Saturday, August 28, 2010

Agents and dragons

Re-read that title again just to make sure you read it correctly, and not "agents are dragons" because that would be very, very wrong. More on dragons in a moment. A word on agents first.

Since I'm not at the querying stage, I have no personal experience with agents yet, though I am regularly terrified by the QueryShark and Slushpile Hell. But then I am also encouraged by the friendliness and helpfulness of agents - see this very interesting dialogue that occurred between four agents that accept YA/MG (Mary Kole, Anica Rissi, Joanna Volpe, Suzie Townsend) on WriteOnCon's live industry panel. They talked about "writing voice" and if I appear to be slightly obsessed about voice (or my lack thereof) it's only because agents appear to be obsessed with it too.

This obsession has led me to studying every book of fiction I pick up now, and trying to pick out the distinctive voice. In some novels (e.g. Diary of Wimpy Kid, or anything by Rick Riordan) you don't pick out the voice - it pretty much assaults you. In other books it's much more subtle and makes me feel like I'm on a treasure hunt.

So here's where the dragons come in. Yeah, I'm a sucker for dragons. About every fifth book I pick up has something to do with dragons. Right now I'm analyzing the Dragon of Trelian (upper MG), by Michelle Knudsen, for voice and any other writerly bits of craft I can glean.

Here's yet another book that alternates between two first person Point-of-Views, like Shiver and the Red Pyramid and several others I've read lately. Switching first person is apparently more acceptable these days, though you always see reviews from people who say this confused them because it was hard to tell as a new chapter begins who's POV you're in. If you are going to tackle two first person POVs you need two distinct voices to distinguish the characters. Perhaps more so than in third person where the more frequent use of names helps the reader distinguish the POV.

Here you've got Princess Meg and mage's apprentice Calen, both fourteen years old. It took me a while to find distinct examples of their voices. Maybe I'm too focused on the plot when I read it the first time- I could tell they had a different voice but I couldn't pinpoint the difference. Had to skim back through to find actual examples of it.

Just for fun, I've underlined parts of the following snippets that I think are distinctive voice. Do you agree, disagree?

Snippet #1
Something in his face must have reflected his thoughts. Meg stopped walking, her eyes wide and concerned. “Well, what? What is it, Calen?"
He shook his head. “I don’t really know.”
She poked a finger at him angrily. “Don’t do that,” she said. “You do too know, and you’re going to tell me.” She poked him again, harder. “Right now.”
Calen rubbed his chest. Did she always have to be so violent?
Meg, who is bossy and brash, uses short sentences often punctuated by aggressive motions.

Snippet #2
Calen backed away from the chair and resigned himself to leaning against a wall instead.
After a while, Serek looked up.
“What have I taught you about divination?” he asked.
“That it’s difficult, dangerous, not always reliable, and that I’ll learn more about it when and if you feel I’m old enough to handle it,” Calen said. “Why?”
Serek’s lips twitched slightly into what might have been a smirk. “I suppose I’ve just decided you’re old enough. Come here.”
Calen, who is analytical and careful, tends to string together several thoughts into long sentences.
Snippet #3
“What exactly are you doing?” Serek’s deep voice spoke suddenly from the doorway behind him.
“I am looking for that stupid – uh, for Lyrimon,” Calen said. “I know he’s in here. I can feel him watching me.”
One corner of Serek’s mouth turned up slightly. “Oh, he’s watching you, all right.” He jerked his chin toward the window. Calen whipped his head around to look. Lyrimon was sunning himself idly on the stone wall that ran through the yard. He was watching, though. Even from this distance, Calen could see the evil glint in the gyrcat’s eyes.
“How do you do that?” Calen asked plaintively.
“Do what?”
“Find him like that. You always know where he is. You can see him even when he’s practically invisible. Why won’t you teach me how to do it?”
“Now, what fun would that be?” Serek strode forward into the room.
Serek, Calen's master mage, is utterly devoid of emotion, except for the occasional sarcastic remark, and is characterized by abrupt, purposeful movements. (His gyrcat, though it never says a word, is such a distinct character he almost has a "voice" too). Highly recommend this book for many reasons, but Serek is a big one - I think he has potential to be one of the great fantasy mages, just a step below Gandalf and Dumbledore.

