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Category : The Writing Craft
Here at the Chip MacGregor blog, we receive thousands of questions from readers every week. Okay, maybe more like dozens. At least ten. While a majority of those questions have to do with the publishing side of writing– the editorial process, finding an agent, understanding contracts/rights/etc.,– someone occasionally sends in a question related to craft, and probably a fourth of those questions have to do with author voice and how to define/develop it.
Most frequently, readers’ questions on voice are very similar to this one:
“I would find it helpful if you would say more about ‘voice.’ What does that look like? How does one develop and improve ‘voice?'”
I understand the frustration some authors have with the lack of definitive answers about voice– I’m as guilty as the next agent or editor who rhapsodizes about a “great writing voice” or fantasizes about finding the next great “voice” without spending a lot of time talking about this seemingly indefinable quality. That’s probably because author voice is a tricky quality to talk about without being too prescriptive– one of the best definitions of voice in a piece of writing is “the personality of the author as revealed through the writing.” That said, it’s hard for an agent to give specific advice about voice beyond general comments like “your voice seems inconsistent” or “your voice doesn’t come across very strong” without sounding like we’re suggesting you change your personality/writing style. In reality, all we really want is for it to present more clearly and strongly on the page.
What great voice “looks like” is a book that tells me in the first couple of paragraphs what the author’s style of humor is, how intellectual his writing is, how whimsical he is, how seriously she takes herself, how “safe” she is (does she write camera-fade-to-black fight scenes or no-one-under-17-admitted-without-a-parent fight scenes?)– regardless of the type of book being written, the answers
If you use Facebook with any regularity, you’ve seen a number of trends take over your news feed in the past few years. We’ve had “change your profile picture to a picture of your celebrity lookalike” week, “change your status to the fruit that corresponds to your relationship status in a bizarre and completely non-effective attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer” month, and the recent ALS ice bucket challenge during which we all enjoyed the sight of our employers, friends, and celebrity crushes being doused in ice water to raise money for ALS research.
Trending now on Facebook is a status which challenges users to post a list of the 10 most influential books they’ve ever read. Not their favorite books, necessarily, just the first 10 books that come to mind when thinking about the books that shaped their thinking, their attitude toward reading, or their taste in literature. When 130,000 people’s lists were compared and studied, a list of the 20 most frequently listed titles was revealed.
Now, obviously, this isn’t a scientifically perfect list– everyone’s definition of “books that stayed with you” is different– but it’s obvious that the authors who ended up on this list managed to connect with readers in a way that left an impression. As any good writing resource will tell you, there isn’t one way to write a great book (or a memorable one, or a significant one, or… etc.), but as we see from this list, there are factors that several of these influential authors have in common that are worth thinking about if you aspire to join them on this list when this trend resurfaces in 50 years or so.
- Write more than one book. Almost none of the works in the top 20 titles were the author’s first novel. Jane Austen wrote drafts of Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey before Pride and Prejudice
What are you afraid of? This was the question I pondered several years ago as I considered giving writing another shot. I’d been writing stories all of my life, but never shared them. One of my worries was that I would offend someone—especially someone in my family. But I also knew that to write a great story, I must be willing to take a stand. If I tried to please everyone, I’d end up with a mushy mess.
Recently I heard New York Times best-selling author Elizabeth Berg address this same fear. When she wrote her novel, DURABLE GOODS, about a child afraid of her dad, she worried how her father would react. She asked her mother to serve as a buffer and remind her dad that “This is fiction.” Well, her father didn’t see it that way. Elizabeth Berg admits things were a little stilted between them for a while. But in the end, they had a frank discussion about her childhood and they grew much closer.
This is probably the best case scenario for an author. Personally, I’m not that brave. To err on the side of caution, I decided to create characters so different from my family that no one could be hurt. In my first series, the main character’s parents are no longer alive. And instead of a brother, she has a sister.
But I’ve also found that when I base a character on a real-life person, they tend to become three-dimensional so much easier. Sometimes I think of someone I know, write the character, then change the physical attributes, quirks and of course, the name. In the end, I’m the only one who knows who inspired me.
