Category Archives: On Writing

On Writing – Finding One’s Voice

When reading up on writing tips, I found a few articles on how to develop a good character voice. For me, that never felt like my main challenge. Acting classes were an integral part of my personal development (I started at 5 years old and had them for 10 years), so my way into a story is always through the uniqueness of its main character. They come to me with a voice, a persona and a purpose, and the challenge is to do them justice when I transition them from my head to paper. The few ideas that formed as a setting are waiting for their character to show up so I can write them.

I found fewer articles about developing a writer’s voice, which is what I perceive as my personal challenge for a long term career.

A writer’s voice is a writer’s unique style that is recognizable from one work to another. It’s something loyal readers can expect from every book. It shouldn’t overshadow the character’s voice, yet it should be there. For several writers, it’s heavily tied to the genre/family of genres they are known for, though it’s not the only defining element.

Huh…

Lucky those who know which genre they like and can develop an expertise in that. I can’t. My written projects include a bit of everything, so does my bookshelf and my notebook of future projects. Most of my stories contain bits of everything in and of themselves. I sometimes write the story first and figure out the closest genre after a couple of edits –sue me!

So what’s my writer’s voice, then?

I didn’t want to force it, but I wanted to know what it was because I’m a nerd when it comes to introspection and understanding how who I am is reflected in my art.

Also, that could come in handy to give reference points to agents when they ask my writing is similar to whose.

Here’s how I’ve uncovered my voice.

Write and Analyze

The first step is to generate a good amount of work to analyze. Novels, short stories, prompt-inspired or not; what matters is to write. Then, when I edited stories, I paid attention to trends, patterns and differentiating elements.

Drabble Day challenges were especially useful for this. The stories were short so it was easy to analyze them and spot patterns. Since other writers also participated, I could analyze how we had each tackled the theme. As I discerned elements of their voice, I also discerned some of mine.

List Common Grounds

As I analyzed, patterns emerged so I built up a list of them:

  • Character-driven
  • Elements of science-fiction and/or fantasy. I don’t go for a hundred percent realism, but I can come fairly close.
  • Strong female characters
  • I’m funnier than I thought.
  • Recurring themes: stories about different forms of supernatural foresight, characters uncomfortable in their own skin/with their own powers, feminism, identity crisis…

Of course, once I found this my brain came up with a few stories that didn’t touch these common grounds. *sigh* These were still good trends to investigate further.

Read and Analyze

The list helped me stir my reading beyond entertainment or research of the genres I write. I started researching the potential elements of my voice and picked up books that fit one of the elements, maybe two. Books that aren’t quite in my usual top choices, but are adjacent to what I like writing myself.

Whether I liked the book or not, I learned something about myself and which parts of me shine through my writing. It also helped me learn the weaknesses of the way I approach a story (like often forgetting setting descriptions) and find ways to tackle them that work with my voice (melding setting to actions).

Compile

As I read, I tweaked the list and precised it. Some aspects are things I aspire to do right because I found that they mattered to me, to the type of voice I want to have:

  • Wholesome World and Characters a la Kim Harrison: The Hollows series features a great cast of unique characters that each seem to have a life outside of Rachel’s (the MC). The world is well crafted down to key expressions that are unique to her setting. Some of it, like the killer tomato, is quirky and yet works in her serious setting.
  • Sassy quirky fun a la Janet Evanovich: The offbeat characters of the Stephanie Plum series resonate with me. Even in the direst circumstances, they’re hilarious. And the direst circumstances are a little crazy too.

And that’s as far as I got. *laughs* I wish I could tell you that I have all the aspects of my voice and all the pitfalls figured out, but it’ll take me a bit more time and research to get there (if I ever get there.) Also, my voice evolves as I go through the process and refines what really matters to me, and how I want readers to relate to me.

What about you? What elements are defining the way you write?

And if you’ve read some of my stuff, what has jumped out at you as things I should consider as my voice?

Advertisements

Lessons From the NaNoWriMo Trenches

We have now entered the last week of November and, like every other year, I’m amazed by the amount of work fellow NaNos and I have produced, and the intoxicating community of writers surrounding this event. From the daily support of fellow WriMos to the pep talks from professionals, this is an amazing experience. I’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the non-profit coordinating this crazy venture (simply named National Novel Writing Month, formerly known as The Office of Letters and Light) and the Municipal Liaisons (volunteers who organize local writing events throughout November)  for their time and dedication.

