Make More of Voice: Where Language Meets Character

Voice is one of the most difficult things to talk about in writing. We often hear that it is mysterious and impossible to define–a matter of instinct and intuition and writerly magic.

 And while that all sounds nice, it leaves us with the problem that voice is still very much a part of writing craft. I love coming up with the voice of a new story, and while it’s true that some of it does happen by instinct, there are also distinct choices that I make as I go.

I make word lists in my head. What words does my character love? What words would my character never use? A character who uses the word “eat” and one who would say “gorge” are not the same person.

Are there parts of speech that stick out as important? I’ve had characters whose verbs are always strong and active, characters who are very noun-driven, focused on what’s in front of them. Characters who have adjectives for everything in their pockets, and others whose language is stripped down to the barest essentials.

Making these decisions is not arbitrary—they’re hugely telling about who this person is, and how they see the world, how they interact with it. Does your character ask endless questions? Some are always declarative. Others need to wander a bit and look around at the scenery, taking a roundabout and metaphorical path before getting to the point.

Voice tells us about individual personality, but it also relates to groups and identities. There are anchors in where a person comes from, how old they are, what social class they’re a part of, how they were raised and educated. It’s an indicator of their interests, their obsessions.

It’s also a powerful way to reveal relationship. What words and rhythms of speech does this character use in dialogue? How does it shift when the person is the more powerful one in the exchange? The less powerful one? How does the language change when he or she is in love?

In the story I’m currently working on, there is an omniscient narrator, which throughout the story becomes inflected with different voices. MANY different voices. Whenever I drop into a scene, I need to remember how my character talks, how my character thinks and relates to others. I have one character who prefers short sentences. One who has a hard time not being vague. One who loves to swear and use brisk metaphors. Another who tends toward the lyrical, the lilting, the poetic. All of these things are more than just choices to keep them distinct in my head. They’re ways that I get to show character.

We always say this—show, don’t tell. But often, I think we forget that one of the easiest and most basic ways to show character is through the use of language. It’s right there on the page, whispering to the reader about who a person is.

Maybe voice IS a kind of magic. But it’s one that we get to control even as we channel it onto the page.

What Spell-Checkers Don’t Catch

By Yellow Bird Editor David Aretha

Before I edit a manuscript, I always inform the author that I’ll be checking the text for spelling. “That’s something you can skip,” one author told me. “I already ran it through the spell-checker.”

Ah, yes, the infallible spell-checker, invented in the 1970s and honed to perfection over the decades by multi-billion-dollar software companies. Given that a flash drive the size of a Bic lighter can safely store ten thousand book manuscripts, surely the spell-checker is bullet-proof when it comes to recognizing all the words in the dictionary.

Well, it isn’t. For example, it didn’t catch multi-billion and bullet-proof in the previous paragraph, which should be multibillion and bulletproof.

Unfortunately, the spell-checker is about as effective as this winter’s flu virus. It catches simple words and correctly leaves misspelled ones underlined in red, but it sheepishly tiptoes out of the room whenever it comes to certain compound words.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word bible that most book publishers follow, loves to smash compound words together. According to this dictionary (and others), many words that we think are open compounds or hyphenated compounds are actually closed compounds. According to Merriam-Webster,boarding house—which slides through the spell-checker unscathed—is actually boardinghouse. The spell-checker will give the green light to first-hand, even though M-W spells it firsthand. When authors look at my edited manuscript, they are often surprised to see that I changed the spellings of dozens of their compound words in order to adhere to Merriam-Webster.

If you’re looking to self-publish without hiring a professional editor—or you want to appear as professional as possible when you submit your manuscript to a publisher—you should scroll through M-W and get a sense of all the smushed-together compound words. You’ll find stomachacheschoolteacher, andtransatlantic.

I have long come to the realization that I should scrutinize all hyphenated and open compound words. If I think such words have even a remote chance of being closed compounds, I drop them into the search box of www.merriam-webster.com. Very often, my hunch is correct.

Below are some surprising closed compound words, according to the publishing world’s favorite dictionary. You don’t need to memorize these spellings, but I suggest you take two minutes to study the patterns. You’ll see, for example, that counter- and -up words may not always have a hyphen, and that the spellings of waitperson and congressperson indicate that other job+person words are also closed compounds.














































































































Banish Stick-Figure Writing: How Concrete Sensory Details Make All the Difference in Fiction

Thin, generic description is the literary equivalent of drawing with stick figures. That’s a problem—because your reader’s imagination will only engage if it’s convinced what’s happening is real. And if their imagination won’t engage, their emotions won’t engage, and they’ll puts the book down and find something fun to do.

So how do you flesh your stick figures out?

In 1979, a revolutionary book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain pinpointed why so many adults and older children can’t draw. It’s because they aren’t drawing what they see—they’re drawing what they know.

In other words, they’re drawing a category, rather than the thing itself.

I “know” a face is oval and has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, so that’s what I draw. Then I’m surprised that it looks like a stick figure, not a human face. In reality, depending on the way a face is angled and the way the light falls across it, a real face may not be oval, may not have two (visible) eyes, may have only part of a nose, etc.

I “know” a tree has a thick trunk and at the top some branches and leaves—so I draw a stick-figure tree instead of the wild living thing flinging out arms and fingers in front of me.

The same thing can happen in writing. “A dog stood under a tree. A girl ran past.”  But “dog,” “tree,” and “girl” aren’t descriptions; they’re labels for abstract concepts. Was it a tiny mutt or a graceful Great Dane? An aspen or a cottonwood? A 6-year-old Latina or a willowy white teenager?

A few fleshier alternatives:

  • A twenty-foot cottonwood, heart-shaped leaves turning lazily in the breeze
  • A mutt with a smashed-in boxer’s face and lolling tongue
  • A small girl with tangled dark hair, wiping her nose on a dirty coat sleeve as she runs past.

Now a little of this kind of description goes a long way. Be judicious: you don’t want to force-feed your reader a whole box of chocolates. If I were editing myself here, I’d decide which was the most important element for the reader to focus on. Let’s say it was the dog:

“The mutt stood under a tall cottonwood. He turned his smashed-in boxer’s face, tongue lolling, to watch a small, dark-haired girl run past. He did not give chase.”

We’re humans, we live in bodies. That means our minds won’t believe, our imaginations won’t be convinced, without plenty of concrete sensory details. Banish the stick figure. Make your writing juicy with life, and allow the reader to fall in love with your book.

We All Need Community: The Benefits of Critique Partners and Beta Readers

I talk myself out of editing jobs all the time. A new writer will approach me about a project. We’ll get to talking. And I’ll end up advising that writer to wait to spend money on a professional editor. I’ve blogged about this before in various ways, I suppose. And now I’m going to do it again because it bears restating. Writers are stubborn. Sometimes we need to be beaten with an idea for a bit to grok it.

These writers I talk to shouldn’t be spending money on editing yet. A lot of times their contact with me is the first they’ve had with a fellow writer. Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve shared their work at all, which is a monumental moment. They’ve figured out they can’t do the writing thing on their own like they once believed. They’re beginning to understand they need a community.

I usually tell them to seek out critique partners and/or beta readers. And if they’re not already reading in their genre, I strongly advise them to do that, too. So far I haven’t heard back from any of them. I take that as a good sign, a sign they got the deeper message: they need to build themselves a place in a writing community.

I’m talking about more than a writer’s need for critical, constructive feedback here. Or the need for mentors and compatriots, fellow writers who are discovering or have discovered how to make a go of the writing life. A writer needs a few fans, even at the beginning. Maybe it’s just one coworker who stops him in the hall to say how much he loves reading the writer’s blog. However it takes place, that kind of out of the blue validation helps build much needed self-confidence. And knowing there are people reading what you write makes it harder to justify blowing it off.

By the way, I’m deliberately leaving family out of this discussion because family is different. The people who live with writers have to buy in on a whole other level.

I recently had one of these quasi-fan experiences. As you may know, I’m a theater technician as well as a writer and editor. One of my day jobs is as a carpenter at the Texas State Performing Arts Center Shop. Not only do I build scenery there, I usually work on my writing and editing projects during my breaks, sitting on an air-compressor in a secluded corner of the tool cage. While I was gone on my recent vacation (if you want pictures, click here), the scenic painting professor made and installed a sign above my little space between the shelves.

She’s not a writer. As far as I know she’s never even read my writing. I’ve known her for less than a year. But she sees me in there with my computer in my lap. And she’s an artist; she understands. She gets the yen to make something as good as it can be. So she surprised me with her little sign. What I don’t think she understands is how much that small act inspires me every day, how it makes it easier to go into the noisy solitude of the tool cage and write, how she’s a big part of my writing community. I should probably tell her all that, huh?

And that’s why I talk myself out of so much editing work. There’s a lot of great things a freelance editor can offer a writer. But a hired editor can’t offer that fundamental, made-to-fit writing community every writer needs. We writers have to build that kind of support network for ourselves.

Don’t Give Me That Look! How to Improve the Emotional Cues in Your Manuscript

I’ve written blog posts about gesture before, but this particular one has been keeping me up at night! As I am about to embark on revisions for my upcoming novel (forthcoming in 2016), I keep thinking about how to capture the “looks” between two characters. It’s common to find “looks” within a manuscript. After all, how often does one character look or “gaze” at another in a moment of dramatic or even romantictension. Ooh La La!

I have a challenge for you, dear reader! Go to the story you’re working on, open the file, and do a word search. Find any incarnation of the word “look/looks/looking.”

Hurts, doesn’t it? YIKES.

In my WIP right now, I have 176 “looks.” I’m not sure how horrible that is as of yet because I’m still editing, but I know that I tend to overuse “looks” so I thought I would share some of my writing/revision process.

I keep wondering what it is that I hope to elicit from “a look” between characters. In cinema, we have the advantage of various zoomed in shots, savvy editing, camera angels, etc. On film, a look between two characters can say so much more than a line of dialogue ever could. Yet, in fiction, we have the hefty job of creating the cinematic experience in the mind of our readers. We need to create the camera angles and trigger an emotional response with our words.

We also need to ensure that a look will show us something about our characters and their world instead of just telling the readers that eyes are meeting. We can’t assume that the reader is going to understand what is being unsaid between two characters. It is up to us, the writers, to make the gaze mean more. As I revise and as you revise, I hope that these three tactics will help you make the most out of this kind of unspoken communication.

THREE WAYS TO MAKE “A LOOK” WORK HARDER (AKA I am trying to take my own advice):

1. Make sure that the look reveals something important/unknown about your character.

Who are the two people looking at one another? Why is the look important? If two characters make eye contact that doesn’t illuminate something about the characters or their relationship, then we don’t need it.

Now, I’m not saying that every single look in a manuscript has to carry weight. Generally, when you have two characters in a scene together and one looks at the other, you need to consider what is it you are trying to communicate. Here’s an example from my current WIP:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who meets my eyes and then quickly looks away. “Take the role. It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

What I am trying to show there is that Lila is self-righteous. She’s hurt my character badly, but doesn’t want to make eye contact because she’s a jerk. Have I shown that? Nope. I need to make the moment work harder so that the reader understands Lila’s character through that shared gaze.

I don’t know if this is how I’ll ultimately end up revising but I could try something like this:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who snaps at her gum, eyes to her cell phone, and with a casual flip of her hand, tosses her hair over her shoulder. I’ve never hated the smell of bubble gum so much in my life. “Take the role,” I say to her smacking jaw. “It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

I’ve added action, I’ve made Lila gesture differently, revealing her indifference and also employed sensory detail so that we know how my character feels about Lila’s behavior.

2. The “look”” needs to either be the focal point of the scene or it needs to push the plot forward in some way. Again, not every single “look” can matter but the ones that do should earn their place within the narrative.

Ask yourself: What can the look between your two characters change/reveal? If the answer is nothing, then think deeper and reveal the information between them in a new or varied away. This leads me to my last suggestion.

3. Deepen the gesture.  Is “looking” the only way that people interact with one another? No way!

Consider the emotional moment that is occurring between these two characters. Perhaps all of these “looks” are really a roadmap for you to go back and deepen the relationships between these two characters when you are ready to revise. As you draft, leave all the “looks” in as placeholders, but definitely go back.

When you do, ask yourself what other ways these two characters can interact? Sensory detail? Touch? Food? Action/Reaction? What is the look standing in for? What do your characters want to say?

Well, that’s it for me! I hope that I’ve illuminated some tactics to try to deepen the way your characters inhabit the pages of your story!

I wish I could go on and on about this! In fact, I probably could.