Tag Archives: voice

Your Writing Poker Face

If you’ve ever played poker, and probably even if you haven’t, you’ve heard about the concept of tells. Every player, it’s said, has little physical cues they give that indicate whether their hand is a good one or a bad one. These cues are unconscious, a quick scratch of the nose or tiny movement of the face. Clearing a throat or a slight widening of the eyes. Savvy players learn to recognize these tells in their opponent, and even savvier ones can fake them to induce others to believe their hand is better or worse than it really is. Hence the concept of a poker face, a face and body language that give away nothing to the opponent.

Writers have tells as well it turns out. Every writer unconsciously favors certain words or metaphors, finds certain sentence or structures or syntax more appealing. This can extend even to broader topics, like plot or themes, than the writer likes to explore over and over again. Unlike in poker, these tells aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, they constitute part of the author’s voice, that often-mentioned attribute that makes every writer different from every other, even if they were all given the same topic to write about.

But improperly managed, your writerly tells can drag readers out of the careful illusion you’ve created. And some habits writers have are just generally bad ones, and should be culled from a manuscript as much as possible. That’s why it’s critical that every writer understand their own tics and tendencies. In an old post, I talked about writing science fiction, and how I tried to be cognizant of when I was inserting bad science, that I was willing to do so for the sake of strengthening the story, but that I wanted to be aware of doing so. It’s the same thing for your writerly tells. You want them to be in there intentionally, but you don’t want your story to be so thick with them that it reads like a parody of your writing and draws the reader out of the story.

This self-awareness process can be a painful one, particularly if you are self-conscious about your writing (so, if you’re a writer). And for that reason, you shouldn’t worry too much about it in your first draft, unless your tics are so broad they encompass your entire plot, but I’ll talk about that more below. But once it’s time for edits, cringe-inducing or not, figure out the words and turns of phrase you overuse. Perform a find function and grimace as it returns 73 instances. Then you can grimly soldier through them with your editing machete, hacking them down to only what is required. I usually leave this as one of the last steps, lest I cull most of my repetitions only to reintroduce them with later edits.

Repeating yourself at a plot or thematic level can be harder to avoid, but can also be easier to manage. Plenty of authors explore the same broad themes over and over again, and plenty of stories follow the same plot beats as other stories in their genre. Generally, you want to keep these repetitions as broad as possible. If you love exploring the themes of parents estranged from children, for instance, characters like that will probably keep cropping up in your work. But this is a broadly applicable, very human theme that lots of people will be able to relate to, so I wouldn’t worry too much about things like that. Now, if the specifics of each of your estranged parents stories start looking too similar, you’ll need to start finding ways to make them different. That’s when it goes from a writing style and voice to something I call self-plagiarism.

You’ll never get rid of all your tics, of course. And you wouldn’t want to. The very foundations of your stories are built from the tendencies of your thought and feelings, so tearing all of that away will simply leave you with no story to tell. But their can be and should be a balance. It’s really annoying to specifically look for and confront the crutches you use to tell stories, but it’s what you have to do in order to level up in your writing.

About the Author:

Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. He is the author of the Unwilling Souls series, as well as stories in the A Game of Horns, Dragon Writers, and Undercurrents anthologies. He writes the kind of stories he likes to read, fantasy and science fiction tales featuring vivid worlds, strong characters, and smart action all surrounding a core of mystery. He lives with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his twitter (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Using Voice to Set Yourself Apart

As my fellow Fictorians are showing you so far this month, there are many ways to set yourself apart as a writer. In my mind, the most memorable way to set yourself apart is voice, to the surprise of no one. In past posts, I’ve highlighted how you might create tension with narrative voice, and used well-known authors with distinct voices as examples. In this post, I’d like to dive into what voice is, the many ways one can use it, and highlight some examples that will hopefully give you plenty of ideas.

First, what is voice? Voice goes by many names. Style. Point of View. Vernacular. Narrative voice. Language. It is all of these things. For the sake of clarity, I defer to my friend Mignon, whom many of you may know as Grammar Girl. Julie Wildhaber writes on the Grammar Girl website:

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. (read more here)

It’s the thing that makes a reader say, “Ah. I can tell Kristin wrote this, because there are many f-bombs, and she ends every chapter on a cliffhanger,” for example.

