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Archive for June, 2009

As writers we are often tempted to begin a story by explaining the backstory, telling readers everything they need to know about the main characters and bringing them up-to-date on what happened in the past. Don’t. A plot is the meat of a story, and it needs lots of seasoning to hold the reader’s interest. Give just enough information about the past to add spice and prevent confusion. Let your readers figure things out as they go along.

Telling too much at once is considered an “information dump.” It slows down the action and interrupts the forward movement of the plot. There are better ways to reveal the important details of the backstory.

1. A prologue: It can show the critical past event or details that the plot depends upon. However, many experts don’t recommend prologues, and some agents and editors say they hate them. I see them frequently in the suspense books I read, but as a newcomer to the publishing world I’d not use one myself.

2. Dialog:  You can bring in information as part of the dialog between characters, but if it sounds contrived you’ll annoy the readers. Dialog is tough enough to make realistic without throwing in lots of backstory, so use this technique sparingly.

3. Memories: Remembering the past can reveal its effect on the present without the reader actually having to be there. This can be shown via internal pondering or by dialog.

4. Flashbacks: These scenes take the reader back in time to see what happened. Done well they can be helpful; done poorly they disrupt the flow of the story. I’ve seen them done both ways and don’t personally care for either. I like things to flow from beginning to end, without having to figure out timelines.

There may be other ways to share backstory without resorting to an information dump, but these four are the ones I’m most familiar with. Using them in combination may work better than depending on any one of them to fill readers in on what happened before the real story started.

If you’d like more information about backstory, you might want to take a look at these sites:

http://romanceuniversity.org/2009/05/22/got-backstory-what-do-you-do-with-it/

http://ezinearticles.com/?Writing-Novels—The-Dilemma-of-How-to-Tell-Your-Back-Story&id=152448

http://www.writersdigest.com/article/what-agents-hate/

 

Edit October 28, 2009:  Agent Rachelle Gardner has an outstanding post on backstory on her blog today. Click here to read it.

 

How do you like your backstory—served all at once, or a little at a time? What do you think of flashbacks? Do prologues annoy you?

 

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Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.
Maya Angelou

 

In my previous post, I discussed the concept of voice and gave tips for developing it. However, a writer has more than one voice in a story: the narrator and each character has, or should have, a distinctive voice. Learning to write in a way that gives each character individuality and depth, making each one recognizable to the reader by the way they speak or behave, can make a story come to life. Here are some ideas to help you develop your character’s voice:

1. Listen to the way other people talk. Notice what makes each person sound different—their accent, vocabulary, tone.

2. Tell your story to someone else before you write it down. Know what each character’s role is, and what makes her special.

3. Read what you’ve written out loud. Speak naturally, and use vernacular if appropriate. Make the dialogue sound realistic so your characters will be believable.

4. Read authors who have distinctive voices and analyze what makes each one sound different. If a character lacks depth, sounds flat or boring, see if you can tell what is it that made him appear that way.

5. Write from your heart, and don’t worry about what you should write. Be yourself and your story will sound like you wrote it, not someone else.

6. Avoid using clichés. Those expressions became clichés because people use them all the time; they may get your meaning across, but it will sound like something the reader has heard before.

Alan Rinzler, a respected editor/publisher, has a recent post about voice on his blog, and I recommend taking a look at it (after you read my blog posts and leave friendly comments).

http://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2009/03/22/ask-the-editor-8-tips-for-finding-your-voice/

 

How do you make your characters sound different from each other? Do you try to make your narrative voice “invisible” so the description doesn’t take the reader’s attention away from the story; or do you think the narrator’s voice should be recognizable, too? Does it depend on the POV, type of book, or what?

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I’ve been searching for my writer’s “voice,” which everyone says is critical if you want to be a successful author. Lately it occurred to me that it would be easier to find if I knew exactly what it was. So, here’s my take on voice, along with suggestions on how to develop it.

