All posts by AmericanClare

Writer, traveler, mom, recovering MG teacher, photographer, the usual.

Creating Voice #amwriting

With this post I am focusing on voice. I’m asking for your feedback as well for a change. Below are three examples of the same information but in three different voices. Why and how are they different? Notice the sentence structure and word choice, the tense and point of view. The tones should be similar but not identical. Comments welcome!

Ed
You know when you picture yourself in a show down with some person who has caused you grief; when you see yourself blocking their punch or doing some sort of fancy spin thing where they end up with their arm behind their back completely at your mercy? That is not how it ever really goes. I know it. You know it. They do too. What actually happens is they shout and embarrass you and make you feel small in front of God and everybody. And then you say ‘fuck off,” before shuffling away to relive the moment in your head for the next five years, coming up with amazing come-backs and learning self defense so that if you ever see them again you can actually karate chop them in half. Ok, not that last bit, but you get it, right? You can’t stop, especially when they’ve really ruined everything for you – the place where it happened, the people it happened in front of too. It just keeps coming up like too much tequila. I only hope it doesn’t drive me crazy one day, one of the many more days I have to spend with my tormentor. At home. Every day.

Eddie
I had that moment. That moment where you feel like you are 12 again. Or whatever age it was when you felt most bullied (ages? decades?). She came in and just shit all over me, screeching my faults in front of the whole office; the whole world for me who has little else. It was almost like I wasn’t there. Like she only came in to ruin it for me. Or was it that she thought if she did it here I wouldn’t push back? Obviously she isn’t wrong. I didn’t. She left, an almost deflated look in her eyes, whilst every other eye in the office looked away from me. I was a ghost until I left for lunch and didn’t return. And all I could think going down the elevator was how I should’ve fought back. I thought of intelligent arguments and sarcastic replies. I even imagined hitting her, but in that movie way where people fly up and backwards against walls. I don’t want to hurt her like that really, but I get to imagine it, right? I imagine more, worse even, until long after dark, after she’s kissed me goodnight.

Edward
The woman’s mouth ripples as her voices rises to a shout, giving forth on the man’s every failure as a being in the world at large. All the while he shrinks down into his battered leather shoes, down into the thread bare carpet, and further into the shell he created for himself when he came to work in this unimportant office. She shatters it. She crushes it under a shoe of razored words that are designed to cause harm and see that he can no longer hide here. He senses it, the crumbling away, and part of his mind sees that she’s doing it so the only place left for him will be with her, though he can’t quite touch it in the blood red of the moment. Afterward, when she’s slammed her way out of the room, he evaporates from the heat of it and escapes as steam into the street where he can be anonymous again and forever. While he drifts, he sees himself a hero. Visualizes all the ways he could have saved himself but his mind turns away from the righteousness anyone would forgive him for and darkens to the ways he could end her. Even if it means an end to him. He will make a dozen plans before he sleeps, long after she’s turned out the light.

Ways I create and maintain voice:

  • Reading the dialogue aloud with someone else. Helps you see where things don’t quite fit or if the characters sound too similar.
  • When I am writing YA, I can’t read outside of YA. At least not much. I have to stay in genre so I can maintain the young voice. Like an actor keeping an accent through filming.
  • I generally give characters a phrase or tick or habit in a first draft. It helps me keep them distinct. In later drafts I mostly remove it. I also replace it with other movements or similar things, but try to keep repetition low unless the character has a genuine tick of some sort.
  • When writing more literary fiction, I sometimes write a scene with no dialogue. Then write it again only using dialogue. Then see where the two meet and gel.
  • Similarly, when stuck it can help to write a bit from the perspective of a different character in the story for a bit, even if you don’t use it. The knowledge it gives you will help you.
  • If you are writing for children, be aware of reading levels. Don’t write literary fiction for 9-11 year-olds.
  • Show don’t tell. In the case of voice, when we are telling, telling, telling, it’s often because our character has become inactive. Give them something to do even if it is as simple making tea or opening the post.

 

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Top Ten ways to fight Impostor Syndrome

I started to write a concise list of ways to fight Impostor Syndrome and then I decided I didn’t know enough about it to come up with a list that long.

