Tag Archives: writing

Beta Reading VS. Editing #amwriting

Once again, the question of the difference between beta reading and editing has arisen in one the many forums I frequent on Facebook. So, I feel the need to revisit a post from 2015, Beta Reading VS. Editing. If you’ve already seen this post, nothing has changed in the world of editing and beta reading since this first appeared. But thank you for stopping by!


Indies rely heavily on what we refer to as beta readers to help shape their work and make it ready for editing. But in many online forums, authors use the term used interchangeably with editing, and the two are completely different.

And unfortunately, some indie published works are clear examples of work by authors who don’t realize the importance of working with an editor, although it is apparent that they have had assistance from beta-readers.

What is quite disappointing to me, is the many traditionally published works that seem to fall into the same lack-of-good-editing category, and I am at a loss as to why this is so.

So, what is the difference between a beta reader and an editor?

Well, there is a HUGE difference.

Editing is a process, one where the editor goes over the manuscript line-by-line, pointing out areas that need attention: awkward phrasings, grammatical errors, missing quote-marks, or a myriad of things that make the manuscript unreadable. Sometimes, major structural issues will need to be addressed. It may take more than one trip through to straighten out all the kinks.

  1. In scholastic writing, editing involves looking at each sentence carefully and making sure that it’s well designed and serves its purpose. In scholastic editing, every instance of grammatical dysfunction mustbe resolved.
  2. In novel writing, editing is a stage of the writing process in which a writer and editor work together to improve a draft by correcting errors and by making words and sentences clearer, more precise, and more effective. Weak sentences are made stronger, nonessential information is weeded out, and important points are clarified, while strict attention is paid to the overall story arc.
  3. The editor is not the author She can only suggest changes, but ultimately all changes must be approved and implemented by the author.

Beta Reading is done by a reader. One hopes the reader is a person who reads and enjoys the genre that the book represents. Beta reading is meant to give the author a general view of the overall strengths and weaknesses of his story.

The beta reader must ask himself:

  1. Were the characters likable?
  2. Where did the plot bog down and get boring?
  3. Were there any places that were confusing?
  4. What did the reader like? What did they dislike?
  5. What do they think will happen next?

Beta Reading is not editing, and the reader should not make comments that are editorial in nature. Those kinds of nit-picky comments are not helpful at this early stage because the larger issues must be addressed before the fine-tuning can begin, and if you are beta reading for someone, the larger issues are what the author has asked you to look at.

This phase of the process should be done before you submit the manuscript to an editor, ensuring those areas of concern will be straightened out first.

Editors and other authors make terrible beta readers because it is their nature to dismantle the manuscript and tell you how to fix it. That is not what you want at that early point–what you want is an idea of whether you are on the right track or not with your plot and your characters, and if your story resonates with the reader.

Do yourself a favor and try to find a reader who is not an author to be a first reader for you. Then hire a local, well-recommended editor that you can work with to guide you in making your manuscript readable, and enjoyable.

If you notice a few flaws in your manuscript but think no one else will notice, you’re wrong. Readers always notice the things that stop their eye.

In my own work, I have discovered that if a passage seems flawed, but I can’t identify what is wrong with it, my eye wants to skip it. But another person will see the flaw, and they will show me what is wrong there.

That tendency to see our writing ‘as it should be and not how it is’ is why we need other eyes on our work.


Credits and Attributions:

Beta Reading VS. Editing, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2015 first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under writing

Character description: too much or not enough? #amwriting

I love eBooks for the simple reason I have over 800 books, and I don’t have to dust them. I do buy paper books, but only those on writing craft or research for my work.

I have managed to get nearly every book I ever loved as an eBook. Every week I add at least two more books to my library. I have become a fan of hundreds of new authors, most of them indies.

Every now and then I read a book that is traditionally published, sometimes taking a dip into general fiction. I did that this week, reading a book I saw advertised on twitter. I picked it up, knowing I might hate it because the critics loved it.

I can live without a happy ending, and even with no ending at all. Not every story ends happily. But please, make the pages that come before that lack of ending something more than self-indulgent hero worship of your protagonist. I get that you’re in love with your characters. I’m in love with mine too.

Just don’t wax poetic about their magnetic beauty on every third page, please.

Unfortunate phrasings that yank me out of a book:

“She lay there staring with her creamy blue eyes, water pooling in the corners.”

“Her eyes were the same color as the deep purple velvet drapes.”

Meh. Enough about their eyes already. Some authors go to incredible (and at times, awkward) lengths to force their personal creative vision of what a character looks like on the reader.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told what to think when I am reading a book. What I consider beautiful is not necessarily attractive to someone else.

But this brings us to a dilemma that many authors seem to face. How do you describe a character in such a way that the reader will find them as attractive as you want them to be?

You must give the reader enough of a general description that they can fill in the blanks with their imagination.

Generally, you want to show a character’s coloring, hair style/color, eye color, general physical description. Especially, you must somehow mention anything that is unique about their appearance. If they are not too fastidious, mention it, and the same goes for if they are obsessively fastidious.