Voice is the flavoring, the scent, the signature style that makes your writing a reflection of you. Or me. Sounds easy; we all are different, so we all have a voice of our own. However, speaking (or writing) in our own voice doesn’t come naturally. We have a self-editor working overtime trying to make our writing sing, sparkle, shine, etc, etc. We want to be as good as our favorite author, as successful as a best-seller, so we imitate their style, or write the type of story we think will make us rich and famous. We ignore our own special view of life, or scrub away the traces of our uniqueness, to appear more like we think we should be. In doing so, we lose the very thing that makes our writing special. We sacrifice our true voice on the altar of success, hoping for a miracle—hoping to get published.

Voice is more than the style of writing we choose; it also involves our world view, our choice of words, and the way we use them to express ourselves. It is us, on paper. If the reader can’t see something special in our writing, we haven’t projected our personality into it. We could be anybody. Our writing could belong to anybody.

I used to think my voice was scholarly, informative, accurate, logical, precise. And it was, but that’s because I was faking it. I wasn’t using my own voice; it was the one that belonged to the woman I wanted to be. I thought if I sounded intelligent I would be respected, admired, and successful; if I wrote honestly, allowed all the silly, scatterbrained ideas I have to surface in my writing, I would be ridiculed. I would be embarrassed. I would be a failure. And that’s a possibility. But the more I write for myself instead of others, shoving that neurotic self-editor back into the corner of my brain where it belongs, the more fun I have and the more I like what shows up in my Word processor.

Here are a few ways to help find your writing voice:

1. Experiment by spending some time writing whatever comes to mind, without stopping to edit it. Set it aside for a few days, and then analyze it for strengths and weaknesses. After a few sessions of free-writing, you may see a pattern that reveals something unique about you: your interests, your style, your passion.

2. Read a variety of authors, in genres you like and those you don’t. Pick out things they do well, and imitate that quality in a short writing exercise. Pick out a passage that didn’t work well, and try to write it better. Thinking about what works and what doesn’t may give you a new perspective when you are writing your own stories.

3. Be honest. You can sugar-coat what you say, or tone down your passion, but always be true to yourself. Your characters can have different opinions, behave in ways you never would, but your voice should be recognizable in the values, themes, and style you use to write their story. Your personality should shine through the words so that even if you write about something that’s considered cliché, it will sound unique.

 

Have you found your voice? Has it changed over time, or stayed the same? Any tips for those still searching?

 

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I’ve been busy with truck stuff and yard work, so am falling behind in my posts. I’m working on one that I hope will be up within the next day or two concerning a writer’s “voice.” 

I also entered a contest, minutes before the deadline, and became one of more than 280 people hoping to get their story published in a Flash Fiction Anthology. If you are a member of the Editor Unleashed forum, or would like to become a member, please be sure to read my story–as well as everyone else’s–and give an honest ranking. I don’t anticipate winning the grand prize, but I would like to know what people think about my fiction-writing skills. Here’s the link to the forum, where I am known as Carol (just like in real life ), and my story is called Time for a Change: http://editorunleashed.com/forum/index.php

There are lots of good flash fiction stories posted, and reading and ranking them is time-consuming but fun. Join and Vote!

my flash story: Time for a Change

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Branding is usually associated with nonfiction, or a service or product that someone is trying to market. Nowadays it is becoming increasingly important for fiction writers, too. In my previous post, Building a Brand as an Author, I admitted that I’m still not sure what brand I’m hoping to promote, but I’ve learned quite a bit about how to go about it once I decide. For those of you a bit ahead of me in that area, here are a few tips I think might be helpful:

1. Set up a website that reflects the tone of what you want to promote. By that I mean if you write horror, your site should have a darker, scarier theme than if you are a romance writer. If you have published work, post links on your site so readers can get a feel for what you write. If you don’t have published pieces to direct them to, perhaps post a short story or a chapter from your current novel.

2. Start a blog, but only if you feel you have enough time and interest. A website doesn’t require a lot of time once it’s set up, but a blog needs regular, relevant content to keep people coming back. Many writers start blogs but don’t take time to proofread their posts, or don’t care about the quality of what they are putting there since it’s being given away. They apparently save their best work to sell, not realizing that the blog is a reflection of them. If someone gets a poor impression of them from their blog, either from poor quality writing or from thoughtless comments, it may keep the potential reader from buying that author’s work later on.

