Three Dirty Birds on Voice


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Chirping on about the last chapter of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. Today we’re hunting the elusive Voice of the Writer.

Ana: *tries to chirp but can’t* Has anyone seen my voice?

Zoe: Stop looking for it, and you will find it.

Kate: I brought a net. Who’s bringing sandwiches?

Zoe: Is that what we use for voice bait? Sandwiches? My voice would like a BLT.

Kate: My stomach just growled. *frowns at it*

Ana: Your stomach has more voice than me!

Kate: It’s certainly loud enough. This is one of the most difficult to understand chapters in the book, but I think it’s because voice is one of the more difficult traits of a writer to acquire and/or refine. It takes a lot of words, and there’s not a lot of coaching you can get for it.

Ana: It can make you really paranoid when you keep hearing ‘we’re looking for a strong/fresh/ whatever voice’ and you go ‘fine, how do I get that?’, but no one can really tell you.

Kate: That’s the worst of it. It’s one of those things that comes with time. You can’t rush it, though you can encourage it. So, to be honest, I don’t pay much attention, or worry about it. You can’t, or you’ll stress yourself into not being able to write.

Ana: I hardly think about it when I’m not reading a book that talks about it.

Zoe: Yes, I don’t worry about it either. (I kind of think of it as an accent: I don’t have an accent (to me!), and I don’t have a voice (to me!), but other people might hear it.)

Kate: My personal opinion about this is that voice comes when you’ve developed enough confidence in the other technical aspects of writing that you can relax a little. If you’re still struggling to get the grammar down, or beats, or plotting, or whatever, you’re not going to feel free enough for your voice to grow. (And that’s why I like my betas to pick on every technical aspect of every story. My voice has grown since I stopped having to worry about every little thing.)

Zoe: Yes, it comes when you can “relax and be yourself.”

Ana: *leans back in her chair and waits for her voice to come back* Any minute now.

Kate: Lol.

Ana: I do agree with what they said about the danger of sounding pretentious when you’re trying to imitate the great writers.

Zoe: You sound like you’re trying to be someone else at a party.

Kate: I think it’s an important part of the learning process, though. You don’t know what feels good to you until you’ve tried it out. (Has anyone else noticed the parallels between sex and finding your voice?)

Zoe: Not until you pointed it out. I agree that it’s part of the learning process—who of us hasn’t done it? I tried to write like Stephen King, Faulkner, Chuck Palahniuk, Annie Proulx. It’s fun. But impossible to keep up or do as well as the originals do it.

Ana: It used to happen unconsciously for me. When I read a lot of something that I really liked, my writing started to imitate that.

Kate: All part of the process. It was good to see the authors talking about how different books require different voices, and I think this carries through to different POV’s needing different voices.

(Ana: Especially when you have several first person narrators. Please.)

Kate: I hate having to go back to the beginning of a chapter to figure out who the POV character is. And I often skip past chapter titles if they aren’t actually titles, so I can be a couple of pages into a chapter and get confused about whose head I’m in.

Zoe: I skip them even if they are titles. (Sorry Kate! (Kate puts work into her chapter titles. I’m way more lazy.))

Ana: I put work into my chapter titles for my first two novels. Then I got lazy. (But now as I’m editing those books, it’s nice, because I can tell by the titles which chapter is which.)

Kate: *Cries* All my hard work…

Zoe: I’m sure your hard work wasn’t wasted on those who appreciate the little details. I’m more just “GIVE ME STORY.”

Kate: I don’t actually mind. The chapter titles are a bit of entertainment for myself, but they’re more an artifact of the writing program I use and my non-linear writing method. I title the chapters because it’s not unusual for me to write a couple, write the ending, put a few in the middle, etc. If I numbered them, I’d be changing the numbers all the time.

Ana: I once read a book where the scenes had titles. Which was odd. It led me to believe the writer had originally put snippets of her writing online somewhere and then grew so fond of her titles for these installments that she couldn’t leave them out of the finished book. (And I think they were supposed to be funny, but it just seemed so forced that it was awkward.)

Kate: Interesting. My titles generally talk about the theme of the chapter, and related chapters will have related titles.

Zoe: I need a nap now after just thinking about coming up with clever names for all my scenes. (I do have to call them something in Scrivener, but I generally go with “parking lot” or “the night after.” Not things I’d put in a book.)

Kate: I don’t title scenes. Can’t even imagine that. *head asplodes*

Ana: My scene titles in Scrivener include such poignant names as ‘dramas’. Also ‘blah1’, ‘blah2’,  and ‘smut.’

Zoe: Often I don’t title scenes, but in my current WIP each chapter is a day, and there are various POVs happening within each day, and I need to keep straight (in my own head) what’s going on when. (The “blah” scenes sound promising, Ana.)

Kate: Mmmm, can’t wait to read those. 🙂 To be honest, I thought this last chapter was kind of blah. It was mostly excerpts from novels and, toward the end, I was skimming, because there’s not a lot that can be taught about voice. You kind of have to get out of your own way before it will come calling.

