Applying the Feedback Series: Voice

Feedback is a crucial part of a writer’s efforts to grow their craft. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment when someone said something about our writing that pushed it to the next level. Hard to hear but exactly what we needed at that time. Maybe they introduced us to the concept of filter words or deep POV. Maybe they told us that our dialogue sounded like writing and not people talking.  Or maybe they pointed out we were dumping in our world building instead of sprinkling it in. 

But one of the trickiest things when it comes to feedback, is knowing how to apply it. Sometimes you are told something isn’t working– but aren’t sure what you need to do to change that.

This is particularly true when the feedback comes from industry professionals like agents or editors. They often don’t have time to explain why something isn’t working– just that it isn’t.

So to kick off 2022, I’m going to write a series of blog posts on how to apply some of the most common critiques of fiction writing. And this first post relates to the topic of voice.

Voice. That elusive gem of a skill that makes all writers quake. We all know it when it find it– when we read a story and feel like a real flesh and blood person is talking to us and not a character. But how do we manufacture it? What do you do when someone says, “It lacked voice.” Or the dreaded “The voice didn’t grab me.”

Know your character well and make sure your narrative reflects who they are

Who is your character? What do they care about and notice? What lies do they believe and where did they come from? Are they bubbly? Reserved? A smart arse?

So often we can answer all those questions. But if someone was to read a paragraph from that characters POV– none of this would come through. Because we are writing the story as if we personally are riding along with the protagonist describing events, rather than letting the characters voice do it for us.

Let who they are dictate how the story is told. Are they an artist? Then they will likely use highly specific colour names. Are they are builder? Then they might comment on a buildings structure or what materials it’s made of. Are they a kid? Then (unless they are unusually precocious) they won’t use grown up words like…well, precocious.

The first thing to do to work on voice is to get to know your character. Strengthening them will only help your story– and writing as them and not you will start to give them voice. 

Write like your character is speaking to a close friend

Imagine I visited a friend’s new house for the first time. How might I describe it? I might say how many rooms there are, bring up that it’s a corner block and the backyard is small. I might say that it’s brick with cream trimmings.

But how would I talk to my sister about it?

For one thing- I’d draw on our shared experience. Id talk about how it had the homely old-fashion feel of Nan’s place. I’d talk less about the cosmetic details and more about what mattered to me- like how it had a gorgeous fireplace and how much I was looking forward to hanging out with my friend there on cold winter nights.   But I’d also talk about how it made me feel. About how the meticulous condition made me feel like a house-keeping failure or how I nearly cried seeing my friend finally find a home after a rough couple of years.

This isn’t a question of using slang or casual language. It’s a question of intimacy. Part of the beauty of voicey prose is really getting a window into a characters soul. So next time you are struggling with voice- imagine the character speaking to a friend.

It also helps with distance– an issue that will come in another post.

Get Out of your Own Way

Part of the issue I suspect with voice is confidence. We are trained from an early age to write in a formal way. We want our words to sound pretty. We have a narrative style that probably got us A’s through highschool and we don’t want to mess with that.

Writing with our characters voice can be an intimidating change, and can feel awkward when we first try it.

If you suspect you have more voicey prose in you, but are nervous that it will sound weird or wrong, I recommend writing something outside of your story. Maybe a backstory scene. Something that will never makes its way into the story itself, so the pressure is off to make it perfect.

Then, once the voice is settled in your mind and you are comfortable with it, you can go back to your novel and incorporate your new voicey style.

If you can write compelling, voicey dialogue then you can write compelling, voicey narrative. So give yourself permission! Get out of your own way and give it a try!

But sometimes…

But sometimes, sadly, it’s just not a good fit.

Sometimes it’s not that the character lacks voice and that’s why it didn’t grab the agents interest. Sometimes there is voice for days! But just like we all have different taste in books, sometimes we have different taste in voice too.

So if you are confident in your voice and if betas love it, then don’t despair! It might be that the next agent is the one that can’t resist your work.

I hope this post is helpful. And if there is some mysterious feedback that you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments.

A Letter to Myself for When I Receive Feedback

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Dear Belinda,

First of all- hugs. Good on you for putting yourself out there, for taking your hard work and risking it out there in the world. It’s a big deal and I’m proud of you. But those hugs aren’t just congratulatory ones. I know you’re hurting. And I’m sorry. Know that the tears and the disappointment will happen, and will keep happening. But also know it will pass.

