On Wednesday’s last 7th on 7th, I reviewed the previous pages I’d revised and winning pg70pit entries I’d deconstructed, showing you what to do, what not to do, and how to fix red flags in your entries. Today I have a checklist for you to improve or strengthen the style and voice for one page (and hopefully beyond).
1. Read the page aloud.
I say this all the time because writers still don’t do it. Voice is how the text sounds, whether to your literal ears or to your brain’s internal ear. The words might not look awkward to you on the page, but they might sound awkward. Print out two copies of your page(s) and have a friend read the text aloud. On the other copy, you highlight parts that sound awkward or where the reader ran out of breath.
Three years ago I wrote “7 Writing Maxims and What to Do with Them” on my blog, in which I take seven writing “rules” people throw around constantly and clear up what they actually mean and when to apply them.
Cliches. Nobody even remembers where they came from anymore because everybody uses them. They are the obvious, hive-mind choice.
Formal writing. When you’re taught how to write a paper or conduct professional correspondence, you’re learning academic or formal writing. Formal writing is a style of writing that is, by nature, anonymous. It is so far removed from personality, that passive voice is almost encouraged. (What’s passive voice? I just used it. “passive voice is encouraged” … by whom? Passive voice removes the active subject from the sentence. Rewritten, that sentence would be “Academics almost encourage…” or “Formal English usage almost encourages passive voice.”)
Your voice is your personality. Every time you choose imagery or vocabulary, you are creating your voice. Every time you decide between using a comma, semicolon, period, or dash, you’re making voice choices. If you’re writing in first person, every word and simile or metaphor your narrator makes establishes that character’s voice.
Good voice is specific and interesting. It’s remarkable. If something is remarkable, it’s not invisible—otherwise it would be unremarkable, like dry text that doesn’t excite or compel the reader at all.
But you can swing to the opposite side of the spectrum, and that’s not good either. Bad writing is certainly “remarkable”—people talk about how bad it is. Now, maybe you think all press is good press. That’s true to a point. I’ve definitely read books and watched movies knowing they’d be bad, reveling in their awfulness.
If you have to err on one side, then go toward gaudy. Garish writing is easier for editors to tone down than lifeless writing is to animate. It’s easier for me to say, “Oh, hey, these metaphors your exposition is wearing clash with each other. Let’s take one away or rewrite it.” or “Maybe this description of your narrator needs a trim.” than for me to play Doctor Frankenstein and use questionable science ghostwriting bring your text to life.
Get an honest—not cruel, but not “too nice to tell you”—critique partner to tell you if your writing style feels too formal or academic or if it is a little too loud and loose.
If your writing is too formal, then read more contemporary fiction and poetry. Allow yourself to play. Write like a madman. Take a creative writing or improv class. Find your cliches and rewrite them to be fresh and personal to your narrator.
Good writing is visible. It’s the writer that should be invisible. Look back at the quotes from writers above. It’s the writer, the artist, who is invisible, not the writing itself.
Readers should be so immersed in your story, they won’t be constantly reminded of who brought them there. It’s your job as a writer to create experiences and emotions in your reader. It’s not your job to impress or annoy. You won’t be standing over their shoulder saying, “Do you like that metaphor there? I’m pretty proud of it. I came up with the idea when I was yadda yadda yadda.” You won’t be chucking semicolons and em-dashes at them saying “DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME.”
But when they stop reading and want to go on their next trip, then they’ll remember you and come back to you for more.
The same goes for pitching your novel—your story is more important than who you are or how or why you wrote it. I’m leading a pitching workshop starting on June 8th. Join at any time! For information on how you can save $50 or even win free tuition, check out this post on StoryCadet.com
Well, currently I’m reading Bossypants by Tina Fey, and in it she gives the rules of improv and describes how these rules have changed her life. The rules are as follows:
Say “YES, AND…”
There are no mistakes, only opportunities
Applying these rules to your writing will help you soldier through a crummy first draft by shutting up your internal editor. The trick is to improv against yourself.
Stop arguing with yourself and start writing. Stop saying you can’t do it, or it’s too hard, or you need to learn more before you can start. Just start. Your improv partner (you) might be crazy, but go with it. In fact, craziness usually translates into energy, so embrace the crazy and hammer out that draft.
Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
Say “Yes, AND…”
Rather than tearing at or criticizing what you’ve already created, build on that and create in a different direction.
If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth”–now we’re getting somewhere.
Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. Maybe you’ve hit a writer’s block. Don’t stop, don’t backtrack, don’t correct. Just blast through that obstacle in the weirdest way imaginable. Keep moving forward, as Walt Disney would say. Don’t stop moving forward until you’ve typed “The End;” then go back and start revising.
This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” … In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.
Have enough confidence in yourself that if you come to an obstacle, you’ll be able to get through it. If you need to, take inspiration from fictional characters. It’s their job to overcome obstacles.
There are no mistakes, only opportunities
If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.
If your improv partner (you) screws up a scene for you, just go with it. If your characters don’t cooperate with your plot, change your story. In fiction, you might be a writer who outlines or meticulously plots beforehand, but between Chapter One and The End, your characters are the monarchy. You might be an omnipotent god-with-a-keyboard, but your characters still need free will. Forcing your characters to abide by your plan turns them into objects, not characters.
In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.
Look, as an editor, I’m not going to tell you that everything you write is going to be good enough for publication. But it is good enough for you to spend time writing it. Every thing you write is one step towards becoming a better author, even if those pages live in a drawer or only twelve people read your book and ten leave horrible reviews. You are enough, whether you are published or not. Even if you count a scene or an entire manuscript as a failure, you are not a failure. You accomplished something. You wrote something no one else could.
Everyone falls and everyone fails. The difference between an unpublished writer and a published one is grit—perseverance and resilience despite mistakes.
When you think you’ve messed up, work with it. When you’re knocked down, get back up again. I’m rooting for you.
This video is a great illustration of perseverance:
‘Tis the season for pitching contests! Do your pitch, query letter, and first pages have what it takes to hook a reader or agent? Get an insider look at what it takes to win Pitch to Publication, which opens THIS WEEKEND: March 5!Lara, Elizabeth, and Kyra are participating this year, which means 20% of the contest picks will get to work with MS Editors! Click our names above to see our manuscript wish lists, AKA the genres we are accepting this year.
Pitch to Publication (#p2p16) opens up to submissions on March 5! There’s still time to enter, and I know some of you planning on entering might be worried about your pitches. Hopefully this will help you hook editors (or agents)!
I picked two writers last year. The narrowing-down process was brutal, one I tweeted about a couple times.
I started with 98 queries (two of the 100 were repeat submissions), and eliminated about 2/3rds on the first pass, leaving me with 33 maybes and probablys, which is very high compared to other editors’ stats. Then I narrowed those down…