I’ve seen a few negatives reactions about NaNo around the web, people complaining about the number of encouragement/bragging on social media or arguing that writing 50k in a month will only produce drivel. Sure, we get a little word count obsessed and some people only write random stuff for the fun of it and don’t care about the outcome, but that’s not true for everyone.

Fair enough, I concede on both arguments anyway.

However –you knew that one was coming, didn’t you?– by dismissing the whole event, detractors are missing out on some valuable writing lessons learned in the blazing trenches of NaNoWriMo. Because of the incentive to produce and the fast pace of the challenge, we learn a lot about ourselves and reflexes that can make us better writers. So, without further ado, I’ll present my top three lessons learned during NaNo, how to capitalize on them and why they work in favor of a first draft.

I’m stuck! – Kill Someone!

On the course of the month, it’ll happen quite often that someone’s shoulder will slump before he/she says: “I’m stuck.” Without missing a beat, someone else will recommend, “Kill someone!” or, alternatively, “Take their clothes off!”

There is a reason why this is one of the top advices heard during NaNo: drama keeps the story moving forward. When we find ourselves unable to write a scene, there’s likely a lack of conflict. If it is supposed to be a high-octane scene and yet the words don’t flow, the stakes aren’t high enough.

The “kill someone” advice causes us to ask ourselves what would be a huge wrench that derails our plot and gets us excited to write the next couple of chapters. That wrench needs to be in our story, not just for NaNo’s sake, but for the reader’s sake too.

Questioning the amount of tension when we get stuck is a reflex worth developing to avoid trudging through a bad scene, exhaust ourselves and hit writer’s block. It forces us to clarify the stakes and motivations which solidifies the plot. I’ve found that editing is much easier if the draft nails the core of the drama, even if it’s clunky.

So when you hit a wall, ask yourself: What are the stakes? Where is the drama? How can I crank them up? If this is a transition scene, how can I build in nods at the stakes and drama to make it interesting?

Slow Writing = Slow Reading

After a few days of NaNoWriMo, we ramp up to a cruising speed and such a routine makes dips in productivity unmistakeable. Every time writing is like pulling teeth, I ask myself if I’m tired, sick of writing in general or if the scene is especially tricky; these are valid productivity hindrances. If the answer to these questions is “no” yet the last thousand words took me twice the usual time to write, I make a note for myself and keep writing.

These notes come into play when I start editing: my first pass of edits on a NaNo novel is to read it while paying special attention to the marked section and questioning their relevance. Some of them are good and were just written on an “off day”, but most of them need some serious TLC or an axe in the forehead. The marked scenes fall flat, either because they lack drama (see previous point) or because, when I look hard enough, they’re useless.

I wouldn’t notice as many slowdowns without the imperative to produce.

[Insert Cool Science Thingy]

Research may very well be the number one source of procrastination for writers, and WriMos simply can’t afford to spend a couple of days researching the mating rituals of squids in captivity to write one 500-word scene.

In my experience, doing too much research while writing a draft caused me to get hung up on the details and overshadow the conflict with complex information that, in the end, isn’t necessary. I can fix it in editing, but I’d much rather be not spend energy on writing it in the first place.

Several WriMos use the [Insert blood pattern description that indicate a slashed throat] method to isolate the research that needs to be done for the scene. This enables us to pin point what we need for the plot and keep writing. We’ll do targeted research and fill in the blanks during the edits.

Yes, sometimes the research feeds the plot, so it may be needed, but the pace of NaNo forces us to question the relevance of stopping for that. Most of the time, we’ll keep writing.

It’s important to not get bugged down in the first draft and this technique can also be used to [add transition] and skip ahead to the next plot point. Once the core of the story is out, we’re more informed to make these transitions interesting during editing. 😉

Closing Words

NaNoWrimo makes us sit down and write a good amount every day, whether we feel like it or not. That’s already a good habit for a writer. The pace of productivity can also strengthen our first draft process, if we care to use the challenge to our advantage. Fellow WriMos are there for support and may become trusted critique partners for the rest of the year. The pace also helps us get to know ourselves as writers: how much outlining makes us more productive? Which time of day works best to churn out words? Coffee, tea or jelly bellies?

I encourage every aspiring writers to get through NaNoWriMo. You’ll grow, even if you only do it once.

Fellow WriMos, what is your top lesson learned from NaNo?


How I Write – Evolving Outline

We’re now a bit past the middle of this crazy month of November. A lot has changed in the course of eighteen days. For one, I went from zero words on a story to over 50k, passing the midway mark to my 100k objective on November 14th (a day ahead of schedule, yay!) I thought it would be a good time to give you a bit more insight into the way I write and tackle a challenge like writing a complete first draft of a novel in a month.

Do you remember the post-its outline I showed you in October? Here’s a refresh in case you need it.

Seventeen chapters planned. Order, content and number may change.

Seventeen chapters planned October 30th. (click to magnify)

In the original post, I mentioned that one of the reasons why I like using post-its is because they give me great flexibility. As I write the story and uncover new things about the characters, I take post-its out, throw them away, replace them, switch the order; whatever is needed for my outline to reflect the new needs of the story. That’s why the original outline doesn’t have chapter numbers on the post-its. I want to feel like it’s okay to go off road and let the story wander away from the initial plan –because it is okay, needed, even. Most of the time, the plot still heads in the same general direction, and when it doesn’t, that’s alright, too.

Sometimes, I’ll adjust the post-its before I write the related chapter. Sometimes, I’ll write the chapter once, discover something new, throw it out and rewrite it right away, strong with my new understanding of what the characters and/or story needs. In this NaNo, I wrote chapter 4 twice, and chapters 5 to 7 three times. I just kept rolling with the punches and revising the outline until my story had a solid enough plot to keep me writing through the end. The chapters still have big issues –it’s important not to obsess over perfection for the first draft—but the intrigue isn’t going face first into a wall anymore.

Some writers are fine with ignoring broken chapters and skipping ahead. They’ll fix them in revisions. Personally, I get demotivated if the continuity is broken, so I need to figure at least that much out in the first draft. The rest, I’ll fix in revisions. 😉

This is what my outline looks like now:

Now twenty-one chapters and moving toward the middle of the first draft. May still change before the end.

Now twenty-one chapters and moving toward the middle of the first draft. May still change before the end. (click to magnify)

I’ve added chapter numbers on the chapters that are written, which serves as an additional burn-down chart of my progress. I’m about done with chapter 9 and will number it with great joy sometime today.


Creativity Tip – Speculation

The dreaded second week of NaNoWriMo is here and several of the participating writers are having trouble keeping up the pace. It’s normal. We were all excited the first week. We may have pushed ourselves a little bit more than we should have because of that excitement. By now, we’ve caught our feet in a couple of plot challenges and one of them was bound to trip us over at some point.

Like some of my other Creativity Tips (especially the one about brainstorming alone and the value of a tarot deck), this post can help you get over your hurdle and keep the word count going.

First piece of advice today: Don’t get frustrated with your NaNo. Sometimes, it’ll refuse to come out, especially as the month goes on. And yes, that’s annoying. Unfortunately, our brain works in such a way that when we’re focusing on the negative, we go down a solution-less spiral. When I feel the first tendrils of desire to curse at my novel, I CTRL+S and close it.

You see, despite what the fast pace of NaNoWriMo drills us to do, taking a break is sometimes the best thing we can do for our word count. Even a short break to brew some tea or walk around the block can be helpful, and the fear of falling behind shouldn’t stop you from taking a deep breath. Sometimes, a short break isn’t enough to replenish the creativity, though, and this where my tip comes in.

Do a session of stream-of-consciousness speculation.

There are several ways to get this started: sources of writing prompts are legion and some come attached to official NaNoWriMo word sprints. However, I’ve found that following someone else’s prompt or schedule feels like too much of a constraint when I’m struggling to write. Instead, I let my mind wonder until I find something intriguing, something that makes me ask myself several questions.

Yesterday, as it turned out, I thought about how many characters I had had to name for my NaNo and how refreshing it would be to write a story about That Guy. Who is That Guy? What does he do? How is he “that guy”?

I opened a new document and started typing, following That Guy where ever he may lead me. Speculation, speculation. 1,200 words later, I’m still not sure whether my narrator is a man or woman, or what That Guy does. The story looks like a romantic comedy. The narrator had a mental breakdown when That Guy revealed that his name was Greg. The narrator finds it harder to speculate about Greg than about That Guy.

Your random story doesn’t need to be long, but you’ll find that if you pick an idea that sparks a lot of questions —that pushes you to speculate— the words will come by themselves. Some parts of the story will be stream-of-consciousness moments, others may be more structured fiction.

It’s fine. Unbridled creativity shouldn’t be judged. Give your brain free reign to follow any random thread. It’s refreshing after working hard to but down words within the constraints of a specific project.

Do that for a day. Don’t look at your main project at all. Just revenge-write something else. Don’t feel compelled to finish the story of random speculations; it’s a one night stand, no strings attached. You got your steady novel for the serious stuff.

In fact, I think I would recommend that you don’t try to push that story too far at all or else you’ll be back in the too-many-plot-hurdles funk, associate that feeling to both projects and be stifled all over again.

Get yourself high on creativity, then head back to your main project the next day.

When you return, read the last couple of paragraphs you wrote. No judging! You just want to get yourself back in the project. You’ll find that if you really committed to the random speculation story the day before, you’ll have a new outlook on your main project. In my case, this one day break is enough to overcome the hurdle —which suddenly doesn’t seem so bad— and be productive again.

If you’re stuck, give this a try. You’re not losing a day because the speculation you wrote counts towards your 50k, and chances are you’ll be a lot more productive after this. You may even be surprised by the result (I may post an excerpt from the story about That Guy to support this point.) 😉

Happy second week!


NaNoWriMo Prep – Step 4 – Outline

The final step of my NaNoWriMo prep is to organize all of the ideas I’ve brainstormed for my project. Usually, by the time I’m done with the brainstorm, I already perceive a core line/story I want to follow. I sit down with –you’ve guessed it– The Notebook and start building the linear structure of the story, plucking ideas from the brainstorm as I go.

Though I try to keep the summary of each chapter as short as possible, this simple, high level activity enables me to see some of the key aspects that need to be built in early for later plot points to work well. I make note of them as I go. It’s not elegant, but it bears all the main markers I need for the plot.

This outline also forces me to confront the dreaded middle and make sure I have enough interesting conflicts and major plot points so it doesn’t kill my NaNo. A boring middle part can kill motivation and productivity in a heartbeat.

This story is starting to look neat and orderly.

This story is starting to look neat and orderly.

The first draft of the outline could be the starting point for my NaNo, but I prefer to go one step further and transfer it all on post-its. I do this for several reasons:

  • By using one post-it per chapter, I severely limit the amount of information I can keep. It forces me to get rid of some of the details and only keep the essential.
  • The limited details give me a lot of room to discover the story as I write and fill in the blanks in a variety of ways. That keeps me from feeling like writing scenes is just checking items off a list.
  • Post-its are easy to move around. While I prefer to know where I’m going, I give myself the right to reorganize as I go, depending on how I fill the blanks.
  • Each post-it doesn’t have much importance. It’s not a lot of work or brilliantly written content. This makes it much easier for me to throw away/replace post-its as I go. Much like the ability to reorder, this is a key feature to help me iterate on the initial plan.
  • The plan is right there on the wall. I don’t need to access a special view in my text editor (like the corkboard in Scrivener) and I can read the whole thing in about a minute. This is good for quick check-ups mid-writing sessions.

In the end, after all the lists, steps and iterations, my NaNo novel looks like this:

Seventeen chapters planned. Order, content and number may change.

Seventeen chapters planned. Order, content and number may change.

I put this up on the wall next to my computer last night. Now I’m ready to go!

What does your final plan look like? How detailed do you feel the need to be? Do you feel ready for NaNo?

There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach writing as everyone’s brain works differently. I’ve only shared my way to give you some insight (and maybe inspiration). It took me a few novels to figure out that this was the process that worked best for me.

I’ll see you again soon with updates from the NaNo trenches. 😉


%d bloggers like this: