In this exploration on masterful voice, we’ve been looking at the role microtension plays. Microtension is all about adding tension at the micro level: the level of phrasing and word choice and sentences. It is all about creating tension in your reader by continually surprising him on a subtle level.
Compare this to the macro level of tension created by plot developments and twists, those “big picture” items in your novel.
Yes, you do need a great plot and wonderful characters. But if you leave out the microtension, you risk deflating your terrific story. Kind of like a tiny leak in a hot air balloon. Eventually all that air seeping out will cause the balloon to crash to earth. Microtension keeps every scene afloat.
These last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at passages from Colum McCann’s award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, a favorite book of mine, mostly because of the masterful voice of all his many, diverse characters.
I notice in a lot of novels I critique and edit a lack of masterful voice. Every character sounds the same. Meaning, they all sound like the author’s writing style, which is often boring. I get that beginning fiction writers are often just trying to nail the basics of crafting a scene and balancing narrative, action, and dialogue.
But I also see this a lot with multipublished authors. While a strong “character voice” isn’t always evident in many best sellers across many genres, without that strong “voice,” it is harder to find success and devoted readers. A writer has to work extra hard, lacking great characters with unique and interesting voices, to pull off a great novel.
And let’s face it, boring is boring. Do you ever get the feeling, when reading book #7 from best-selling “Author X” that the author is rushing, perhaps bored herself with her story, and isn’t taking the time to write masterfully? That feeling, that the author doesn’t care enough to write the very best book possible, makes me feel cheated. Not that I paid a million dollars for her book. But I am expected to spend maybe ten of my very precious hours reading said book. What’s that worth? As the American Express commercial says: “Priceless.”
We shouldn’t gyp our readers by writing boring scenes.
Let’s take a look at a brief passage from Let the Great World Spin.
Hooking was born in me. That’s no exaggeration. I never wanted no square job. I lived right across from the stroll on Prospect Avenue and East Thirty-first. From my bedroom window I could see the girls work. I was eight. They wore red high heels and hair combed high.
The daddies went by on their way to the Turkish hotel. They caught dates for their girls. They wore hats big enough to dance in.
Every pimp movie you’ve ever seen has them pulling up in a Cadillac. It’s true. Daddies drive Kitties. They like whitewall tires. The fuzzy dice don’t happen so often, though.
I put on my first lipstick when I was nine. Shiny in the mirror. My mother’s blue boots were too big for me at eleven. I could’ve hid down inside them and popped my head out.
When I was thirteen I already had my hands on the hip of a man in a raspberry suit. He had a waist like a lady’s, but he hit me hard. His name was Fine. He loved me so much, he didn’t put me on the stroll, he said he was grooming me.
Tillie’s voice is authentic but not stereotyped, (which is another trap beginning writers fall into). In this opening about Tillie, after learning of her rap sheet, we get a quick understanding of her character and voice. Yes, it’s backstory, but it isn’t boring. The unexpected phrases make this simple narrative zing: the hats big enough to dance in, the image of her hiding in a boot and popping her head out. There are bits of color, adjectives that shake up an otherwise predictable type of description: the red high heels, the raspberry suit, her mother’s blue boots.
Throw Your Pages into the Air
One thing Donald Maass suggested at the weeklong Breakout Novel Intensive that I attended years back was for us to throw the pages of our manuscript into the air, pick up one page off the floor, and infuse it with microtension. Then pick up another random page and do the same. Repeat.
Why is this a great thing to do? Because when we work on our drafts, starting at page 1, we get mired in the story development, and we also tend to “front-end” a lot of the work. Meaning, we go over those opening scenes and hone them to perfection. But what about page 259? Or page 361? If we always start at the beginning, those later pages don’t get the attention they need.
Ever since I heard that advice, I’ve adopted it into my writing life. I always edit scenes out of order. I pick random pages to work on, focusing on the choice of words and phrases, infusing that one page with microtension.
Doing that isn’t a substitution for tackling the big-picture issues of a novel. You have to first ensure your structure is solid and all your scenes are the right ones in the right places.
But that’s where a lot of writers quit. They don’t go that extra mile to tackle the microtension.
I shared a passage from my novel Intended for Harm in an earlier post, in which I stated that McCann’s novel was the inspiration for my stream of consciousness style as well as for crafting the voices of my characters. What inspired me so much was the way his characters’ thoughts spilled over the pages so masterfully. I don’t dare claim to be half as masterful as McCann, but take a look at some of these passages to see how I infused those small bits of microtension in order to take the writing out of the realm of boring and predictable.
At the workshop, Maass asked for samples to share in our microtension workshop. I was awed and humbled when he read my passage and expressed what looked like astonishment. He reread it, then looked at me and said, “You do know how terrific this passage is?” I gulped and nodded meekly. Yes, it was a moment.
Here is the brief passage I submitted. In this scene, Simon, who is about twelve (I can’t recall at this point), hates his brother Joey, who is about five. His father and stepmother love Joey and favor him over the other boys, and Simon is sick of it.
Joey startled him out of his sour thoughts by a touch on the shoulder.
“Okay, so what am I sp’osed to see?” Joey asked, his voice now strangely calm. Simon looked in Joey’s eyes. His brother, now so naïve and trusting and gullible, who doesn’t see it coming. The sparkle in Joey’s eyes, with the sun practically smiling down upon him, strengthened Simon’s nerve. Well, that cute little face is about to get ugly. Serves him right. Serves them all right. He let the hurt and anger pump his resolve, until it felt about to burst through his chest.
Without allowing another second to stand between Simon and his purpose, he grabbed Joey by the shoulders, gripped his shirt tightly in both hands, swiveled him around, and flung him off the roof, the world screaming at him but Joey silent, not making a sound, or a cry of surprise, almost as if he knew it was coming and had nothing at all to say about it—
Simon froze at the edge of the roof, shaking so hard he stumbled back, sought purchase for his feet, fell back onto the shingles as a smack sailed up to him from below, and he raked his trembling fingers through his hair, the impact of the moment catching up to him in real time, the reality of his action overlying the many times he’d practiced it in his head, his mind reeling, dizzy, feelings of exuberance clashing with the terror of what he had done, staring at his hands and replaying their graceful movement, their strength, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief coupled with dread.
There’s a lot going on in this moment, as the incident rightly sends Simon’s thoughts careening. I mentioned how incongruities create microtension, and I packed this passage full of them. The world is screaming at Simon, but Joey is silent as he’s thrown off the roof. We would expect a child to scream, yet he doesn’t and instead it is the world screaming at Simon, which is also curious because it’s a figurative phrase that should give the reader pause.
You see the conflicting feelings, with Simon experiencing exuberance and terror together. The phase “graceful movement” is another incongruous expression, for it doesn’t feel “right” for Simon to consider what he did a “graceful” movement. And there’s the relief (he’s finally done it, gotten rid of his pesky brother) coupled with dread.
This is heavy inner conflict, “the human heart in conflict with itself,” that Faulkner spoke about. Simon couldn’t be more internally conflicted, could he?
Here’s one last passage. Try to spot the bits of microtension I added in: those unexpected bits that make the moment stand out.
In this scene, Jake accidentally slices his leg open with a Skilsaw. Young Joey, who has already shown signs of miraculous power, touches Dad’s leg and is about to close the wound.
“Daddy,” Joey said, lowering down next to him.
Jake wanted to push him away, out of sight and away from the trajectory of the blood, knowing what a horror this was to witness, a shock, something terrifying to his five-year-old son. But upon closer inspection, Jake noticed between waves of anguish Joey’s beatific smile and all he could think was, why is he smiling? Maybe Jake looked funny, lying there, covered in blood. Maybe Joey just didn’t understand the severity of the injury, or thought Jake was playing, that the blood was red paint.
“Joey . . . move back, Daddy’s hurt.”
Joey squatted close, reached out a hand to Jake’s leg.
“No,” Jake said. “Don’t—”
Jake felt pressure along the gash, then a thousand needles biting into flesh, skyrocketing the pain. Jake squeezed his eyes, frantic, confused.
Did his son even hear him? Maybe the words were coming out garbled. He tried to move, inch along the grass.
“Wait,” Joey commanded. Jake froze at the authoritative sound of his son’s voice.
“Almost done,” he added.
Done? Done? Surely Jake was hallucinating. His child leaning over him, the sun wheeling above in the sky, birds winging around the tree, cackling, laughing. His lifeblood rushing out of him in a glorious stream to soak into the earth, as his spirit deflated, the ambulance too late, not a siren riding on the suffocating summer air, only heat waves rippling, rippling along with the pain, which even now began to ebb with the tide of his life, fading, dissipating, easing, his last moments alive, here in his backyard.
Suddenly, Jake inhaled a deep breath, pulled it with force deep into his lungs, felt them inflate with life, with renewal. He managed to turn his head; time hurrying to catch up to present speed, seconds no longer hours. Jake now knew he was surely hallucinating. Joey’s hands drenched in blood, red gloves up to his wrists, and his son’s beatific smile, shining down upon him in such innocence and incongruence. Was Joey addled? Jake couldn’t reconcile that smile with this event, the two elements clashing, jarring Jake’s heart, saddening him beyond measure.
The inner conflict is front and center here. Jake can’t reconcile Joey’s actions and demeanor with the reality of the injury. Jake thinks he is dying, and his son is acting crazy. Joey’s actions in themselves create microtension because they are unexpected and bewildering.
The stream of consciousness style of writing is meant to create microtension for its unexpected structure. Jake is struggling with a myriad of feelings, physical and emotional, and as with the previous passage, the pacing is ramped up to add to the tension, which is useful when showing high-action moments in a story. Some key word choices, such as glorious and red gloves, add more spark.
I hope these posts on masterful voice and microtension have given you inspiration and some ideas of how you might infuse every page in your novel with conflict and tension. Try it! See if it doesn’t get you a few steps closer to being a masterful writer.
Since we’ve been exploring masterful writing over these last few months (and will continue to do so), I want to bring you back to the basics of novel structure. Why? Because all the masterful writing in the world won’t go very far if you don’t nail structure.
As you probably know (if you’ve been following my blog awhile), I write a lot about structure. And that’s because it’s crucial if you want to write a solid story. It’s as simple as that.
Every writing coach with a lick of sense is going to tell you essentially the same things I do. Maybe they use different terminology or describe concept or premise differently. Those are moot points.
What matters is that you understand how important structure is. And where to start.
That’s why I like using the building construction metaphor. You have to have a sturdy foundation for your building that meets established and proven building codes. A novel works on the same principles.
With novels, you need to master those four key pillars of novel construction first before you move on to all the other elements of your story.
To review those four key pillars, I’m reprinting part of a post I ran a few years ago when we first explored this topic in depth. And I’m offering you a special deal to help you nail these corner pillars of support.
Nail Those 4 Corner Pillars!
I put together an online video course all about these pillars. It’s basically a slide show with some movie clips that goes deep into examining these essential pillars. The course is normally $49 US, and hundreds of writers have taken it with the aim of mastering novel structure. (And it’s a lot of fun too!). But I’m offering this to you for only $29!
CLICK HERE to enroll and get the course at a discounted rate!
You go at your own pace and watch the videos (take notes!), then download the worksheets to brainstorm your ideas for each corner pillar, to ensure you’ve nailed it.
Trust me: if you have a weak concept for your novel, it’s not worth wasting months of your life trying to flesh it into a killer story. It won’t happen.
And if your protagonist isn’t empathetic or fascinating, and doesn’t have a compelling goal for the novel, you don’t have a story.
Without conflict and high stakes, you will bore readers. But you can’t just throw in any conflict or any stakes. Learn what constitutes meaningful conflict and appropriate high stakes.
And finally, without theme or purpose to your story, you have no glue to hold it all together.
How much is it worth it to you to have a terrific novel? Aren’t you willing to take a few hours and truly master the essential pillars you need to craft a masterful novel?
First consideration: Concept with a Kicker. You can’t just run with an idea or a basic premise. You need to create the kind of story concept that will make people excited to learn more about your novel just by hearing the one-line story concept you’ve come up with. Your story concept, all by its lonesome, should get people saying “wow.” So what is a one-line story concept all about?
Michael Hauge, screenwriting consultant and best-selling author of Writing Screenplays That Sell, encourages writers to come up with one sentence that tells your concept—and that sentence is all about the next pillar we looked at—the Protagonist with a Goal. When you can write that one sentence to describe your story by expressing the protagonist’s goal with the emphasis on the kicker—or what makes your story so unique—you will be on track. And along with noting the protagonist and his goal, you need to identify the third pillar: the central Conflict with High Stakes.
Remember: A Concept Is Not Just a Cool Idea
There is a huge difference between this: “A teenage girl in a dystopian future society has to struggle to survive and keep her family alive” and this: “A teenage girl conscripted to participate in deadly games foments rebellion that eventually destroys the oppressive government in order to provide hope and a future for those she loves.” The Hunger Games series is about Katniss, the heroine. It’s her story.
Your Story Is about Someone with a Goal
I agree with Hauge when he says every great story is about someone, not something. Every great story has one main character the reader roots for and cares about—a character with a visible goal that she strives to reach. It may sound simple—yes, it is! But you would be surprised how few novels I critique have this element in it at all.
The fourth pillar—Theme with a Heart —is the glue that holds the whole story together, for it’s what your novel is really about. The Hunger Games is really about a whole lot more than a girl trying to survive. It delves into issues of loyalty, self-sacrifice, how people should govern other people, and ultimately forgiveness. A lot of themes are developed on many levels throughout the three-book series.
You Gotta Have Conflict and High Stakes
Don’t forget: great novels have high stakes. And what are the stakes? What your protagonist must be willing to risk, what danger he will be willing to face, in order to reach his goal. When what he’s passionate about is threatened, those are high stakes.
And Finally, Theme . . .
I previously mentioned how theme is the protagonist’s goal made universal. The things your character cares most about, which is why he is going after that goal, are things lots of people care about. So if your protagonist is not really concerned about anything that concerns most people in the world, you might need to spend some time working on that pillar to give him a passion and concern for something that will resonate with other humans on the planet.
We resonate with characters who are going through tough situations and have to draw strength and courage to face obstacles. We respect characters who are assertive, humorous, humble, innovative, smart, clever, and who refuse to give up. We care about characters who care about more than just themselves. It may sound silly, but I think we read to care.
So as you write or rewrite your novel, spend a serious amount of time working on these four corner pillars. If you are stuck and can’t quite get one of the pillars strong enough, enlist the help of other authors or a writing coach to help you work out the kinks and maybe help you find some better building materials. Don’t settle for so-so or trust that the ideas will come later on as you write the book. Build a framework, then work within it.
I speak truth when I say that such a weak structure will not hold up. It won’t. You will have to tear all that siding off and then rebuild the framework. Maybe that’s okay with you and part of your style, your creative process. But you know what I always say (if you’ve been following my blog for a while): Why waste weeks, months, or years of your life tearing your hair out trying to rework a novel that isn’t structurally sound (and that may need to be demolished)? Why not be smart and start with the right building materials and a proven-sturdy structure?
Don’t answer that. Just think about it. And about what you could do with all that time you could save . . .
CLICK HERE to enroll and get the video course at a discounted rate!
Last week I discussed how important it is to have conflict on every page. And I shared the Faulkner quote that author Colum McCann referenced: “The only thing that matters is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
That might not be the only thing that matters when it comes to crafting a masterful voice in your writing, but it’s an important one, to be sure.
I believe literary agent and author Donald Maass is spot-on when he teaches that microtension is the key to writing a terrific novel. Without it, a novel is flat, struggling to keep a reader’s attention.
Microtension is exactly what it sounds like: it comprises all those tiny bits that give a reader pause. Contradictions in words and phrases, unspoken mysteries and clues, incongruities, hints of danger or trouble on some level. Microtension depends on what is not being said, on subtext. It’s like a that tightrope wire McCann wrote about in Let the Great World Spin, which I shared last week.
Those little bits sprinkled throughout every page remind me of sparking gems scattered across a beach of endless, colorless sand. As a reader, I think I essentially read as if I were a beachcomber, rushing from one glittering gem to the next, gathering them up and making my way down the beach.
