Are You Commiting Narrative Voice-ritcide?

May 13, 2013

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Stories need narrative in order to shuffle our characters around, set the scene, the tone, and add in any vital backstory.

Ok, let me rephrase that. Stories need fabulous narrative…

Of late, I’ve been disappointed in the narratives of submissions that have crossed my desk because they’ve been as dry as my attempts at baking. Their character development and dialog may be wonderful things of art, but they fall flat when it comes to the narrative. This makes for lopsided reading.

Just as I’ve bleated on like a goat on crack about how dialog should be utilized to its max, the narrative can’t be ignored because it’s part and parcel of keeping your readers fully engaged. Sure, I get it; lots of writers want to keep the narrative low key so as not to get in the way of the story. But what’s wrong with flavor and spice? This is where you create your unique voice.

Voice

So what do I mean by that? Voice is where you create a distinct writing style. I’ve had people tell me they can recognize my writing from a mile away because it’s distinct. I’m still not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but evidently, I write with a certain style that readers recognize as being uniquely mine.

The one opportunity you must not let pass by is creating your own distinct voice. For instance, your main character may wake up in the morning to the peels of his alarm clock, or you can spice it up a bit. Here’s the beginning paragraph of my novel.

Example 1 -What I could have written:

Erik woke up to the sounds of his alarm clock and got out of bed.

Example 2 – What I wrote:

“WAKE UP AND GET YOUR ASS OUT OF BED.” bellowed the mechanical voice emanating from the alarm clock that resided on Erik’s side of the bed. The clock, a birthday gift from his best friend, Mark, never failed to make him stifle a laugh when turning it off. There were several scratches and dents on the side attesting to Ann’s dismal failure at finding anything humorous at five o’clock in the morning. He swung his long legs out of bed, glancing back at Ann’s still comatose figure. “Sure you don’t want to come with me?” he whispered in her ear, already knowing the answer.

“I’d rather slit my wrists,” came the groggy, muffled reply.

My aim was to grab readers at the get-go in order to give the reader a quick feel for Erik’s general nature…and that’s the lovely gift of narrative voice. If I had used the first sentence, the reader wouldn’t have any feel for the character, so it becomes harder to pull the reader into the story. Obviously, I’m being extreme in these examples, but I’ve seen too many manuscripts that were written in the flavor of the first example. Avoid  vanilla writing. You want to be memorable and distinct…which is what editors are looking for.

Your MC can go outside to pick up the morning newspaper off his driveway, or he can play the guessing game with the carrier, and wonder what clever place the carrier hid the paper. Is it necessary? Nope. But interesting narratives are like Christmas morning, where each gift you open is a surprise. I’ve read books whose narratives were so amazing that I actually slowed down my reading because I didn’t want to finish it too soon.

That’s narrative voice, baby.

Content/Length

So the question is, what do you write to enhance your narrative voice, and how long should it be? First off, there are no rules. Yay! You’re writing by gut and feel, so you have to noodle around with your writing to find your literary comfort zone. For instance, I lean toward goofiness, so my writing tends to include a lot of irreverent thoughts…like the alarm clock or a carrier hiding the newspaper. It’s just how I’m wired.

How are you wired? Figure that out, and write so your narrative supports your literary comfort zone.

My other advice is to keep it short and sweet. Blather on for too long about something, and it veers the story off course and makes the reader’s eyes glaze over. It’s important to keep them caring, and tidbits here and there in the narrative accomplish this goal.

I’ve had writers struggle with this concept, and my suggestion is that they refer to their everyday lives. We aren’t automatons, and we don’t get up, do our morning thing, go to work, come home, and go to sleep. We do a million things and have a gajillion thoughts filter through our cerebral hard drives all the time…so tap into that.

Put yourself in your character’s shoes. What thoughts would run through his head, or what actions would he take when doing some small action, like getting out of bed? Does he jump out of bed with a song busting out of his lungs, or does he slither out from the sheets with all the excitement of a tax audit? Give it some flavor.

In a word, use your imagination, but use your own experiences to tap into when you want to expand on your narrative. Writers are observers, by nature, so exploit all your observations in order to spice up your narrative voice.

Balance

Like everything else, narrative voice is about balance. I’ve seen cases where authors adored their writing so much, they got carried away. For example, I read a book (pubbed by one of the Big 6…er…Big 5) where the author took three pages to describe the moon rising. It got to the point where I was eyeing my kitchen knives, wondering which to choose in order to slice and dice the book. Mind you, the narrative was lovely, but come on…three pages?

So take comfort that it’s not just the new writers who commit narrative voice-ritcide. Now, of course, not every action requires a literary kapow. Sometimes your characters can simply pour a glass of orange juice or walk their dog. It’s your job to look for the appropriate places where it makes sense to add some punch to your narrative.

Take a long look at your writing. Are there places where you’re committing narrative voice-ritcide? Are there places you can create a more interesting, colorful, three-dimensional story while also making your narrative voice a distinct thing of beauty? You can take a lifeless story and make it sing like the angels, and it comes down to narrative voice. Pinky swear.

Now go forth and be brilliant.


Another word about Voice

January 31, 2012

“Oh, I don’t read that genre.”

How many times do you hear or say that? *raises hand* I say it all the time. Since my entire life is about reading, I have my staple of favorite authors whom I read in my free time <insert maniacal laughter here>. And I rarely venture off my narrow ledge…until now.

Through a circuitous route of silliness and tongue-wagging, I clicked over to Stacia Kane’s website. Since she has a wicked sense of humor, I was eager to see her books. Now, Stacia writes urban fantasy – not a genre I read. But I read the sample chapter of Unholy Ghosts and was hooked, and bought her book.

I’m trying to broaden my literary horizons from my usual private reading fare, but I never saw myself reading this particular genre. So how did Stacia hook me? Her Voice. I love it. Her writing style is so unique that I would recognize her writing anywhere…yeah, after only one chapter.

So what do I mean by Voice? If you google it, you’ll see all kinds of definitions. For me, Voice is the distinctive writing style that separates the author from the pack. And Stacia accomplishes this by the bucket load – to the point where I chose to read something that I wouldn’t have normally picked up.

I know this idea of Voice confuses a lot of people, and I’ve written about it a number of times. To simplify things, think about your friends. Do you have one friend who has a unique way of expressing herself, to the point where you say, “Uh huh, only YOU would say that.”

That is Voice…and it’s a writer’s bestest friend. I’ve seen stories that had huge potential due to their subject matter, but the Voice was so dry and vanilla that it was hard to stay engaged. Books need personality – and they gain that through our little buddy, Voice. For example, John Lescroart (one of the nicest Big Deal authors in the world) has a distinction for dialog. I’ve followed his career from the early days, so it’s hard to remember all the different plotlines – which are all very good. But what always keeps me coming back is his dialog because it’s the glue of the characters that keep me turning the pages.

You want to avoid making your writing look like anyone could have written it. Anyone can crank out vanilla writing, but it takes a certain amount of letting go in order to distinguish your writing style to the point where readers are rendered helpless against your talents and MUST buy your book – even if it’s not in a genre they normally read.

Lean Into Yourself

I remember talking to a woman at a writer’s conference. She was so screamingly funny, that I told her to please send me her manuscript. I couldn’t wait because I thought anyone who was that witty in person must write like the wind. To the contrary, it was like someone sucked out her personality and left a minimalist, dull, flat, vanilla writing style in its place. And I’ve seen this numerous times.

Just because you sit in front of a computer to tippy type your story out means that you fork over your personality because you’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously. NOOOO. This is the time you need to channel…and honor…your fabulous personality, and let it barf out in your writing. Lean into who you are, and let it come out in your writing. You’re being true to you by letting you out.

In the course of writing you’re creating your unique, distinct voice. Heck, consider this blog. How I write is exactly how I speak. It has my distinct voice, which allows readers to know who I am and how I express myself. I carry that same voice over to The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box, and my novel, Donovan’s Paradigm just as Stacia does with her writing.

Obviously, you need to be mindful of how you channel your voice because you need to balance the narrative and the dialog. I suggest you read the sample chap of Stacia’s book, Unholy Ghosts, because she’s very effective in establishing an immediate, memorable tone.

And speaking of Voice and my literary hero, John Lescroart, he  has a great blog post about Narrative Voice.


And how is your set of pipes?

November 22, 2010

I sing for you

When I say pipes, I mean your voice. No, not the one you use to warble in the shower and make small beagles howl in protest…your literary voice. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of potentially terrific manuscripts except they lack voice. Rather than the rich usage of deliciously placed verbs and nouns, the writing is flat and lifeless – reminiscent of my last attempt at baking.

Editors aren’t looking for stories where anyone could have written them, but stories that have a distinct flair, stories that suck you in because the writing is so compelling. It’s a fair bet that no one would pay to hear me sing because I sound like a drowning wildebeest. But people will pay to hear Luciano Pavarotti because he’s got a set of pipes that make me bark like a dog.

But this idea of voice is elusive and many writers don’t understand what we mean by voice. So I dug into my tackle box and decided it might be time to dust off some applicable posts. Happy reading.


Seeing like a writer and gaining voice

February 28, 2010

Yah, I know that sounds strange, so let me explain. I see so many manuscripts that lack artistic flavor and have no voice. I’m not suggesting that every sentence be filled with poetic narrative, but some is nice because of the creative picture it places in the reader’s mind. If it’s creative, it’s memorable. If it’s memorable, it has voice.

Remember, we’re always skimming the shoreline for gifted writers, and I think colorful prose should be a part of every writer’s tackle box. For instance, you can say that it’s a cloudy day, or you can say that Mother Nature tripped and spilled a box of cotton balls across the sky.

Take a look at your writing. Are your descriptions ho hum everyday things, or do they have a bit of spice to them? Are you having a hard time thinking of solid similes or metaphors? This is when it helps to “see” like a writer – to interpret everyday life in a literary way.

For instance, it’s currently pouring outside, and as I look outside my dining room window, I see that everything is wet and drippy. Now, I could say that, and it’s descriptive enough. But I want to inject “voice” into my writing. So instead of wet and drippy, I use my literary vision and see drops of water clinging to the tree branches like tiny diamonds.

When I see cars trying to find a parking spot in a crowded lot, my literary vision sees armadillos scurrying about in search of their burrows. Yes, yes, Hemingway, it ain’t, but you get my drift.

This is the stuff that gives way to “voice.”

What’s voice got to do with the price of tea in China?

Okay, so voice has two meanings:

  • Voice is the style and quality that makes the writing unique, and gets across the author’s attitude and personality. What is meant by this is that the writer has a unique way of expressing themselves in the narrative. It’s the Mother Nature tripping and spilling a box of cotton balls across the sky. It’s the diamonds hanging from a tree branch. It’s what make people say, “I love how that Brilliant Author writes, so rich and full. It’s what makes readers remember you.
  • Voice is the speech and thought patterns of a character – and don’t let anyone tell you it’s first person only; that’s a load of bunk. This means that the characters have unique ways of looking at life and expressing themselves. It’s easiest to play with voice in the first person POV, but it’s just as easy in third person.

    My point here is that seeing like a writer adds that unique prose, that voice, that make editors jump on their desks and squeal like five-year-olds.

    Just because you’re not sitting at your computer writing doesn’t mean that the process stops. You can either watch birds fly around the trees, or you can see feathered balls of electricity  flit across the rooftops.

    Look at life through a writer’s prism. You just may see something far richer and more exciting than you did as a regular Joe.


    Voice = literary fashion: you going to make me change my clothes?

    October 25, 2009

    One of my favorite columnists, Teryl Zarnow, has been stripped of her voice. Her newspaper column was filled with her ruminations of  the everyday stuff of being married and being a parent. How many times I nodded and mumbled out a,”you’re so right, sistah.”

    The paper, in their search to cut costs, cut Teryl’s column and relegated her to the online paper. People must have complained because Teryl was given a reprieve and brought back to the paper. Yay. Well….no. They brought her back, but took away all the elements that made her her. The funny stories about visiting her daughter in NY are replaced with the economics of graffiti – articles that any intern could belt out.

    The paper had removed the very essence of this talented woman’s unique writing – her ability to analyze the mundane of family life into the special. The thoughtful. I feel badly for Teryl because her articles lack zing. Sadly, I don’t read her anymore.

    And that’s the importance of voice.

    Oh dahling, I love what you’re wearing!

    I think of voice as literary fashion. For example, there’s this one lady that I often see around town. She has a wonderful wardrobe and jewelery, and her hair and makeup are perfectly done. Doesn’t matter if she’s at the grocery store or at the post office. She. Looks. Fabulous. If she wore jeans and tennies like the rest of us, chances are I wouldn’t recognize her because she blends in with the rest of us slobs. She’s bland. She has no voice.

    Try looking at your writing the same way. Is your writing style distinguishable and unique? Are the wearing snappy shoes and a fabulous necklace?

    When I think of Thad Rutkowski’s writing, I know I’ll always see something darkly humorous in a minimalist style. He’s known for it. On the other hand, Ludmilla Bollow’s voice is lyrical and given to beautiful literary prose that makes my heart ache. Chip Jacobs voice is descriptive and ironically witty, and always makes me laugh quite unexpectedly – whether it’s his wonderful book or his newspaper articles. I could pick up any of these authors’ works and recognize it from a mile away.

    The trick is to make your writing memorable by being your own personal shopper. Make sure that you pick complementary shoes and handbags, and don’t you dare think about mixing stripes and polkadots.

    I don’t want my editor to take away my voice

    I hear this at conferences a lot. Let me just say that this is a non-issue. Unlike short-sighted newspapers, editors buy books based on the story and how strong the writer’s voice comes through. It makes no sense to come in and destroy it. Anyone can write a flavorless work that contains characters and plot. But it’s HOW the author writes it is what makes it memorable. For example, I can say the same thing with or without voice:

    I was so angry at Joe.

    or

    I was so angry at Joe that had someone offered me tar and feathers, Joe would be the punk version of Sasquatch.

    Now imagine an entire book written in both voices – which one sounds like it would be a better read? One sentence has flavor and sets a tone, and the other just sits there like a wet booger. That’s voice. And thar be no way we want to interfere with that.

    So how does the editor influence voice?

    First off, we don’t. Editors are like the group of friends you bring to Macy’s. We sit in our comfy chairs and critique your fashion choices through the many chapters of your literary dressing room.

    “Dahling, that dress makes your butt look fabulous, but you need flesh out your main character more.”
    “I love that belt with those shoes, but I think you have this scene in the wrong POV.”
    “Lose the jacket, it hides your arms, and while you’re at it, add some good transitional sentences between your paragraphs.”
    “Try on that necklace, and also think about moving that scene to an earlier part of the book.”

    Our job is bring out the very best elements of your designer words.

    And that’s my bag-of-angry at my local newspaper. Teryl knew how to dress herself with amazing taste and quality, but they decided she looked better in clothes from the Salvation Army. You don’t bring a pea-shooter to a war, and you don’t waste a talented writer on parking meter violations. Sheesh, no wonder papers aren’t doing well.


    Whoa there…got Voice?

    January 31, 2009

    voice1
    Before you begin to write your query letter, don’t forget the most important aspect: you. Writing a pitch or a synopsis is a lot like a fashion show where everyone primped for hours in an effort to look their absolute best, and the best way to look your best is to allow your voice come through. Some of the most memorable query letters I received were due to the author’s distinct voice.

    Voice is the term we use when describing an author’s writing style; how they’ve combined syntax (how they strand together a sentence), flow, tone, character development, dialog. It’s your literary fingerprint. It doesn’t matter how short or long your writing is, always inject your voice into it. More than anything, this is what we look for because it’s what makes your story come to life.

    Here’s the pitch I wrote for a book I’m noodling with. I took out the “voice” so you’ll see what I mean:

    Twist McPherson, young and newly retired from the advertising world, moves to Palm Springs and sets about writing the Great American Novel. After receiving a lot of rejection letters, Twist’s best friend Roz, a New York editor, offers to contact some her agent friends. But Twist wants to make it on her own. Unfortunately, the weakened economy is has forced publishers to look for the big blockbusters.

    Twist decides to create her own publishing company and quickly finds herself with five ladies, all in their 70s, who write erotica under noms de plume. Twist enters the schizophrenic world of publishing with the help of Roz and Jack Crawford, a famous author, who puts aside his tenth book and his looming deadline to help Roz and Twist handle the growing public curiosity over these writers whose sudden popularity may force them out of anonymity, along with compromising the health of their husbands, who know nothing about their writing careers.

    Technically this is sound; it introduces the characters, the conflict, and teasers. But it’s also pretty vanilla, and that’s because there’s no voice. It’s as if a robot relayed this information. Who cares?

    Voice is important because it sets the tone of the story while allowing the writer’s style to come through. It is not necessary to say, “this is a lighthearted look at publishing gone horribly wrong,” (as so many authors do) because your voice says it all. And you really want to avoid these kind of statements because you’re telling me rather than showing me. And you know what? If a synopsis or pitch has a great voice, then we’re willing to overlook a lot. Here is the same pitch with voice:

    Twist McPherson, young and newly retired from the advertising world, moves to Palm Springs and sets about writing the Great American Novel. After one too many Harvey Wallbangers and threats to wallpaper her bathroom with the growing pile of rejection letters, Twist’s best friend Roz, a New York editor, offers to contact some her agent friends. But Twist – so named for her metaphorical gifts of rearranging the male anatomy during tough business negotiation – wants to make it on her own. Her timing couldn’t be any worse. The economy has dropped the publishing industry to its knees, and publishers are only looking for the big blockbusters.

    Twist is nothing if not pragmatic and takes up Roz’s flippant suggestion of creating her own publishing company. During her weekly Mah Jong game with a group of genteel ladies, all in their 70s, Twist casually mentions her plans. Before she can eat the olive out of her martini, Dirty Little Secrets, LLC is born, and Twist has a stable of five new writers who, under noms de plume, write some of the hottest, refined erotica to hit the shelves. As southern belle, Lucinda Du Pont, drawls over tea spiked with Jack Daniel’s, “Smut sells, dear.”

    Twist enters the schizophrenic world of publishing with the help of Roz and Jack Crawford, blockbuster author of the world renowned Lawdog Mystery series, who puts aside his faltering tenth book and ignores his looming deadline in order to lend a helping hand through the maze of growing public curiosity over five hot-blooded retired ladies whose sudden popularity may force them out of anonymity – and their husbands into certain cardiac arrest should they ever learn of their wives dirty little secrets.

    Do not take this tool for granted; keep it in your tackle box because it’s the difference between “yes, I want pages,” or “no thanks.”


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