Actions can reveal physical characteristics and mannerisms. Consider how they fix their hair, what style of clothes they gravitate to, even how they move and interact with both the environment and other characters. What are their habitual facial expressions?

Offer this information up in bits over a period of time rather than dumping it in a police-blotter style of delivery. Just don’t go on and on giving minute, unimportant details.

In my Tower of Bones series, the men in Edwin’s family have this sort of cachet that makes them irresistible to all women. It is the Goddess Aeos’s way of ensuring that the girl she has selected for them falls in love with them, and their bloodline is continued.

But what do Edwin and his father (and grandfather) look like? Edwin and his family are a lot like my uncles were as young men, tall, blondish, blue-eyed, and physically strong from working on their farm. They’re rather average, nothing spectacular. They’re good-looking, but aren’t overly handsome. However, there is something about them that causes trouble in a certain strata of female society that has a rather free approach to life.

So what is this charisma these men have? (And that my uncles did not have.)

Here is where I romanticize them. To most men, they seem no more intriguing than any other person, but to women, they are an irresistible banquet of masculine pheromones. Since they do a lot of traveling, this creates opportunities for mayhem. While writing the Tower of Bones series, I’ve had a lot of fun with that plot-line, especially when it came to Wynn Farmer in Mountains of the Moon.

For my other characters in various books, again we write what we know. In my mind, all my characters are exceedingly good-looking in their own different ways. I am of British Isles stock as is most of my family, but I live in a town filled with people of all races and origins. Throughout my life, my neighbors have been from such diverse places as Japan, Mexico, Alabama, Norway, Cambodia, Nigeria, India, and Minneapolis.

Thus, in my head, my characters are of all races, and all are attractive to me.

Huw the Bard is darkly handsome, blue-eyed with black curling hair, and has a roguish charm that women find irresistible. An incurable romantic and on the run, he loves many, but gives his heart only to a few.

Billy Ninefingers is exceptionally tall and strong, sandy-haired, with a boyish face. He’s competent and a strong leader with a firm sense of justice. He is in love with only one woman, but there are complications.

Reina Jacobs is a middle-aged woman, a retired pilot who has been conscripted back into active duty. She has short iron-grey hair and is a cyborg. She is attracted to Ladeaux, a pilot of her age, but while they are working together, she won’t fall into a romance.

Personally, I don’t find Prosperine as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to my taste, although as a painting it is flawlessly executed. But millions of people find her beautiful, and he certainly did. His model, Jane Morris, was considered a great beauty in her day.

Yet the images of her, both painted and photographed, portray her as sulky-looking, which is not attractive to me at all.

I choose not to beat the reader over the head with my personal vision, other than the general description for the reader to hang their imagination on. I want the reader to see beauty and magnetism in the way that is most appealing to them. I hope that mannerisms, conversations, and other characters’ opinions convey the image the reader wants to see in a protagonist.

And this is the way it is for every author. We are painters who use words to show an image. We want to the reader to see what they believe is beauty.

Your vision of beauty is not what your readers see, and to force too many details on them ruins the flow of the tale.

A good general description, with hints or comments about their beauty or lack thereof, is all that is needed. If you provide the framework, the reader’s mind will supply the rest.

13 Comments

Filed under writing

First-person Point of View #amwriting

A month ago, I mentioned the problems I was having with a short story I had been working on. I couldn’t seem to get into my main character’s head. So, I rewrote it in the first-person present tense narrative mode, but because I was unused to that mode, it felt like I had written a walk-through for an RPG (geek-talk for role-playing game).

Apparently, it read that way too.

But after a lot of help from my writer friends, and a lot of rewriting, I got into the swing of things. Finally, the story drew me into my character’s mind, which was what I had wanted all along.

In traditional first-person POV, the protagonist is the narrator. One thing I had to keep in mind is that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything so the narrator cannot be omnipotent. At first, this was difficult for me. When I chose to have the reader experience the story as the protagonist does, I had made a fundamental change in my style of writing, and my finished product has required several rewrites.

After all, in real life, we aren’t all-seeing and all-knowing. Any lawyer will tell you, even eye-witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

We each see and interpret things from our own perspective. The human mind is hardwired to fill in the blanks—this is why eye-witness accounts of a single event will often vary so widely.

That lack of information is why I now love writing in this point of view for short stories.

What I had to figure out:

Who is the best person to tell the story? I could easily have told it in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story. It didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted it to be when written in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. She had to tell her own story.

What was the inciting incident? That was also difficult – deciding where the story actually began was the first step to getting it on track. Because this story is intended for submission to an anthology, I have a specific word count to fit the story into, and the anthology’s theme must be strongly present throughout. After reading the first draft, a writer friend pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.

They were right. Thus, I had to scratch the first half of the story and begin at what I had thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.

What does she actually know? She isn’t omniscient, so she can only know what she has witnessed. That was also a problem for me, as I know everything. Just ask me. But I had to figure out what she really could have witnessed, and then work only with that information.

What does my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the truth is that her quest is to find herself as a human being, as much as it is to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.

What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line in this tale, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.

I am once again approaching the finish line on rewriting this tale. The submission deadline is still several months out, so I’m not rushing. I still have to rework and condense a few things at the front end of it, but now I know what changes I want to make. Writing this story has been an awesome adventure for me, and once this is ready for an editor’s eyes, I might attempt writing another in the first-person point of view.

Sometimes writing a story with a finite word-count limit and a specific theme to adhere to is as time consuming as writing a novel. But finding ways to work within these constraints is making me a stronger writer, so even if this isn’t picked up by the publication I hope it will be, I will have a good marketable story.

I’m grateful to have the company of talented authors to help me brainstorm sticky problems.

8 Comments

Filed under writing

Creating Romance #amwriting

Normally people don’t look too romantic. On weekends they hang around the house in comfy clothes and only get cleaned up to go somewhere. Come Monday, they dress a certain way to go to work–dressing in whatever is suitable for their business.

However, no matter how they dress for work, people always dress in their fanciest clothes if they’re going out nightclubbing, or to dinner in a fancy restaurant, or going to a party. People want to look their best, especially if they are single and hoping to find love.

The point is, no one looks good all the time in real life. In many novels, the events and action leaves them dirty and disheveled for a large portion of the story, which in real life isn’t that pretty. But what if you want to give these unkempt, stinking heroes a romance? When it comes to injecting romance into an action adventure story, the author’s task is to make the protagonists ignore the dirt and seem attractive no matter what the circumstances. There is a bit of escapism in all readers. A grand adventure with a good romance is the sort of story I will gravitate to in a heartbeat.

I love an author who manages to take her heroes and heroines through rough adventures and still make the romance between them special. Sure, let them get dirty and sweaty, and make their lives hard. That makes them feel like real people.

Just please, make any romance between them a part of the story that advances the plot.

Writing romance into a scene and not going off the rails requires skill.  Do we keep it restrained or get graphic? Would my characters really get graphic? And how much graphic is too much graphic? When do we cross the line of writing fantasy and venture into erotica?

I don’t really see myself going into that area of writing, although I understand there is a large market for it.

As for what is too much, it depends on what story I am trying to tell. In my current work in progress, innuendo and allusion are the means to convey the deeper story. In my novel, Huw the Bard, a certain amount of graphic detail was required to advance the plot, although not as much as in many other authors’ books. Because these scenes were such a small part of the story but were defining moments in his life, the romance scenes of Huw’s book required many revisions to get right. They had to be important, but couldn’t overshadow the larger story.

For me as a reader, there is a fine line between enjoying an erotic scene and feeling like a voyeur. It’s easy to write graphic details, but are they romantic? Quite often they read like the assembly instructions for a set of bookshelves from IKEA—insert tab A into slot B.

Certain words repel me, especially if they are applied with no finesse, emerging from the prose with force of a jackhammer.

The lead up to romance is critical. Are you going to have them together forever? If so, make the road to happiness difficult. We must show longing, wondering, hoping, and there must be roadblocks to instant happiness. A trail of hints and innuendo creates a sense of growing connection between two characters. Each tiny connection between two characters raises the emotional stakes, and emotions are the key to a real romance. The chase is the story—‘happily ever after’ is the epilogue.

If the romance is a brief moment of respite in a sea of chaos, a long chase is not needed. With that said, the romance between two characters who are not destined for each other must be central to advancing the plot. Whether you choose the ‘fade to black’ method (which I usually do) or get graphic (which I have done on occasion) is up to you. You must consider your intended reader and what they will expect.

When I contemplate how to portray a love scene, I want the reader to feel like it was worth the time they took to read it. I want them to care about what happens next in that couple’s relationship—if anything does. Just as in real life, sometimes true love is not meant to be.

I want to be able to stretch myself as a writer and learn more skills at telling a good tale. I try to do that by finding the works of other writers that moved me and discovering what it was about a scene (regardless of whether it involved romance or not) that made me glad I had read it.

When I write, I’m like every other author—words fall out of my head, some good and some not so elegant. And if I have written something awkward, my beta readers will graciously (or bluntly) tell me so.

Being an author isn’t always roses and wine. Sometimes it’s weeds and pickle-juice.

Writing something worth reading is hard work. It’s striving to meet the expectations of people you’ve never met, which is not easy. By working closely with a circle of trusted author friends, I have gained a better ability to step back and see my work with a less prejudiced eye.

If they don’t see the charm that I do in a certain passage, I ask myself why. Sometimes, the answer lies in the fact they don’t enjoy the sort of work I do, but very often the answer is that what I wrote was not ready for someone else to read it.

That ‘proud child’ urge to display your work in its raw stage is one we all combat. Nevertheless, for me, having the opportunity to do this full time is living the dream.


Credits and Attributions:

Galadriel and Celeborn, by Araniart [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons|Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Araniart – Galadriel and Celeborn.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Araniart_-_Galadriel_and_Celeborn.jpg&oldid=262862472 (accessed April 1, 2018).

