Style: The Search for a Voice — NWJC Writing Discussion #44

My writing group on — No Whine, Just Champagne — meets every Thursday at 9:00pm ET for a live discussion, and you are all invited. Tonight’s host is Suzanne Francis, author of the Song of the Arkafina series from Mushroom Books, and her topic is Style: The Search for a Voice. Suzanne writes:

Where do you find it? Is it lurking in the keyboard, in the classroom, or in the back of your mind? How do you know when you have a voice to call your own?

Today’s discussion will focus on how we, as authors, find authentic style.

Style begins with competence. (Unless you want to be known as one of those writers for whom ineptitude seems to be a defining trait. I won’t name names…)

One of my friends, a teacher, once told me that competence has four levels.

They are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence–This is where I started. I wrote and wrote, thousands of words a day, and I thought every one of them was pure gold. I was surprised and offended when my critiquers pointed out that there were flaws, inconsistencies, poorly constructed sentences, flabby paragraphs etc. etc. Sadly, many writers these days seem to be published while they are still in this stage.

2. Conscious Incompetence–The great eye opener. You realize that your work is mostly crap. Some people quit here, because they don’t want to do the work of objectively editing their work down into something readable. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually graduate to…

3. Conscious Competence–I like to think that I am here, on a good day. I can see when the pace drags, when I am telling instead of showing. I work hard, examine my prose, recognize the flaws and fix them! I don’t get them all, but when my writing buddy finds something else I fix that too.

4. Unconscious Competence–Sometimes, very rarely, I get to visit this place, but I don’t live here. I’m sure you have had those moments when the words just pour from your fingers. Perfect fully formed sentences spring forth like Athene from the forehead of Zeus. I imagine there might be some writers who are able to keep this up long term, but I am not one of them. 

So once you have achieved level 3, or level 4 if you are very talented, do you have a style?


Now you have to do a little detective work–look at your writing and listen to your instincts. Which words sing out from the page? Where do the characters say just what they need to? What settings add heft and bedrock to the action, or transcendent beauty?

That is where your style is hiding. Read those passages again and again. Zero in on what makes them tick; why they are so successful. Then, slowly, carefully, begin to put those discoveries to use in other places. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And eventually you find your style, a distillation of your very best writing, enriching every page.

Let me make one thing clear…

Style isn’t about following rules, despite what I said about competence earlier. We have all read things that were grammatically correct and well-structured, but still left us cold. The warmth in writing comes from our ability to know when to break a convention in order to add impact. It takes time, and the patience to write and read many, many thousands of words. There is no substitute for the hard work involved. But the moment we realize that we have written something that is recognizably ours and ours alone, can be very rewarding.

So–how and when did you discover your own style?  Do you think style should be dictated by genre, ie hard boiled for mystery, flowery for romance?  Are there any authors whose style you particularly admire?  Is your style evolving and if so, in which direction?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will discuss these questions and more during our Live Discussion on Thursday, December 4th at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (A reminder: to participate, you need to be a member of gather, but it’s free. And to see the discussion, you will have to keep refreshing the page. It’s not like IM.)

The Art of Perseverance

My guest blogger today is Gina Robinson, author of Spy Candy, who persevered, and is now a published author. Congratulations, Gina!

The Art of Perseverance
by Gina Robinson

With the release of my debut novel Spy Candy ( Zebra Romantic Suspense, $3.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0472-1)just weeks away, I’ve been asked to be a guest on a number of blogs. Because it took me years and years…and still more years to become published, talking about perseverance has become my theme. But as I was thinking about perseverance the other day, I realized that I don’t want people to get the wrong impression. To reach the goal of publication, a writer can’t give up. That’s true. Who knows when the call will finally come? But more than that, they can’t stay the same, either.

Persistence is not revising the same manuscript over and over and over, even when it’s been rejected all over New York. Persistence is also not stalking the same editor or agent from conference to conference, query to query, trying to sell them on that same tired old manuscript. Persistence isn’t trying to convince the world that you’ve written the next great bestseller and certain classic and berating the world when they don’t realize it. That’s insanity.

The art of perseverance requires growth. The writer must start a new manuscript, taking what’s been learned on the first and building on it to write a better novel, to discover their unique voice. The writer must look at the market objectively, broadening their search to include new agents, new editors, to take new chances.

Perseverance is a far greater thing than banging on the same door again and again. It’s believing in yourself, your own unique talents and skills, your worth as an individual, and your passion for storytelling. It’s writing for the sheer joy of it, even when it feels like publication will never happen. When you write for the joy of it, magic happens. You’ll feel passion, not frustration. And whether or not you’re lucky enough to ever publish, you’ll be content and have the drive to never give up on yourself. You will truly persevere.

Gina Robinson’s debut novel, Spy Candy, will be available everywhere books are sold on November 4, 2008.

Diatribing Show-n-Tell — My opinion on writing

Karl C. Klein, today’s guest blogger and the author of Unnatural Girl, soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing, has consented to show and tell his views on writing:

I’m new to writing. I don’t have the benefit of a formal education. I’ve not been writing since before I born, having grabbed the doctor’s pen soon after sliding into the world, scribing some Hemingway-ese prose on my swaddling blanket.

I’m a newbie, a neophyte, a rookie, a babe, a novitiate, a novice, newcomer, fledgling, tenderfoot and a greenhorn.

I’m wet behind the ears.

I’ve been reading many critiques over the past couple years to the point where my teeth want to turn around in my head and eat my brain. (Normally I say “until my eyes bleed,” but since I’m going to climb all over cliches, I thought I’d use something fresh).

If we feel the need to suggest that someone not ‘tell’ but rather ‘show’ his or her story, he or she is not to have clue what we’re talking about. (Remember, I’m a neophyte, an outsider who doesn’t know the jargon.)

“Critics too often forget they’re supposed to help, not hurt.” Lewis Black, from his book.

“Show not tell” has become a cliche, something else a writer should avoid. On some critiques, I can see the critic with her chin raised, slashing at the air like swatting flies.

I have never in any of my critiques used the expressing in any way: “show not tell,” or in any form.

I think the writer, when told something like this, should ask: “Why?” and get a better answer than: “Agents and Publishers say so.” We can and should ask why if we don’t understand and we should demand an answer.

Here’s my general advice to writers seeking their voice (when we begin writing, that’s what we do in a long, painful process — we seek our voice, which is not to be mistaken with the generic voice ‘agents and publishers’ would like to mold their writers)

This applies to third person, but much to first person, too.

Let me get this out of the way:

Don’t preach — ever. If you want to make some spiritual, religious or social point, write an essay. It’s fine for your characters to have a point of view, but keep it real. (Which is not to say the story shouldn’t make a point — even my parabolic stories look like the message is incidental).

(here’s the show and tell in a way that’s easily understood):

Let your characters tell the story. In third person, I don’t want to hear nothing from the narrator. No opinions and no hyperbole. Nothing will set my teeth on edge quicker than in 3rd person the narrator stating: “She was beautiful!”

I think in the million and a half words I’ve committed to manuscript, I’ve used ten exclamations marks. Again, ‘showing.’

If you unfurl your scene clear and sharp, the characters should show the reader everything the reader needs to know without ‘stage direction’ (telling) or what I call “movie scripting.”

I say it this way: Have faith in your reader.

1) Don’t preach
2) Let the characters tell the story
3) Have faith in the reader
4) Avoid movie scripting
5) Avoid wordiness
6) Don’t default (assuming stereotypes as universal concepts)

John walked into the room, approached the table, greeted Sally and sat on the chair. Sally greeted him back and asked if he’d had breakfast. John wasn’t one for breakfast, but knew it was polite to accept something offered. He told her no. She asked if he wanted eggs.

“Hi, Sally.” John dropped to the chair.
“Good morning. Had breakfast?”
“Love ’em?”
“How do you like them?”
“Hell, I like ’em fine!.”

There’s a best kept secret rule in writing:.

Only one point-OH-view per paragraph. If you keep this rule in mind, you can cut out 96% of your ‘saids, asks, questioned,’ etc. Why do you wish to do that? I’m glad you asked.

If you look at the dialog above, you that see no ‘saids’ are needed. The quotes indicate direct speech and the way I laid this out, it’s obvious who’s saying what. Said’s would merely be wordy and get in the way. When reading, MOST people skip them anyway.

next line:

Sally got up from her chair.

“from her chair” is wordy. We can have faith in the reader to know she was sitting on a chair.

Sally stood.

When I do a critique, if I find the writing heavy with movie scripting, I’ll copy-n-paste a few paragraphs and mark in red what I find wrong, then rewrite the section, explaining each suggestion and why I feel it makes the writing better.

Needless to say, I invest a great deal of time in my critiques.

Good writers work in groups. Great writers work alone.

Voice: Being Yourself in Words

“Voice” is a difficult technique for new writers to master but, like compost, voice happens. It’s who we are, how we write, what we believe.

I’ve heard that a good actor is one who can be himself in front of the camera. Maybe that’s what defines a good writer, too — one who can be him/herself in words. What that means, I don’t know, except that we shouldn’t be afraid to be who we need to be and to write what we need to write. (You don’t have to be yourself, of course. You can be anyone you want if you can make yourself believe it. And if you believe that this is true, you can believe anything.)

I never wanted to write the great American or the great international novel, I just wanted to write a book people would enjoy reading. But now I want more. I want to be an extraordinary writer.

I know I over-think things. When I’m not writing, I think about writing, which is not always a good thing. But still, I have written four novels, and taken them as far as I can. I know they can be improved, since everything can be improved, but at least one, maybe two are good. Unfortunately, simply being good isn’t good enough. With hundreds of thousands of books being written every year, something has to make one stand up and scream to be published.

Since I am going to continue writing, I figure I have two options: go for quantity or quality. Quantity gets me nothing except more books that I can’t peddle. So I’m left with Quality with a capital Q. But perhaps quality comes from quantity. I recently read that the first million words are just for practice, so I’m halfway there.

A friend suggested that I keep writing and, maybe in the eighth novel, the hints of the extraordinary in what I have now will emerge full blown from the shadows of my former novels.

Good advice for all of us.

On Writing: Embracing Playfulness

My goal as a writer is to learn all I can and to be so accomplished and confident that I can write whatever and however I wish and be able to stand by it. Too many new writers think they don’t need to follow the rules, that they can set their own style, which is true up to a point, and that point is readability. What I want is confidence coupled with readability. Following the style others have set is not my way, but so far I haven’t found a distinct voice.

One way I am trying to find that voice is by embracing playfulness. When I’m trying to figure out where to go with a story or a scene, I brainstorm, stringing incongruities and absurdities together, the more ridiculous the better. Not only does it get my mental juices flowing, sometimes those ridiculous ideas are the perfect answer to the problem of what comes next.

Silliness has added some interesting twists to my books. My novel, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, is about a disease that wipes out most of the population of Colorado. About half way through the writing, I hit a wall. I tried brainstorming with a friend, and he had no interest whatsoever in my plight, so being silly, he said I should forget the book and write about zombies. I laughed at the suggestion, but the idea took hold. Since the disease was a rapidly mutating one, I had the disease go through a short spurt where the victims turned into zombies. Gave the book an interesting twist, mostly because even though the idea started out being silly, it ended up being spooky. Odd, that.

One thing I have not been able to silly my way out of is my habit of using too many pronouns. He did this. He did that. He went here. He went there. It’s the mark of an amateur, but more than that, I don’t like it. I should be able to come up with a better way of telling the story. And maybe someday I will.

Until then, all I can do is write, perfect the craft, and embrace playfulness.