Friday, November 6, 2009

Tips to Finding Your Writer’s Voice

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The word, “voice” is batted around in literary circles and agents always speak of looking for the “unique voice.” However, few new writers understand the concept of their voice, let alone how to develop the skill.

Some say “voice” cannot be taught, while others say it is the easiest thing for an author to develop. In my opinion, it’s already within you. All you have to do is find it and usher it forth.

What is “voice” and what purpose does it serve?

Well, defines it as, “The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book. The phrase I see as most important in that definition is, “distinctive style”. I believe the purpose of voice is to identify an individual author and to attract readers and hold their attention. It is the way you, the author, artistically project your personality.

To apply this concept to an individual author, his voice is that unique quality within the way he lays words on the page. It is the combination of tone, syntax or grammar usage, and the way he combines the words he chooses. It is his distinct flavor or personality as it shows on the printed page.

So how might one develop their distinctive voice? Here are some tips:

Write with Your Heart.

Make sure the words you put on the page are from your personality. When you do this, your voice virtually comes to life of its own accord. Not to say editing won’t be necessary, but to find your voice, seek your words from within your essence. Don’t try to mimic another writer. You should certainly study and learn from them, but your words must be your words.

Write in the Manner You Might Speak to Those Close to You.

When speaking with friends, family members or loved ones, your tone is different when compared that manner of speech you’ll use in a business situation. Your words come more from the heart and their clarity is enhanced. Allow that personal side of you to shine through when you write and your voice will ring true.

Visualize Your Reader.

As writers, we should have our audience in mind at all times. Imagine those who read your novel or nonfiction work as your friend and write to that friend.

Read Widely in All Types of Genres.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ve heard me say to read widely from within your genre. To assist in developing your voice, however, you need to read other types of works, too. Read everything on which you can lay your hands. Find those authors who appeal to you and study the way they employ the language. This will give you a “feel” for how your voice will sound and how it will come across to those who read your books. It matters not that you do or don’t like what you read. The purpose here is to identify and identify with other writers’ voices.

Play with Your Voice.

Write, write then write some more. Experiment with finding ways to put your heart onto the page before you. Write short stories, press releases, non-fiction, magazine articles, a children’s story. Just write. They don’t have to be long, tedious things, and don’t worry about trying to break out of your genre. Don’t over-think it. Just play with the words in different situations as see what falls out of you by rote.

Write. Write a Lot.

I had a saying I often used with my children on their road to adulthood. In fact, I used it so often it’s now THE family joke. That saying was, “Practice, practice, practice.” I know, it sounds inane, but this is still the best way to develop your writer’s voice.

Look for Patterns in Your Writing.

Someone once told me the person who sees the pattern to things is the one who gets wealthy. Use this idea on yourself to find your voice. Look for the serendipity in your writing. What is it you tend toward automatically? These patterns will exhibit themselves in time and within them, you’ll see your natural voice. Welcome it and it will become even more prevalent in your writing.

How Might One Develop Their Voice?

Try this exercise. Write a rough draft of something. This first penning is where you think the least about what it is you’re writing. Don’t go back right away to review what you wrote. Set it aside and come back to it in a week or a month. When you pick it up the following month, you’ll see more of your voice than you realized when you first put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, as it were. When you review it, highlight those words or phrases that appeal to you. Remove everything else on the page then put it aside again. In another month, review what’s left. You may be surprised to find your voice within those highlighted phrases.

You might also try this. Set a mood wherever it is you write. Place things around you that irritate you. (Maybe you can surround yourself with photos of the boss and ex-wife.) Make sure you use as many of your senses as possible. (Use the ex’s perfume, for example.) The key here is not to be shy about what you’re doing. Once you find yourself slipping into that mood, write with abandon, without thought, and see what happens. Do this with all the various moods you experience. Try joy, anger, love. Once your surroundings put you in the mood, write like a crazy person. Your voice may just show up and stay for a while. If it does stop by, you’ll notice things like sentence length, word choices, metaphors, similes and the like. You’ll see how you turn that proverbial phrase and what might be your natural cadence. In effect, you’ll notice your writing patterns and your voice therein.

How does one know when they’ve found and matured their voice? It’s when each of your characters has a voice of their own. It’s a fun day when you realized this maturity in your writing.

Once you find and perfect your individual voice, I think you’ll find your writing surge into those places previously unknown to you.

Best of luck in finding your voice and may all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How to Punctuate Dialogue

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For many authors punctuation is difficult even without using ellipses, colons and semicolons. Why, even the simple apostrophe is peculiar all by itself. And when you start tossing dialogue around, well, punctuation can get well into scary.

