Category Archives: Reading

Mirror, Mirror…

A month ago or so, I finished reading all the entries I had received to judge for a writing contest.  I read both children’s lit and YA fiction this year, and it’s been fascinating.  I have so many things on my mind to say about what I observed, but I wanted to take a step back today and reflect on the big picture.

When you look in a mirror, why do you look in the mirror?

I’ll bet that if you look in a mirror — even if you just happen upon a mirror and pause to glance at your reflection — you don’t just stand there and stare at yourself.  You probably find something to fix — hair out of place, lipstick needs refreshing, and hope no one noticed that piece of spinach in my teeth.  Or you consider that you really should head to the gym today even though you don’t feel like it, or you notice that the baby spit up on the back of your shirt, or you realize that your tie is crooked.  And you proceed to fix whatever needs fixing.

Literature, in so many ways, functions like a mirror.

It shows us the best and worst of human nature, revealing the struggles of  man against some force internal or external.  But we don’t just read books to gawk at ourselves (collectively) in some voyeuristic fashion.  We read books because they can teach us something — they change us somehow, whether we mean them to or not.  Books encourage us to grow, to adjust, to become better human beings.  We identify with a character and his or her struggles, we watch him or her confront and (hopefully) overcome, and then we see how we can apply his or her experiences to our own lives.  And the goal is one of improvement, not just of recognition.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a trend — and perhaps you’ve noticed it too.  There are some books where the characters just seem to develop…sideways, if that’s possible.  They change, but not in a positive (or even a negative) direction.  Something seems to push them sideways for a bit, and then they snap back and continue on.  There’s no indication that their decisions in the future will be affected by what’s happened to them over the course of the novel…no indication that they’ve become better people – or even different people — for what’s happened to them.

Reading a book like this is like looking in a mirror and saying, “Yep.  That’s me.  Yep.  Spinach in my teeth.  Tie crooked. Yep.  Guess that’s just how I am.  Oh, well.”

And in YA fiction, there’s often a follow-up to this admission of imperfection with no desire of amendment: “And if they don’t like it, well, screw them, because I won’t change.”

It’s not a question of whether or not literature will teach.  So, there’s a choice we face as writers.  Will our writing inspire our readers to be better people?

Or will we just teach them how to scuttle sideways?


Understanding Character Voice

So, I had intended to write a follow-up post to the last one on scene-setting by S.K., but instead I’ve decided to write about Character Voice.  It’s something that’s been on my mind lately, and I think it’s one of those essential vocabulary terms for all writers to understand.

If you sit in a room with a bunch of writers, chances are one of them will eventually start tossing around words like voice, tone and mood. For beginning writers, all these concepts can seem a little fuzzy, not to mention a little scary.  What exactly do they mean?  How do you know if you’re doing it right?  Don’t panic.  It’s not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.

Though writers often talk about voice, tone and mood in the same conversation, don’t mistake these concepts for synonyms.  Tone and mood have more to do with the storytelling itself, whereas voice is a matter of characterization.  We might talk about a book’s mood being dark, gothic, atmospheric, or it’s tone being bubbly, sarcastic, or ironic. To put it briefly, mood describe the overall feel of the story, while tone is how the author approaches the story.  But I’ll come back to the question of mood and tone in a future post.

Character voice, on the other hand, has to do with the personality of the character, shining through how they see, understand, and discuss the world.

Think of ten of your friends.  They’re probably a lively, diverse bunch.  Now, think about the greeting you get when you reach their voicemail.  Some of them might use the automated robot response: “The number you are trying to reach is not available”, or some such.  But for your friends with personalized messages, do they all have their own robot response saying, “The number you are trying to reach…”?  No.  Probably not.  In fact, their messages are probably quite a good reflection of your friends’ personalities.  One of my friends has a very standard, serious, no frills message.  One of them has a great message that starts, “Congratulations!  You have failed to reach [friend’s name].”  I smile every time I hear it.  Another one offers the psychologically damaging message: “Hello? [five seconds]  How are you? [five seconds]  Sorry you missed me!  Please leave a message.”  Gee, thanks for making me feel like an idiot.

Okay, that’s great.  So what?  What does that have to do with character voice?  Well, everything.  If we, as writers, give all of our characters dialogue that sounds identical — and identically robotic and bland — then we have failed to give our characters a unique voice.  Voice is the principal way readers can identify a character’s personality.  It’s how, if we’re reading an untagged bit of dialogue, we can identify who is speaking simply by the way it is said.  Consider this example:

Joe glanced up in surprise as Ms. Mary Rhodes entered the coffee shop.  A fleeting sense of panic seized him, nudging him to hide behind his newspaper. He forced himself to be calm.  Mary might be the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, while he was just the electrician, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t exchange a polite greeting.  He got up and crossed nervously over to the smartly-dressed woman, who turned to him in surprise.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“How are you doing today?”

“I’m all right, thank you.  How are you?”

“Very well.  Are you here for a cappuccino?”

“No, actually I drink espresso.”

“Really!  I never would have imagined that you would be an espresso drinker.”

Okay.  Pop quiz.  Who started the conversation?  Who is the espresso drinker?  Honestly, I don’t even know.  Two computers might be talking to each other for as interesting as that exchange was.  Now, what if the dialogue ran like this?

“Hey…uh, hello!”

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Good morning.”

“Nice day, huh?”

“It was.”

“Guess you’re here for a coffee, huh?  You drink them fancy cappadachinos or what you call them?”

“Actually, no.  I’m a bit of an espresso connoisseur myself.”

“No sh— I mean, never would have guessed that!  Hard core!”

All right.  So basically, we’ve had the same dialogue exchange here, and we still didn’t use any tags to mark the speakers.  But it should be fairly obvious who’s speaking.  We’ve already set up that Mary is the CEO of a highly successful corporation, and Joe is an electrician with low self-confidence. Now, unless we seriously wanted to shatter some reasonable expectations, we know that the nervous speaker who mispronounces the word cappuccino must be Joe, while the snobby, slightly catty speaker who uses words like connoisseur must be Mary.

That, in a nutshell, is what character voice is all about.

The concept becomes more interesting when we start talking about 1st person POV narrative, where character voice begins to usurp the place of author tone.  What 1st person POV does is put the reader directly inside the mind of the narrator, who is a character and not just an outside story-teller.  It’s basically me, as character, relating the world and the events of the plot as I see them, to you the reader.  Everyone has a unique personality (think about those voicemail greetings).  Some people are positive and outgoing.  Some are shy.  Some are gloomy.  The vocabulary and phrasing you use for the narrative must all reflect that personality in 1st POV.

For instance, if I have Joe, the gloomy, broken-down, pessimistic electrician as my narrator, would this bit of description feel authentic?

Continue reading


Dressing the Set(ting)

I happened to catch a fascinating show the other day on the DIY Network – Hollywood Builders.  They were following the construction of the sets for the new Total Recall movie, and I found it riveting (pun intended).  Watching the set electricians wire up the set for futuristic lighting, watching CGI transform a “green screen” backdrop…it’s stunning.  Really stunning.  But I found the segment on set dressing most fascinating.  The set dressers are responsible for making a set look like real by their attention to every conceivable visual detail.  In this case, they were dressing the marketplace set – using everything from swimming goggles to a martini shaker to baskets of some kind of dried fruit.  Will Douglas Quaid (the main character, played by Colin Farrell) interact with these tiny details?  No.  Most of these details simply form a backdrop – something the eye will catch in a glimpse as the characters interact in the foreground.  But, were these details lacking, there would be a hiccup in our suspension of disbelief, jeopardizing our engagement in and enjoyment of the film.

How does the idea of “set dressing” play out in a novel or short story?  It goes without saying that a story with ineffective or insufficient description will be drab and lifeless.  So how do we write successful, incredible, imagination-filling settings without using pages and pages and pages of description?

First, we have to remember that the written word is actually a visual medium, though not in the direct way that film is a visual medium.  The reader has to translate the words on the page into an image in his or her head.  When I say the word “tree”, for example, you form a picture of a tree in your head.  Now, the writer’s job is to try to ensure that this translation is as accurate as possible, so that whatever the writer is transcribing out of his or her own head makes it intact into the reader’s head.  So, to return to my example, if I write “tree” and want to evoke the image of a birch, but you see the word “tree” and imagine an aspen, I haven’t conveyed things precisely enough.  If I want you to imagine a birch tree, I need to write “birch tree”.

This brings us to our second consideration.  The writer also has to follow the principle of economy in description.  If I were to describe the Total Recall marketplace set in the sort of painstaking detail that the set dressers used in creating it, I would lose all of my readers within minutes.  They would be snoring with their noses in the pages (or snotting up the screen of their e-reader of choice).  No one wants to read ten pages of pure description – or even ten paragraphs, for that matter.  As an author, though, I desperately want the reader to see what I see when I imagine a scene, so the temptation to over-describe is intense.  How can I convey a setting in all its rich detail without boring my readers to death?

Choose setting details like you’d choose antiques: keep them few in number, but make each one priceless.  

Consider what you notice first when you walk into a room.  Is it the lighting, the flooring material, the way sound echoes (or doesn’t), what adorns the walls?  Then consider how you could make each of these details count.  Remember, no matter what you’re writing, you are constructing a world.   Be vivid.  Use a few chosen aspects of your setting to illuminate the rest.

So, if you’re going to mention the lighting, be precise: is it an oil lamp, an LED panel, or a torch?  If you’re going to mention that your character has a lot of books, give us a sense of the predominant type: does he have cookbooks, or the complete works of Jane Austen, or mathematics texts? The precision of these details reveals or enhances your setting and your characters.  Choose details that do more than just look pretty – for really power-packed, punchy fiction, make your setting details do some heavy lifting.

To offer an example of the brilliant use of this technique (again from film), consider how Holmes cracks Moriarty’s code in Game of Shadows by observing the contradiction of the dying plants in the window with the prominence of the horticulture book in Moriarty’s office.  These two details and their correlation reveal something about both Holmes and Moriarty and advance the plot, all at the same time.  Not every setting detail is going to be this powerful, but it’s a good reminder of the enormous potential that precise, vivid setting description carries.

So, as you dress your settings, focus on details that can reveal your characters, advance your plot, or capture your world, and then let the reader color in the rest of the picture on his own.


Identity Crisis and Target Audiences

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

As a writer, I often feel like I belong on the Island of Misfit Toys.  Yes, I can say (and mean completely) that I write the stories that are in my heart.  BUT…where do I belong?  More importantly than that, almost, where do my books belong?

I asked J. Leigh the other day as we were doing unromantic, unwriterly things like going to the grocery store: “So…what exactly is Young Adult Lit?”  And after a Significant Pause, I added, “Do you think I’ve miscategorized Silesia: The Outworlder as a YA novel?”

It’s a critical question, I realize, and it’s plaguing me. I have yet to find a satisfactory answer.  I’ve been thinking about this again today because I had the chance to attend a webinar on marketing — specifically, building web-based buzz.  Useful information – it was a fantastic webinar.  But there was one thing that absolutely stood out from everything else, and it really served as the basis for all of the rest of the information the instructor gave.  It’s that one piece that I want to consider today.

That piece is the target audience.

In a webinar I attended a few months back on self-publishing, the instructor noted that identifying the target audience for your book(s) is key to being successful.  (Actually, this is true regardless of how you get your book out there.  If you send your manuscript to a romance publisher when you’ve written a crime novel with zero love interest, you’ve set yourself up for failure.)

Let’s pause and think for just a minute.  Target audience determines your market.  But it also determines your style, your tone, your voice, the complexity of the story, the content….   So, if you don’t know who will read your book, you’re writing for just one person.

You.

Oh, horrors.

Now, before I we completely freak out about the fact that we put the cart before the horse and wrote our story before we considered our target audience, leaving us now completely lost in terms placing our book, let’s consider the delineations between YA and adult fiction and see if we can’t make ourselves feel better find some answers.

There are many readers who enjoy YA literature who are not in the “target” age bracket of, say, 12-18 or 19 years old.  And there are many teens who skip YA lit altogether and dive straight into “adult” fiction.  I think Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy would be a fabulous example of a broadly-appealing “adult” novel, and the Harry Potter series could serve as an excellent example of “YA” literature that appealed to many adults.  So, the lines dividing the two are blurred in some respects.  But there are other novels, like the Sweet Valley High series, that would never be seen in the hands of anyone other than a tween-teen girl.  And, I would argue, there are some adult novels that aren’t appropriate for teens, but that is a more fluid distinction.

There’s a good deal of bleed-over in readership of adult and YA literature, then.  Sometimes.  Depending on the story.

Readers expect certain things from the author and the story depending on how it is categorized.  Readers choosing a YA novel will expect to find, for example, a main character who is either a teenager or very close to it.  They may expect faster action, a plot that is more straightforward, and dialogue and diction that is pitched to a teen audience.  Page length may also be a consideration.  Similarly, readers of adult fiction may expect more complexity in characters and in plot, a higher level of diction, and may have a higher tolerance for a longer page count.  But is all this written in stone?  No.

For that reason, it pays, I think, to stop thinking in such general terms.  Consider your story.  If you could walk into a little coffee shop and see someone sitting there reading your book, who would they be (ideally)?  Is she a Ren Faire gal who never leaves the Ren Faire behind?  Is he a busy executive?  Is she a college student majoring in biochemistry?  Is he a graduate student studying literature at the local college?  Is she a stay-at-home soccer mom with three kids and two dogs?  Is he a grandfather who enjoys fishing and telling war stories?  Is she a young teen who is struggling to make sense of life?  Try to be as specific as you can as you define your Ideal Reader.

It’s okay to have a niche.  It’s even okay to have a pretty small niche.  The key is to know what your niche is, and then write for that audience.  Will you have crossovers – those readers who usually only read crime novels but yours was the only thing available at the dentist’s office?  Sure.  But that’s not your target audience.

Focus on your target audience.  Write to please them, and chances are, you’ll find success.


Storytime

Well, S.K. is on vacation so you’re stuck with another blog post from me.  (Hope you’re enjoying the beach, S.K.  Without me.  Yep…enjoying mojitos on the beach, with the waving palm trees and parrots……without me….).  (I’m only slightly jealous.  Slightly.)

Anyway.  Angsting aside, I just read a fabulous blog post by Jane Friedman called Why Take the Time to Read Your Work Out Loud?  As the title suggests, she talks about how important it is for writers to read their works aloud as part of the editing/polishing process.  Most of the comments that I read concur with her argument…as did I.

I completely agree with what Jane Friedman and her commenters said about reading aloud.  Kind of like changing the font and the page layout, reading out loud makes you see the text of the story in a different way.  I think maybe your brain receives the information differently when it is heard rather than read.  I can read the same chapter twenty times, skimming it over in my word processor, but when I start reading it aloud, all of a sudden I hear the poetry of the text (for lack of a better word).  How it flows, how the sounds fall, how the sentences roll off the tongue…or get stuck on it like a piece of dog fur.  Like the others noted, I get a sense of where I get bored, or where the descriptions don’t work, or the dialogue sounds clunky or repetitive…or even those places where I accidentally wrote in inconsistencies (“Wait, she’s sitting down, but a paragraph ago she was standing up….”).  It’s also great for catching typos that I would otherwise unconsciously ignore.

But the post and comments got me thinking about something else.

Continue reading