Zoe: The authors might have been better off just saying that and calling it a day. So, what’s our overall opinion of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers?

Ana: I think overall it has some solid advice especially on the basics. I continue to recommend it. Maybe I’m biased because it was my first.

Kate: I think it’s one of the first books you should pick up after your first draft is done. It’s got great information, and I had this feeling all the way through it like I wasn’t just a reader, but almost like I was a client. You could feel how much they wanted you to succeed throughout the book. Even this last chapter, that kind of missed the mark, was a serious attempt on their part to tackle a very difficult, and very important, element of good writing.

Zoe: I thought it was a solid book, and I’d recommend it for authors who’ve done a first draft and want to know how to make the writing better—but first I’d recommend our previous read, Story Trumps Structure, so that they can work on improving the story itself before moving to the finer details. I wasn’t as excited about this book as I was Story Trumps, but I suspect that my excitement will be back next week when we jump into Chuck Wendig’s The Kick-Ass Writer.

Kate: I would compare Story Trumps Structure to a developmental edit, and Self-Editing to a copy edit or line edit.

Ana: Agreed.

Zoe: (And I would compare Chuck Wendig to a kick in the pants. If you happen to be wearing any.)

Kate: Still, I’m going to probably rate this a bit higher than STS, simply because they came at it with a very even-handed approach, they were very clear, and it did exactly what they said it would, which I couldn’t always say about STS. Maybe 4.5 stars?

Ana: Is it just me or does STS kind of sound like an STD?

Kate: Dirty Bird!

Ana: Look, my voice is back!

So, tune in next week, when Chuck Wendig gives us all a kick in the pants, assuming we bother to put any on in the first place.

Three Dirty Birds on Self-Editing and the Wall o’ Text

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Three Dirty Birds are Talking about Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Today’s topic is: Three Dirty Birds and the Wall o’ Text.

Ana: I hear the wall of text can be beaten with the use of the enter key!

Kate: I think that’s a Level One spell.

Ana: Word wizards learn it earlier.

Kate: Lol. This is where writing kind of crosses paths with visual media. One odd little tip that I was given a long time ago was to make sure there was enough ‘white space’ on the page. Readers find blocks of text intimidating, it’s easy to get lost in them. And readers of today, raised on commercials and gaming, need more white space than readers from early twentieth, or even mid-twentieth, century readers. it’s an easy check, and tells you exactly where to look for places to give your reader a breather, or a place to grab onto so they don’t lose their place on the page.

Zoe: On the rare occasion when I have a character who has to get some words out all at once, I always panic a little, because I’ve read over and over that character’s shouldn’t talk too much without interruption. This chapter made me feel a little better about doing it from time to time. Sometimes it does just have to be done!

Kate: It has to serve a point. And that’s where the sentence length and structure comes into it, helping you get your emotion across. But there are times where that block of text is just what needs to happen to get the reading in the right mindset for the payoff coming later.

Ana: Another neat effect of line breaks is that a line that’s separated from the paragraph to stand on its own can have more impact. I know during editing LRL my editor pointed out a few places where I could do this for dramatic effect. (Mostly at the end of a chapter/scene)

Kate: I have to watch myself with those, because I LOVE using them. And it’s easy to overdose.

Browne mentions varying your paragraph lengths depending on whether you want to raise tension, lower it, or lure your unwary reader into a sense of complacency before the monster jumps out at them. I think there’s a natural tendency to do that, especially in action scenes, but when you pay attention to it, you can be writing text that should not raise tension, and still do it with the paragraph structure. Again, something you don’t want to do too often, but it’s fun when it works. 🙂

Ana: Yes, playing around with paragraph length can be fun. Just break up a page in different places and see how it changes the reading flow.

Kate: It’s funny, as we go through this book, how many little tricks I see that I can use, and it makes me excited to be writing again.

Zoe: Oh good!

Ana: I’m totally excited about my new story, but that’s probably because it’s still new and shiny. You’ll probably hear me grumble about it in two weeks.

Kate: Lol.

The best part about this chapter was the examples, and showing how the blocks of text, large and small, worked to convey some aspect of the story that you couldn’t just write. I’m finding the examples she used throughout the book very helpful for the most part, though there are the occasional ones where I can’t see why things weren’t fine the way they were. And that tells me either it’s a genre thing, or I need to up my game. (probably the latter)

Zoe: Was the one with the drowning girls one where you couldn’t see why it wasn’t fine the way it was?

Kate: I could see there was something off about it. No, not off. It was fine the way it was. I would have read that and not complained, I think. But the second version had much more punch, emotionally. Looking back, I see why the changes had to be made, but I couldn’t pick it out without the after to compare to.

Zoe: I liked the way the first one ended. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the first one, I’d have thought the second was great, but the first draft got me harder. (Well, except that I kept confusing who was who, but that was just because it was a snippet out of context.)

Ana: I liked the second version, but it just goes to show that different readers will like different things.

Kate: And that’s the thing that stresses writers out so much. No wonder we drink. Because we’re people pleasers. 😛

Zoe: That is the thing.

Ana: Need a glass of gin to save the day?

Zoe: I prefer a drink that doesn’t hog the spotlight so much. With gin, apparently, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GIN. (All my experience with gin comes from that one book.)

Ana: Aw, what drink can I serve you then?


And that’s it for the Three Dirty Birds today, as we all run off to the kitchen for milkshakes and rum.

Three Dirty Birds on Self-Editing — 6

threedirtybirds-400|Master list|

The Dirty Birds are talking about sounding today. Wait…that’s not right. We’re talking about the “See How It Sounds” chapter of Self-Editing for Fiction by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Kate: I think Zoe wrote that opening.

Zoe: WHO? ME? This chapter again talks about word choice. And, in part, how word choice in dialogue/interior monologue can GET RIDDA ALL THOSE ANNOYIN’ SPELLIN’S.

Kate: Oooh! The Dialect Dilemma. *pops popcorn*

Ana: As a non-native not-living-in-an-English-speaking-country person…. I can honestly say I’ve never attempted dialects! I’m happy if I can get ‘normal’ speech right.

Zoe: I, admittedly, have a few I rely on—the ones most people say: “gonna,” that sort of thing.

Ana: I classify ‘gonna’ ‘wanna’ etc as colloquial.

Kate: I like colloquial, or casual language. In one of my WIPs, one of the main characters is French first language. He speaks with an accent, but I only occasionally reference it. And rarely change the spelling of a word to reflect it.

Ana: I mostly got my dialogue skills, or lack thereof, from dialogue in movies, tv shows and books. So when they’re talking about ‘hearing how it sounds’ and that my ‘ear will know’ if something sounds natural… Yeah, my only reference point is the kind of artificial thing I’m trying to create.

Kate: But dialogue itself isn’t natural. If I’m wondering, I write it out as completely as I can, then I go back and eliminate any repetition that isn’t necessary for emphasis, and anything that makes me bored or impatient, (unless that’s what I’m going for).

Zoe: Do either of you read your stuff out loud, as the chapter suggests?

Ana: I don’t really trust my ear that much. I also don’t want to picture my characters with my accent. They obviously sound much cooler than me.

Kate: I don’t read anything out loud, but I keep thinking I should.

Zoe: I’ve tried, but I get bored really quickly.

(Ana: I know, right? That’s what I always think when people tell me they read their whole ms out loud to catch typos.)

Kate: I find I can’t hear myself. And I hate how I sound when I’m recorded, so I know I won’t listen to it long enough to get anything out of it. I know, grow up, right?

Zoe: I’ve tried using the text-to-speech function on the computer too, but I found I didn’t catch any more typos with that than I did reading in my head. Reading from the back forward was better for that. (And when you’re listening to a computer read aloud, you’re not really getting the “how’s it sound” experience.)

Kate: I find that really works well, the back to front thing.

I thought it was interesting when they spoke about letting your characters misunderstand each other every once in a while, because it can be more illustrative of character than if the dialogue just went from Point A to Point B.

Ana: That’s also something that stuck with me through the years after first reading this book.

Zoe: Yes, real life conversations don’t move smoothly from Point A to B to C. There are misunderstandings (willful and accidental), interruptions, questions that people want to avoid answering. And it all adds tension and life to the exchange.

Kate: I think that keeping it in mind that people tend to say things in as few words as possible, except when they are in love with the sound of their own voice, helps to keep dialogue more natural. People use fragments, or shortened sentences, all the time in real life. We just have to excise the other, boring bits.

Ana: People in love with the sound of their own voice are just as boring in fiction as they are in real life.

Zoe: In fiction, I can at least DNF the book. In real life, being as frank as “I don’t need to hear all this?” or “Can you get to the point?” only gets me labeled “rude.”

Ana: Don’t you just hate when other people waste your time?

Zoe: And energy! If you’re an introvert, it takes energy to listen. And you can’t just not listen. (Though dear god I try.)

Kate: I’ve gotten very good at non-committal answers and guessing at what’s going on.

Ana: But in fiction we don’t want to be guessing what’s going on, so best to keep those sentences short.

Kate: Yes. Unless you have a character that you want to portray as self-absorbed and boring. But don’t spend much time on him, please!

Zoe: Yes, just a little seasoning will give us the characterization.

Kate: Therefore, short sentences, natural rhythms, don’t overwhelm us with spellings meant to convey dialect (do that with word choice instead). Am I missing anything, Birdies?

Ana: I’m still missing my cabana boy. (Watch how Kate is going to evade answering that….)

Zoe: *cough* Yeah…and always use the words your characters would use.

Kate: Tone your dialogue to your character’s intelligence, background, and culture. (No cabana boys here–Zoe must have him.)

Zoe: (He’s probably taken off with the dialogue mechanic.)

Ana: 🙁