If Socrates fermented goods, this would be his beer label.

Letting your voice shine is all about one important rule: “Know thyself.” This is not only my own personal credo for just about everything, it’s an important practice that will inform you of your strengths.

Are you funny, or at least have great confidence that you are? Can you translate or work on translating that humor into written form?

Are you good at calculating out the worst case scenario? When friends tell you their darkest fears and worries, are you able to take it another shade darker? Do you have no problem screwing with your characters and making their lives miserable?

Is your writing structure unique? Are you aware of grammatical rules and structures, but can’t help but twist and/or ignore them?

Here are some examples of authors using those very strengths and turning them into voice.

Maria Semple is one funny lady. She wrote for the television show Arrested Development, which banked on candid, awkward family dynamics to amuse their viewers. When it comes to her writing, Maria translates the same odd, character-driven situational humor into fiction. Her second novel, Where’d You go, Bernadette? may be a shade more sophisticated than Arrested Development, but you can expect the same wit and brand of humor that her television writing is known for.

Robert Kirkman doesn’t mind making a character suffer. He doesn’t mind making all of his characters suffer. As Robert has his hand in more and more projects, the common thread between all of them is his signature move: make the character(s) suffer. While reading The Walking Dead, one panel completely floored me. It was too dark, in fact, to be translated to the television version (though I dreaded I’d see it when the time came). If you’d like to read the comic books, skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who’ve read a good chunk of the comic books, you may already guess which part I’m talking about. It’s the Red Wedding of The Walking Dead. Instead of just Laurie taking a bullet, the bullet travels through her baby girl in her arms as well. The worst case scenario, one darker than I would ever dare to think up, becomes a reality in the blink of an eye. When I read it, I thought for sure I felt my heart drop.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an author I’ve mentioned many times in my Fictorians posts who is, in my mind, the king of grammatical voicing: James Frey. If you’re currently in the beginning stages of your career and trying to get published and you’ve read James’ work, he might make you a little crazy. And it’s not because he isn’t good – oh he’s good. It’s because you’ll wonder how he was able to get away with his style and still get published. An example, from the first page I opened up to just now from A Million Little Pieces:

I stare at him.
Trying can’t hurt, Kid.
There is truth in his eyes. Truth is all that matters.
And trying’s nothing to be scared of.
Truth.
Just try.

Where are the quotation marks? Dialogue tags? Adjectives? And yet, from this short section, we can tell this is a conversation, or at least one person talking to another person. We can make very good guesses as to who is whom (given more context). This is James’ style. While different at first, it grows on you very quickly, and your eyes ease from one word to the next until, before you know it, you’re flipping the last page of the book. His style was unlike anything I’d ever seen before (Hemingway would be jealous of his brevity), and I immediately adored the rock-solid voicing.

The bottomline is this: you don’t have to be the next Maria Semple, Robert Kirkman, or James Frey. You just gotta be you! It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

First: know thyself. Next: write.

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.

The Right Voice for a Dick

The music was a dirge, some long-forgotten Celtic lament full of wailing. It washed over me like surf over a half-buried corpse at low tide. Ira stood behind the bar cleaning the same glass he’d been running a dirty towel over for the past ten years.

I raised an eyebrow in his direction, just a flicker. It was all I needed. A beer slid down the bar at me. I smiled. We’d been doing this a long time.

I didn’t turn when I heard the door open. Didn’t have to. When Ira’s hand froze on the glass, I knew there was something worth looking at. I peeked at the mirror behind him. The thing in the doorway definitely wasn’t from around here. Neither was whatever it had on a leash, a beast of roughly the same species, but down on all fours.

Both of their heads turned in unison, the noonday sun casting a halo around, squat, inhuman forms. Their bloodshot eyes locked on me, and on they came. I lost an angle on them in the mirror, but the thump of bare, leathery feet and hands placed them right behind me. I took a sip of beer and stared straight ahead.

Your move, I thought as the stench of sulfur wafted around me. Seconds ticked by. A strong hand clamped down on my shoulder, turned me on the barstool, slow enough not to spill the beer still in my hand. That was polite, I thought.

It was the one on all fours that had the intelligent eyes. Strange, that.

“Hoar’thuft. Moid dan sul bree ik rael Jonny Stiles?” it croaked in a voice that was equal parts whisper and bandsaw.

I stared at the little one for exactly three seconds. “Yeah? Who’s asking?” My eyes shifted to the one standing. It smiled, or, at least did what demons use for a smile… all teeth and wide eyes, the sort of look that wakes old church ladies up with screams and sweaty sheets.

“Wuldrix cu sein Beelzebub,” the short one growled.

It was an order, not a request.

My eyes never left his… or its… I could never tell with demons.

“Ira,” I said slowly, “hold my spot. I’ll be back in an hour.”

It was the little one’s turn to smile.

 * * *

Colette started April off with a prompt about aliens and bars, the intention being a discussion of voice and perspective in fiction. It sounded like a writing prompt to me, so I came up with what you just read.

(NOTE: Don’t be surprised if you see that in a short story from me one of these days.)

What’s germane to this month’s Fictorian topic is what we can deduce from just 380 words:

  • This is going to be a first-person POV story
  • We’ll pretty much only know what the protagonist Jonny Stiles knows
  • The tone and word choices throughout let us know this is noir fiction and probably detective noir
  • “Alien” doesn’t have to mean from another country or planet
  • Jonny Stiles is a regular in Ira’s bar and might have a drinking problem
  • Jonny isn’t surprised by the presence of demons
  • Jonny speaks the language of Hell
  • Demons know him by name
  • Jonny isn’t surprised to hear that the Devil wants to see him
  • Jonny is cool as a cucumber at the thought of going to Hell

I like to think this is the sort of prose that sucks a reader in and prompts the following questions:

  • Who is Jonny Stiles?
  • Why is he so calm about meeting the Devil in Hell?
  • Why the hell does the Devil want to see Jonny?

It’s these kinds of questions that prompt a reader to care about a protagonist, and, more importantly, encourage the reader to keep going. Furthermore, the advantage of first-person is that the reader knows—or at least hopes—that they’ll be visiting Hell as “I” not as someone else. The reader has a vested interest in the outcome, because it’s happening to them as far as their brain is concerned. That little use of “I” rather than “he” or “she” makes a mountain of difference in the experience. Just imagine… a free trip to Hell, answering the question of one half of the afterlife, without having to pony up one’s immortal soul as part of the bargain.

There are few among us who don’t have that deep, dark little part that is just the teensiest bit curious about Hell, about the seedier side of human endeavor. When a writer offers up the tantalizing promise of feeding that desire, most are willing to take the bait, especially if the price of admission is just a few more words… and a few more… and a few more.

In many respects, that’s what writers need to do: convince the reader to invest the time for just a few more. Writers are crack-dealers when it comes right down to it… feeding brains with a very different sort of drug.

If you’re writing genre fiction, you really do need to consider two things. The first is what and how much of the story you want to expose to the reader. When using first person, the reader should know only what the protagonist knows (with very few exceptions). Using third person opens up doors to getting the perspective of other characters in the story. There are reasons to use both of them, and it’s important for the writer to understand and implement the right one.

The second thing to consider the tone of your language. Word choice is what differentiates your writing from another author’s. It also differentiates noir from tea-cozy from western. There’s a language for damn near every genre, and the people who read that genre speak it fluently. You need to work hard to get your words right, and it’s this process that sets the great writers apart from the good ones… and the bad. The good ones frequently ponder and haggle and angst over a single word. They hold it up to the light and determine if it’s as potent as they need it to be.

So give thought to your words. They can be as potent as crack cocaine or as bland as American cheese.

On a side-note, I have crafted this meaningless bar chart below (tongue in cheek, naturally) as both an experiment and an inside joke with my fellow Fictorians.

barchart

 

Q.