Monthly Archives: April 2014

Recommended Reading: Voice

Voice.

One of the hardest things to describe — and to develop — as a writer is voice. Great characters tug at our heartstrings with their endearing quirks or unique perspectives; well-written settings make us feel like we are there; and gripping plots keep us dying to know what will happen next. But voice is ingrained in the writing itself, in the way the story is told or the scene is described. If you’ve read something by a writer with a strong voice, you’ll probably be able to recognize anything else that writer has written from just a few sentences.

Because voice is so unique and personal, I can’t recommend any books that will help you develop your own voice. The best advice I can give for that is to write, and keep writing, and eventually you’ll start writing in your own voice without even realizing that’s what you’re doing. However, I can recommend some examples of great voices, for those of you who are still trying to figure out what exactly a writer’s voice is.

The Things They Carried. When I think of voice, Tim O’Brien is the first writer that comes to mind. The Things They Carried, O’Brien’s fictional account of the experiences of an American platoon during the Vietnam War was one of the first books I read in college, and was arguably the one that had the strongest impact on me. Recently, I picked up another of O’Brien’s books for the book club I run at our library, and it was like catching up with an old friend. In the Lake of the Woods is completely different from The Things They Carried, but after only one paragraph I was caught up in the O’Brien-ness of the prose.

The next writer I think of when I think of voice is one I’ve mentioned ad nauseum already on this blog — John Green. I won’t waste time beating a dead horse here, but any of Green’s readers will understand why I think of him when I’m thinking of strong, unique voices.

Faingirl. Another great example of voice is Rainbow Rowell. She’s written young adult, new adult, and adult novels with great success (a range I wish I had!), but all of them have the same feel to them as far as voice.  Eleanor & Park is darker than Fangirl, and Attachments will have you laughing instead of crying, but the writing has the same feel in all three books.

In general, when I’m looking for authors with great voices, I look for books that won the Printz Award or Printz Honor. These are exclusively young adult books, but they are recognized solely for their literary merit — in other words, they’re chosen for the writing itself. If you want great voice, these books won’t disappoint.

What authors would you recommend as masters of voice?

Deadlines and Detours

Hourglass.

Photo by flickr user Alexander Boden

I’m not a procrastinator. I’ve always been the type to plan ahead and finish projects early. I know this probably baffles and/or disgusts many people, but it’s my way of coping with my fear of failure — even if I’m not crazy about the final product, having something done feels better than facing a deadline empty-handed.

Consequently, I take deadlines — even the ones I set for myself — very seriously. I set a timeline for each of my writing projects, and tell my critique partners when they can expect to see my latest drafts. My most recent deadline was for a round of revisions that I knew were going to be tough, so I gave myself a couple extra weeks to tackle them.

But then another project took over with all the suddenness and subtlety of a carjacker. I forced myself to take a step back from my manuscript so that I could return to it with fresh eyes, but wanted to keep writing during that break, so I decided to start playing around with an idea I’d gotten a few months back. Usually, this stage of a project involves me writing scenes that will never make it into the actual book, but that give me a better sense of the characters and the world they inhabit.

This time, I started writing and immediately knew I was writing the first scene of the book. I wasn’t expecting to produce anything substantial during my “play” stage, but I had so much fun writing it that I decided to keep going. I wrote the next scene. And then the next one.

Somehow, my “play” turned into a first draft of almost 60,000 words written in 15 days. I was swept up in a fever, a frenzy — I literally could not stop writing. I got up early to write. I stayed up late to write. I wrote on my lunch break.

Fireworks.

Photo by flickr user bayassa

When I finally finished, I wanted to dive into editing my new project, but I forced myself to go back to the first one. I had a deadline to meet. I read through the whole manuscript in one morning and realized that a.) a lot of changes still need to be made, but I’m not sure what they are or how to make them; and b.) I’m not invested enough in that project right now to give it the attention it deserves.

And so, for the first time ever, I’ve slashed a deadline that I set for myself. It wasn’t easy, but I want to make sure I give the older project the attention it deserves, and I just can’t do that right now. Plus, anything that seems to write itself like this ought to be given proper recognition. I started typing up my new book (I write first drafts longhand), and the fever returned. It’s not quite the same frenzy that it was before, but it’s still guiding me, telling me what to change, what to add (beyond the obvious “10,000+ words”), and where, and how — all the things I couldn’t do with my older manuscript.

I still plan to come back to that project, but I’m going to surrender to the fever of this new one first. The fact that I’m getting chills just writing this tells me I’ve made the right decision.

Have you ever been swept up by an idea like this? Share your stories in the comments!

Recommended Reading: Characterization

One of my favorite parts of being a librarian is reader’s advisory, or recommending books (or other media) to patrons. And one of my favorite parts of being a writer (other than actually writing) is studying other writers’ work. I’ve decided to combine these two favorites with a series of recommended reading for writers, focusing on different elements of craft and the books/authors that I think make good use of those elements.

Sherlock Holmes.

Who doesn’t recognize this character?

This week’s post will focus on characterization. From Holden Caulfield to Tyrion Lannister, memorable characters stick with us long after we’ve finished reading their stories. Their unique ways of looking at (and telling readers about) their worlds, the ways they rise (or fail to rise) to the occasion, and their interactions with other characters make them real, breathing people who we could imagine running into on the street. Here are just a few books that I look to when I’m studying well-crafted characters.

Paper Towns. My first recommendation is Paper Towns by John Green. Really anything by John Green, but The Fault in Our Stars is getting so much media love that I wanted to highlight another of his books. The characters’ quirks — Radar’s obsession with the Wikipedia-like Omnictionary, Margo’s fascination with ambiguous capitalization, Quentin’s obsession with finding Margo — and their intelligent banter make them charming and undeniably human.

For those writing teen characters, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is spot-on. These characters talk like teens, think like teens, and act like teens — real teens, not overly angsty or juvenile cliches. Rowell creates characters who struggle with abuse, isolation, and insecurities we can all relate to, both in Eleanor & Park and in her other novels. If you’re looking for a rich, character-driven contemporary story, try anything by Rainbow Rowell.

Alanna: The First AdventureI can’t talk about strong characters without mentioning one who significantly shaped my teen years. Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet is a strong female character who is not afraid to be herself and do what she thinks is right — even when it gets her into trouble. These and other books by Pierce are also great for those writing young adult fantasy. The Song of the Lioness books are a bit older, but Pierce’s receipt of YALSA’s Edwards Award in 2013 is a testament to her work’s endurance.

Other books/series with great characters include Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In general, any writer who makes you cry when he or she kills off a character is someone to study if you’re trying to strengthen the characters in your own writing.

What books or authors do you recommend for a look at great characterization?

Recommended Reading: Setting

Alaskan Landscape.

Photo by flickr user blmiers2

One of my favorite parts of being a librarian is reader’s advisory, or recommending books (or other media) to patrons. And one of my favorite parts of being a writer (other than actually writing) is studying other writers’ work. I’ve decided to combine these two favorites with a series of recommended reading for writers, focusing on different elements of craft and the books/authors that I think make good use of those elements.

I’m kicking the series off with setting. Esteemed reader’s advisor Nancy Pearl says that readers who prefer rich settings often gravitate toward fantasy, science fiction, and western novels. In all of these genres, the setting is essential to the story itself, so if you’re looking for examples of great settings, these are good places to start. Moving beyond the general recommendations, here are a few books and authors I’ve looked to for help enhancing the settings of my own work.

Ready Player One. At the top of my setting list is Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One. Holy cow, if there were ever a book that screamed “world building,” this is it. There are so many layers to the setting of this book, from the “real world” of the near future to the many virtual planets of the OASIS to the Gunter subculture to the crumbling society at large. I could go on and on, but Cline has a way of expertly weaving all of these layers together to create a vibrant, believable setting and culture. His explanations of various facets of the real world and the OASIS come in manageable doses and only when we need them, and their arrival through the narrator’s lens makes them even more striking.

If gaming isn’t your thing, I find epic fantasies great studies for setting. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind series are both excellent. Or, if you’re not up for such a big time commitment, a standalone high or urban fantasy like Neil Gaiman’s  Stardust or Neverwhere will provide a rich setting, too.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. For a more realistic setting, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a great portrayal of Seattle, jazz, and the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s. A lot of what makes this setting work so well is the narrator’s way of describing it from his view as a Chinese boy who befriends a Japanese girl at an otherwise-all-white school.

These are just a few books to get you started. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention M.T. Anderson’s Feed, pretty much anything by Scott Westerfeld, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. (Any series with its own theme park that puts visitors in the middle of its made-up world deserves a nod in a post on setting.)

What books would you recommend for an in-depth look at setting?

Talking about a project

Deer in headlights. Many writers, myself included, are uncomfortable talking about their work. Personally, I go into a sort of mini-panic every time I hear the words, “What are you working on?” or “You’re writing a book? What’s it about?” These are usually answered by some mumbling and/or stammering and a sudden interest in just about every other topic imaginable. Seriously, I’d rather perform a monologue on mold spores than talk about my work in progress.

Why the dread/embarrassment/deer-in-headlights response? I’m not ashamed of my novel; on the contrary, I’m extremely proud of the project into which I’ve poured my heart and soul and probably bits of my sanity. But I’m terrified of pitches. I’m afraid the other person won’t “get” it, or worse, won’t like it, and then we’ll be left with this awkward that’s-nice-so-what-do-we-talk-about-now mood poisoning the room.

When I first started writing, I would proudly tell people I was writing a book, and when asked what it was about, I’d reply with my standard, “I don’t want to talk about it until it’s finished.” Trying to explain my writing would open it up to all kinds of scrutiny that I simply wasn’t ready to face. But then I went to a conference where we were forced — er, encouraged — to practice pitching our work to other writers. And something amazing happened.

The other writers asked questions. And I answered them.

And in answering them, I learned how best to turn a stammered summary into a pitch that made sense. I learned what parts to focus on, both in my pitch and in my revisions, what parts to clarify, and what parts I needed to re-think. The questions that I was so afraid of turned out to be exactly what I needed. They weren’t designed to insult my writing or my ideas, but to strengthen them. And they did.

So now, as I start on revisions of my latest project (“It’s a YA high fantasy novel. And can you believe it was snowing this morning?”), I’m attacking the pitch head-on. That way, when my writer friends ask what I’m working on, we can have a conversation about more than just the weather. It’s scary, but I know that my book and I will both be stronger for it.

Do you get pitch jitters? How do you tackle them?