So, I figure I’ve played it safe. No one can accuse me of slander or misrepresentation. Right? Yet my mother-in-law asked if the mother-in-law in my books is nice or mean. Wait a minute. I wasn’t thinking of
Scrape that gum off your shoe, and try this one on for size: private investigators. What goes through your head when you picture one? A tough guy in a trench coat spouting gruff, side-of-the-mouth dialog that’s sharp enough to shave with? Brassy, wisecracking dames in distress? Fistfights, gunfights, and dark, glistening city streets, all put to the music of a lone, wailing saxophone? Well yeah. I do, anyway. Matter of fact, most of us do. But somehow over the years that mythos turned into a stereotype, and we are all poorer for it. Because make no mistake, there are some gems to be found. The masters from the early years showed us how to do it: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen … even Mickey Spillane had his moments. A lot of their work was magic.
But beginning in the early sixties, private eye fiction began to fall out of favor. James Bond—and don’t get me wrong, I love the guy—and gadgets started taking over. Private shamuses (shami?) waned, and then transmogrified (gotta love them college words) into objects of ridicule. Only in the last decade and a half or so has the reading public decided to give the genre another try. Why? I don’t know. Maybe we simply were ready for heroes again.
Thankfully some good writers have stepped up to the plate. A cursory perusal showcases such talents as Sara Paretsky, Loren Estleman, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, and many others. These writershave helped expand the borders of PI fiction. Now we have lady PIs, gay PIs, midget PIs, kid PIs, part-time PIs, handicapped PIs, just about everything under the sun except for spiritual PIs.
Question: can a faith-based private investigator hold his own in a secular market? Answer: why not? Lord knows (excuse the pun) there’s a need. Okay, so what would such a creature look like? How would he (or she) act when confronted
All of us have a story. But not all of us have a story that is ready to be published.
If there’s no trembling in your fingertips, if there’s no hesitation, it may be that you want your story out there for the wrong reasons. It’s valid to want to be seen and heard, but if you’re going into publishing to have those needs met, you will be sorely disappointed.
Though many writers may begin that way, the best memoirs cling to the sanctity of the story free of the undue demands of an author’s ego.
Sanctity is found in the calling. You need to ask yourself: Why am I writing this book? Is it to fulfill a childhood dream? Is it to pass down my story to future generations? Or is it because I feel God has asked me to share my story with the world?
The publishing journey is agonizing and hard and, for most, the rewards are few. There are some who strike it big and this may, in fact, be you—but be sure your motives are pure before heading into the arduous journey of exposing not only your own wounds, but your family’s as well.
I was standing outside by the woodshed one day, my boys playing around me, crying because my family was reading through the second draft of my memoir and they had a lot of changes they wanted me to make, and some hurts they wanted to express.
It’s a healing path, this writing about your life, but it’s a hard one. You will have stones thrown and even if you’re one of the few that makes it big, the journey will be painstaking and lonely.
So, what to do with your one and only story?
All of our stories matter. But, here’s the thing: Some stories need to be passed on to future generations. Some stories need to be preserved via tape
There’s no such thing as writer’s block.
There! I’ve gone and said it.
Writer’s block is a condition belonging to those who can afford to indulge in it. Me? I’ve got deadlines. If the muses aren’t feeling up to snuff, so be it. I’m still going to be sitting in that chair banging out words every day. If the muse isn’t cooperating, the words aren’t going to be fabulous, and they will have to be rewritten, or maybe even tossed in the trash can, but by gum those keys are clacking along in spite of any lack of enthusiasm. I tell myself, just write, even a measly paragraph can get the ideas started again. Or if I’m completely stymied, I’ll write something else. I’m always working on two books at once so I can alternate if needed. So what do some writers far more accomplished than I say about writer’s block?
Philip Pullman said, “Writer’s block… a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?”
I think the best piece of wisdom on this subject comes from Barbara Kingsolver who advises, “I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”
So what about you? How do you push past a lack of inspiration in your work or home life?
Dana Mentink is a romance and suspense writer, living in California with a fire fighter husband, two girls — Yogi and Boo Boo — and a
In the past few months, I have done developmental edits, line edits, or rewrites on over twenty novels, and assessed at least a dozen more for marketability. I’m now partially blind in one eye, and I occasionally twitch for no reason, but it’s been time well spent, working with some amazing storytellers.
If you are in the midst of writing your own novel, you might find it interesting that the most common editorial issue I encounter is the inconsistent use of point of view. I know it can be hard to maintain in longer manuscripts, which I view as a normal writing stumble — and job security. But I think sometimes newer authors are making pov mistakes repeatedly because they are not considering the flow of action and thought from the reader’s perspective, how illogical shifts can be disorienting.