This is how Impostor Syndrome starts. I have an idea, I write it down and think, “Yes, I like this!” Then I do lots of free writing until I come to the conclusion that I am useless as a writer and a person. That was me as teenager trying to give life to my ideas. A million brilliant starts that burnt out in a fizzle of self doubt. This was also because I was a total pantser (someone who writes with no plan) which, for me, meant I couldn’t sustain an idea through my self doubt to ever complete a project. Oh the many of episodes of MacGyver that I didn’t complete. The world is less for the lack of them.

Later, when I learned to write in a stricter academic setting, I found I could sustain ideas to an end goal well in subjects I liked but especially for teachers that I admired. Nothing gets me to write a shiny dissertation faster than a lovely old woman in cardigan telling me how much she’d like to see my thoughts on _literally anything_. This type of writing though is a game. You learn what the person wants to hear, their pet theories, the shiny keys into their good graces. I was and am good at that type of writing. I can song and dance you all day. But it won’t be authentic.

Years go by and I have degrees. Yes, plural. I gain experience, knowledge, and wisdom. I learn my strengths as a writer and editor. I leave academic writing behind and start to focus on my fiction skills. I read* those books you’re supposed to about plot, character, style, and world building. As I share my writing more widely, people seem to like it. As I edit more, those relationships seem good too. I write three complete manuscripts over five years, editing each one several times. One of them gets some buzz, seems to be going somewhere and I feel pretty confident about its future.

Cured, right? Never. Never. It just never goes away people! I wrote a 700+ word essay on my own experience and opinion for literary blog and I was totally certain they were just going to laugh it off – thanks but no thanks lady who thinks she can write. It went live today. I shared the opening of my current MS with a successful writer I know via Twitter. I convinced myself she was going to reply about the long road ahead towards getting into publishable shape. She loved it (had some good suggestions too).

I know I’m not alone in these feelings. Why do we do this? Why do we insist to ourselves that our words and ideas aren’t good enough? Writers with 20 books published feel this way as often or more so than those of us reaching for that agent contract. Obviously, it is partly because these works are parts of our soul. It’s like walking naked into a crowd and going, “So take a look and get back to me with your thoughts.”

Is the only way through to join a nudist colony? I think it might help. The more I share my work as well as my skills with others, the better I feel. Not because of compliments or awards, though those are very very nice, but because of the company and support. What a brilliant group of people writers (often) are and what supportive community we have (ignore those trolls). So for at least the seventh time on this blog, I will recommend sharing your work. Get out there, strip down and someone will offer you a blanket and tea.

*By read, I mean start. I have started a lot of books about writing. And, even the best ones, eventually I just can’t take it anymore and I have to stop because they make me want to write. It’s like reading about ice cream or amazing pasta. Eventually it’s just torture to be reading rather than writing. Honestly, I am a better writer for it. At least I think I am.

Me+Joanne Harris’ #TenThingsAboutWritingEmotions – That Emo Life

These are the ten tweets plus my commentary and some examples that I wrote. In a writing workshop last week we talked about writing emotion. I really recommend playing and practicing this type of writing outside your current WIP.

1. Emotions are at the core of characterization and engagement with the reader, and yet they’re not always easy to convey effectively.

  • Mama looked from me to the preacher and I knew she wanted me to be silent just this once. 
    • Mama looked me in the eye, holding my gaze as she pulled at her collar, straighten her pearls, and swallowed hard before she looked back at the preacher as though I hadn’t spoken. 

2. There’s a place for stating am emotion simply: (eg; “I suddenly felt afraid,”) but do this too often and it starts to feel very dull.

I would say that rather than dull, it becomes invisible. If you describe a character again as feeling a certain way rather than showing us that emotion:

  • She felt afraid. Her fears bubbled again. The fear was back and had become paralyzing.
    • As the day went on, her head began to ache, her shoulders constantly tense.
      What had begun as a headache had now spread across her body, she felt like a spring wound too tight.
      And now it flooded her, the snap of her fear released to turn into near blinding terror.

3. And it’s easy, when writing about the physical effects of certain emotions, to fall into dry-mouthed, sweaty-palmed cliche.