I used to be an avid agate collector. My family had a house overlooking Agate Beach on the north California coast. I couldn’t begin to guess how many hours (hundreds, no doubt), I spent scouring the beach after a storm, sifting through the piles of rocks snaking along the water’s edge, for the elusive agate. I have jars, even glass-topped coffee tables (that I built specifically to showcase my treasures), filled with all the agates I found.
Are they worth anything? Not at all. But when you’re on the hunt, possessed by agate fever, you can’t stop. You have to find just one more. That one might be the big one. Or the most beautiful. There is no better day on the beach when you get to head home with your pockets (or bags) full of agates.
Maybe this is an odd analogy to you, but I’m hoping to get you to consider the importance of microtension in order to create a masterful voice. You want to evoke a tiny spark of surprise. A turn of phrase, an unusual word, an incongruous thought or gesture, an unexpected attitude or response, a curious analogy—those are what create microtension. Precious gems scattered through the pages of a novel.
As we’ve looked it in the previous posts, voice is about the POV character (who could also be an omniscient narrator). People who are boring to listen to, who drone on and on saying little of interest, will lose our attention quickly.
Go talk up people at a coffee shop and see how long you can keep their interest in a conversation with you by chatting about the most mundane, ordinary things. Or listen (politely eavesdrop) as people talk about their day to one another. Most ordinary conversations are boring, but we rarely have to engage in or listen to them for very long.
However, a novel is akin to a ten-hour (or more) “conversation” between author and reader. As a writer, we should do all we can to make every sentence on every page engaging. How to do that? Microtension.
Let’s take a look at another passage from Colum McCann’s breathtakingly beautiful novel Let the Great World Spin. His novel isn’t a linear plot featuring a protagonist going after a goal. It’s a collection of vignettes showing a handful of characters on one particular day in New York. It’s his masterful voice that garnered him the National Book Award.
I walked toward the projects. A surge of dread. Hard to calm the heart when it leaps so high. As a child I saw horses trying to step into rivers to cool themselves off. You watch them move from the stand of buckeye trees, down the slope, through the mud, swishing off flies, getting deeper and deeper until they either swim for a moment or turn back. I recognized it as a pattern of fear, that there was something shameful in it—these high-rises were not a country that existed in my youth or art, or anywhere else. I had ben a sheltered girl. Even when drug-addled I would never have gone into a place like this. I tried to persuade myself onward. I counted the cracks in the pavement. Cigarette butts. Unopened letters with footprints on them. Shards of broken glass. Someone whistled but I didn’t look his way. Some pot fumes drifted from an open window. For a moment, it wasn’t like I was entering water at all: it was more like I was ferrying buckets of blood away from my own body, and I could feel them slap and spill as I moved.
The dry brown remnants of a floral wreath hung outside the main doors. In the hallway the mailboxes were dented and scorch-marked. There was a reek of roach spray. The overhead lights were spray-painted black for some reason.
A large middle-aged lady in a floral-patterned dress waited at the elevator. She kicked aside a used needle with a deep sigh. It settled into the corner, a small bubble of blood at its tip. I returned her nod and smile. Her white teeth. The bounce of imitation pearls at her neck.
—Nice weather, I said to her, though both of us knew exactly what sort of weather it was.
The elevator rose. Horses into rivers. Watch me drown.
I said good-bye to her on the fifth floor as she continued upward, the sound of the cables like the crack of old branches.
A few people were gathered outside the doorway, black women, mostly, in dark mourning clothes that looked as if they didn’t belong to them, as if they’d hired the clothes for the day. Their makeup was the thing that betrayed them, loud and gaudy and one with silver sparkles around her eyes, which looked so tied and worn-down. The cops had said something about hookers: it struck me that maybe the young girl had just been a prostitute. I felt a momentary sigh of gratitude, and then the awareness stopped me cold, the walls pulsed in on me. How cheap was I?
What I was doing was unpardonable and I knew it. I could feel my chest thumping in my blouse, but the women parted for me, and I went through their curtain of grief.
I chose this passage because it’s what I would consider a low-action bit. In our novels, we have to write sequences in which our characters are moving from one place to another, doing “ordinary” things. Those are the types of passages that tend to be boring, but we know we have to include them. They are needed for cohesion.
McCann describes the action through this POV character, Lara, as she heads to a part of New York she is wholly uncomfortable visiting. Yet, she feels compelled to pay her respects to a young woman she had inadvertently killed in a car accident. McCann uses the analogy of horses entering water for his character to think of, in comparison to what she is doing. It’s an unexpected type of analogy for a character in the bowels of New York City.
He points out the small things she notices: cracks in the sidewalk, cigarette butts, the needle with a bubble of blood in it. They are like brushstrokes of setting that tell a lot about Lara as well as bring the setting into sharp focus. We get the mystery of the weather: two women knowing exactly what kind of weather it really is.
There are the elevator cables that sound like the crack of old branches. The beautiful phrases: the elevator rising, horses into water as she ascends, “Watch me drown.” The ferrying of “buckets of blood” that slap and spill.
These small bits of phrasing, unexpected and unusual, are what create microtension in an otherwise ordinary segment of moving a character from one place to another. And that’s what separates good writing from masterful writing.
Your thoughts on microtension and today’s passage?
Do you really want to master plotting and scene structure?
There’s still time to book your space in this year’s boot camps!
Some great instructors will be joining me to teach intensive 2- and 3-day boot camps this fall in gorgeous South Lake Tahoe, CA. Dates: Sept. 23 – Oct. 4.
Plotting Madness teaches you how to go from idea to complete novel outline in 3 days! If you are serious about becoming a successful novelist, you need to master this!
Carla King will be teaching the Self-Publishing Boot Camp: a must for any author of fiction or nonfiction who plans to self-publish or who is already struggling to learn the best ways and practices.
The Scene Structure Boot Camp will teach you how to craft terrific scenes and master evoking emotion in your readers. There is so much to learn about great scene structure!
These aren’t just talks. Boot camp is all about brainstorming with others and sharing ideas and writing. It’s intimate, intensive, and targeted. And it all takes place in a mansion, with indoor pool and sauna, hot tub, gourmet breakfast, lunch, and so much more!
Read more about the boot camps HERE, then fill out the brief survey to let us know which boot camp(s) you want to attend. NOTE: You must grab your space ASAP, this month.
Do you write nonfiction? Or want to? How about a conference you can attend in your PJs and slippers while sitting on your couch?
I love writing nonfiction. If you’re a novelist, you might want to branch out. There are so many terrific writing opportunities for nonfiction material, and it may behoove you to do some article and NF book writing while you are waiting for that novel to sell (or to take a break from the fiction grind).
A lot of these talks and workshops apply to both fiction and nonfiction writing!
The 8th annual Nonfiction Writers Conference returns May 2-4, 2018. This event is completely virtual; attendees participate via phone or Skype.
Speakers for NFWC 2018 include:
Gretchen Rubin – Happiness, Habits and Productivity for Authors
Gordon Warnock – Hybrid Publishing and the Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing
Melinda Emerson – Social Media Trends and Strategies
Melinda Copp – Writing Strategies to Get Your Next Book Done
Tai Goodwin – Build a Business Around Your Book
Mike Loomis – Establish Your Author Brand Strategy
Angela Bole – All About Book Distribution for Self-Published Authors
Teresa de Grosbois – Make Your Book a Bestseller
Sandra Beckwith – Writing Articles and Blogs to Promote Your Book
Lois Creamer – Get Paid to Speak and Sell Books
Tina Dietz – Marketing with Podcasts and Audio Books
Andy Crestodina – Author Websites, Blogs and Traffic Generation
Paulette Ensign – Convert Your Content into Cash
Tina Dietz – Marketing with Podcasts and Audio Books
Stephanie Chandler – Book Marketing Game-Changers
The Nonfiction Writers Conference is brought to you by the Nonfiction Authors Association, an educational community for experienced and aspiring writers. If you’re ready to accelerate your author career, pull up a seat on your couch and join us for this powerful event!
Save 33% off event registration with this discount code: PARTNER33
Learn book promotion strategies from top speakers at the Nonfiction Writers Conference. A terrific way to advance your writing career!