3. Be professional at all times. That doesn’t mean you should be boring, overly polite, or act superior to your readers; that just means don’t say mean things about other writers, editors, publishers, etc. Show you take your work seriously, whatever the genre; you can write humor and still behave professionally.

4. Have a short pitch ready to give anyone interested in what you write. Don’t memorize it as the circumstances will vary and you want the other person to feel you’re talking to them, not spouting a generic advertisement for your work.

I’m sure there are lots of other ways to help build a brand, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What can aspiring authors do to promote themselves as writers, even if they don’t have a “platform?”

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Branding, as I understand it, means what I am known for as a writer. Do I have an area of expertise or a particular type of content that will make readers look for my stories or books? Will my unique voice or my writing style give me an edge in the world of publishing? Right now the answer to all these questions is “No.” So one of the things I need to work on is building my name recognition and having it associated with the type of writing I want to do; I need to build my brand.

My interests are varied, and numerous. Unfortunately there isn’t a market for all of them and I want to have some of my work published. As a beginner I need to focus on the area of writing that interests me most and is still potentially marketable. In this difficult economic environment, branding is becoming more relevant to fiction than it’s been in the past. When I prove my proficiency in one area, I will have a better chance of moving into other genres.

From what I’ve read, there are several steps involved in building a brand, including:

Identifying My Strengths

Identifying My Unique Voice

Developing My Writing Style

Everything I do as a writer should reflect the brand I choose to promote; it should identify me, as I want to be known.

With all these things floating around in my head, I’ve realized that I don’t have a clear direction for my writing at this time. I’ve noticed a trend with other writers on the forums and blogs I read, and some I already associate with a particular type of writing. I doubt that anyone knows what type of fiction I write; I’m not sure myself.

The first story I wrote for the Editor Unleashed contest is totally inappropriate for my audience, according to my son; and the second attempt he says is “really demented.” I don’t want to be known as “that demented writer;” and I know I need to identify my audience before submitting something. The trouble is I don’t want to write for the market. I want to find my niche and write for readers who like the same things I do. To do that I’ve got to decide what I want to focus on as my brand—what will set me apart from all the other aspiring authors. So, I guess I need to add another step to the branding process: Know Who I’m Writing For.

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Edit: See my related post dated June 8, 2009 for info on building a brand.

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 Edit February 10, 2010:   Agent Chip MacGregor wrote a great post today about branding : http://chipmacgregor.typepad.com/main/2010/02/what-is-a-brand.html

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Have you been building your author’s brand? Do you specialize in one area or genre?

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One of my blogging friends, JM Strother, recently encouraged readers to post a short fiction piece on Fridays and announce it on Twitter to help build a following. He also participates in a Writer’s Adventure Group (WAG), which involves responding to a short writing exercise devised by Nixy Valentine. He’s suggested posting the WAG piece on Fridays, thereby fulfilling the two assignments with one bit of writing. Though I don’t Twit, and haven’t officially joined the WAG, I found this week’s assignment “easy” and decided to give it a go. It’s not fiction, but since Jon never follows rules either, I don’t think he’ll mind.

WAG Assignment #15: Describe a favourite tool in concrete terms, but also show how you (or whomever it belongs to) feel about using it, and how it leaves an individual or particular mark on the end product.

I’m a practical person and like tools that serve multiple purposes. Metal hot dog tongs are particularly useful in the kitchen, not only for rescuing sausages from boiling water, but for grabbing the chili pepper and other condiments from the top shelf of the cupboard. I’ve also used them to pick up socks that fall behind the dryer. Climbing on top of the dryer and reaching behind it with a pair of hot dog tongs is fun as well as good exercise. They are also helpful for rescuing cat toys that get knocked under the china cabinet, and for scraping behind the couch cushions for missing remotes and wallets; not very helpful for picking up loose change.

Nothing’s perfect, but my trusty tongs make life easier. Mine also have sentimental value as they were given to me by one of my good friends about 15 years ago. They’ve lost their shine, but I think of Linda every time I use them so they are here for life.

 

Do you participate in a writing group? What do you do to stimulate your creative writing?

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