  • Upon seeing it, his palms began to sweat, knowing soon he’d have to do something about it. 
    • Upon seeing it, his fingers twitched and his toes gripped inside of his leather shoes, and he knew that soon he’d have to do something about it. 

4. It’s worth remembering that a lot of people (hence a lot of characters) may lack both emotional articulacy and self-knowledge. Decide whether or not your character actually *knows* what they’re feeling, and why.

  • After everything that had happened, the great mind boggling mess of it, they still knew they had each other and that their next step was to head straight back into the fray. 
    • They stood looking at each other, their eyes glassy as each replayed the great mind boggling mess of everything that had happened, silently wishing someone else might come along and tell them how to feel and what to do next.

5. Sometimes the best way to describe what someone is feeling is to compare it with something else they’ve felt in the past (eg: current feelings of helplessness, as viewed through a memory of being bullied at school).

This is hard to do in a concise way and though I have written a whole novel wherein flashbacks are key to the plot, I think it is very hard to do this well. Some people can do it and it feels so natural you almost forget they’re flashbacks at all. But I am not one of those people. If you can think of some great example, comment or message me and I’ll amend the post. 

6. Writing about deep emotions is the closest a writer comes to method acting. Make sure your writing is emotionally authentic: (that means, if you’ve never been in love, you may find it hard to write convincingly about it).

I’m sorry, I’m going to call bullshit on this one. You can talk to people who have felt that thing, you can read other portrayals, and you can also imagine yourself in the situation and look at your own reactions for inspiration (though I recommend you do this with a critique partner and/or close friend and be sure to really examine the emotion in your own life or why you lack it). It is not easy. It is not to be done lightly,. But it can be done. We are writers. We can imagine more deeply than most. 

7. Improve your own emotional articulacy and knowledge. Read up on psychoanalysis; human behaviour; the interpretation of dreams.

I recommend reading about cognitive psychology and cognitive development as well as well the recs given above. 

9. Not everyone externalizes their emotions in the same way (or even at all.) Decide how your characters deal with different feelings. Do they vent? Project? Turn in on themselves? Hurt other people? Hurt themselves?

I think everyone has tells. Give your characters one, at least in your early drafts. You can always cut them out later if you find a better way to show it. I personally sigh when I am frustrated and trying not to curse at people. I also very slightly suck my cheeks in when I’m anxious. If you think about your own tells, you will start to see them in your characters too. 

  • Mandy’s voice always sounded like she talking over you. Even when you waited silently for her to finish, she was speaking to the person behind you. The one who might actually do her bidding. 

10. There are many ways of expressing emotions without naming them. Think outside the box. Consider posture; tone of voice; behaviour patterns; interactions with others; even clothing. Everything matters.

I have given characters physical ticks as well as personal rituals in order to show an inner issue on the page that I can’t get to any other way. As I’ve said above, if you need to give them the same repetitive thing in early drafts, do it if only to remind yourself later that those actions need to evolve as the story and their emotions change. 

  • She stood at the kitchen sink as if a thread were being pulled up and out the crown of her head, gazing out at the squat palms that blew sideways as the breeze came down the canyon. Waiting. Waiting to change her mind or for someone to arrive who could stop her from taking the next step even if it seemed inevitable that she’d do it anyway. 

 

 

The above are the combined works and words of Joanne Harris and me. Don’t steal our shit. Thank you. 

Be Careful What You Wish For.

This isn’t a post about how if you become a successful writer it’s actually a huge pain. I’m sure for some people that’s true, but honestly that can be true about any kind of success.

What I mean here is that if you are a writer who is trying to get an agent or win a competition (or both!), you need to be careful about whom you query and which competitions you enter. I’ve already spoken in a previous post about “dream” agents, so let’s talk writing competitions.

It is very easy to think that if you just write a decent draft of a novel or short story or flash fiction that if you send it out enough, you will get somewhere with it. I had a short story a few years ago that I really loved and I sent it out to at least ten different competitions. It was a good short story, if I do say so. But I didn’t win anything with it. I didn’t so much as get long listed (something that I’ve been lucky enough to do several times). I decided that I’d put my research skills into finding a home for this story I loved. And then it hit me – why hadn’t I done that in the first place? After looking up the winners lists and reading the stories for the competitions I’d entered it became glaringly obvious that eight of the ten were never even a possibility. My story, while literary, leaned towards young adult (that is my preferred genre) and only two of the competitions had a short list that contained anything similar.

