Category Archives: Narrative Voice

The Importance of Word Choice

1000 daysWhich plot sounds better? A maid stuck in a tower serving a princess for a thousand days, or a girl trying to escape a society where everyone is tattooed with barcodes and discriminated against if they don’t have them? Usually, I would say the second, but I read these books close to one another and the importance of well-formed prose became starkly apparent. I have to point out a bias here, Shannon Hale was an author I already liked, but after “Book of a Thousand Days,” she moved into the role as my absolute favorite writer. Why? Because she could take a plot so seemingly boring as a girl stuck in a tower and pull me in from page one. Reading her prose is like a serenade. When a story’s great theme has lousy prose, it’s like stepping into a brand-new truck, going down a bumpy road, and realizing the shocks are out.

Here are the first few paragraphs from “Book of a Thousand Days”:

My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.

Lady Saren is sitting on the floor, staring at the wall, and hasn’t moved even to scratch for an hour or more. Poor thing. It’s a shame I don’t have fresh yak dung or anything strong-smelling to scare the misery out of her.

The men are bricking up the door, and I hear them muttering and scraping cement. Only a small square of unbricked sky and light still gape at me. I smile back at its mean grin to show I’m not scared. Isn’t it something, all the trouble they’re going to for us? I feel like a jewel in a treasure box, though my lady is the—

Notice the variation of shorter and longer sentences, the simplicity of language, and the inflections in the words that allows the prose to become like a melody when read aloud.

Both books are written in the first-person. However, at the end of Thousand Days, I felt like I knew the main character, Dashti. In the other, the protagonist was still an enigma whom I didn’t understand and whom seemed inconsistent. I think this happens, in part, from a focus on story over character. An indication that Hale knows her character well from the very beginning is shown by her word-choice:

“…hasn’t moved to scratch…,” “It’s a shame I don’t have fresh yak dung or anything strong-smelling to scare the misery out of her.” “I smile back at its mean grin to show I’m not scared.” and “Isn’t it something, all the trouble they’re going to for us?”

These statements tell us about Dashti’s background, her fortitude, her humility, and her simplicity. Of course, this is because we’re seeing the world from Dashti’s view, but the author shows us this view by word choice. Yak dung? Those two words tell us a lot about the story’s location and about Dashti’s place in it.

Don’t get me wrong, story matters and being a good storyteller with proper pacing and resolutions is key, but before you jump to tell the story, think about how much you can tell us by each word, each sentence, and the beauty you strive for in bringing them together. Author Dan Wells has suggested to writers on multiple occasions that we take the time to read and learn poetry. This is why; when we learn to string the right words together, in the right order, our stories rise in dimension and readers find themselves as transfixed by the prose as the story.

The Dreamer

A guest post by Brenda Sawatzky.

When I think of my most memorable dreams, I remember those that had me ruminating for the entire day. Possibly even for days after. They’re the kind of dreams you can’t wait to share with someone and have them respond, open-mouthed, “Wow. That’s fantastical, creepy, outlandish…”

I love waking on those mornings with a story fabricated from my subconscious. At least the stories that don’t have a sharp macabre edge to them, causing me to spend my day vanquishing the monster that lurks even after I’ve subjected my skin to a series of firm pinches.

I love discussing the varied nature of dreams, too. Do we dream in Technicolor or black and white? Are they multisensory? Where do these preposterous expressions of our imagination originate, and do they have some underlying meaning?

One thing I know for certain: if my brain is capable of concocting sensational stories in my sleep, then there is a way to tap into that vein while conscious, too. Some authors seem to be extraordinarily good at that. The truth is, I’m not particularly partial to fantasy novels or sci-fi. That’s not the kind of sensational I’m drawn to. Rather, it’s the prose that creates a dream-like landscape; a vivid, multisensory experience that takes normal to a different level. Like a being on a psychedelic LSD trip at a 3D movie with surround sound.