I think one of the hardest things is the shock. You should be prepared for it, you’ve been receiving feedback for years now, and you know what it’s like. You know how much you have improved, and how helpful it is to find out what’s wrong and how to fix it. That a second set of eyes is crucial for making your work the best it can be. Maybe that is why it feels so strange every time. Because you know all these things, but for a day or two, you turn back into that Year Seven girl, crying because your English Teacher wrote “good grief!” on your melodramatic prose.

It isn’t that you thought it was perfect.  It isn’t even that you now think you’re no good. You’ve been doing this long enough to know that the writers who succeed aren’t the ones who have the most talent, they are the ones who keep improving and never give up.

Really it is about the time. You’ve worked hard and you’ve climbed the mountain and got so far. And then you realise that you have only reached a small peak on the side, and the rest of the mountain towers before you, just as high and difficult as before. You’ve given up sleep and TV and all kinds of things to get this as good as you could, and now there is more sacrifice, more climbing to go.

And all you want to do is throw the story in the bin and pick up another one. As if the problem is the mountain you chose and not the reality that getting better requires patience.

So I’m hear to remind you it’s okay. This is a marathon and not a sprint. And you aren’t in this for fame or money or because you are being forced. You made this choice. You decided that the story, that this sacrifice was worth it. That the view from the heights is worth the pain of the climb. And deep down you know it is, despite your tears.

So Belinda, I will allow you to wallow for a day or two, but no more. Work on other things. Why don’t you write a blog post? Expressing your feelings always makes you feel better.

And then in two days pick that feedback up again. It’ll be like reading something new. All those positive comments will shine out, instead of fading to the background. The things that didn’t work will become possibilities. And you’ll see it.  That new peak to climb. It isn’t that much further to go. And how much better will the view be?

Think what this story you love could become. You owe it to yourself to find out. You’ve got this.

Love Belinda

Questions to Ask when Editing your Second Draft

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard

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A year and a half ago I finished the first draft of The Librex.  But when I came back to it after a break, I knew it needed more than a check for punctuation errors.  The entire structure needed a re-haul.

But it was hard to know where to start.  I wasted time, knowing a scene didn’t work, but not knowing how to fix it.

But last year I also had the privilege of doing a Fantasy writing course with writer CS Pacat.  One of the most helpful things she covered was what keeps readers engaged, or as she calls it ‘Narrative traction’.  She argued readers keep reading because of the promise that what will be on the next page will be even better than what you are reading now.  Narrative traction can be tension or suspence, but it is more than that.  What’s the reader waiting for?  It might be crucial information about the world and how it works.  It might be a romantic moment between characters.  And drawing on her lessons, I came up with some helpful questions to ask as I worked on my second draft.

What will the readers want to know? AND What will readers want to see?

Is there any information that the reader will want to know?  Information about a particular magic system?  A character’s past?  Something that the reader will be curious to find out about your story, characters or world.

And what will readers want to see?  What aspects of the story are fun or novel?  What characters are entertaining?  They might be things that are already in your story.  Or there might be things that you decide to add because you know the readers will be wishing it was there.

And once you know the answers to these questions, you can structure the novel accordingly.

If there is something the reader will want to know, you might decide to hold off telling it to keep the reader hooked.

Similarly, if there is something you readers want to see you might hint that it will happen eventually to keep them turning the page.

Or alternatively, it might involve giving the people want they want.  I knew, from my own feelings and from the few people who read my book, that one minor character was compelling.  So I used that.  I included more scene’s with him.  I used him to get across information that the reader needed to know.  And I gave him a history with a character who comes up later in the book, so that when we met said character, we are already pre-disposed to care about him by association.

The secret is, you always want the reader wanting more.  If you give a tasty piece of info, or if you give the readers what they want, make sure there there is a question left hanging, or a new scene they are dying to see, to keep them hooked.

What scenes will excite your readers (and what about them make them work)?

The question “What scenes will excite your readers?” is helpful in two ways.  First it tells you where you have nailed it!  These are the scene’s that are worth keeping.  But secondly, it will help you work out how to make your other scenes better, or what scenes to add.  There is a type of magic in my novel that my husband loves, and every time we talk about my novel he demands I add more.  Knowing which scene’s work and why, can help you to give the readers more of what they want.

But then you have to look at what is not working.

What will the reader skim through?

My husband ‘read’ my first draft by listening to me read it aloud as he offered special comments along the way.  This was fun, occasionally painful, and a great learning experience.  If my husband insisted we kept going, I knew the scene was working.  But if he ended a scene by saying, “that’s enough for now, let’s read some more tomorrow”, it was almost guaranteed that the scene was dull.

And even without a guinea pig, if we are honest with ourselves, we can usually work out which scene don’t work.