5 Comments

Filed under writing

Random Thoughts on Lazy Writing #amwriting

For me as an author, the easiest part of writing is inadvertently slipping some clumsy bit of phrasing into my narrative and having an action scene go hilariously (and impossibly) wrong. I don’t usually notice the awkwardness until my editor points it out.

As a reader, there are a few things that will pull me out of the narrative, and most of them are lazy writing habits. First up is the poorly researched “historical” novel. Lazy writers get some info from Wikipedia and fabricate the rest.

Research: Using real science requires research which is hard work and can be expensive—I have a friend who is writing a historical novel and has been working on it for nine years. She has made two trips to New Zealand to the town where her novel is set. While in New Zealand she visited the local libraries and interviewed people who knew witnesses to the shipwreck she is writing about.

I realize we can’t all visit New Zealand to research a book, but wow—that is what I call doing “due diligence.”

Writing true history, writing medical dramas, and using police and military procedures requires ACTUAL research from more sources than Wikipedia and watching old CSI episodes. Robert Dugoni is a lawyer, and interviews law enforcement professionals for his novels. He knows what he is writing about, and his thrillers sell quite well.

If you’re writing historical/medical/legal fiction, you must read many books on your subject. Make notes as you read each one, noting the book title, the author, and the page number where you found the info—you may need to know those things later. It’s work, but this is a job you can’t skimp on.

Even if you are writing speculative fiction, you will accumulate background info in your world building process. Keep your notes in a clearly labeled file, and back them up on a thumb-drive or file them in the cloud via Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Docs. I use and work out of a file-saving service, so no matter what happens to my computer, my files won’t be lost. Turning those notes into your story is called research and is an important part of the writing process.

Lazy writers sometimes “write” work written by other people. When we first start out as bloggers, we don’t always realize what our legal obligations are when it comes to using images and information found on the internet. We may want to quote another blogger or use the information we have learned from them.

 Savvy bloggers cite their sources and only use images they have the legal right to use. 

If you are blogging, put it in quotes and include a link back to the site you found it. Then credit your source in footnotes at the bottom of your post. See my post on citing sources and images here: Citing Sources and Image Attribution

This is most important: do not ever copy lines from another person’s work and put them in your book or essay without their permission. That is plagiarism, and you never want to be accused of that. If you must quote someone verbatim in your work, contact their publisher and get their legal permission to do so and credit them by using proper footnotes. An excellent article on how to do this can be found here on Beard with a Blog: Cite Unseen: 3 Bits for a Better Bibliography

Random thoughts about strangely worded things I’ve read:

The awkward description: Sometimes we struggle to get too artful and it just doesn’t work. Please, don’t use a phrase like: “He felt his eyes roll over his host’s attire” and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host. Let me just say it now: If ever you feel your eyes roll over anything, pick them up and have a professional put them back in your head.

That unfortunately phrased sentence is one of the less obnoxious lines from a book I was unable to finish reading. I could see what the author was trying to say, but other than Professor Alastor (Mad Eye) Moody, most people’s eyes do not operate autonomously. Try to slip descriptions into the narrative in less obvious ways, with no clumsy lead in that announces a lengthy exposition is forthcoming.

Use of clichés. Speaking as a reader, please do a global search for the word alabaster. If you have used it to describe a woman’s skin, get rid of it, and find a different way to describe her. It’s an overused word that has become cliché. Find different ways to say what you want, unless you have a character who uses clichés—if so, she’d better have a good reason. Even then, don’t go overboard.

Use of obscure words. Sometimes we try too hard to bring variety to our prose. We need to change things up, but we should avoid technical words and jargon that only a professional in that field would know.

Events that occur for no reason: I loved “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books written by the late Douglas Adams. The books detail the adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman traveling the galaxy in his pajamas. He and his friend are transported off the Earth just in time to miss the destruction of the planet by the Vogons, a race of unpleasant and bureaucratic aliens, to make way for an intergalactic bypass.

Don’t be afraid to be a little bit “out there” but there must be a point to having the protagonist leave his house wearing his pajamas. Otherwise, get rid of it. Adams used that opportunity to show the environment Arthur was about to be thrust out of. Adams understood he had to show Arthur in his happy home, and then he had to be quickly yanked out of there and placed on that Vogon Constructor Ship.

Books are my life—I read constantly, and often re-read my favorites. I learn just as much from the ones I don’t love as I do from the ones I like.

I haven’t had the time lately to write reviews, but I will have several reviews soon. I always try to review the books I loved, especially if the author is an indie. In fact, I’m several behind, so I need to stop chatting and get reviewing!

17 Comments

Filed under writing

First-Person POV #amwriting

Third-person omniscient is my usual mode to write in, but I am currently writing a short story in first-person present tense, and it’s not going well. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

As authors, we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head.

First-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

One way to create intimacy is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by attempting to replicate the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the narrative character.