One such author I’ve recently discovered is Thomas Trofimuk in his novel Waiting for Columbus. It is a tale of a man, discovered lost on the streets of Spain and committed to a mental institution, who believes he is Christopher Columbus. He regales Nurse Consuela with fantastic stories of ships, conquests, and fifteenth-century adventures. The mystery of his true identity and the wonder of his perceived one holds Consuela captive as she’s swept away in his storytelling.

Trofimuk is a dreamscape artist. From the very first page, he attempts to lift the lackluster veil through which we witness the everyday. For a moment you believe that the moon speaks and you wonder if you just haven’t been listening. He writes, “There is only the sound of distant thunder, a barking dog and the sound of the moon behind the clouds reflected in a puddle.”

Inanimate objects come to life. “There’s some sort of Celtic symbol tattooed on her thigh. One of the lines of this tattooed design has come loose and wrapped itself around her entire thigh.”

His world is wrapped in “yellow-cracked clouds,” “a moon inescapably trapped in the branches of a tree,” and ships whose movements are “but a tickle on the skin, a brush of a finger along the lower back of the ocean.”

Another such poetic author, for me, is Ann-Marie MacDonald. In her beautiful and poignant novel Fall on Your Knees, Ann takes her reader willingly into the early nineteenth century’s exotic Empire Theatre:

“…the silver screen flickered, and down in the orchestra pit so did the piano. Trills and triplets seemed a natural counterpart to the frenetic dance of light and shadow above. A man in evening clothes has cornered a young woman in slinky nightgown halfway up a clock tower. No narrative preamble required, the shadows lurk, the tower lists, the music creeps the winding stair, the villain spies a grace-note of silken hem and he’s on the chase in six-eight time up to where our heroine clings to a snatch of girlish melody, teetering on the precipice of high E, overlooking the street eight octaves below. Villain struggles with virgin in a macabre waltz, Straus turned Faust, until, just when it seems she’ll plummet, dash her brains on the bass clef and die entangled in the web of the lower stave, a vision in tenor crescendo on to save the day in resolving chords.”

Trofimuk and MacDonald have a keen grasp on multisensory prose. Like a dream, they make the fantastical normal and lift the reader to a place of wonder and gratitude for introducing us to a world that is so much more interesting than the one in which we walk daily.

I strive to learn from these masters. To weave into my craft the kind of surrealism that would otherwise belong to dreams. To become a dreamer while I’m yet awake.


Brenda PicGuest Writer Bio:
Brenda Sawatzky is a relatively new, unpublished writer hailing from the wide-open prairie spaces of southeast Manitoba. She and her husband of thirty-one years are self-employed and parents to five kids (two ushered in by marriage). She is presently working toward fiction and non-fiction writing for magazines and manages a personal blog.

Warrior. Iconoclast. Unicorn.

botfUnicorn stories.  The topic seems geared towards wish-fulfillment for little girls, a more fantastical rendition of the “horsey” books so popular in the 1980s.  As a child I consumed mountains of these books, about both horses and unicorns, until I stumbled across a completely different animal:  Birth of the Firebringer by Meredith Ann Pierce.

This is not a story about what it’s like to ride a unicorn.  This is a story about what it’s like to be one.

From the first page I was catapulted into a world unlike any I’d ever imagined.  There are no human characters in this book.  The unicorns of the Vale are a people, a culture unto themselves (though notably not the only unicorn culture), and the narration is sprinkled with examples of their religion, their storytelling, their singing.  The main character, Jan, is torn between a desperate desire to win the good regard of his father the prince, and to follow his own heart, even when it conflicted with his people’s traditions and teachings.  This conflict leads him to question everything he was raised to believe:  about his faith, his people’s history, and his destiny.

These unicorns don’t lounge about in meadows waiting for beautiful maidens to happen by.  Their story is one of struggle:  driven from their homeland by the wyverns, they settled in a Vale across the Great Grass Plain.  As Birth of the Firebringer opens, their numbers have grown and they await the coming of the prophesized Firebringer, who will lead an army back to their ancestral lands to reclaim what is theirs.