Let’s consider the purpose punctuation serves, shall we? I once heard that all those interesting symbols are the traffic signs of the writer’s world. Interesting analogy, I think. However, in real life, punctuation serves to clarify your writing, improve the rhythm of the written word, defines the structure of within writing and identifies what is being said, as with quotation marks.

To be honest, I’ve looked at this computer screen for an hour or so and still have no idea of how to tell you to use punctuation in dialogue. In lieu of a series of definitions, I’m going to employ a series of examples.

Let’s first examine a typical spoken comment.

A. “Do you see Mary running?”

The punctuation of this is simple enough. Quotation marks belong at each end of the spoken words. Other punctuation, in this case the question mark, is enclosed by the quote marks.

Our second example is the classic “said” sentence.

B. John said, “See Mary run.”

If a tagline begins the sentence, a comma and then a space are inserted immediately after the tagline. The quotation marks are placed around the spoken words. The first letter of the spoken words is always capitalized and the trailing punctuation, in this case a period, is placed inside the quotes. Enter a space for the next sentence as usual.

(See how simple this is?)

The next example shows the same sentence with the tag at the end.

C. “See Mary run,” said John.

The quotation ends with a comma, which is bracketed within the quotes. (As the quote is not the end of the sentence, a comma replaces the period found in the prior illustration.) This is followed by a space and then the speech tagline and your period. As always, the first letter in the spoken words is capitalized.

Let’s now use punctuation in a more complex dialogue environment.

D. John said, “See Mary run,” then he walked to the door.

You can see the same rules incorporated in the first two examples are in play here. The sentence starts with a tagline, which is followed by a comma and a space. Next, open quotes and a capital letter begin the verbalization. A comma is inserted at the end of the spoken words, which is then followed by the close quotes, a space and the rest of the sentence. Note: if the first word after a quote is a proper noun, it is capitalized as with normal punctuation.

We’ll now look at the same type of sentence, but with the tagline in the center.

E. “Hello, everyone,” John said, “we hope you’re having a good morning.”

Getting trickier now, isn’t it? Here we have a situation where quotes begin and end a sentence. Not to worry, the same rules already discussed will apply.

You start the sentence with your opening quotation marks and a capital letter. You end the first quote with a comma and your close quotes, then a space. Next, you add your tagline, which if followed by a comma and another space. This tagline is capitalized only because it begins with a proper noun. Your second quote begins with another opening quote and a lowercase letter. (Unless the second quote begins with a proper noun which would be capitalized.) At the end of the sentence, you close with a period and your close quote. Add one last space and you’re ready for the next sentence.


Now let’s evaluate a quote that requires something other than a period or a comma.

F. “I feel so excited!” said Mary.

G. “Are you enjoying yourself?” asked John.

In these cases, where a comma or period does not adequately punctuate the quoted words, you might wish to finish your quotation with a question mark or exclamation point. The secret, as noted above, is to enclose this punctuation within the closing quotation mark. In effect, it replaces the comma we’ve already seen. These spoken words are followed by the close quote, a space and the tag. Don’t forget the entire sentence still ends with a period and your tagline begins with a lowercase letter, assuming it is not a proper noun.

We’ve discussed the spoken word, how then does one handle thought instead of the spoken word?

H. John wondered, Is she enjoying herself?

I. Is she enjoying herself? John wondered.

J. John thought, She is enjoying herself!

In the case where someone is thinking instead of speaking, all the same punctuation rules apply, except you omit the formal quotation marks. Today, some writers italicize the thought, whereas other writers do not. I prefer the italics. You’ll see examples of both options listed. In examples “H” and “J”, you’ll note John’s actual thought begins with a capital letter, as it would if they were spoken words inside quotation marks.

*Take deep breath here.*

Now, for a few other quick tips on how to punctuate the spoken word.

Every time the speaker changes, the paragraph changes.

“Are you having fun?” John asked.

“Oh, yes. A great deal,” Mary said.

John said, “I’m so glad.”

Insure the speaker is obvious to the reader. Taglines are one way to identify your speaker, though they are not necessary with every line of dialogue.

In the following paragraphs, the reader has no idea if it is John or Mary speaking.

“Are you having fun?”

“Oh, yes. A great deal.”

“I’m so glad.”

Taglines after every quote will have a dulling effect on your writing, so you may identify speakers in other ways, too.

Here are some elementary examples.

“Are you having fun?” John turned toward her to ask the question.

“Oh, yes. A great deal.” Mary was uncomfortable with his continued, overt attention.

“I’m so glad.” John felt himself relax when she answered in the positive.

This dialogue is stilted, I know, but it shows taglines are not necessary to identify who is speaking.

The tagline, “said”, also needs careful attention for it is devoid of emotion and can make your dialogue sound wooden and uninteresting.