This device incorporates interior monologues and inner desires or motivations, as well as pieces of incomplete thoughts that are expressed to the audience but not necessarily to other characters. Consider this passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

“A dwarf’s face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy’s was. Dwarf’s body, weak as putty, in a whitelined deal box. Burial friendly society pays. Penny a week for a sod of turf. Our. Little. Beggar. Baby. Meant nothing. Mistake of nature. If it’s healthy it’s from the mother. If not from the man. Better luck next time.

—Poor little thing, Mr Dedalus said. It’s well out of it.

The carriage climbed more slowly the hill of Rutland square. Rattle his bones. Over the stones. Only a pauper. Nobody owns.”

In this narrative mode, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions. Stream-of-consciousness is a tricky device to do well, and the only time I have employed it was in a writing class.

When they want to tell a story though the protagonist’s eyes, many authors employ a simple first-person point of view to convey intimacy. “I walked to the corner, thinking about what she had said.” The narrative is more structured than stream-of-consciousness yet flows quickly from the pen. As a reader, I prefer structured prose to unstructured, which is why I’m writing my new short story using a first-person POV.

I like the fact that stories in this mode are told from the view and knowledge of the narrator-character, and not of other characters. The author must keep in mind that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything.

In real life we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. By allowing the reader to discover information as the protagonist does, a story can be engrossing. Best of all, the narrator may not be honest with the reader. As in Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, she might withhold secrets, offering small bits of information in subtle ways.

So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and I stay home on Friday night with a bottle of wine and make myself an extravagant meal and tell myself, This is perfect, as if I’m the one dating me. ~~ Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

As I mentioned before, my intention with my current short story is to put the reader into my main character’s head. The problem I have as I read the first draft is this: written in the present tense narrative mode, it feels like a walk-through for a “choose your own adventure” book.

First-person point of view employs the unreliable narrator, which I do like. While this story has to be told from the main character’s first-person point of view, it might not be best  to tell  it in the present tense. I will keep the point of view but will change the narrative to a more reflective tense, rather than present tense.

For me, writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. When something feels awkward, I rewrite it. If it still feels awkward, I set it aside for several weeks or even months. When I come back to it, I’m able to see what needs to be done more clearly. Sometimes that means it must be completely rewritten again. That struggle on my part is just part of the process.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed May 7, 2017).

Quote from Ulysses, by James Joyce, published 1922 by Sylvia Beach

Quote from Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, published 2012 by Random House.

25 Comments

Filed under writing

Style and Voice #amwriting

The literary voice is the way a story is told. Literary voice has been compared to  music. We’ve all noticed how a well-known song can sound so different, depending on who is performing it. The words are the same, the basic melody is there, but some performances shine while others miss the mark.

The distinctive style of each writer forms when we engage personally with a topic and impart our personality to that piece of literature. We are each islands in a vast sea of writers, and the view from our place in the universe is slightly different from that of our fellows.

Therefore, how we convey what we see and imagine has an identifiable sound that is ours alone. Phrasing, word choices, these are the recognizable sounds of our literary style. Our habitual writing style is our unique fingerprint, the author’s voice.

However, voice is often what we love or hate about a certain author’s work. Editors for publications are readers who are looking for the best work to publish in their magazine or anthology. If a story has great characters and a good story arc, voice is what will attract or repel them.

These are the holy trinity that combines to make a classic tale:

  • great characters
  • unique voice
  • gripping plot

You may have noticed plot is listed last—and it is last for a reason. If the characters are not engaging and the writer’s style isn’t to my taste, the plot alone won’t sell me that book.

What is the writer’s voice? Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, says:  The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

Don’t confuse lazy writing with style. Lazy writers

  • Use too many quantifiers “It was really big.” “It was incredibly awesome.”
  • “Tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bert was mad.”
  • Swamp the reader with minute details: “Mary’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple.”
  • Ruin the taste of their work with an avalanche of prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words
  • Have their characters natter on about nothing just to kill time. It doesn’t show them as human, it shows them as boring.

Lazy writers don’t realize how smart their readers are. We don’t have to offer up every minute detail of breakfast. Broad strokes will paint the picture.

In contrast, some enthusiastic writers go overboard in trying to create beautiful, literary prose. They’re confusing contrived writing with literary style.

Literary agent, Noah Lukeman, in his book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, says, “All of these writers think they add a distinctive flavor, a ‘richness’ to the text, but more often than not they are just indulging themselves—thus the term ‘self-indulgent’—a common symptom of the over-styled manuscript.”

As we grow in the craft, our style becomes more cohesive, less self-indulgent, and more able to reflect our ideas. Certain habits will remain, the core of who we are and how we express ourselves. This is our voice.

It gets a little confusing when voice can also mean the tense in which the narrative is presented. English is a language where one word can have a multitude of meanings and context is critical. Some writers incorrectly use the terms voice and point of view interchangeably, so when they are talking about third voice, they mean Third Person Point of View. In this case, they are speaking of the main character’s voice, how she tells her story.

In this aspect, there are two voices to every narrative: the author’s voice, and the character’s voice.

Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience. Perspective and voice are components of the narrative.

Wikipedia says “Narrative point of view or narrative perspective describes the position of the narrator, that is, the character of the storyteller, in relation to the story being told. It can be thought of as a camera mounted on the narrator’s shoulder that can also look back inside the narrator’s mind.” It also explains that a narrative consists of three components:

  • Narrative point of view: the perspective (or type of personal or non-personal “lens”) through which a story is communicated.
  • Narrative voice: the format (or type presentational form) through which a story is communicated.
  • Narrative time: the grammatical placement  of the story’s time-frame in the past, the present, or the future.

Anyone who is a member of a critique group is regularly beaten over the head with certain basically good, but occasionally clichéd, rules. Improperly applied, this mindless interpretation of proper grammatical style can inhibit an author’s growth.

These rules are fundamentally sound but cannot be rigidly applied across the board to every sentence. For editing and also for writing, when I have questions about grammar I rely on The Chicago Manual of Style, but I also understand common sense.

Again it’s all about context. Sometimes a sentence that is grammatically incorrect sounds better, especially in dialogue. The bold writer sometimes breaks grammatical laws to write great books. How they habitually break those laws is their fingerprint, their style.

English is a living language. As such it is in a continual state of evolution and phrasing that made sense one-hundred years ago may not work well in today’s English. We may be writing a period piece, but we are writing it for modern readers. Nevertheless,

  • You can split an infinitive: it is acceptable to boldly go where you will.
  • You can begin a sentence with a conjunction if you so choose. And no one will die if you do.

How you apply grammar, the words you gravitate to, the point of view you work best in—these are the identifiable aspects of your voice as an author. Your writing style is a combination of how you speak through your pen or keyboard, how you craft your prose—your voice.

As Noah Lukeman’s book tells us, your author’s voice should not be so distinct and loud that it makes your prose obnoxious. Sharing your work in the early stages with an interested reader who will be honest with you can help you avoid some of the pitfalls in developing your style and voice. Find a good editor you can work with, one who will understand your stylistic choices, but who will guide you away from bad writing. This is money that is well spent.

Write something new every day, even if it is only a paragraph. Of all the advice I have to offer, this is the most important because if you don’t write, you have no voice, no style, no story.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman, published by Simon and Shuster, © 2000.

Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed Mar 18, 2018).

 

12 Comments

Filed under writing

Subtext #amwriting

A good story is far more than a recounting of he said, and she said. It’s more than the action and events that form the arc of the story. A good story is all that, but without good subtext, the story never achieves its true potential.

Within our characters, underneath their dialogue, lurks conflict, anger, rivalry, desire, or pride. Joy, pleasure, fear–as the author, we know those emotions are there, but conveying them without beating the reader over the head is where artistry comes into play. The subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations; the secret reasoning. It is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the personal events.

These are implicit ideas and emotions. These thoughts and feelings may or may not be verbalized, as subtext is most often shown as the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe. It also shows the larger picture. It can imply controversial subjects, or it can be a simple, direct depiction of motives. Metaphors and allegories are excellent tools for conveying provocative ideas.

Subtext can be a conscious thought or a gut reaction on the part of the characters. It imagery as conveyed by the author.

When it’s done right, subtext conveys backstory with a deft hand. When layered with symbolism and atmosphere, the reader absorbs the subtext on a subliminal level because it is unobtrusive.

An excellent book on this subject is Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. On the back of this book, subtext is described as “a silent force bubbling up from below the surface of any screenplay or novel.” This book is an important source of information on how to discover and convey the deeper story that underpins the action.

Because subtext is so often shown as internal dialogue, some writers assume that heavy-handed info dumping is subtext.

It’s not. It’s description, opinions, gestures, imagery, and yes–subtext can be conveyed in dialogue but dialogue itself is just people talking.

When characters are constantly verbalizing their every thought you run into several problems:

  1. In genre fiction, the accepted method of conveying internal dialogue (thought) is with italics. A wall of italics is a daunting prospect to a reader, who may just put the book down.
  2. Verbalizing thoughts can become an opportunity for an info dump.

Nevertheless, thoughts (internal dialogue) have their place in the narrative and can be part of the subtext. The main problem I have with them is that when a writer is expressing some character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue in genre fiction is to use italics… lots and lots of italics… copious quantities of leaning letters that are small and difficult to decipher. I recommend going lightly with them.

A character’s backstory is subtext, their memories and the events that led them to where they are now. We use interior monologues to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, using the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this?

We think in the first person present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen. Immediate actions and mental commentaries unfold in the present so they are written as the character experiences them.

But memories are different. Memories are subtext and reflect a moment in the past. If brief, they should be written in a past tense to reflect that. If it was a watershed moment, one that changed their life, consider writing it as a scene and have the character relive it.

This will avoid presenting the reader with a wall of italics and gives the event a sense of immediacy. Having the characters relive it brings home the emotion and power of the event and shows the reader why the event was so important to the character that they would remember it so clearly.

