Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Writing Tips #5: Your Voice and Writing Rules

If you've been doing any sort of research into how to write then you've come across the term "Voice." No, it's not what you (or your characters) physically sound like. It's how you write. I know, I know, it's a bit confusing. You've stumbled upon this post to learn how to write so you don't know how you write.

It's okay. You don't have to know how you write right now. All you have to know is your voice is how you tell your story. It's how you string together your sentences, how long or short your paragraphs are, how much detail you include, what tense or PoV you write in, and all the other fun stuff that comes with writing combined in a way uniquely you.

Finding your voice can be difficult and to be honest the best way to find your voice is to read a lot and write a lot. You'll begin to develop your own way of doing things differently (for the most part) to everyone else and eventually people will began to recognize your Voice as yours.

Finding your Voice, like everything else in writing takes time and patience. It also takes a lot of practice and knowing the rules. It also means knowing when you can break the writing rules. What are the writing rules? Well, those differ from author to author but we'll go over the basics. Ready? Let's go.

Avoid Prologues (and Epilogues)

The basis for this is the reader skips them anyway. The other basis is if you're writing a prologue or epilogue then they can be a chapter of the story. Mm, not so much. I'm a believer in prologues and epilogues if the story needs them.

A prologue or epilogue should be no longer than a few pages, just enough to give a basic idea of an event or space in time prior to the events of the novel or act as a good summary to what happened in said novel. In serials the epilogue can be used to lead into the next novel, breaking up what happened in the current novel and helping to push along into the next.

Again, they should only be used if needed. I used a prologue for every novel in the thriller/mystery series. Why? Because the prologue was where the unknown subject gave their feelings and motivations behind what they were doing. It's kind of like the first few minutes of Criminal Minds or House MD where the viewer gets to see what's going to happen before the show actually starts. Do you skip those first few minutes? Heck no. They draw you in and make you try to think of what the show is going to be about. You also get to try and connect the rest of the show with the "prologue" and see how everything fits.

I didn't use a prologue in any of the Mists of Time books. The story didn't need a different PoV or an explanation leading into it. I'll probably have an epilogue in the last book that will summarize the events of all three books.

That is the job of the prologue and the epilogue: to summarize everything neatly so the reader can readily understood what might be happening (in the case of prologues) or what has happened (in the case of epilogues).

Never use a verb other than said and never modify the verb said

I hate, hate, HATE this advice. I wrote an entire blog post about my reasons behind hating the word said but I'll summarize here.

I AM in agreement said should make up the majority of your dialogue tags. I AM in agreement overusing other verbs gets to be overwhelming. I request instead of flooding all dialogue with said, we as writers use other verbs or modify said sparingly to keep things interesting.

The arguments for always using said:

1) It's distracting to the reader. I get it. When you start using fancy words every time someone talks your reader might not understand the word or be so stunned by the word they might stop. You know what distracts me? Said. All. The. Time. It makes me think you've written a news article instead of a work of fiction.

2) The reader doesn't pay attention to dialogue tags anyway. Well too bad. I've spent weeks/months/years of my life writing this novel, going over every word, and if you're going to ignore 10% (or more) of my words then don't bother with the rest. I put my heart and soul into every word, the least you can do is read them all.

3) You should be showing the reader what your character is saying. Basically it means you should use said then the sentence after should be something like: "He was keeping his voice low so they wouldn't be caught." You know what single word says the sentence in quotes? Whispered. HE WHISPERED. Then you can go on: "If they got caught they would be killed." And hey, you cut down nine words.

Again, I AGREE said should be the main dialogue tag. But there are words like whispered, muttered, mumbled, told, yelled, shouted, exclaimed, explained, answered, and replied. There are modifiers like with a grin, with a frown, while scowling, with his eyes narrowed, with a growl, in a low voice, with a grunt, and with a chuckle. I ask again: why should we disregard entire words and phrases? It's like asking a plumber not to use his wrench or an electrician not to use rubber handled tools.

Dialogue tags should be a comfortable mixture of said alone, other verbs, modified said, or no tags. Also: Stephen King, JK Rowling, and Anne Rice break this rule. Best of all GRR Martin busts this rule to bits IN A PROLOGUE in Game of Thrones. So. MIX IT UP. Be creative and find what works for you when it comes to dialogue tags.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, things, and places

This was covered in detail (ha) in my Show vs Tell blog post, writing tip #3. Again, I'll summarize.