I had entered competitions based on their deadline dates and my haste to get my work out there. In other words – a bit of ego with a generous sprinkling of naivety. I decided to stop throwing money away and began to be much more vigorous in my research of competitions. I gave myself a tight monthly entry fee budget so I had to really mean it when I entered something. And I’ve won everything I entered since. And I’ve had a much better rate of success.

None of this is to say that if you have a story you love and just choose more carefully you’ll succeed. Because the other part of my mistake was haste. Being in a huge hurry to get work published is probably the most common error I see in editing clients and in competitions entries I read. If you’re still in a rough draft stage or you have yet to put your MS aside for a while and come back to it for a ruthless revision* – for the love of all things literary and wordy – wait. Wait until you can get two things in very good shape. Your opening three to five chapters (depending on the length and genre) and your plot. No one makes a long list that doesn’t have an opening that grabs attention. I personally have edited down the openings of my last two books specifically for competition entries that I later expanded when asked for the whole book. Equally, no one makes a short list that doesn’t have a cohesive plot. Go chapter by chapter and be sure each one moves the story along in some way. No, all of them. Really.

So best of luck to you in your endeavors. Keep at it! I want to read the story that keeps you up at night and burns to rush out into the world. When it’s ready.

*totally stole that phrase from Sara Grant and Karen Ball – fantastic workshop!

Why Rejection is Good.

I have a confession. I have this agent I’d really really love to have. Or at least I think I would. I saw her at an event and every comment she made matched my own opinions. She was funny, passionate, and didn’t care about grammar – just story. I tried to pitch her there and then. It didn’t go well because I was so keen that I made a total idiot of myself. That was over a year ago. I followed her on twitter*, checked podcasts for appearance, and semi-stalked her in that way authors sometimes do when they think they’ve found their agent soul mate.

There’s a problem though. She doesn’t want me. I’ve queried her twice. Once with decent material and once with something I know to be solid and some of my best work. She doesn’t want me. Even worse, upon receiving the second rejection I realize they’re form rejections. Double ouch. Quadruple ouch. I’ve been lucky and across two projects I’ve gotten some really nice personal rejections with constructive criticism and legitimate reasons for a no, like they’re already trying to sell something similar.

Now, I’ve also gotten a lot of ‘I just didn’t connect to the _character/plot/material_.’ Which is another one that hurts. My form rejection from my apparently not-to-be soulmate of an agent put it in a way that set off a light bulb even if I also found it a bit condescending at first. She she pre-formattedly wrote: You deserve an agent who will feel just as passionate about your work as you do. 

My initial feeling was – yes, of course I do but I want YOU to be passionate about my work! Here’s the thing though, she’s not. She’s not going to be and it’s not her, it’s me.

When you are looking for an agent, you cannot set your heart on just one. You cannot choose one based on how their tweets make you laugh (My Rejector!) or their taste in shoes is impeccable (Juliet Mushens) or because you’d really like to have a coffee with them one day (Molly Ker Hawn). You need an agent who is passionate about your writing. You need an agent who likes your style, your voice; who sees the story you want to tell and says ‘Ohhhh!’

I should’ve looked more carefully at this agent’s list of authors and seen that I wouldn’t fit in. Not because I am a lesser writer, but because my style wouldn’t jibe. Some people have truly eclectic lists, but most, if you look carefully, have a what I’ll call a pallet. Writers of similar shades, not in stories told but in how they’re told. This agent I won’t have**, tends toward authors that write in a smart, more literary way. I write contemporary YA with a focus on realistic dialogue, diversity, and mature plots. I write with an eye to being easy to read because I want my stories to be read by teens who might not otherwise or who are reading my book for a break from that god-awful A Tale of Two Cities that sent me running from literature for several years it scarred me so.