Subtext expressed as thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters as in this example:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she was rich. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

These are Benny’s impressions of Charlotte, and we could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is told all that they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

The reader has  gained a whole lot of information, in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is who Benny really is and why he is posing as a janitor. That too will emerge via subtext and through descriptions of the environment, conversations Benny has with his employer, his interior monologues, and his general impressions of the world around him.

Don’t forget the senses. Odors and ambient sounds, objects placed in a scene, sensations of wind or the feeling of heat when the sun shines through a window—these bits of background are subtext. Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. How do you convey that in the least obtrusive fashion? I would write it this way:

Willard gazed at the icy stairs leading from the unshoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Sometimes we see the world and the larger issues through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist through the setting—what is shown in the scene.

People read the subtext and make conclusions based on what they infer is important in that scene. If it is just there for looks or shock value, it becomes an instance of Chekhov’s Gun and should be removed. Everything that is remarkable (such as a gun) must be important to the scene or serve a later purpose.

The subtext must be organic, purposeful, and not just there to dump info or fluff the word count. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions, and the reader sees only what needs to be there, so we aren’t distracted by unimportant things. Detail implies importance, so choose what you detail carefully.

Subtext—metaphor and allegory. Impressions and images that build the world around and within the characters are as fundamental to the story as the plot and the arc of the story. Getting it right takes a little work, but please, do make an effort to be subtle and deft in conveying it. As a reader, I’m always thrilled to read a novel where the subtext makes the narrative a voyage of discovery.


Credits and Attributions:

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger © published by Michael Wiese Productions; 2 edition (March 1, 2017) 

34 Comments

Filed under writing

Asking the right questions #amwriting

Sometimes we find ourselves  in the position of having to do research, even when a piece is not intended to be historically accurate. I write many things that are centered around Arthurian legends, and I am fortunate that a lot of tales still exist that were written during the Middle Ages. Nowadays much is being discovered about the real King Arthur through solid archaeology, and he is being discovered as a man of the 6th century.

But I am drawn to the popular legends, giving him a mythological place in our chivalric canon of romantic tales, written during the 11th through the 15th centuries. These accounts make him a man of their times, dressing him in their fashions and giving him their ideals and values.

The High Middle Ages were a golden period for historical writing in England, but the craft of researching history scientifically was not an academic subject taught in school. The gathering of historical tales was a hobby for educated men who had the time, social position, and the talents to pursue it.

As a result, the histories from this period are highly questionable–but are quite entertaining and are great fantasy reads. I’ve said this before: if J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing history in a monastery during the 7th and 8th century, The Lord of the Rings would have the same place in our historical narrative that the Arthurian Cycle has now, and Aragorn would have been the king who united all of Britain.

Nowadays Galahad is a minor knight, but he figures prominently in Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 work, Le Morte d’Arthura reworking of traditional tales that were hundreds of years old even in his day. Versions of Galahad appear regularly in my work. I studied Medieval Literature in college and found his story both diverse and fascinating. Many tales abound referencing him. But, what is the original story of Galahad that is bandied about most often? We know early Arthurian legend was highly influenced by the authors’ contemporaries, the Knights Templar.

Neither Arthur nor any of his knights could possibly have been Templars, but by modernizing and dressing his court in contemporary ideals, those medieval authors made Galahad into a superhero.

Traditionally, Sir Galahad, a Knight of the Round Table, finds the Holy Grail and immediately goes to heaven, raptured as a virgin – but was he? I mean raptured OR a virgin?  If he was not raptured, what could have happened to make medieval chroniclers think he was?

So, why was this notion of a virgin knight and being taken to heaven before death so important to medieval chroniclers that they would write it as though it was true history?

Well, they were writing some 300 to 400 years after the supposed event, during the final decades of the Crusades. Religion and belief in the Christian truths espoused by the Church were in the very air the people of the time breathed. All things of this world were bound up and explained in ways relating to the Christian traditions of the day.

Literature in those days was filled with religious allegories, the most popular of which were the virginity and holiness of the Saints—especially those Saints deemed holy enough to be raptured. These people did not have to experience death but instead were raised while still alive to heaven where they spent eternity in God’s presence.

A few years ago I was challenged to write an Arthurian tale with a steampunk twist. I accepted the task, but immediately wished I hadn’t, as it just seemed an impossible leap.

The first question I asked myself was: Where do Arthurian legend and steampunk connect well enough to make a story? The answer was—they don’t. I felt that block we all feel when the story will not reveal itself.

But, sitting on my back porch and letting my mind roam, I found myself wondering what Galahad and Gawain would have really been like. The people those characters were based on were men of the 5th or 6th century, ordinary men, and despite the heroic legends, they were made of flesh and blood.

And what if somehow Galahad got separated from Gawain through a door in time? How would Galahad get back to Gawain?  What if he was marooned in Edwardian England, with Merlin – can you say steampunk?

The title of that tale is Galahad HawkeThe main character is Galahad Du Lac, son of Lancelot Du Lac, illegitimate, some have said, but is he really? If he is, it implies the fifth century was a lot less concerned about the proprieties than we give them credit for. His line of work is that of a nobleman and hero. Thus, he goes on quests to find strange and magical objects such as Holy Grail.