Pierce layers the narrative with hints that the unicorns’ version of history might not be as true as Jan has been taught to believe.  The legends, for example, always describe the Vale as “empty” when the unicorns arrived.  Later, Jan will realize that the Vale was a hunting ground for the gryphon clans, and when the unicorns invaded and drove out the native game, the gryphons, as a people, suffered.  I still remember the shock of realizing, along with Jan, that the antagonistic gryphons might actually have a legitimate reason for the attacks they launched against the Vale–something beyond a thirst for cruelty.

firebringer1I was thunderstruck.  And I wanted to tell stories like that.  My play with My Little Ponies changed from saddles and bridles and combing hair into epic quests and wars against dragons, incorporating world-building, history and mythology, involving prophecy and politics and revelations.  Unicorns were serious business.  I no longer wanted to be a princess mounted on a unicorn.  I wanted to see a world through a unicorn’s eyes.

I was an adult before I realized that Birth of the Firebringer was in fact the first in a trilogy.  Dark Moon addresses the question of humanity, previously only hinted at in Firebringer — an alien and powerful species that sees the unicorns as fabulous beasts.  The Son of Summer Stars brings prophecies to fulfillment in a way no one imagined, and takes Jan from youth into adulthood.

The Firebringer Trilogy is classed as young adult fantasy, but reading the last two books as an adult, I have no reservations about recommending them to other adults.  The story remains powerful, and the language beautiful.  Pierce chooses words to enhance the conceit that the reader, along with Jan, is listening to a unicorn storyteller’s tale; and yet the tale remains easy-to-follow rather than getting bogged down by its own description.

If you’re ready to leave your humanity behind and take a look at the world from the point of view of a creature who is utterly unlike you – if you are ready to question your leaders, your faith, and your role in the world – if you are prepared to set aside the preconception that unicorns are fluff for little girls – then enter the world of Meredith Ann Pierce’s Firebringer Trilogy.

Into That Forest

17870105Boy, do I have a book for you! You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s spectacular. It’s called The Shining by Stephen King.

Just kidding! But seriously, you should probably read that one, too.

It’s a deal less popular than The Shining, actually. There are no alcoholic fathers, no boys with the shine, and no Overlook Hotel.

This book’s story elements are very simple: two little girls and the two tigers that raised them.

In college, as a sociology minor and overall sociology bum, I became aware and a little obsessed with the happening of feral children. There were cases of children who had been locked in one room for all their developmental years, knew nothing of language or social interaction, and later, either their remains were found, or they were rescued and the long process began of assimilating these children back into society. There were cases of children who were abandoned who later claimed to have been raised and reared by wolves or monkeys. These stories were and still are completely fascinating to me.

Perhaps the most famous mythical account of feral children is of Romulus and Remus, abandoned by their mother and taken in by wolves. Some actual historical accounts of feral children have since been proven false: someone elaborated a story for some sort of profit or gain. However, it was not uncommon throughout history for mothers to abandon children who had obvious mental or physical disabilities into the wild. This is a fascinating documentary digging deeper into more recent stories of feral children in the wild. I will warn you, it’s not easy to watch.

More commonly in the United States, there have been cases of children who have been abused and locked in a bedroom for their developmental years. Genie Wiley is one of the most recent cases in US history of an urban feral child. You can learn more about Genie’s story in this clip.

My interest in the subject is probably why I was destined to love Into That Forest by Australian writer and playwright Louis Nowra. Told in a rudimentary vernacular, Hannah O’Brien, now in her seventies, recounts when she and her cousin Becky were separated from Hannah’s parents during a flood in the Tasmanian outback. Hannah and Becky are soon taken in by a mated pair of Tasmanian tigers. The girls learn how to hunt, eat, and communicate like the tigers. Their harrowing tale includes run-ins with a tiger poacher, learning to live on all-fours, and a growing wariness of all humans.

Tasmanian tigers.

If you’ve read any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ spectacular Tarzan novels, I can assure you you’ll feel a comforting reminiscence while reading Into That Forest, and you may very well love it just as much. And unfortunately like Tarzan of the Apes, I give you fair warning that this book might just break your heart.