“NFWC is the best investment I make each year in my nonfiction author career.The caliber and accessibility of the presenters is unusually high, the topics well chosen and diverse, and I can honestly say that at least half of the presentations would have been worth the cost of the whole conference alone.”
– Mary Shafer, Devastation on the Delaware, 55Flood.com
“Where else can you gain so much valuable information in so little time? I’ve attended Non-Fiction Writers Conference three years running and it has been well worth my time every year.”
– Karyn J. Taylor, Editor: TWO STEPS FROM GLORY: A World War II Liaison Pilot Confronts Jim Crow and the Enemy in the South Pacific by Maj. Welton I. Taylor, Ph.D.
“The NonFiction Writers E-Conference is a wonderful event! I’ve attended many in-person writers conferences over the years at considerable expense. It was great to be able to be at home in my office and just participate in the sessions that most interested me — at a very reasonable cost!”
– Doreen Pendgracs, Author of “Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate,” http://chocolatour.net
“This conference was GREAT! You provided tremendous value at an affordable cost. I couldn’t be more delighted. This was the information I needed, at this exact time in order to take my book to the next level. I’ve attended about a half-dozen $550 writing conferences in person–fortunately very close to my home so I could commute and save hotel costs. Hands down, yours was the best! Thank you.”
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“The NFWC always delivers—tools, resources, and inspiration! It’s an incredible value. After the three-day conference, I feel energized and confident.”
– Laura Hedgecock, author of “Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life”
If you’ve ever struggled to get under the skin of your protagonist, don’t lose hope. This post tells how mine went from a protagonist I couldn’t relate to to someone so real to me that I felt guilty about finishing the novel and therefore his existence.
Here’s my experience from initial inspiration to the creative processes I used, and my eventual breakthrough and tips you can apply to your own work.
On vacation in a town in North Brazil, I was drinking a beer at one of many beachside bars, when I noticed a haggard man walking between the tables and chairs trying to catch anyone’s eye. It was obvious he was looking for someone to take advantage of. Nobody returned his gaze except me.
He sat down across from me and asked the waiter for a beer and a cachaça. The waiter looked to me for approval because we both knew that I’d be the one paying. I couldn’t understand much of what my guest said because my Portuguese hardly gets me from A to B, but he interested me, as did the faded tattoos over his arms and the white lines he’d drawn on himself using acid from cashew nut shells.
Here I was on the other side of the world, drinking beer with someone I’d never otherwise have met. I’d been looking for this since I set the goal of writing a novel. Here was my protagonist, and this town would be the setting. From then on I couldn’t think of one without the other.
I returned home, and having found the initial spark sat down to write the novel, but I had a problem: my protagonist.
I was trying to get started in first person but didn’t know how to think like the protagonist. Our lives were too different. How was I, a comfortable man from Scotland with a steady job and a cosy apartment supposed to get in the head of a homeless South American living hand-to-mouth and taking advantage of people for free drinks?
After a few disheartening pages of struggle, I put the pen down and did the housework, which gains a new level of importance when you’re trying to write.
Having washed and ironed and vacuumed as much as I could bear, I sat down to try a different tack. I began to write about myself writing the novel, similar to the narrative style in The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. This helped me visualise the barriers within myself that prevented me from getting into the mind of the protagonist. It got me asking more questions and allowed a little progress, but I wasn’t nearly at the point where I needed to be.
Putting the pen aside once more, I went for a walk to clear my head and stop thinking about the problem. As many readers will know, the answers often arrive when we’re not consciously thinking of the problem.
Back in the chair, I stopped writing in first person, deciding instead on close third person. I couldn’t get it right. The words write what you know were sounding off in my head. I had nothing in common with this guy, I was going in the wrong direction, this novel was never going to work.
All in all I had I written a dozen or so pages about the protagonist, whom I’d named Bruno, who was wandering around town like a stray dog scavenging food, stealing from shops, and tricking people. I had created a protagonist that no reader could empathise with.
Then the breakthrough came. I saw the Haunting Homeless portrait series by Lee Jeffries, and everything became clear. I realised I had been stuck on the surface image of the man I had met, and the questions I had been asking were leading me to imagine his backstory instead of creating a life for a protagonist inspired by his image. I had been seeing what everyone else saw—all those people who refused to make eye contact with the guy—and this alone came out in my protagonist.
Jeffries’s photos forced me to see the life and character within his subjects, people just like the man I had met in Brazil, and it filled me with empathy. In finding my empathy for these people, I was able to disregard the surface image of the man I met and go straight to the heart of my protagonist.
I started to ask more probing questions about his past, his character: Who had he been? How did he end up in his current location? and Why was he there? These basic writing questions are always important to consider and answer.
Who? What? When? Where? Why? When? How?
By asking the right questions I was able to fill in the backstory for Bruno, who became so real to me that I feel strange saying I created him, and really get to know the who, why, and how about him. In adding my knowledge of the protagonist to the setting, I was able to do two things: let him walk in his own shoes and build a story around him.
What I learned and you could consider:
Experiment with different points of view and tenses to help achieve a deeper understanding of a protagonist.
Find empathy. If you can empathise with a character, you can get into their head. Once you’re in their head, you can fill in the blanks.
Exercise objectivity to help find empathy. Try to see things from other peoples’ perspectives and also look at yourself in real time: What are you trying to achieve here? Why did you just do that? What are you angry about right now?
Do your research. I left my second draft three-quarters complete because I didn’t know my major characters well enough. For the next few months I researched: I read the books I associated with them. I learned more about the skills they had and where they were from. I answered questionnaires in their voices. For each major character I had a notice board on which I pinned photographs and clippings of anything I linked to them.
Mapping out your protagonist’s backstory is not a waste of time. I ended up using it in my final novel, but my true purpose was to understand him better. I picked up my protagonist at a brief moment in his life and led him from there. Who was I to take him in any direction when I didn’t know where he’d been?
Don’t be a clenched muscle, all focus and knitted brows until your brain bursts. Relax, stretch out, and as a sponge soaks up water, you’ll take in your surroundings and let the answers come to you.
Steven-John Tait is a writer from Scotland. He is a frequent traveler and a lover of classic and contemporary literature. His book titled Vagabundo will be released in autumn. His dream is to fit his whole life in a carry-on bag. Connect with Steven-John at his website.
I want to share a bit from Colum McCann’s personal remarks at the back of his award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, my hands-down favorite novel for showing masterful “stream of consciousness” character voice.
If you’ve missed the other posts (here and here) on masterful voice, they emphasize the (my) opinion that voice is all about the character. A writer’s style is a wholly different thing, but I won’t get into that again here.
What I may be sharing here may seem unrelated to masterful voice, but, in fact, it’s intrinsically related.
McCann opens this section talking about a personal experience: his father-in-law’s story of surviving the 9-11 attacks on the Trade Towers in New York. In his exquisite writing style, McCann recounts how the man hurried down from the 59th floor, sloshed through water and the maelstrom that was the disaster in Lower Manhattan, and walked to McCann’s apartment, throwing everything away but his shoes, which he perhaps forgot he’d left by the door (and which McCann kept).
He writes: “I still think that every touch of them loses a little more dust. I am paralyzed by the notion of what the dust might contain—a resume, a concrete girder, Sheetrock, a briefcase, a pummeled earring, an eyelash, another man’s shoe. They sit in a cupboard behind me, in my writing room, over my left shoulder, a responsibility to the past.”
McCann goes on to write about Manhattan in the days after the attack, then says, “The question, as a writer, was how to find meaning at all when there was, in plain sight, a world charged with meaning. If everything meant something … was it possible to create an alternative meaning, or more exactly, a novel?”
Here’s the point I want to get to. McCann posits:
But stories are there to be told, and each story changes with the telling. Time changes them. Logic changes them. Grammar changes them. History changes them. Each story is shifted sideways by each day that unfolds. Nothing ends. The only thing that matters, as Faulkner once put it, is the human heart in conflict with itself. At the heart of all this is the possibility, or desire, to create a piece of art that talks to the human instinct for recovery and joy.
The only thing that matters, as Faulkner once put it, is the human heart in conflict with itself.
What Does This Have to Do with Voice?
I often talk about passion. The passion we writers must have for the power of words, for storytelling. The passion our characters must have, which is fueled by their core need, their deep-seated fears and wounds, their beliefs.
This is all true and important.
But if all you have are a bunch of highly passionate characters running amok in your novel, does that mean you have a compelling cast of characters, a compelling story? Not necessarily.
Another maxim about writing fiction I’ve shared often is “Conflict is story.” I look for conflict—inner and/or outer—on every page of a manuscript. Conflict creates the necessary microtension needed to keep readers engaged and turning pages.
Think about taping Faulkner’s words to your computer or pinning them on your wall: The only thing that matters is the human heart in conflict with itself.
When you create rich characters in conflict with themselves, which mirrors real life, you are on your way to creating masterful voices in your fiction.
Maybe this sounds like a convoluted way to crafting masterful voice, but I think not. I think it’s the key.
Let the Great World Spin, a novel about various lives of characters on the day Phillipe Petit danced back and forth on a high wire between the Trade Towers, exemplifies the mastery of the “stream of consciousness” voice. I devoured this novel as I began to write Intended for Harm, my literary modern-day novel about the biblical story of Jacob and Joseph, set in Los Angeles between 1971 and present day. McCann’s masterful voices set my writing afire, and in three months I had spun a tale 165,000 words long with hardly taking a breath.
Let’s look at some passages from McCann’s novel.
From outside, the sounds of Park Avenue. Quiet. Ordered. Controlled. Still, the nerves jangle in her. Soon she will receive the women. The prospect ties a small knot at the base of her spine. She brings her hands to her elbows, hugs her forearms. The wind ruffles the light curtains at the window. Alencon lace. Handmade, tatted, with silk trimmings. Never much for French lace. She would have preferred an ordinary fabric, a light voile. The lace was Solomon’s idea, long ago. The stuff of marriage. The good glue. He brought her breakfast this morning, on the three-handled tray. Croissant, lightly glazed. Chamomile tea. A little slice of lemon on the side. He even lay down on the bed in his suit and touched her hair. Kissed her before he left. Solomon, wise Solomon, briefcase in hand, off downtown. The slight waddles in his step. The clack of his polished shoes on the marble floor. His low-growled good-bye. Not mean, just throaty. Sometimes it strikes her—there is my husband. There he goes. Same way he’s been going for thirty-one years. And then a sort of silence interrupted. The drifting sounds, the snap of the lock, the dim bell, the elevator boy—G’morning, Mr. Soderberg!—the whine of the door, the clank of machinery, the soft murmur of descent, the clanging stop at the lobby below, the roundelay of the cables rising. . . .
He does not even know about the visitors—she will tell him sometime, but not yet, no harm. Perhaps this evening. At dinner. Candle and wine. Guess what, Sol. As he settles in the chair, fork poised. Guess what. A slight sigh from him. Just tell me, Claire, honey—I’ve had a long day. . . .
Things to do. Hurryhurry. Toilet. Toothbrush rub. A light swish of makeup. Some blush. A little eyeliner and a lipstick dab. Never one to fuss with makeup. . . . Turns to the mirror. Odd to see the strain of her neck. Not mine. Not that neck. Fifty-two years in that same skin. She extends her chin and her skin tightens. Vain, but better. The earrings against her dress. Seashell with seashell. She sells. By the shore. She drops them in the jewelry box and scatter-searches through. Casts a look at the dresser clock.
Almost time. . . .
Claire had told them, at the first meeting, that she lived on the East Side, that was all, but they must have known, even though she wore long pants and sneakers, no jewelry at all, must have intuited anyway, that is was the Upper East Side, and then Janet, the blonde, leaned forward and piped up: Oh, we didn’t know you lived up there.
Up there. As if it were somewhere to climb. As if they would have to ascend to it. Ropes and helmets and carabiners.
I omitted a lot of other little beautiful details in order to give a kind of sweeping sense of Claire’s thoughts as she gets ready to entertain these women—who gather each month at one anothers’ apartments, in commiseration of their losses (their sons all died in the Vietnam War). And the scene masterfully continues with the women arriving, showing Claire’s nervousness throughout, her difficulty in “acting normal” as she tries to keep her pain buried.
The discussion leads to the curious event of the day—the man walking the high wire—but the story of Claire is one of the human heart in conflict with itself.
Claire is just one of the many “voices” in this amazing novel. I’ll share some other characters and their voices from Let the Great World Spin in the next post. I hope you see how voice is all about the character, and a masterful writer will bring that voice out strong and powerfully in the pages of a novel.
Leah moved through the kitchen with efficiency. Made dinner, set the table, even folded the laundry and put clothes in drawers, clean towels in the bathroom. A simple penance in advance, a gesture, hopefully one that would soften the blow. Although she knew it wouldn’t. Nothing would. But she couldn’t let herself think on it. Survival was paramount. If she remained, death was certain—if not literal, then emotional. She’d weighed choices over and over until they became too heavy to hold any longer. She had a fleeting opportunity, had to grab it with both hands or she would miss the golden ring; it would fly past her, irretrievable, and she would languish with longing, regret, the bitterness ebbing away at her until nothing remained.
She called her children in to eat, checked the clock again. Five minutes.
That Paul Simon song came to mind—“Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” You just slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan. Don’t need to be coy, Roy. Just get yourself free. When her children were situated at the table, she looked at each one, putting their sweet faces to memory. She went into the bathroom, brushed her hair and washed her face, came out, checked her purse. She took out her prescription bottles; she wouldn’t need those happy pills anymore. Pills that mollified and simplified and verified and nullified.
Just hop on the bus, Gus. Don’t need to discuss much.
Simon had set the camera on the table. She put it in her sweater pocket. Reuben only looked at her as she stood by the door and rummaged through her purse.
Just drop off the key, Lee. And get yourself free.
A honk from the street. Leah looked out the window and saw the band van—an old VW bus, orange and white, with a pop-up camper top. Denny waved from the front seat, sitting next to Barry, who was driving. Five thirty on the dot. She deposited her key ring on the little shelf. She wouldn’t need them anymore—those keys that opened doors and started engines and kept her world running on empty.
Simon ran over to her, grabbed her arm, searched her eyes, demanding to know what she was doing, where she was going. She could tell from his face that he knew she was leaving, the way he always understood her, felt her moods as subtle ocean currents. She would not be able to lie to him that easily, but she would this one time, to stave off the inevitable, the unbearable, the unthinkable. She could not let anything buck her resolve, unsure how strong the tensile strength of her nerve.
“Sweet Simon, I’m just going to play some music.”
“No you’re not. You’re taking all your clothes. You’re leaving us!” He body-blocked her, his back against the front door.
Leah closed her eyes, imagined cool water putting out his frenzied fire as his cries erupted, flare-ups of ignited fear encircling her, the lava threatening to burn her from the toes up.
“Simon, I have to. Go. I’ll write. I’ll be back.” She gulped as the worst word emerged from her throat. “Soon.” Followed by two more horrible, evil words, but she had no choice; they must be said.
She couldn’t look at him, touch him, hug him good-bye. Couldn’t look at any of them, the house, their things, this composite life whose elements had defined and held her together with flimsy string all these years. She shook it off, a dead molted skin, pushed Simon away from the door, pulled it open against his feeble resistance. “Reuben, hold Simon. Don’t let him outside. That’s a good boy.” She held the door half open until Reuben came and took his younger brother by the arm, tugged him away from the door as Simon wailed, his cry so pathetic and terrible Leah wished she had no ears. She caught Reuben’s hurt splattered all over his face, knew he wouldn’t challenge her, her good dutiful trusting firstborn son.
Be a rock, Reuben. Barricade the door. Keep Simon in and reality out. Until your father comes home. Then you can crumble into dust.
Character is all about voice. About their inner conflict. The sooner you understand this, the sooner you will be on your way to writing masterfully. Read masterful writers. Get inspired.
Your thoughts on the post? On how characters are revealed through their “voice”?
I tell writers often they are failing to “advance their plot.” What does that mean, and why does it matter?
I keep seeing novels that “land on my desk” that start off with a great situation but then veer off into the hinterlands. Other novels don’t even get out the gate. The opening scenes seem to have nothing to do with the premise of their story. I’ll go back and reread a synopsis and shake my head. Where is the premise setup? Who exactly is the protagonist?