The story was told in the first person point of view. I opened the story just after the Grail was found. Knowing that history and fantasy merge in the Early Middle Ages, I approached my story by asking these questions:

  1. What does Galahad have to say about his story?
  2. What if he and Gawain were lovers?
  3. How does he end up separated from Gawain?
  4. How does Galahad end up in Merlin’s company?
  5. Why are they unable to get back to Gawain?
  6. What is the reason the magic no longer works?
  7. What do they do to resolve the situation?
  8. How does the tale end – does Galahad get Gawain back or is he permanently adrift in time?

I wrote it two ways and picked the ending that moved me the most.

Often, I begin the process of creation by sitting down with a pencil and paper. I identify the core conflict, and then ask the five important “W” questions, (who, what, when, where, and why).

Asking questions and listing the answers is the key to unlocking the potential of any story idea. Through the experience of writing Galahad Hawke, I discovered that my characters can tell me a great deal if I let them.

Things got out of hand on the home front this last summer, most of which I spent caring for an injured son. My ability to write creatively was affected.  Somewhere along the line, I forgot how effective this crucial part of the process can be. I felt derailed at times, and what I was writing didn’t feel true. By returning to the basics and asking questions, I have given myself a new framework to hang my current stories on.


Credits and Attributions:

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Sir Arthur Hughes, 1870, PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

5 Comments

Filed under writing

Works in Progress update #amwriting

Sometimes real life interferes with my writing schedule, but despite back injuries and other little challenges, I’ve managed to keep my writing on track. Chronic pain can sap the creativity from you, but eventually, it eases, and productivity resumes. I’ve become adept at getting things done with the long-handled grabber. I’ve figured out how to do everything from laundry to cleaning my oven with it, to picking lint off the carpet and dusting chandeliers.

Yep—I’m that grandma, the one I swore I’d never become, the old woman with the long-handled grabber. Get off my lawn!

I’ve been working on two particularly tough short stories for several months. Both have great ideas and wonderful premises, and it looks like I am finally on the home stretch with both. Fingers crossed! Some short stories take me as long to finish as writing a novel. These are the stories being written to certain themes. I have planned the basic story arc, so I know what needs to happen at each point, but not exactly how I want to make it happen. I write a little when I have a flash of brilliance and then let it ‘simmer’ in the back of my mind.

One story was finished (I thought), but the editor who requested it for a forthcoming anthology wanted changes amounting to a complete rewrite to make it fit more with what she envisions for her anthology. It wasn’t that she didn’t like it, it was just not right for what she had in mind as the theme for her collection of stories. That one has had to sit on the back burner again for a bit, but now I think I know how to implement her suggestions and accomplish what is needed. Whether Short Story Take 2 will fly or not is anyone’s guess as it is only optioned, but when a publication’s editor asks for revisions on a piece that I’ve submitted, I make them with NO complaint. She knows what her market wants, so if I want her to buy my story, I need to tailor it to her readers.

There are times when I can whack an entire story out in a single sitting, but some stories just require more attention. The best part of writing is that feeling of “Ah hah!” when a particularly tough section comes together, and you know you have written something worth reading.

On the novel side of my writing life, things have taken a turn for the positive. In January I had to completely scratch most of the first draft of my current work in progress because during NaNoWriMo the story-line went in a direction I didn’t intend. That strange direction in the early MS will be morphed into something else later so that work hasn’t been wasted.

I should have stuck to my outline, and then my story flat-line would have been a story arc.

But I just crested the 60,000-word mark (again) and am at the halfway point on the rewrite. This novel is set in the Tower of Bones world, but it takes place five hundred years prior and concerns the founding of Aeoven.

Because I’ve had a certain amount of new world building to do in my old world, it has been a joy to write. In this era, the world is very different, more dangerous, and takes place during their Dark Ages, dark only in the respect that little written history remains of those times. This is the “how it began” novel, so many things have had to be developed from scratch, such as the system they use for magic.

Even the maps are a little different, although the contours of the land are the same. Some towns exist that don’t in later times, and a few villages that are minor in Edwin’s time have a more prominent role. I am also exploring the Barbarians and how the modern Temple of Aeos is deeply rooted in that tribal culture.

I’m finding it refreshing to revisit this world and see it through new eyes. I have been working in the world of Neveyah for ten years, and still, I am discovering things I never knew. I think of it as reverse engineering—I’m taking this world apart and seeing how it works, and why.

On the poetry front, poems happen when they’re of a mind to. It’s like everything else—sometimes what I write is good, and sometimes not so much, but I feel compelled to put some ideas and emotions into the form of a poem. I suppose it’s because I began my professional writing career writing lyrics for a friend’s heavy metal band back in the early 1970s, so the poetic form will always be with me.

Now you’ve heard the update on my works in progress. Hopefully, all will continue to go well, and if the stars are properly aligned, my two nearly finished short stories will leave the nest as they are supposed to. I wish you peace, and may your writing hours be productive!

10 Comments

Filed under writing