Somewhere, there is an agent who will love the kinds of stories I’m telling. And no one else will do. The same is true for you – do not settle for anything less. So, from here on out we are looking at rejections differently. You are interviewing them to join your storytelling team and if they say no, it’s because they are not the right person to promote your book. Nothing more, nothing less. Keep interviewing and researching for the right person and you will find them.

 

*as of this post, i’ve stopped. see there!

**see how I flipped it? I won’t have her!

The Seeds of Greatness

from Paul Simon’s ‘Late in the Evening’

Then I learned to play some lead guitar
I was underage in this funky bar
And I stepped outside to smoke myself a “J”
And when I came back to the room
Everybody just seemed to move
And I turned my amp up loud and I began to play
And it was late in the evening
And I blew that room away

When you listen to this, do you ever hear that line, ‘And I blew that room away’ and think, ‘nah, probably not’? Because he’s talking about just starting out and he’s high and I think probably he was good, but not great. I imagine he had some friends in the front row who said, ‘awesome.’ But I find it hard to believe that in his early days of being a performer, he got up and truly knocked the socks off everyone in the room.

There are however, many people who believe that type of mythology. They see it in movies, read it in books, and hear stories from artists who might possibly be romanticizing their start. I’m not saying geniuses don’t pop up, but even David Bowie reported that his early stuff was awful as have Joni Mitchell and Steven King.

When I was in film school many years ago, I watched the original ’39 Steps’ by Alfred Hitchcock and was deeply relieved to find it unbearably awful. If we try to create from a place of believing that talent is only rooted in some natural place, then we will only ever fail. I think it’s a relief to understand that the mythology around genius is often false. Because it means that better and best are achievable things, rather than unknowable genetic secrets.

So here’s to improving your skills at whatever task you’ve set yourself, though I am here to particularly cheer on your words. Write that terrible first draft and edit it into a shape that you can share with others who will help you fashion it into an ‘over-night’ success. Because the seeds of greatness are there, no matter how murky the water may seem now. Come on, blow us away.

Joanne Harris’ #TenThingsAboutKidsBooks

Joanne’s tweets came about post World Book Day rants (not just by her) regarding celebrity helmed books. I didn’t say celebrity ‘written’ very much on purpose. Tweets are hers, italics are mine. 

1. You wouldn’t think of feeding rubbish to a child because ” it’s just kid food.”

Well, actually I know a few parents who do just that. Feed their kids not great food because it’s easy. That’s what some grownups do with kids books too. They look for the easy, which is sadly often mass-market fiction aimed only at sales with little to no regard for story or message or literacy. 

2. And yet people so often assume that kids’ books are less important than books for adults. They’re not.

Preach, sister friend. 

3. Children’s fiction is a specialist area, requiring a great deal of expertise.

In order to write great kid lit, you have to be aware of things like stages of learning, vocabulary growth, scaffolding of new skills, and you have to have a sense of humor that relies on wit not cruelty or bias. 

4. It is not a shortcut, or an easy option, or a vehicle for your vanity project. It carries a RESPONSIBILITY.

A responsibility not to indulge in your baser instincts or knee-jerk reactions, amongst other things. 

5. Its purpose is to awaken young minds; to encourage imagination and empathy and promote a love of reading.

So you have tell a great story, but not tell it so hard there’s no room for imagination. You have create characters that are flawed, just as kids see themselves, and are still lovable, just as kids need to know they are. 

6. That’s why the writers and illustrators of kids’ books have to be professionals of the highest calibre.

Insert clapping emojis here and repeat. 

7. Children are very good at knowing when they’re being patronised.

They will literally stop reading and throw your book in a corner. 

8. They are also great at calling bullshit on things that are overhyped. If they don’t like it, they won’t read it.

See that corner. 

9. Children’s fiction needs to be as diverse as our society, and a lot more inclusive.

Stories are how young people learn about their society. Once upon a time, around a fire, stories were used to bring children into the tribe. Now that our tribe is so much wider, books have to do that job. The old stories aren’t enough because that group of people didn’t know what we know, they didn’t have neighbors, and they didn’t need to be able to do more than find food and shelter. Today’s children will have to get along in a world that is shrinking the distances between cultures and experiences.

10. That’s why there’s no such thing as “just a kid’s book.” That’s why children’s authors matter.

Bolding is mine because it’s true!