“I tucked the gun in my pocket, walked in the office and shut the door, leaving Jim in the hallway. I noticed the raincoat on the floor beside the desk. Jim opened the secretary’s closet, moving old jackets and sweaters aside as he searched for the raincoat.”
This first person voice cannot see through walls or read minds (at least not in this story), so how does he know Jim is digging through the closet? He might know he TOLD Jim to dig through the closet, but Jim could just as easily have been distracted by a donut sitting on top of the waste basket. Of course, this also holds true if perspective shift happens in a third person narrative.
“Todd tucked the gun in his pocket, walked in to the office and shut the door, leaving Jim in the hallway. Jim opened the secretary’s closet, moving old jackets and sweaters aside as he searched for the one piece of evidence that might save his life.”
Yes, there is such a thing as distant, omniscient third person point of view where
I recently had someone say to me, “My novel needs an edit — but I don’t have the strength to listen to someone bash it.”
Ack! An editor’s job is to help authors readjust, smooth and polish but never to be condescending. The edits are meant to help. And the majority of today’s successful writers use editors and rely on their feedback, grateful for another pair of eyes, an outside viewpoint. It’s important to take your ego, put it in a little box, and forget about it for awhile — especially if you are self-publishing or querying with a manuscript.
Easier said than done, I know. I understand the insecurities that come to light in this situation. I’ve birthed a few of my own book babies. I’ve suffered the angst of waiting for an editor to tell me if my kid is worthless drivel or not. But I early on came to the realization I am not always a clean writer . . . my babies can be messy. I know what I meant to say and that’s how my brain reads it. I’m a terrible self-editor in the long-form. I can spot a homonym or a typo or a repetitive phrase a mile away in anyone’s work but my own.
And, of course, there are the bigger developmental issues to consider. A handful of authors are able to craft a perfectly developed story, from plot to theme to character arc. But in a 360-page document, is it likely there are no sentences that can be worded more succinctly or a scene tweaked for more impact? No subplot that loses the thread? A character with weak motivation?
A book is a living creature, always capable of change . . . growth. It is never finished. Now, I do believe at some point an author must put down her pen and exclaim, “Welp, I’m done.” We’d go crazy if we were
So it’s spring break for most people. You might be heading out of town, or driving to the beach, or trying to find a place to relax and dive into that new book you bought. I’m going the same thing — well… I live at the beach, so I’m not heading there, but I am trying to ditch the crowds find some quiet so I can read today. I have a long list of projects I want to get caught up on, so instead of doing emails and taking phone calls, I’m going to try and get away and just read for a while.
And that, of course, means I don’t think I’ll take the time to create a new blog post. Instead, I’ll let you YOU create it. One simple question: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
It might be something about craft, or a trick you learned, something about writing quickly or leaving writer’s block behind. It could be advice on creating characters, or raising the stakes, or leaving people with a memorable lesson. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you’ve no doubt heard (or read) some great bit of wisdom that you took to heart and you noticed it changed your work. Share it with us. Just click on the “comment” bar below and offer the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received. You’re welcome to give us context, and tell who said it and what the circumstances were, if you want to — but don’t feel you HAVE to. You’re welcome to just offer one sentence with the advice you’ve got.
I do this once each year or so, and I have gleaned some wonderful tips from people over the years. Would love to hear what you have to share with your fellow writers. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
An old college friend was telling me a story about a potential client he was talking with. This friend of mine does freelance editing and proofing (he proofed my book, The Extroverted Writer), and so he is regularly courting new clients, trying to meet their expectations while also sharing with them the reality of the business.
This particular client of my friend’s was one of those type A, demanding, bull-headed types. You know who I’m talking about…a real-life Miranda Priestly or Bart Bass. Shrewd. Demanding. With no concept or concern for how much work it takes to produce a quality result.
The client had a 58,000-word manuscript that he wanted proofread, but the real kicker was that he wanted the project done in two days. When my friend pushed back and told him that, with a full-time job and other responsibilities on top of his freelancing gig, there was no way he could get it done and done well in that timeframe, the guy refused to accept such an answer. Said something about how it HAD to be ready for publication and how there was NO ROOM FOR AN EXTENSION.
My friend politely turned the project down.
I used to edit and proofread for a publishing company. They’d hand me a fiction manuscript, give me a week’s worth of time, and then a month later a check for a whopping $150 would hit my account. I had gotten the job after hearing that they needed someone to edit and proof for under $200 a pop. I had