say look at your "very different" works, search for the similarities, and you might be able to nail down some aspects of your voice.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Caring For Your Voice

Voice—the "it" factor. That thing you have to have but no one can really tell you how to get. Sometimes writers talk about it as if it's the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow—always just out of reach. Or there's the epic writing quest, in which you'll find Voice at the end, who will bestow you with great writerly power.

But grasping your voice is more like being Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Your voice isn't out there somewhere waiting to be found—you already have it inside.

*cue sappy music*

No, seriously. You already have it! You may not be using it properly. You may not completely understand it yet. But it's still there, no epic quests needed.

What you really need is training. Jedi training. (Wow, can you tell I'm a little loopy? I blame editing.) Okay, maybe not Jedi training. I wish. Here's what I do when I feel like I'm losing my voice:

1. Drink honey lemon tea...oh wait, wrong voice.

1. Free Write. A lot.
You have to just let yourself write sometimes. Let the perfectionist go and see what comes out. You have to learn the natural cadence of your writing. Sure, there will be junk, but there will also be gems. That's how voice is. What? Did you think voice was perfect?

It's not. Your voice has flaws and strengths—the only way to figure those out is to write. And then write some more. Oh, and then let yourself write even more "crap."

As I experiment with my writing, I'm reminded of my strengths and make note to use them to my advantage. I also see my flaws and can more quickly stifle them in revisions.

2. Look Back
Sometimes I go back and read my old work. I know some writers refuse to look at their greener attempts, but I find it incredibly helpful. Looking back helps me see my improvement. It gives me confidence that I've grown as a writer, and yet stayed true to my voice.

Yes, a lot of it is cringe-worthy, but it's amazing how my voice is still there, just in a rawer form. I can see it in between the clunky sentences and gaping plot holes. It shows me that I've learned how to showcase my voice better.

3. Read
When I take in other voices, it helps me see how mine is different or the same. Note I didn't say "better or worse." Voice is the most subjective aspect of writing. Reading different voices helps me learn what other writers did to make their voice work. Some are strong and distinct, and they adapt a style that mimics that. Others are gentle and alluring, and use their words to highlight that. I learn from every book I read.

Sometimes we wish we had a different voice, when we really should be embracing our own. That quest to change our voice, I think, is the fastest way to lose it. In the end, I think the best thing you can do for your voice is to be honest about it. Your voice is your voice. Love it. Know it. Take care of it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Assessing Critiques

I've said before that the real purpose of critique is to get a writer to look at their manuscript differently. You don't have to take every piece of advice your betas give you—in fact, you don't have to take any of it if you don't want. But that begs the question: Then what do you take?

For me, I go by my reaction to the suggestion. You know your story, and critiques that improve it will resonate with you. Those that don't, I tend to ignore. I'll give you a run down of some of my reactions to critique:

1. What the CRAP?
Sometimes I'll read a suggestion that feels completely out there, one that makes me think, "Did they read the book?" These are the ones I usually throw out, because they'd make my book something it isn't and there's nothing I can do about that.

2. Um, that's not what I meant.
When a beta mentions something I didn't intend or something they didn't understand, then it's an indicator to me that I need to make my writing clearer. For example, one of my betas thought my MC was naked at one point when she'd only taken her over-shirt off. Yeah—CLARIFY.

3. Dangit, I hoped I could get away with that.
These are the crits I knew might come back, but I was lazy and didn't want to do the work unless someone called me on it.

4. NOOOooooooo!
When I don't expect a huge suggestion—one that would take massive rewriting—but it makes sense, that's my first reaction. I try to wiggle my way out of it, but in my gut I know I'm going to have to dig in and rewrite.

5. Wow! I never noticed that!
Sometimes my betas point out themes or issues I hadn't intended, but are freaking awesome. Often I go back and try to bring those out if they strengthen the plot/characters.

6. Doh.
Then there are the times when betas point out really obvious things that make me feel blind. Or they point out my excessive semi-colons or glaring typos or copious amounts of "just" and "even." These are usually easy fixes that I should have caught.

7. That's PERFECT.
Usually I know the trouble spots in my book, but I'm at a loss for how to fix them. My betas are amazing at helping me fill in those holes. Sometimes they'll say one little thing that opens up the story and makes it just right. These edits make me excited to get back to work.

As you can see, there's only one reaction that makes me throw out advice. I think that's how it should be. I seriously consider most of what my betas say, and I make changes accordingly. I may not do exactly what they prescribe, but I fix it in my own way. Sometimes it's hard to listen and decode, but my manuscript has always been better for it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ways To Edit

I'm always on the lookout for fresh ways to look at my writing. Let's face it, editing can get monotonous. When you've read the same thing so many times, you just stop seeing the words. But you can't let yourself do that—you have to see the words or things won't change like they should.

Here's a handy dandy list of editing tactics to try:

1. The Quick Read
I've found this extremely helpful when searching for continuity errors, repetitiveness, and overall flow of my writing. When you read your own book in a day or two, the "big" problems will jump out. For example, I'll realize I'm glazing over one chapter—maybe it's not compelling enough...what is it missing? Later on, I'll be read an action scene and think, "Hmm, the pacing here is too quick. I need to draw out that tension."

The Quick Read is the closest you can get to a "reader experience," though you'll need to be the most critical reader out there. I make notes to myself as I read and use those on the next editing round.

2. Chapter By Chapter
Or scene by scene, or act by act, whatever. Sometimes I like to tackle my book one section at a time so I can focus on something smaller and make it complete. Chapter by chapter is my usual tactic, since I sometimes have issues keeping my chapters on course. I often have to move info around or separate into new chapters.

3. Themed Edits
I often have a specific goal with each of my edits. I mentioned my usual approach of Plot, Character, and Prose edits in a very lengthy post, so I won't go into that here. The basic idea is to take it in small bites.

4. Reading Aloud
I've read several of my books out loud, since it forces me to look at the words on the screen. That, and bad wording or clunky dialogue jump right out when you hear it. If you hesitate or feel a little stupid saying it, then maybe there's a better way to write it.

5. Paper Edits
I personally edit much better on paper. I glaze over looking at the screen too long, but give me a fatty stack of paper and all of the sudden every awkward line and description pops out. And entering those edits into the computer is effectively another edit, because I often see more or tweak as I enter.

6. Find/Replace
I haven't done this one—yet. I plan to do it because it sounds so smart and effective. Basically, you compile of list of your personal ticks and search for them. You look at each one and then decide to remove it or not. I assume I'll be removing most of mine. These can be words, phrases, and punctuation marks. Like in my current editing project, I went crazy with the semicolon. Seriously, there are several on every page. It's hilarious (and a little embarrassing).

There are plenty of ways to edit, and I think using a variety of methods is, um, the best method. These are just a few approaches, but please feel free to add more in the comments. Yes, I want to steal—I mean borrow—your ideas for myself.