So what happens when you realise that a scene is the kind of scene a reader will skim through?  You then are faced with two options:

Scrap it

OR

Add drama and tension to the scene to make it engaging.

Some scene’s just need to be scrapped and that is okay.  A big part of structural editing is getting rid of dead-weight.  If a scene isn’t engaging, or doesn’t move the story forward, then it doesn’t belong in the novel.  If there is something important that the reader needs to know, but it is otherwise a boring scene, either change up the scene so it engages, or add the info to another scene.

ACT II of the Librex started with a skim forward in time, and a navel gazing internal monologue from the protagonist about how much she had changed, and how she hadn’t.  It was (embarrassingly) terrible and I scrapped it.

But I was able to add in a scene where two characters (in the protagonist’s hearing), argued about whether she was ready for a particular promotion.  It was two characters we had never seen alone together, who had a complicated history and huge stakes in the protagonists path. It got across the same information as the navel gaze, but was now full of drama and tension.

Exposition Questions

Exposition is one of the banes of Fantasy writing.  You have created your own world, and so there is copious tomes of information to pass on to the reader, so they can understand the world and the story.  But no one picks up a fantasy book because they are dying to read an essay about imaginary fauna.  They pick it up for the story.

One struggle at the moment in my other novel is that that I have lots of information to get across about a particular crop (which is unique to my world and quite crucial to the story).  But not everyone (okay, almost no one) is interested in fabricated, fantasy agriculture by itself.

I was grappling with this when a member of my writing group gave me two helpful questions to ask when struggling with how to do exposition:

When will the reader be most excited to get this info?

And

How can I make the reader want to know this info?

I realised that the start of a novel was NOT the time for dumping info about my beloved grain.  Much better to give little information early (on a needs to know basis) and then to get more information across when it was relevant to the story, and the reader cares.

Or in The Librex, I had a character explain, before we meet a someone, that they did a terrible thing. But in my second draft, I took that scene out.  Now we met the character with a fresh slate.  We grew to like them.  So BANG, when I dropped the news of what they had done, we cared.  This news now had a significant emotional impact on the protagonists, and hopefully the reader.

So those are the questions that are helping me through my second draft.

What about other writers out there?  What questions help you edit your second draft?

 

The first fear hurdle

Dreams are delightful.  They start when you are young.  For me it was always the dream to be a famous author.  When I realised I didn’t have the face for TV/Movies, or the voice for singing, I was left with writing.  But don’t misunderstand me, it was not the poor cousin!  Writing was the best of the lot.  Books were magical. They transported you into a new persons head and let you live out their interesting/scary/powerful/exciting lives.  The idea that I could make such a power object was a rather delightful fantasy, even as a small child.

And dreams are a lovely distraction.  Walking along my leafy street, pushing a heavy pram filled with heavy children, it is wonderful to dream of a possible future time where people might want to read my books.  Of book-signings and fans and travel and money.  And even knowing the reality that at least number 4 is unlikely to happen, it is still delightful to dream.

And the beautiful thing about writing a novel is, that for most of its creation there is no one to question your dream.  There is no objective voice saying “I’m not sure you are really capable of this task.”

And then you finish.

On the 1st of Jan this year, I stood by the desk at Officeworks, chatting with a friendly shop assistant about why I wanted two bound, identical copies of my 400 page document.

“I wrote a novel.”

“Oh, really, I want to read it.”  She grins and turns to the screen between us

“No, don’t.  I’m embarrassed.  It’s only a first draft” I splutter, throwing up my hands to block my words.  She frowns and nods, and then begins to interrogate me about how one goes about getting such a thing published.

I answer, the awkwardness of the exchange fading.  But it hit me then what it meant to be finished.  Suddenly my novel wasn’t just my novel, and my dreams weren’t just a fun distraction from the ordinariness of life.  My novel and my dreams were going to be tested.

I have taken the first step of that testing, passing those 400 pages on to my sister and my husband.  And as much as I love them and they love me, it was a terrifying step.  There has been helpful and painful feedback, in fact some of the most helpful feedback has been encased in some painful truths.  But this is only the beginning.  Not just for my novel but for the short stories that I am currently writing.  They will be sent out to magazines, and according to every authors biography that I have ever read, they will be rejected.  And people who have no interest or investment in my dreams will read my novel and decide that it is “not a good fit” or worse, “not of a publishable quality.”

There is a great deal of fear that I must push to through if I am ever going to get my novel published.

One hurdle down.  Many, many more to go.

Welcome to my new blog.  This blog will be a reflection on writing, some reviews and reflections on books and television, and bits of everyday life as well. Thanks for reading 🙂