This is such a problem that I’m going to share some points from a post I wrote two years ago on the topic.
If your scenes aren’t “advancing the plot,” you have a serious problem.
Each scene should reveal some new information, but not just anything—the information needs to help move the plot forward. The bottom line? Every scene must have a point to it or it shouldn’t be in your novel.
If you’ve been following my blog for some time, or you’ve read my writing craft books in The Writer’s Toolbox series, you’ve heard me spout this. When brainstorming your scene ideas, it’s crucial that you first consider the point of your scene.
Ask: What do I need to have happen in this scene that moves the plot forward?
Depending on where this scene is going to come in your novel, that answer will vary. Opening scenes in a novel should be setting up your protagonist in his ordinary life. Around the 10 percent mark of your novel, some incident or opportunity should occur that shifts the character’s direction and/or focus. It interrupts that ordinary world. Through a series of events, the character is then moved into position by the 25% mark to launch his goal. From then on, all scenes orbit around this one purpose: to aid or hinder or complicate the protagonist’s pursuit of this goal.
All this I explain in great detail in Layer Your Novel. Check it out if you don’t know which key scenes go where.
So when considering the point to your scene, you need to know exactly where in the story that scene will occur. Instead of thinking “I wonder what I should have happen to my character next?” first consider what section (some think in terms of acts) of your novel this scene is going to be placed.
For example, between the 25% and 75% marks of your novel, you want to show progress and setbacks for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. As you build to the big climax, you are making it harder and more hopeless for him, with more obstacles and complications. Keeping this in mind helps you determine exactly what the purpose of your scene will be.
Take Time to Learn Plot Structure
If you aren’t aware of basic novel structure and the essential plot points and where they are positioned in a story, you should take the time to learn this. Why? Because if you don’t get novel structure clear, your scenes aren’t going to serve the plot’s interest. They will wander about aimlessly, confusing readers and accomplishing little to nothing of importance.
And the best way to ensure your structure is solid is to get a thorough critique of either your rough or polished full draft or of your scene outline. If you haven’t finished writing your novel, you don’t have to wait to get help. I work with many authors at the outline stage. You can hire me to critique just the first few chapters to give an assessment of how the premise and characters are being set up.
5 Essential Components
Let’s say you know exactly what the purpose of your scene will be. You may have your protagonist’s best friend turn on him. You may want to introduce an accident or some violence to upend things. You may be bringing a love interest on stage, or have an ally try to stop your character from making a bad decision.
Now that you have the purpose in mind for your scene, what next? Let’s look at the first five key components to crafting that scene.
The high moment. Your scene has to have a key moment that encapsulates the point of your scene. Think carefully about what that moment should be. It’s usually a reveal—a clue, a new bit of information, a reveal of character that impacts the story. It can be big or subtle.
Moments aren’t about big action but about significance. What is significant to your POV character for that scene. A high moment can be a complication that shows up, a reversal (something happens opposite to what the character expected), or a surprise twist to the plot.
Start in the middle of action. Last year on this blog we spend a month covering the fatal flaw of “nothin’ happenin’.” The popular term in medias res means starting in the middle of something. Remember last week I gave the scene example of character John waking up and getting dressed, then heading to work? That may sound like the scene is starting in the middle of things. John is waking up and getting going in his day, right?
Nope. The idea here is to start in the middle of something interesting that’s going on. Something that makes the reader wonder just what has been happening up till now.
Imagine walking into a room to find two people in the midst of an argument. You know you’ve missed something, but you’re intrigued to find out just what. That’s the feeling you want to get with your scene openings. I suggest thinking about that high moment, then starting about 15-20 minutes of screen time earlier. That time factor will vary depending on your scene, certainly, but it’s a good rule of thumb when considering at what moment to open with.
Establish the POV character and stay in that POV. Make sure to be clear whose POV this scene is in by the first or second paragraph. It may be obvious, such as when writing in first-person POV. But even with first person, it can be easy to fall into explanation and lengthy narrative that feels out of POV. So make that character present to the reader right away.
“Rule” is: only one POV per scene. So stick with that one character, showing only what she can see, think, or feel. If you need to get into another character’s head, wrap up that scene, do a scene break (put a # in the middle of a blank line), and then start the new scene.
Establish the setting. This is one component that is frequently ignored. Make it clear where this scene is taking place. Don’t do an info dump of details, but rather show the setting through the POV character. I’ve written dozens of posts on the importance of setting, and I have to emphasize here—it’s almost always undertreated in every manuscript I critique. You don’t need much, but it’s essential. That includes a feel for the weather, time of day and year. Sensory detail is critical in order to bring a scene alive, and the most evocative details are those dealing with setting.
Consider the conflict. Conflict is story. Ideally, you want conflict oozing out of every page. So take some time to think about the conflict inherent in your premise and plot.
The character arc requires inner conflict, which is really the character’s struggle as he is forced to grow and learn and change through the story. The outer conflict is embodied by antagonists and nemesis characters who create interference and obstacles for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. Outer conflict can be incidents that impact any or all of your characters.
Just know this: if your scene is lacking conflict, it will fall flat. If you’re struggling or unsure you’re on track, hire me! Contact me here to discuss your project and what concerns you have about your structure.
What do you struggle most with regarding these 5 tips to advancing the plot? Does this post help you?
It’s a common problem. You’re eagerly writing the story of your life from beginning to end when suddenly you get to that jerk you’d love to omit—you know, the ex-spouse from hell, maybe the sibling you haven’t spoken to in decades, or some other diabolical character.
You don’t even want to think about this loser, let alone write about him. Why open old wounds? Or you might worry that if you tell the truth about him you’ll hurt others, or maybe get slapped with a lawsuit.
Then there are the embarrassing “What was I thinking?!” moments in your life that you’d like to scrub from your story. Or maybe your life is somewhat convoluted and hard to follow; too many people, places, events, and other things to cover. You’d like to simplify things to make it an easier, more interesting read.
As a ghostwriter, I’ve been faced with this problem more than once. One of my clients requested just “a little adjustment” in her autobiography—meaning she wanted to leave out husbands number two and three. Another client, a man who’d had a lengthy relationship with a business partner, regaled me with stories of what a jerk the partner was—and that was when he was sober. When drunk, the guy could be a real terror. This drunk’s bad behavior seriously affected my client’s business and life, but the client insisted that I totally whitewash this bozo in the book.
All this raises an important question: Is fibbing allowed in autobiographies? The quick and firm answer is no. However, deviating from the truth is expected in the autobiographical novel.
Consider Writing an Autobiographical Novel
An autobiographical novel? That sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, an autobiography is a purely fact-based presentation of one’s life, whereas a novel is a fictionalized tale that springs from the author’s imagination. Given that an autobiography is supposed to be 100 percent truthful, while a novel is an invention, how can the two possibly intersect?
Writers have long known how to combine truth with fiction to produce works that are factual in essence, even though names were changed, characters were created, certain details were omitted or amended, the storyline was simplified or enhanced to produce a better read, and other alterations were made. These works are considered autobiographical novels.
Think of the autobiographical novel as “veiled fiction.”
Imagine a spectrum, with the truth at one end and fiction at the other.
Strictly speaking, the autobiography falls at the extreme end of the “truth” section. Stripped down to its essence, an autobiography can consist of nothing more than a series of factual statements such as “I was born in Los Angeles in 1966,” or “I graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in history in 1988,” or “I visited the Louvre museum for the third time in 2011.” While it wouldn’t be terribly interesting to read, it would be a complete and truthful description of the author’s life and, hence, an autobiography.
On the other end of the spectrum is fiction. We’re most familiar with fiction in the form of novels, which might feature completely made-up characters, events, and stories—maybe even superheroes and secret agents, torrid romances, and sweeping sagas of families that rise and fall over generations. Readers understand that works of fiction don’t need to contain a single truthful statement or fact, or a single real person or locale.
What Lies Between
The autobiographical novel, a mixture of truth and fiction, lies somewhere in middle of the spectrum. It’s truthful in the sense that the author remains the protagonist, and most of the other characters are either real or strongly based on real people and what they’ve said and done. And most of the events are presented pretty much as they occurred.
But certain events may be omitted to simplify the storyline. And what was actually said might be tweaked so the reader can get to the point sooner, or understand what’s happening more easily.
Names and other identifying information may be changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty) or to avoid offending someone who might file a lawsuit. When my wife and I worked on the autobiography of a well-known celebrity, we were asked to omit his extramarital activities because of the possibility of a lawsuit.
Characters may be combined to simplify things. One of my clients had a very exciting but confusing life and had interacted with hundreds of people over the course of decades. Keeping track of all of them was nearly impossible, so we combined characters to create a more manageable cast, allowing a few people to stand in for all of the relatives, a few others for the artistic associates, and so on.
Then there are certain fiction writing techniques that may be used, allowing you to sacrifice a bit of truth in order to make the book more interesting or fun. You may, for example, pop back and forth in time, or withhold certain information until the end in order to build suspense.
And, let’s be honest, some autobiographical novel authors may change certain events and dialogue just to make themselves look better or create a better ending. (If I were to write my life story, I’d certainly omit the D I got in handwriting in the fourth grade, along with a bunch of other things I’d rather not mention here. Or anywhere else.)
Should You Write an Autobiographical Novel?
The answer to this depends on your goal.
If you want to stick to the absolute truth, write a “straight” autobiography. Yes, you may end up presenting yourself in a less-than-flattering light, and you may offend certain people. But you will have told your story truthfully.
If, on the other hand, you’re more concerned with “improving” your life story or protecting somebody’s reputation (including your own) by fudging the truth, write an autobiographical novel.
Many excellent and influential books have used this approach. David Copperfield, written by Charles Dickens in 1850, is a disguised retelling of his younger years. James Baldwin’s autobiographic novel Go Tell It on the Mountain recounts his struggle with growing sexual awareness while growing up in a religious and repressive family. Time magazine pronounced it one of the 100 best American novels published between 1923 and 2005. And the best seller My Struggle, by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, is a series of autobiographical novels translated in over fifteen languages.
Perhaps with a little artful invention your life story could become a wonderful autobiographical novel. You’ll never know until you try!
Barry Fox is a best-selling author, coauthor, and ghostwriter, specializing in memoirs, business books, and books on politics and art. You can learn about Barry and his wife and sometimes-collaborator, Nadine Taylor, at his website. Read more of Barry’s posts on his LinkedIn page.
Today’s guest post is by best-selling author DiAnn Mills.
While talent and a willingness to work hard are essential for a professional writer, the #1 requirement is courage to face the world of publishing.
The word courage can be confusing. A soldier enlists courage by saving fellow soldiers’ lives. A teacher possesses courage when choosing to teach in an inner-city school where gangs run the streets. A law enforcement officer shows courage when refusing to take a bribe. A teen grasps courage to say no to drugs. A person grips courage and accepts a beating instead of following a religion or political policy. A man or woman garners courage to walk away from an abusive relationship. A person embraces courage to walk away from a high-paying job to serve humanity.
We open the dictionary and find descriptors like bravery, daring, grit boldness, spunk, and a huge list of other words. We hold tight to what we believe is courageous.
The definition of a writer is one who writes or is a wordsmith. These are people who treasure words, their meanings, and the correct way to use them.
Understanding words strengthens a writer’s self-confidence and how that person interacts with others. When writers specialize in a particular type of writing, they focus their expertise as a novelist, biographer, journalist, columnist, poet, and the list goes on. But nowhere in the analysis of who or what do we see the prerequisite of courage.
Are you mulling over the courage feature? Does it make little sense when you’re scrambling to memorize the dictionary, thesaurus, and the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style?
Courage is the ability to do whatever makes us shake and tremble. It’s a gut-wrenching fear that hovers over “what if I fail?” and sometimes “what if I succeed?” I think of writer courage as bravery in the face of fear, the ability to shove aside how we might be hurt physically, mentally, or emotionally and reach out to grasp our calling.
Do you have what it takes to carry the banner called writer? I bet you do. I bet you want the distinction so badly that you’ll do anything to ensure it happens. You’re ready to make sacrifices and envision your name on a published manuscript.
Writers are heroes and heroines who use the power of the pen (or fingers on the keyboard) to create new worlds and show insight about the world and culture around us.
What does writer courage mean to you? The following are fifteen ways to know you’re on the right writerly path of courage.
Accept the gift of communication though the written word. It belongs to you. Seize it. Embrace it. Love it. Whip it into shape. Most importantly, step forward for the adventure of a lifetime. Lace up your hiking boots for a mountaintop experience. You’ll grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Grasp the knowledge of those who’ve gone before you and have endeavored to offer valuable instruction. Read the how-to books. Read again. Repeat. There is always at least one gem in every writing book.
Read the best sellers. Treat them as textbooks. Underline or highlight vital points. Study the who, what, where, when, how, and why. Consider incorporating different techniques to see if the method fits your voice, brand, and genre.
Discipline your life to be successful. Time management may come easy or it may be as foreign as living in outer space. Look for ways to schedule writing time. Writing isn’t for the fainthearted or weak-minded. The job requires hours of working alone.
Write every day. This may mean rising earlier in the morning, writing over the lunch hour or late at night. Give up the TV and the weekend nap and see how much your writing improves.
This means edit your work, lifestyle, personal habits. Repeat.
Discover social media and post consistently.
Brand your writing in everything you do. Remember, if a writer doesn’t take charge of branding, the publishing world will do it, and the writer may not like the result.
Analyze every facet of your work. Where do you need improvement? What’s working? Do you need private instruction to sharpen your tools in the craft, marketing, promotion, branding?
Attend writing conferences to strengthen your career. Be well-rounded in your instruction. Network with other writers, agents, editors, social media specialists,
Exercise your body and eat in a nutritionally sound way. A failing body means a failing writer.
Submit your work. Take charge of achieving your goals. This means studying the market, knowing how to professionally prepare a submission, sending it to an agent or editor, and following up on the status of the manuscript according to guidelines.
Prepare for the naysayers. Oh, yes, the well-meaning friends and family who question why you’re wasting valuable time on a hobby and if you need meds or counseling. Hint: memorize an elevator pitch of your current book, and watch the sneers morph into admiration. Enlist immediate family members to help you reach your goals by taking over household chores.
Seek entertainment. Writing is enhanced through personal experiences. While reading is a necessity, viewing great movies, plays, and musicals inspire our creativity. If you’re a nature enthusiast, hike, canoe, jog, take time to engage in a sport—enjoy a task that frees your mind. There in the midst of an activity that has nothing to do with writing is an opportunity to find new topics. Take time to laugh.
Whether the writer is full-time or part-time, all work and no downtime wears down the body, the spirit, and the passion for writing.
If zeal to follow your writing dreams has dwindled to a drip from the creative faucet, and your courage to flood the world with one beautiful word after another is dry, take a look at the fifteen tips above. You just might find your writer courage to begin again.
How do you keep your zeal for writing?
DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author whose titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists. She’s won two Christy Awards and been a finalist for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Her new novel High Treason, is available HERE on Amazon. Connect with DiAnn on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.
I explained in the last post on masterful voice that voice is all about the character. If you have a novel told in omniscient POV, that voice telling the story is a character of sorts, sharing opinions, insights, and personality.
I make a distinction between writing style and voice, and though many people think they are the same thing, I feel it’s helpful to view them as entirely different things. What makes a voice masterful in a novel is when it conveys a character’s mind-set and characteristics.
Each character in your novel should have a unique voice that is influenced by background, upbringing, education, locale, and so many more factors. Voice isn’t just speech. It’s every word of every line in a scene, including narrative.
If your novel sounds like you throughout (the way you think, write, compose sentences and the words you choose), unless “you” are the engaging and entertaining narrator, the novel is going to fall flat. Having a child in the South sound exactly like a scholar at Harvard won’t come across well.
Hence, writers need to think carefully and deeply about characters to give them the appropriate voice.
I shared some passages from one of Elizabeth George’s novels in the last post. This week I’ll share some from a different novel: Believing the Lie. George is truly a master of character voice. I want you to notice how quickly she reveals so many key bits of information as she introduces characters.
This is all about setup. And as I’ve often said: you need to quickly set up your character’s core need, motivation, mind-set, problems, attitude, hurts, dreams, fears, and so on. You could write a dry, objective narrative summary of these things and bore your readers to death (and get bad reviews), or you could be masterful about bringing out all these necessary things for each of your key characters.
Let’s look at the first passage.
Tim Cresswell slouched in the back seat of the Volvo. He tried to close his ears to the sound of his little sister begging their mother once again to let them live with her. “Please please extra pretty please, Mummy” was the way she put it. She was, Tim knew, trying to charm their mother into thinking she was actually missing something without her children in constant attendance. Not that anything Gracie might say or the way she might say it would do any good. Niamh Cresswell had no intention of allowing them to live with her in Grange-over-Sands. She had fish to fry that had nothing do with any responsibility she might feel towards her offspring. Tim wanted to tell Gracie this, but what was the point? She was ten years old and too young to understand the workings of pride, loathing, and revenge.
“I hate Daddy’s house,” Gracie was adding in hopeful good measure. “There’re spiders everywhere. It’s dark and creaky and full of draughts and it’s got all these corners where there’re cobwebs and things. I want to live with you, Mummy. Timmy does ‘s well.” She squirmed round in her seat. “You want to live with Mummy ‘s well, don’t you, Timmy?”
Don’t call me Timmy, you stupid twit, was what Tim actually wanted to say to his sister, but he couldn’t ever get mad at Gracie when she looked at him with that expression of trusting love on her face. When he saw it, though, he wanted to tell her to harden up. The world was a shit hole, and he couldn’t understand why she hadn’t yet worked that out.
Tim saw that his mother was watching him in the rear view mirror, waiting to hear how he would answer his sister. He curled his lip and turned to the window, thinking that he could almost not blame his father for dropping the bomb that had destroyed their lives. His mother was a real piece of work, she was. . . . The bloody cow was acting true to character, even now, all pretence . . .
Let’s take a look at all the things this passage tells us about not just Tim but his relationships. George could have started by describing Tim: his age, looks, and where he lives. She could have then explained that his parents were divorced (or separated) and that Tim “was unhappy living with his mother.” She could also have said that Tim cared for his sister and resented his mother.
But that would be boring “telling.”
Yes, this is narrative “telling,” but while there is little action here, it’s Tim’s thoughts–the narrative, which is the POV character’s thought, in essence—that “shows” the situation here. We quickly get Tim’s mind-set, attitude, biggest concern, view of his family and life, his personality—all that—through seeing what he’s thinking as his mother is driving him and his sister somewhere.
We don’t get any physical descriptions (hair and eye color, height, build) of any of the characters. Is that important? I’ll let you answer that.
What we do get are the nuances of the relationships. We see the complicated feelings Tim has toward his sister, mother, and even his father. We feel the anger and resentment he has toward his mother, even though he claims his father is the one that “had destroyed their lives.” If Tim has to choose between awful Mum and awful Dad, he’d choose the lesser of two evils: Dad. We sense Tim’s short fuse, ready to snap at his sister for calling him Timmy, then restraining himself with a touch of compassion and protectiveness. Here is a boy who is caught between the innocence of childhood and the hard slap of adulthood.
We also learn about the house they’re living in through Gracie’s description of the conditions. And by the way his mother doesn’t react, doesn’t answer, doesn’t respond to her daughter’s pleading, it tells us volumes about her.
A lot of writers would just show the dialogue, some of Tim’s thoughts, and describe the characters, the car, the setting. And all that would be fine. But maybe not masterful. It’s the voice that brings it all alive and real. That engages and moves us. We are pulled into Tim’s life and care about him because we are there, in his head and heart, feeling his pain.
Let’s look at another passage.
Everything you do in quicksand is counterintuitive, Nicky had told her. When you hit it, your inclination is to freeze in place. It seems that struggling will make you sink faster. Any movement at all will presage more danger and an inconceivable end. But you must remember several things, darling. The first is that you have no idea how deep the sand really is. You’re only in a scour and while it might be deep enough to swallow a horse or a tractor or an entire tour coach, it’s more likely that you’re in one of the shallower scours, which will suck you in only to your knees or, at worst, your thighs, leaving you otherwise free until rescue comes. But you don’t want to discover that—especially if you’re going to go in up to your chest—because if you sink that far there’s no getting out because of the suction involved. At that point only more water can get you out, water from a fire hose blasting into the sand to free you or water from the incoming tide driving sand from the scour again . . . [this goes on for a few more sentences]
But no matter the words of her husband, who had lived his life in this strange part of the world, to Alatea the thought was madness. She was in the sand up to her thighs, so no quick movement out of the scour was possible. This meant lying on the top of the sand. And she could not bring herself to do it. She told herself to. She said aloud, “You must, you must,” but all she could think of as she settled more slowly downward was the insidious movement of the sand inching up her supine body, crawling into her ears, touching her cheeks, slithering like menace incarnate towards her nose.
Do we really need to hear all those words in Alatea’s head—words her husband, who isn’t a character in the novel, once said to her? George could have just described Alatea’s situation, said she was scared and worried she might sink. She could have said that in perhaps two sentences. Instead, we get a full page of her husband’s careful instructions on how to deal with the sand in the bay where they lived.
The information isn’t all that important to the scene, since Alatea can’t use it. It merely confirms to her what a predicament she is in. We learn from the passage that he’s gone, she wasn’t raised here, that she is scared but trying to stay calm. It’s masterfully shown through character voice.
Let’s look at a last passage for today:
He knew nothing about fishing, but that was hardly the point. Zed Benjamin understood that the point was not to catch fish or even hope to catch fish but rather to look like he was fishing. So he’d borrowed a rod from the tottering owner of his B & B, who gave him chapter and verse on her late husband and the wasted hours he’d spent with his fishing line in the waters of this lake, that stream, or whatever bay. She handed over a tackle basket, as well, along with a slicker that fit Zed’s arm but nothing else and a pair of Wellingtons that were altogether useless to him. She pressed a folding stool upon him and wished him luck. Her husband, she told him, had had virtually none. According to her, the man had caught fifteen fish in twenty-five years. He could see the record if he wanted to because she’d kept it, every time the bloody man left the house and returned empty-handed. Could be he’d been having an affair, she said, because when one really put one’s head to the matter—
Zed had thanked her hastily and had driven to Arnside, where he found, with thanks to God, that the tide was in. He’d established himself on the seawall path, just beneath Nicholas Fairclough’s house, and there he’d cast his line into the water. The line was baitless. The last thing he wanted was actually to catch a fish and have to do something with it. Like touch it.
Now that Scotland Yard knew that he was in the vicinity, he had to take care. Once they clocked him—whoever they were—his job was going to be even more difficult. He needed to know exactly who they were—assuming it was a they, because didn’t they work in teams like on the telly?
From there we learn more about Zed’s situation. But really—did we need to read all about the innkeeper’s monologue about her husband’s “fishing” expeditions? No. But, it’s highly entertaining in a number of ways. It’s amusing because we can truly picture this woman standing there talking his ear off. We get a sense that he’s being polite, but he’s quick to “hastily” interrupt her and make his exit, loaded down with all this stuff, which makes a humorous picture.
George could have started the scene with Zed already fishing, even recalling the words of the “tottering” innkeeper, and that would have worked as well. She could have shown him fishing and worrying about the Yard finding him, briefly explaining where he got the fishing gear. But then we would have missed all that wonderful narrative told in a masterful style that revealed character.
Yes, the narrative revealed more about the innkeeper than Zed. But it’s engaging, and we can picture Zed quite clearly. He has a need, but in addition to wanting to hurry, he needs to present a specific appearance, which he’s careful to don. He has an aversion to touching a fish, which I find a nice personality touch, implying he’s doing an activity that is actually distasteful, but he feels it’s necessary. He’s a large man, it seems, and not all that intellectual. An average kind of guy who watches the telly.
I hope you enjoyed these passages and learned some masterful technique. I’ve often said that characters make a story, and when you bring your characters to life with strong, unique voices that reveal motivation, need, and personality, you begin to write masterfully.
Your thoughts on the passages?
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