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If you caught last week’s post, you’ll know we’re going to be talking about author voice for the next few weeks in the hopes of demystifying a crucial yet often elusive piece of the writing puzzle. Now that we’ve discussed what elements contribute to the presence of author voice on a page, we’re moving on to some ways to identify what characterizes your voice so that you can direct your writing energy towards refining and strengthening it. To help you in evaluating your voice, I’m going to break down a passage of writing from an author with a terrific voice and then talk you through doing the same for yourself.
In examining the writing of an author with strong voice, I’m forced to revisit an oft-referenced author on this blog, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s brilliant comic novels and short stories very often have similar subjects and settings– the British aristocracy, the English countryside– but the content similarities don’t characterize his voice as much as the way he tells his stories. Don’t confuse topic with voice. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the opening passage to Wodehouse’s Money for Nothing.
“The picturesque village of Rudge-in-the-Vale dozed in the summer sunshine. Along its narrow high street the only signs of life visible were a cat stropping its backbone against the Jubilee Watering Trough, some flies doing deep-breathing exercises on the hot windowsills, and a little group of serious thinkers who, propped up against the wall of the Carmody Arms, were waiting for that establishment to open. At no time is there ever much doing in Rudge’s main thoroughfare, but the hour at which a stranger, entering it, is least likely to suffer the illusion that he has strayed into Broadway, Piccadilly, or the Rue de Rivoli is at two o’clock on a warm afternoon in July.”
Okay, so, just by dissecting this
If you use Facebook with any regularity, you’ve seen a number of trends take over your news feed in the past few years. We’ve had “change your profile picture to a picture of your celebrity lookalike” week, “change your status to the fruit that corresponds to your relationship status in a bizarre and completely non-effective attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer” month, and the recent ALS ice bucket challenge during which we all enjoyed the sight of our employers, friends, and celebrity crushes being doused in ice water to raise money for ALS research.
Trending now on Facebook is a status which challenges users to post a list of the 10 most influential books they’ve ever read. Not their favorite books, necessarily, just the first 10 books that come to mind when thinking about the books that shaped their thinking, their attitude toward reading, or their taste in literature. When 130,000 people’s lists were compared and studied, a list of the 20 most frequently listed titles was revealed.
Now, obviously, this isn’t a scientifically perfect list– everyone’s definition of “books that stayed with you” is different– but it’s obvious that the authors who ended up on this list managed to connect with readers in a way that left an impression. As any good writing resource will tell you, there isn’t one way to write a great book (or a memorable one, or a significant one, or… etc.), but as we see from this list, there are factors that several of these influential authors have in common that are worth thinking about if you aspire to join them on this list when this trend resurfaces in 50 years or so.
- Write more than one book. Almost none of the works in the top 20 titles were the author’s first novel. Jane Austen wrote drafts of Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey before Pride and Prejudice
I’ve always been fascinated with the way artists have learned their various crafts throughout history. In the 1400s, if you wanted to be a sculptor, your family apprenticed you to an artist’s workshop in which you’d learn the skills of that medium as you assisted your master in producing his work– the master’s name was on the end product, but as many as a dozen apprentices and assistants may have helped with/worked on a piece. In the 1600s, artists’ guilds were the training ground of choice for future artists, highly regulated and exclusive organizations which existed to protect the interests and promote the work of their members. In the 1800s, if you wanted to be a painter, the way to get started was to move to Paris, stop eating, and spend your days in the Louvre, copying the works of the old masters as meticulously as possible.
Fast-forward to today, where the Internet age has made it much easier for artists of all kinds to access training. Graphic designers can take online classes, musicians can learn to play instruments from YouTube videos, and writers can complete entire MFA programs without ever setting foot in a classroom. While none of this instruction is necessarily less valuable for being accessed remotely, there is something lost when artists learn in a vacuum instead of in community and in close collaboration with (or via exposure to the work of) a “master” of their craft.
That’s why writer’s groups, critique partners, and conferences are so important to a developing writer, specifically those in which you have the opportunity to learn from/work alongside with highly skilled and experienced writers in your genre. Just as the Renaissance painters flourished working alongside and under more experienced artists who offered immediate feedback and instruction and correction, so modern writers who seek out partnership or “apprenticeship” with stronger writers tend to become aware of their weaknesses sooner and
I went to the movies over the long weekend (twice, actually) and found myself tearing up over a TRAILER, for goodness sake. Now, it’s fairly easy to make me cry in a movie– I’m a sucker for a good montage underscored by emotive music– but I never cry over a trailer. Well, almost never. One out of four, at the most. Anyway, the guilty trailer this time was for “Interstellar,” and for the first 3/4 of it, I wasn’t really even sure what the movie was about other than a bleak future and Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut, and I definitely didn’t think I was emotionally involved, but THEN Michael Caine started reading Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in a rich British voice over dramatic shots of peril and an emotive soundtrack and all bets were off. The manipulative folks who put that trailer together were able to tap into the existing emotional ties I have to that piece of poetry and suddenly, I saw their story as ten times more compelling and profound. Well played, trailer-makers.
In the same way, authors who effectively quote or reference other works of literature in their stories are able to draw on my existing set of emotions towards that work and manipulate me (in a good way) into a heightened feeling of connection with a story or camaraderie with the author. Obviously, quoting or referencing a superior piece of work is not going to trick a reader into thinking that a crappy story is actually brilliant or profound (I probably wouldn’t have cried had the Michael Caine voiceover accompanied a compilation of funny cat videos), but when used naturally in an already-strong story, it can be an effective device for creating a deeper bond between your reader and a story/character, or even between your reader and you as the author.
As a reader, I’ve encountered this many
Writing has the potential to be a lonely endeavor.
Writing well is never, not one time, about going it alone. Writers need people. We have friends who help us brainstorm, listen to our rants about characters with lives of their own, or shake their heads when a plot twist is the most cockamamie idea ever considered. We have family members who endure weird facial expressions and odd body gestures as we attempt to describe the actions of our characters. Many of us have agents, who have assistants, who seek out opportunities, all the while challenging us to dig deeper in our storytelling. If we’re published, we have editors and cover designers and marketers and publishers and… well, you get the point.
Writing is not a solo profession. If you are trying to fly the story-conjuring plane alone, you’re gonna crash and burn. As a Christian writer, I liken this journey to Paul’s analogy of the church as a body. Some are hands, eyes, mouths, feet. He gives every one of his children a talent or job. Ephesians tells us some are apostles or prophets or evangelists. In Romans, we find some have the gift of service or teaching or exhorting. Every book you read, or write, has a body of people who have fashioned its design.
Without my friends to help me brainstorm, my readers might miss out on a terrific idea to improve the plot. Without my family, I might lose hope when the middle muddles together. Without my agent, I might miss a terrific opportunity. Without my editor, my scene might not be clearly written.
You get the point.
If your heart is tugged with the desire to tap fingers to a keyboard but you’re trying to go it alone, stop right now. This very minute. Join a writing group. Go to a conference. Talk to family and friends. Seek out people who will encourage your journey. We’re
I’m traveling today, so I’m postponing part three in my dialogue series for next week. I’ll probably talk more about correct use of quotation marks at some point in the future, but today I wanted to quickly warn you once and for all against using quotation marks for “emphasis.” You’ve all seen it on signage, a use of quotation marks that makes you “strongly” question the author’s “meaning.” If you don’t know what I mean, take a look at this fine collection of examples, courtesy of Distractify.
What’s the worst example of misused quotation marks you’ve seen?
On SUNDAY, August 24, we’re going to try something new… a LIVE version of Amanda’s wonderful marketing information, set into a seminar format. Amanda and I will be in Nashville, at the Airport Embassy Suites, from 9 to 4, talking with authors about how to create a marketing plan for their books. Here’s what our outline looks like:
— The New World of Author Marketing — What’s Working (and not working) in Today’s Market
— Finding Your Audience and Reaching Your Readers
— Choosing the Tools You’ll Use to Promote Your Book
— Creating Your Own Personalized Marketing Plan
— Building Your Author Platform (we are bringing in a specialist to offer some advice and direction)
— Marketing with a Traditional Publisher vs Marketing Your Indie-Published Book
We’ll also be spending some time talking about working effectively with your publicist, and how to work with a freelance publicist, and we’ll get into a bunch of discussions on related topics — one of the most fun aspects of doing this type of seminar is the chance to talk with other authors who are going through the marketing process. But that’s our basic outline for the day, and we’d love to have you join us!
The cost is just $99 for the entire day, if you register in July (it will go up on August 1). Again, the focus of this day will be on doing something PRACTICAL — not on theory or on promoting a product. We just wanted to get authors together and have time to explore how an author can create his or her own marketing plan by focusing on ideas that actually work, so the emphasis will on on what an author can take and do, rather than on theory or philosophy. We hope you’ll join us. Please let me know if you plan to come by RSVPing me. Thanks, and we hope to see you in Nashville
I’ve been at a conference all week and will be back next week. We’ll pick up where we left off and talk more about Pay Per Clicks (PPC).
By Guest Writer CYNTHIA HICKEY, bestselling author of mystery and romance
HOW I SOLD OVER 150,000 COPIES OF MY TOTAL WORKS IN TWO YEARS
Or: Why I Love Being a Hybrid Author
When I started writing seriously, I had the notion that reaching 100,000 copies of total works sold meant I’d reached success. Imagine my glee when I surpassed that number in only two years of serious writing and tracking sales. I’d met a personal milestone of success.
The writing journey has been an exciting battle. In 2007, I received a contract for my first cozy mystery, followed by two more. Then, for more than two years, my writing career went stagnant. Figuring I could give my career a needed jumpstart, I put two old stories onto Amazon and Barnes and Noble . Sales climbed slowly, but each sale validated my decision. After I acquired my current agent, Chip MacGregor, he guided and encouraged me into re-releasing my cozies onto the new mystery line he was creating. The books began selling in dizzifying numbers .
I continued to write for Chip’s mystery line while putting other stories independently on Kindle and Nook. Those sales, along with my traditional book contracts, enabled me to quit my day job in May of 2013. By the end of 2013, I’d sold more than 150,000 copies of my total works. I’ve been asked many times how I’ve accomplished this in a two-year time span. What’s my secret? I’m not sure there is any sure-fire approach to achieving success, but I focus mainly on two things:
Discipline and flexibility.
1) Discipline: I set up regular writing hours and daily word count goals, often writing seven days a week to meet those goals. My writing is my job. It’s a business; it’s like breathing. Not only am I writing on publishing deadlines, but I’m striving to meet my self-appointed deadlines. My “boss” is a tough cookie,
Guest blog by BETH JUSINO, a marketing consultant, editor, writer, and former literary agent.
“Writers are like farmers: The harvest comes, but only after you toil for a few seasons.” – Cheryl Strayed
Back in the day—that is, before Amazon—we used to tell writers that the best way to get a publisher’s attention and build their credentials was by publishing articles in magazines, short stories in literary journals, and (best of all) land regular magazine or newspaper columns. Publishing short pieces, after all, offered direct exposure to new audiences, and the two or three-line bio at the end of a piece introduced readers to an author’s website (if they had one) and any already-published books.
And that’s all still true. Writing articles and short stories to market yourself as an author is an idea that’s gotten a little lost in the online onslaught of blogs and pins and tweets. But whether you’re in the process of building your platform or marketing your already-released book, a single essay in Salon.com or Trout & Stream will expose you to more readers than most books reach in their lifetime. And that list of “has also published in” references in your author’s bio adds credibility to your future work. Readers trust authors with a track record.
Like all useful things, it’s not easy. In the grand scheme of platform building exercises, publishing short pieces is a time consuming and often frustrating process. If you’ve never tackled article or short story writing, be prepared for a cycle of querying that’s similar to the agent or publisher hunt (though usually, at least, faster). Every outlet has its own guidelines for how they consider essays or ideas. And every outlet has its own voice and style. You’ll need to do some homework to understand the specific voice of a publication (do they like humor? Do their articles use a lot of statistics? Are their short stories all