After a while I started to see distinct examples of the author's voice, too - in the descriptive parts.

Snippet #4
Calen was perched on the edge of a table. The chair across from the mage was occupied by Lyrimon, and Calen was too tired to fight him for it. As they talked, Calen fished black olives out of a jar and ate them. He had never cared much for olives, but he was so famished that he would have eaten almost anything at this point, and all Serek seemed to have on hand was jar after jar of olives. Perhaps, once he’d finished the current jar, he’d try some of the green ones.

At this point, if you are still reading yet another one of my idiotically long posts (will I NEVER learn?), you may be wondering where in the world the dragon is in this book.

I wondered the same thing. The dragon doesn't have a big role, most likely because he doesn't speak at all, though he is unique enough to be very pleasing. He shows up in odd spots just often enough to keep you wondering about him.

Another snippet that isn't so much about voice, as world-building and beautiful description. The mages in this story are marked on their faces (I kind of envisioned them like the marks/tattoos on the Romulans' faces in the 2009 Star Trek movie. Oops, just revealed that I'm a trekkie).  The marks end up being crucial to the story's plot, which was kind of cool:
“May I ask – is an appointment such as this one, an honor like this – is it recorded in your marks? Forgive me, but I’ve never understood the full scope of what a mage’s marks include.”

That was an interesting question. Meg had wondered about the same thing herself. Calen’s face was barely marked, just a few lines and small shapes under his left eye, but Serek had delicate black lines spiraling across both sides of his face, with tiny symbols and dots of color worked into the design at various points.
Serek shook his head. ‘No.” For the first time, Meg thought she detected the barest touch of emotion in his voice. “No, the marks are given for years of study, fields of expertise, and accomplishments of that nature, Sen Eva. A mage may serve many masters in his lifetime, but it is the work and the study of magic that defines his life and purpose. Those are the things that set him apart from others, and the reason why no mage may go unmarked, as they show what he is capable of.”
And because I've already violated the rule of short posts beyond repair, and because I loved this book, one last snippet full of voice:

Calen had never been to a wedding before. Of course, he guessed that even if he had, it wouldn’t have been anything like this one. At first it had all seemed rather boring. There was a lot of watching the members of the different families standing around repeating things back and forth to each other, and about a hundred different people got up to read long passages from various books, and then there were songs, and then possibly some other part he missed because he dozed off, but then finally people were shouting and cheering and he woke in time to watch Prince Ryant lean forward to kiss Princess Maerlie in full view of every living person that had been crowded into the enormous grand hall. Calen wondered if the Prince was nervous. He’d certainly be nervous if he had to kiss a girl in front of an audience! Well, he’d probably be nervous about kissing a girl in any event, he supposed. But the audience would make it even worse.
So, if you've managed to make it through this monstrosity of a post, what book have you read lately with a strong voice - and was it a particular character with a distinct voice, or was it the author's overall voice that was more apparent?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Guess-that-character - REVEAL

Jenn at unedited came up with this Guess-that-Character idea: "Post a snippet of the character you'd like to be identified. Try and make sure there are no descriptions of what they might look like. This blog fest is based purely on voice, action and personality."

I must have done a good job (pats on back, blushes) because a lot of you nailed Tara pretty darn close! I also really enjoyed those of you who suggested a young Jodi Foster, AnnaSophia Robb (Because of Winn Dixie), Lindsay Lohan (Parent Trap), or a young Hayden Panettier.

But the truth is, I modeled her after a young Scarlett Johannson, specifically from the character Grace in the Horse Whisperer (1998). All attitude on the outside but a softie inside. Here she is from 1998 and then all growed up and gorgeous.

I picture Tara with the same long dark blonde hair (but in a ponytail), gray eyes, and even the same tilt to her head that says "yeah? So what!" 

Here's some of my favorite descriptions - thanks everyone!
From our hostess, Jen: Her Uncle sounds like mine, he calls my sister Koala bear all the time. I really connected with the character! My Guess: I think she's small and petite. Possibly even a little small for her age. Freckles on her face with light brown hair that falls just above her shoulder. I think she has hazel eyes as well!

Jemi Fraser: Okay, she's braver than mom, so let's say athletic, but not too strong - that pack was heavy! So maybe a little short. Hair in a pony tail - maybe brown hair.

Amie McCracken: Long, dirty blonde hair that's probably in a ponytail (and greasy from all the camping). A very athletic body, but not too tall. Blue eyes, a wide face. For some reason I'm also picturing elegant hands.

Brenda Drake: I have a niece named Tara so I'm going to try to not describe her ... well, heck ... she is just like her. Athletic, confident, lanky, brown hair, green eyes, freckled nose, and sarcastic.

Meredith: I see her as on the shorter side for her age, with dark curly brown hair and a whole lot of freckles. She's got dark brown eyes, teeth that are just a little bit crooked, and always dresses casually.

And the WINNER IS (closest description overall, except for the green eyes):

Victoria Dixon: I'm seeing a fit, but not necessarily athletic girl. She's self-confident, but not in a jerky, preppy way. I think I'm describing her instead of her appearance. LOL. I suspect she's got her hair up in a pony tail, but it's a lazy 'do and has strands falling around her face already. I like the green eyes, Hanna. I'll go with that. She's wearing hiking books and bug spray. Oh, and her Uncle is my husband. :)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Guess-that-Character blogfest

Jenn at unedited came up with this Guess-that-Character idea: "Post a snippet of the character you'd like to be identified. Try and make sure there are no descriptions of what they might look like. This blog fest is based purely on voice, action and personality."

So read my snippet (350 words), tell me what you think my character looks like. She's from my MG fantasy novel, Refuge, and she's 12 years old. Tomorrow I'll post who had the closest description, and I'll post two pictures - the child actress she looks like (and kinda acts like a little, too) and a picture of the actress now that she's an adult.

We crest a steep ridgetop, panting from hauling our huge backpacks, and I get my first indication that maybe my uncle is half-crazy. He points down the hill. “Look, our first grizzly.”

My uncles smiles like we’re at a zoo or something, not out in the wilderness with nothing between us and the largest bear I’ve ever seen.Mom makes some sort of squeaking sound and I feel like my pack just got ten times heavier and my legs ten times weaker. “Got your camera, Tarzan?” Matt asks me, in a freaky calm way.

My name is Tara, but my uncle has a million 
nicknames for me. At any given moment I can be Tarzan, Tango, Hobbit, or Terrapin. At the moment I sure don't feel like Tarzan. I've been camping enough times that I can deal with the whole squatting-behind-a-bush and sleeping-on-lumpy-ground thing, but the giant-bear-not-behind-a-fortress-fence is definitely a new experience for me.

The bear is standing half in, half out of a stream. The breeze blows us the rankest wet-dog scent I’ve ever smelled. He’s looking at us, but his lower lip is hanging, like he’s too busy or lazy to straighten up and give us proper attention.
My mom grabs my arm and I feel her nails dig in.

“Don’t panic,” Matt says. “He’s not startled by us, I know he heard us coming.” I thought he was joking about the bear-bell tied on his backpack, earlier. “Just stand still and enjoy.”

Enjoy? By my mother’s rapid breathing and death-grip, I can tell she’s sure not enjoying herself. After a moment, the bear lumbers across the stream, gives us another look, and disappears into the aspen grove on the other side.I take a deep breath. “Okay Mom, you can reattach my arm now.”

“You see,” my mother says, in her classic I Am The Mom, I Know Best voice. “This is exactly why we need to go back. I am not comfortable putting Tara in danger.” She’s not letting go of my arm, but at least I can feel some circulation again.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why I love werewolves

How do I love thee, oh beautiful wolves of Mercy Falls? Let me count the ways....

But first, here's why I'm gushing about wolves.

The amazing Lisa Gail Green of Paranormal Point of View is having a contest - she's giving away copies of Shiver and it's sequel Linger, by Maggie Stiefvater. The contest ends tonight! Even if you already have these books, stop by her blog anyway because if you love any mythical critter, this is the place for you. She currently has posted the most hilarious ABC rhyme about vampires. I'm so forwarding that on to everyone I know!

Lisa also posts "Monday Madness" where she'll study a blogger friend or author and give insight on to what type of paranormal personality they have. I was curious about myself, so I asked her for an analysis. She pinned me perfectly as a gnome, not the red-hatted variety (thank goodness! - I don't want my name to be synonymous with the Travelocity gnome) but the intellectual Gnome that loves nothing more than to bury itself in a big library and study.
Oh, so me!
This girl is accurate, I tell you. You should see how well she's pinpointed the paranormal side of Liv Tyler and Miley Cyrus, and Lindsey Lohan and Robert Pattinson.

Okay, so I fully admit to being a gnome, but here's what I wish I was more of: a werewolf. Because werewolf books top my list of favorite books:
  • the later books in the Twilight series (and NOT just because of Jacob, I love Seth and Leah too)
  • the yummy Lord Macon from Soulless and its sequel by Gail Carriger
  • the angsty Daniel and Jude from Bree Despain's the Dark Divine
  • and my all time favorite, Sam's pack of wolves in Shiver
Why is Sam's pack my favorite of the fictional furries? Simply, they are the most wolf-like. And the story is beautifully written. And it's a love story. It has intense parts, and it has funny parts. If you aren't convinced about Shiver yet, here's my review/analysis of it.

I have loved real wolves starting when I read two classics, Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf and Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves, when I was 11 years old.
My love of wolves intensified when a conservation group showed up at my college to give a talk, while a young wolf roamed around the auditorium (okay, he was on a leash, and we weren't allowed to touch) but he came close enough that I could look right into his yellow intense eyes and realize that this animal was still wild, even though he'd been raised in captivity.

Ever since then wild and wolf have been two interchangeable words for me. The wolf so perfectly defines the spirit of the wilderness. And in werewolves, humans can sort of borrow that spirit of true wildness for themselves, through the wonders of storytelling.

So I'm in love with wolves and werewolves and I'm howling to read Linger, I was just about to buy it when Lisa offered this contest so I thought I'd use the opportunity to gush about it and maybe win it! And by the way, Lisa, my raving about your vampire ABC's and Monday Madness is not a ploy to win that extra 25 points. Those are rave worthy, regardless of any darn points!

So what's your favorite paranormal critter and why?

PS. I moved to Wyoming just when the wolves were first released to repopulate Yellowstone in 1994, and lived through the intense controversy it aroused, and understood both sides of the debate. I understand the ranchers' concerns, but they do get reimbursed for their losses, and I love it that the wolves are flourishing and are spreading across my state.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How writers found their voice: real examples

8/11 update - TH Mafi just posted on voice! I knew she felt my desperate call at some deep inner level. Or perhaps she just graciously heeded my recent question in a comment about how she found her marvelous voice.

I've been collecting any articles I find on voice because of all the aspects of writing craft, this one is the most mysterious to me. I also struggle with the difference between writer's voice vs. character's voice. Writer's voice makes more sense to me with non-fiction; in fiction, your main characters' voices should be more of the focus, right (unless you are writing in the omniscient point of view, which is apparently out of style these days, unless you're Grisham, maybe). Is your writer's voice crucial to pulling off realistic character voices, too?

Here's an excerpt from the most recent article on writer's voice I've run across, from agent Rachelle Gardner's What is writer's voice?:
Your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.... It's a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you're-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self.
Rachelle asked "what are some ways you find your unique writer's voice?" From the comments, I found some patterns pop out with the methods that people use. Here's what I learned. I hope it's okay to reprint some of the comments (attributed, of course) and to give them my own labels!

The brute force method:
Finding your voice is a lot...(a LOT) of really, really, really bad free-writing and first drafts. (Kellye Parish)
Write. Everyday, all the time. Write about the weather, the funny man on the corner, your boss. Write about that idea where people's heads turn into eggplants. Write articles, diaries, fiction, poetry. (Mesmerix)

The "go back to your roots" method:
When I reach back to the unique events that defined me, my voice comes roaring back. Because I'm already so familiar with what happened, I can use this writing to push my voice to the forefront. This allows me to go back to work with my voice all warmed up. (Ida M. Olson)

The "love that feeling" method:
As my husband or critique partner read my manuscript, I notice when they love certain chapters or sections of the story and when they don't love certain sections as much. And when I go back through those sections, I realize that those chapters sound like... well, me. This goes for blogging as well. I think the blog posts that are an honest portrayal of me and my passions, I hear my own voice. The trick, now, is to make sure that passion and self comes out in everything I write not just certain sections of it. (Heather Sunseri)

I know that I have found my voice when I re-read what I have written and it makes me laugh, cry, or feel some sort of emotion. (Teenage Bride)

The "experimental" method:
One thing that helped me find the voice I didn't know I had was writing in a different tense. When I switched to present tense, what a difference! For other writers, it might be a change of genre that brings out their voice. I think it might be like using a different filter in photography. Sometimes the one you use the least can make the colors pop. (Debbie Maxwell Allen)

The "find your vision/view" method:
Voice... is about two things: your vision of the world (that is, what's outside of you), and your ability to communicate that vision in language. You can find your vision of the world by doing a lot of writing, even more reading--and by thinking about how you see things. (Barbara Baig)

If we describe our mind's view in words, then we have found our voice. (David Amburgey)

The "non-conformist" method:
We all have a somewhat unique voice, but for it to be unique enough to stand out comes from the attitude of the author. If you want a unique voice you’ve got to blow everyone else off and be a nonconformist. (Timothy Fish)

Here's a bunch of other articles on voice I've collected over the past few months.

the Write Power: Finding your voice Helpful variations of the ones described above.

Livia Blackburne: Voice finding techniques. More suggestions.

Janice Hardy (Storyflip): some simple help for voice. This one helps you strengthen voice while you are editing.

Chip MacGregor: Finding your writing voice. Suggests imitating others to start with (though most will tell you NOT to do this!)

Men with Pens: Finding your writing voice. Includes nine different exercises to try! I'm slowly working my way through them.

Nathan Bransford: How to craft great voice. In response to one of the comments, Nathan also gives good advice on how you know WHEN you've found your voice: "I think voice is there when it's adjustable. Can you dial up or down certain elements? Can you hear it in your head? In other words, is it enough of an entity that you can think of it apart from the elements it's describing?"

So now that I've regurgitated all sorts of information I've discovered, here's my one teeny tiny experience with searching for voice that actually resulted in success.


Go back and read the stuff you never intended for anyone to read. The parts where I'm venting about something are the best, and likewise when my character is venting about something that's when I get the strongest voice.

Ha ha, not sure what that says about me as a person? Never mind. In my next blog, I'm going to VENT!

And if that doesn't work, I'm going to over-caffeinate myself into hyperactivity and then strap myself to my chair and see what happens if there is a keyboard close enough to reach. I like to think that's how T.H. Mafi developed her voice.

Planning to post more on character voice soon. In the meantime, if you've made it this far through my writing voice voyage, I plead with you, I BEG of you, if you have any opinions on voice (the written kind), please share them with me!
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