Showing is fine and it's okay to include the five senses in your novel. Don't include every sense for every character in every scene or your reader's going to drop your book with a groan and move onto something else. General rule of thumb: if you're going over 100,000 words and you're not half way done (or close to being done) then you've got too much going on in one book and/or you've over-described.

Now, I agree with describing a character. I want to know what they look like. Black hair, green, eyes, pale skin, freckles, average in height, slender build? Awesome! Just don't do:

Blair had thick, straight black hair that fell to his mid back like a curtain of silk across his shoulders. His green eyes were the color of jade, clear, and bright framed with thick curled lashes and perfectly arched eyebrows above. His skin was light in color from his Scottish descent and in the sun would go bright red before peeling and returning to its natural moon-pale tones. A smattering of freckles went over both cheeks and his nose but did not extend to his forehead or chin. Only a few stray freckles covered his body and randomly in so many different places that not even Blair was sure how many freckles he had. He was average in height for a male, standing at precisely five feet and nine inches. He was not a proponent of weight lifting nor did he do any exercises that were physically draining. His frame was slender, not defined, but he was not over-weight in any way. In fact, his frame was delicate, almost like a woman's with a slender waist and broad hips. Blair was often mistaken for a woman and hated it but did not wish to cut his hair to stop the miss-gendering. Sometimes, he liked being miss-gendered, especially when he was feeling like a woman when he woke.

I'm betting at least half of you started groaning half way through. Don't feel bad if you did. See, all that description could easily be tacked onto other parts of the novel, sprinkled through when needed until your reader gets the entire block of text in their head without you needing to include the entire block of text.

Yes, I want to know what your character, place, and objects look like in great detail if you care to give it to me. No, I don't need all the detail at once. And no, I don't necessarily need to know EVERY detail. Brown eyes, short black hair, dark skin, female? Cool. I'll get a general picture and fill in details when you give them to me.

That's the thing about description: sometimes it's okay for the reader to fill in the little details. The trick to knowing if you're over describing? Give it to someone else. If they start groaning then you know you've got to much. The other trick? If you start skipping over your descriptions during editing then you know they're too long.

Avoid clichés

A cliché is one of two things: an overused phrase (frightened to death) or an idea with a different meaning, ex, sweaty palms. We know the person's palms are sweaty but it's a sign of nervousness.

I can agree on lessening the amount of clichés in your work. I don't want to read string after string of cliché but a modified cliché or a bare hint of one? That's okay. Instead of saying he had sweaty palms to say a character was nervous, give some other tell. Say his eyes were moving back and forth over the room and he was sweating. Say he kept swallowing too much and licking his lips. Don't show me how sweaty his palms are unless he's holding hands with someone and they notice it.

Don't use a long word when a short one will do

Basically this means don't use some strange unusual word you found in the thesaurus when a simple word like "pain" will do. On the same token, don't keep reusing the same word over and over. Yes, mix it up, but don't go digging for words people have to look up because then they'll get distracted and if they get distracted they'll stop reading.

Now, if you're dealing with someone who describes things in medical terms and you know it's part of this person's personality: use it but make sure the person explains what the word means to the other characters who don't.

If it doesn't belong then cut it out

AGREED ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. If a word, sentence, paragraph, scene, CHAPTER does not move along the plot or show character growth then take it out. Kill your darlings, as Stephen King says.

Grammar rules: don't start with joining words or end with linking verbs.

This can be played with carefully depending on the tone of the novel, the scene, and the character who's narrating. This also goes for run on sentences because what better way to show fear than have your narrator start to ramble?

Avoid repetition

Again, it can be played with depending on the situation. "And she looked up at him. And up. And up" means hey, we're looking at a tall person in comparison to the "she." Better yet, we're being shown we're looking at a tall person instead of being told this person is tall.

Remember: all rules in writing CAN AND SHOULD be bent (or broken) every so often. No one gets it right the first time and even best selling authors break the above rules. Just be sure you're breaking the rules in the right way to make your writing interesting enough to stand out.

One final point because I know it'll come up. Other writers might say the only people who can break/bend the above rules are professional authors and if you're a first time published author you should stick to the above. I say *chuckles*: JK Rowling, Stephanie Mayer, EL James...I could go on but I think you get the idea. I also say: If you want to be a "professional author" to the likes of Stephen King or G.R.R Martin (or whomever) then write like one. That is, BEND AND BREAK THE RULES LIKE THEM.

Until next time: thoughts, comments, rages, rants, questions, and out-right insults can be directed to the comments section.

No comments:

Post a Comment