In the same vein, other verbs often used as tags can be overused. Verbs such as, “shouted,” or “chuckled,” or “sneered” should be judiciously employed. Replace them with sentences as shown in the prior example.

Be creative in so far as placement of your speech taglines.

Though you should use them with care, you may feel free to insert them in various places within your sentences. As outlined above, they can come at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle or at the end.

As your writing improves, you’ll use fewer taglines.

That is to say your writing will exhibit emotion without the need for them. This is often done with preceding or following sentences. An example follows.

“Sure, John, I can see you Friday night.” By the time Mary hung up, she already knew she had the perfect dress for the occasion.

*Exhale here.*

I hope I’ve covered the major aspects of punctuating dialogue for you. If you have specific questions, drop a comment in the box and I’ll be glad to see if I can’t help.

In the mean time, my all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Secret to Dialogue vs. Dialect

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Aspiring authors struggle with many issues and one of the most onerous is dialect. How does a writer present the correct vernacular in his story and meet contemporary readers’ expectations? One sees the challenge when considering dialects through time, from around the world, within nations and even within regions.

Remember, I’m not talking about languages among peoples, but the way the same language is spoken by various individuals. As I’m from the United States, I’ll use my own home as an example and think of four people all saying the same statement in the vernacular of their unique location within the country.

First, let’s consider a construction worker from New York City inviting someone to fight.

“Yo! Ya wanna piece o’me? I’ll give ya a piece of dis right between the eyes, asshole.”

Next, listen to a shipyard worker from Newport News, Virginia asking the same question.

“Ya want I should kick yer ass, dickweed?”

Now consider how a Midwesterner might ask the same thing.

“Why, I outta whip yer butt. Think you might enjoy that?”

And finally, consider a college kid, fresh from surfing the California coast, readying his fists.

“Mello, Dude. Take a toke and chill.” (They don’t fight, but you get the point.)

In addition to the words themselves, infuse each of those statements with tone, inflection, physical gestures, and so on, and you have quite the cacophony within a single nation. Also, notice all the misspellings, colloquialisms, and punctuation. It all makes for a difficult read to those not accustomed to these speech patterns.The challenge for writers is to present these varied dialects into a readable, enjoyable style for the modern reader.

There is a secret I learned from the wonderful and successful author, Susann Cokal, when she sat on a panel and I was in the audience. Her genre is historical fiction within the medieval era and if she were to ask the same question as the American counterparts above, she might write something to this effect; “Forsooth, faire sir, for must I smite thee?” This might be how a knight of Olde England might challenge another, but if she wrote in this fashion today, it would be difficult for modern readers to appreciate her work.

Her advice was to look past the words, past the intonations, past all those oppressive commas and contractions. Look instead to the cadence, the music, within the vernacular and mimic that. Listen for how the words flow within the dialect and use contemporary wording within the flow.

Imagine a man speaking in a Southern drawl as bellies up to a bar in Houston, Texas in the late nineteenth century. Do not think of his words. Imagine instead his conversation as if wordless. Can you picture his actions, his facial expressions, his mannerisms? Using mostly modern terminology, write what you see in lieu of his words. If you do so effectively, the reader will appreciate the cowboy’s dialogue.

Imagine a Tutu tribesman in the eighteenth century preparing for battle. Can you see him swinging his spear overhead while dancing with his fellow warriors before the fire? Can you hear the high-pitched vocalization of the fighter? Can you imagine his fierce countenance as the flames cast shifting shadows across it? Visualize not what he says, but rather what he feels and then wrap your dialogue around those feelings.

You might continue with a limited number of colloquiums or abbreviations for authenticity, but keep those to a minimum.

My writing centers on the time during the American Civil War, a time when human bondage was prevalent in the USA and it was illegal to educate a black. Let’s listen to what I envision as a typical slave speaking to his master.

“Yeah, sah. I’s done puttin’ suppah on da plate fo’ ya an’ ya’ chillin.”

In this sentence there are fourteen words, ten of which are misspelled, plus five apostrophes. It’s readable, but will probably cause the reader to slow their pacing and read it a second or even third time.

Now I’ll try to write the same sentence while matching the dialect but making it palatable for the reader.

“Yes, sah. I’s putting supper on a plate for you and yah children.”

Though I retained a couple idioms to enhance the authenticity, it now has only one less word, but seven fewer misspellings and just one apostrophe. If you read both sentences with the mannerism you might expect a slave to exhibit, you’ll see the dialect is left intact yet the readability is enhanced.

Yes, it takes practice. It takes a lot of practice. But as with any craft, work at it and the technique will soon become a natural part of the dialogue you write.

I’ll write more on dialogue later in the week, kind readers. In the mean time, may all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze