Author, Voice, Writing

Author, author, speak to me!

I cried last night … twice. Reading the final chapters of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, did me in. The story was just that real to me. Throughout the book I experienced love and heartbreak, beauty and horror, fear and exultation because Hosseini is an excellent writer. And yet, not everyone agrees with me.

Engrossed reader.Have you ever experienced the shock of looking at the reviews of a book you loved and seeing that some readers hated it? Although more than 350,000 readers rated Hosseini’s book four or five stars at Goodreads, a shocking number gave it only one. Considering that the background of this novel is war-torn Afghanistan, I suppose some of those low ratings could be politically motivated. But what about the others?

I’ve loved all three of Hosseini’s novels. That’s not because I love reading stories set in Afghanistan or stories about the effects of war on people’s lives. So why is he one of my favorite authors? Why is Anne Tyler? Or Stephen King? Or Maeve Binchy?

Voice. It’s the author’s voice.

Often I open a novel that either a professional reviewer or a friend has assured me I’ll love, and I simply can’t read it. It’s not the subject, not the setting, not the quality of the writing that fails to excite me—it’s the author’s voice. That voice is not one I’m attuned to, which is neither my fault nor the author’s. And certainly, that alone is no cause for me to say it’s a terrible book.

The voices of the writers I prefer don’t all sound the same. I study them, copying whole pages by hand trying to understand what makes them sing for me. Word choice, syntax, tone, rhythm, etc. are all elements of writing style, but I think writers can have similar styles and yet the voice is different. There’s something more that defines voice. It’s an element lying below all the rest. Something that breathes life into the words. Something, I think, that can’t be learned.

Naturally, I wonder about my own writer’s voice. It’s still trying to struggle out of its chrysalis. I hope it’s on its way to being pure and honest and alive. Because then, someday, readers will count my voice among their favorites.

Linda

Blog Stuff, Opinion, Real Life, Writing

The privilege of blogging

Three years ago, I never would have dreamed that I would publish 500 blog posts, but as of today, I have. Readers come and go. I doubt anyone, but me, has read all of those posts. If you have, you deserve a reward. (For being subjected to my attempts at humor and poetry, you deserve diamonds and gold.)

This blog dresses in comfy clothes and bare feet, and often I worry that it reveals too much, but several of you have told me you appreciate the honesty. I’ve never been able to predict which of my posts will resonate and inspire many of you to respond, but I’m thrilled when that happens.

To me, blogging is an invitation to discuss. I’ve never understood bloggers who don’t reply to comments. (Sorry, if I just stepped on your toes.) I feel that anyone who takes the time to read my blog and comment, deserves a moment of my time in response.

As a blogger, I could voice my beliefs on aliens (earthly or otherwise); the paranormal; Congress; Big Business; gods, devils, and angels; the death penalty; or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups vs. Junior Mints. I have that freedom. Yet I choose to leave those worthy topics to other bloggers. (Though you never know what I might say in comments.)

About three times a week, I type out 300-400 words to post here. I rarely choose a trending topic. I forget to observe holidays. I just write what’s on my mind, which is usually something connected to writing fiction.

I’ve also been known to write about books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, food I like, games I play, places I’ve visited, crazy thoughts I have … whatever. Sometimes you catch me with the glass half empty, but usually it’s full, and occasionally it runneth over.

No matter what I blog about, I know it’s a privilege to have a voice. And it’s a delight to have you lend an ear to it—or an eye, I guess. Thank you. Stick around for the next 500. By then, I should have this blogging thing down pat.

Characters, Craft, Fiction, Novel, Voice, Writing

This is the scary part

Yesterday, I forced myself to get serious about writing my next novel. (Yes, I was sick. Blame it on the caffeine in the chai I drank.) I’ve been making the preparations for this novel for months, even writing out several scenes. But this time, actually getting down that first chapter is tougher.

I’m struggling with voice, which is part of the problem. I know I haven’t locked into it yet for this main character, so my inner editor lurks in the background whispering, You’re going to have to rewrite all this, you know. Since I’m not a “shitty first draft” person, it’s difficult to ignore that voice and push myself to write on.

This character is a challenge in two ways. I know who she is as an adult because she was a second-tier character in my last novel, but this one starts with her at age twelve, so she hasn’t developed that adult personality yet. This maturing of a character is not something I’ve tried before. Also, this is the first time I’ve attempted to write a novel in first person.

Structure is another challenge. This novel will consist of three parts, portraying three different stages of her life. I will bracket each section with present tense narrative, while writing the majority of the book in past tense. Numerous times already, I’ve caught myself writing in present what should be in past tense. That’s weird because I normally write in past tense, though in third person, so maybe it’s the first person that’s throwing me off.

I deliberately chose these challenges to hone my craft, but this unfamiliar territory makes me uneasy. I’m getting quivers of fear I can’t pull it off this time, but I keep putting one word in front of the other. What else can I do?

Your turn: What are the writing challenges you’ve faced recently?

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Feedback, Fiction, Novel, Query, Rejection, Writing

Really? You have nothing to say?

Yeah, so I’ve been querying my novel. In March, my effort was rewarded with a request for a partial, which I sent immediately. This request was from an agent, with thirty years experience, who “takes great pleasure in finding new authors” and from her entry on QueryTracker, it appeared she had about a .05% request rate. Needless to say, I was excited to have her request the first three chapters. Skip ahead three months—well, more like turtle walk through three long months waiting. Finally, a couple days ago, the SASE arrived and within I found … a photocopied to-whom-it-may-concern form rejection letter. That’s it? Geez!

I’ve learned to take query rejections in stride, but a rejection on a partial is a different animal. The less than helpful—demeaning, actually—nature of this rejection on a partial got to me. I was left to wonder if the agent even bothered to read my pages, or if she just ordered an assistant to clear out some of the slush pile by firing off form rejects. Then again, if the agent did read my pages, what does it mean that she didn’t take a minute to offer even one teeny bit of personalization to her rejection—some indication of the real reason she was passing? I was frustrated. So, my subconscious (Muse) dialogued with me in dream.

It was night, but I was standing outside at a long row of tables loaded with objects people were buying, like at a yard sale. I heard someone singing and looked to the end of the row where I saw a little girl sitting on the ground. None of the other customers appeared to be aware of her. She faced away from me. I walked closer and listened to her sing for a minute, then stepped around where I could see her face. She was crying. When she realized I was there, she stopped singing and said, “I’m sorry.” Then she stood and started to walk away. I said, “Wait, don’t stop! Your voice is beautiful.” Still crying, she turned and ran back to hug me. She said, “Thank you, but if my voice is beautiful, why doesn’t anyone listen to me?” I had no answer.

Pretty straightforward, right? I am both the little girl and the woman who encourages her. The girl represents my novel. But which is correct in their assessment of the girl’s voice? Is it truly good, as the woman says, or am I ignoring the obvious reason no one is listening? This is how form rejections mess with my mind. I accept their necessity in query response—in fact, I welcome them over no response means no—but I think they should be outlawed on partials and fulls.

Anyhoo … pressing on. My son is still here, so I’m not fully back, but things have quieted a little so I’ll be trying to catch up on reading your blog posts in the next couple days.

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Advice, Characters, Dialogue, Fiction, Narrative, Tips, Voice, Writing

Whose voice is that?

Yesterday, a friend posted a link on Twitter to an article by Kurt Vonnegut (a fellow native of Indianapolis) titled “How to Write With Style” and in it he gave seven tips to improve your writing. The one that stuck out the most to me was #5 Sound like yourself. He says about writing voice:

The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Sometimes that voice creeps into my writing—when I’m trying too hard, when I’m pushing to write this scene right now, no matter what.

Vonnegut says:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.

A writer I admire, Frank McCourt, died this past Sunday, and I’ve spent some time this week listening to interviews with him as well as re-reading bits of Angela’s Ashes. He wrote exactly as he spoke. Of course, he wrote memoir, though he was working on a novel, last I heard. I hope it was finished; I’d love to see how he wrote fiction.

To me, it seems easy to write my blog posts in my own voice … though I don’t write it exactly the way I speak. I’m appalled at the grammatical errors I hear come out of my mouth. But I do write the way I think.

[Hmmm … is it normal to speak differently than you think? Tell me you do the same! Please.]

Meryl Streep is one of the actors I admire. She’s praised for her command of the accents she uses for the characters she plays. I have to be a Meryl when I write dialogue. I have to speak for many people, and each has to sound like themselves, but ultimately, it’s my interpretation of their voices. It’s me acting a part.

But it’s my narrative I have to guard. I have to banish that “cultivated Englishman” and let my own “person from Indianapolis” shine through.

How are you doing with voice?