Friday, August 25, 2017

Your Writing Voice--How to Develop It, Recognize It, Not Copy Someone Else's

One of my long-time students asked a great question this week:  how does a writer develop voice?  

Voice is the elusive uniqueness that comes out in writing over time, the signature of the individual wordsmith.  We would never mistake a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

What makes them different, distinctive? Each delightful in its own way?  That's voice.
The elusive hunt for voice is much discussed in writing books, classes, MFA programs as one of the gateways that maturing writers face:  Do I have a distinctive enough voice?  If not, the writing may never reach readers, inspire and entertain and change lives.  We may have a good plot idea, great characters, a good story.  But eventually, to make our mark, we need to write in a voice readers will remember.
But the Catch-22:  Voice only comes with maturity.  By cultivating it, letting it arise, putting in your time.  It can't be rushed, no more than any other growth and change that works from the inside out. 
You can foster voice, yes.  That's what this post is about:  the small steps you can take to recognize, individuate, and develop your writing voice.  But that magical quality of voice only comes as you put in your 10,000 hours.
I can answer my student with these suggestions.  Hope they bring him to an understanding of voice.  Hope they spur on the work it takes!
1.  Read up.   Like learning any skill, it's best to study those who are better than you.  Read up.  Read writers who have strong voice in their work.  One of my students was learning voice and asked where to begin reading.  I told him to start with the prize-winners:  Pulitzer, Man-Booker, Orange, and other prizes are often worth looking at.  He went to the Pulitzer website and began working his way through the list.  His writing voice improved dramatically within a year, just from immersing himself in those great voices.
2.  Model.  In art classes, we paint the masters.  We sit in front of their paintings--Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne--and paint copies.  Traditional way of creating cellular memory, eye-hand coordination, painters have done it for centuries.  Writers are scared to do this--"What if I forget it's not mine and use it by mistake later?"  I never met a painter who worried about this.  Keep clean, and model carefully, and make sure your work is yours, and you'll be OK.
Modeling is a great technique for learning rhythm and voice.  Why is a certain word used, why a paragraph break just there?  Find a passage in a work you love and type it out (labeling it as the author's, not yours).  See what your hand and eye and brain learn. 
3.  Study structure.  Most writers hate structure, the antithesis of the free-flow creativity that's writing is supposed to be all about.  Do you really think the great writers don't pay attention to structure?  Voice and most writing skills are built on solid understanding of structure, how a piece is built from the ground up.  By the time it's published, it comes across to the reader as natural, free flowing.  But there are months or years of sweat and construction behind every piece of good writing. 
Some writers print out their pages and lay them on a table, squinting at them to notice the rhythm of text and white space.  Others read them aloud.  Others ask friends to read them aloud and the writer listens.  This teaches about voice, when it's present--clear uniqueness and surprise--and when it's not.
Voice is consciousness.  Not being asleep.  Whatever you can do to wake yourself up, is how you develop voice.  Structure is one of the first ways. 
4.  Put in your 10,000 hours.  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously said that mastering a skill takes about 10,000 hours.  In our instant gratification world, we somehow believe voice should come naturally or not at all.  Have you put in your time?  Writing every day.  Studying the great writers.  Taking classes.  Exchanging work and learning how to give feedback so you can begin to see where your own writing needs it.  Learning basic grammar, sentence structure, even spelling.
I believe each of us has a unique writing voice, dormant inside.  It's been smothered and silenced by schooling and years of criticism and self-doubt.  Rare is the family and society and school that fosters uniqueness; most ask children and young adults and adult writers to conform and not stand out.  We're easier to deal with, that way.
But if you believe you have a voice, waiting to come forth, and you are willing to put in your time to uncover it and develop it, you'll win.  It takes work to coax it out of hiding and refine it for the page.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Strong Dialogue Matters So Much--And Three Tips to Write It



Do you write dialogue?  Did you know that many acquisitions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?


In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered.  More than one revealed this:  Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it.  If it's good, they read more.  If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.

Big pressure for writers!  Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?

Chef Test--Why Dialogue Matters So Much
I used to be a restaurant chef, in another life.  I was in charge of a small place in southern California, working the "line" with a wonderful team of cooks.

After hours, when the restaurant was closed and the kitchen was clean, we slummed.  We visited other restaurants and tasted their soups.

Why soup?  Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill.  Soups are so hard to season well, so impossible to fake.  You can cover up so-so entrees with great sauces, and chefs know this.  So in the food business, soups are the "test" for a chef's skill.  If a chef can get incredible flavor out of few ingredients in a soup, even better. 

Now my theory may not pass the Chopped! test, but it is a good analogy for understanding why dialogue is so key to good writing.  Editors know that a so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters.  Or vice versa.  The story becomes palatable.  But a to quickly learn a writer's skill, the editor uses the "soup" test--checking out dialogue.  Does it contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)?  Are the beats (pauses) placed well?  Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?

All of these are like test-tasting a chef's soup.  It tells an editor a lot in just a few minutes.

You can try out my soup theory at the next restaurant you visit.  Order a bowl and taste it, as we did, savoring or rejecting it, guessing the seasonings.  It is more than a fun game, it can teach you a lot about cooking.  Then do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."

Here are a few of the most important tips from my workshop in Minneapolis.  Maybe they will help your dialogue shine!

Dialogue Tip #1:  Most dialogue is not about revealing information.
Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject.  This is called a "reveal."  Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc.  If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension.  The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."

Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story.  This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax. 

Reveals are where someone says what they mean.  So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.

I'll say that again:  Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext.  This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.

Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering.  Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said.  All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.

In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.

Dialogue Tip #2:  Enhance the emotion of the subtext by  connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene. 
In Leif Enger's brilliant novel, Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin.  Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character. 

Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man.  Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off. 

Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances.  No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed.  So there's plenty of great subtext.

In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up. 

Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill:  As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier.  The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints. 

We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels.  The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly. 

Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.

Study Enger's writing for how this is done.  And try it yourself:  If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way.  Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.

The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.

Dialogue Tip #3:  Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats.  A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge.  At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader.  In other words, things get more complicated.

Beats are like roadmaps in dialogue.  They are placed carefully because of this one rule:  Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.

That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension.  Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.

Here's an example: 
"I love you," he said, "not her." 

(You is the word that carries weight here.)

What if the dialogue read:  "I love you, not her," he said.  (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)

Can you see the difference?  Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue? 

Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said are called dialogue tags). 

"I know your name."  He took a pull on his drink.  "I just forgot it."  (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)

I study favorite dialogue passages in published books, reading them aloud, to discover where to place the beats in my own dialogue.

These are just a few of the aspects of strong dialogue.  But maybe they'll help you take your dialogue to another level.

Remember, it's the key to a successful story--one that will be read and savored by others.


Your weekly writing exercise is to take 15 minutes and find a favorite published book (novel, memoir, nonfiction) that uses dialogue.  Locate a passage that, to you, really sings.  Figure out if the author used any of the dialogue techniques listed above. 


Then go to your own writing.  Choose a stuck scene.  Add 5 lines of dialogue, employing the techniques in this blog post.  See if it makes a difference.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Value of a Writing Community--To Help You Finish Your Book



Summer is teaching time for me.  I just returned from a week on Madeline Island, a blissful spot, made even more so by the twenty-three writers who attended this summer's retreat.  We formed a perfect community, I thought:  supportive, funny at times and serious at others, able to work hard and celebrate each others' growth.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Making Time for Your Writing in the Dog Days of Summer

I've always loved August in New England, where I live.   The heat and sun and sultry air just make me want to go slower, take in more of the beauty of summer's final days.  We get winter all too soon here.  New Englanders know how to make the most of summer.

When I first moved here, I thought the slower pace in summer would be perfect for writing.  But laziness settles over me.  And the allure of a thousand fun summer activities.  I'm a passionate gardener and there's always plenty to do.  Who wants to spend daylight hours indoors?