How to Develop Your Unique Writing Voice

 

How to Develop Your Unique Writing Voice | Learn what "voice" means in #writing and how to develop your own that will stand out in the crowd.Last week, we looked at the difference between active and passive voice. Today, we’re going to be looking at a different type of voice in writing–your personal voice.

What is Voice?

Voice can be difficult to explain; after all, the term “voice” suggests something spoken, yet novels deal with the written language. (No wonder new writers are so confused!) In the simplest of terms, voice is how you write. Just as you have your own distinctive way of talking, you should also have a distinctive way of writing.

So what do I mean by “how” you write?

I believe that there are two components that make up a writer’s voice: style and perception. I think that style often gets confused with voice. While style does influence your voice, style on its own is not voice. As we will see, there’s more to it. Let’s explore both elements in more detail.

So what exactly is style? It’s your own personal preferences and choices in the way you write. It’s how you say what you have to say. It’s composed of word choice, use of figurative language, metaphors, imagery, etc. Do you use poetic language or are you more straightforward? Do you prefer long sentences or short, choppy ones? Do you use speech tags or avoid them whenever possible?

All of these decisions work together to create your personal style. For example, I prefer to write in a romantic, descriptive style. This means lots of imagery, figurative language, and sensory details. Think of style as a sort of accent for your writer’s voice.

Now, on to perception. By perception, I mean the way in which the narrator of the story views the world. What are his/her opinions, views, attitudes,  thoughts, feelings, beliefs about the world around him? This will influence the narrative. For example, a pessimist will perceive the world more negatively, while an optimist will have a more positive attitude. A soldier will have a different perception of war than a citizen. A child sees the world differently than an adult.

See where this is going?

The narrator’s perception will in turn influence the tone of the writing and give it personality. Now, this brings us to the next important point: Who is the narrator? Is it the author, via third person, or is it the hero via first person?

If you’re writing in third person, your voice will be “louder” than the hero’s. I write in third person, so I have the freedom to describe my character’s world and experiences in poetic language that fits my style, but my hero might not use this language if he were speaking himself. I can also insert more of my own perceptions, which the hero may or may not share.

On the other hand, if you’re writing in first person, your voice will be “muffled” by the hero’s. He will be the one speaking, and all of the perceptions will be his. Some of the stylistic choices such as word choice should also reflect how the character would speak rather than what you would use.

Whether you write in first or third person, the voice should reveal a distinct way of looking at the world.

What Does Voice Look Like in Writing?

Now that you have a better understanding of what voice is, let’s take a look at some examples. We will be comparing style, tone, and perception.

Example #1: Style

Excerpt 1:

“On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel. Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Excerpt 2:
“The bill comes on a silver tray. Hodges lays his plastic on top of it and sips his coffee while he waits for it to come back. He’s comfortably full, and in the middle of the day that condition usually leaves him ready for a two-hour nap. Not this afternoon. This afternoon he has never felt more awake.” -Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes

Analysis: Tolkien’s style is more poetic and descriptive. The passage moves more slowly because of the long sentences. On the other hand, King’s style is more sparse and straightforward, and he uses short sentences. Notice also the wording–Tolkien’s is more archaic/romantic, while King’s is more modern. What other stylistic choices do you notice?

Example #2: Tone

Excerpt 1:

“Conventional wisdom says the key to looking good is building your outfit around just one trend at a time. Forget that! Wearing multiple trends at once not only makes you look more stylish, it also stops any one piece from dominating your look. That way the focus stays clearly on you and not just on your trendy new jacket.” –Seventeen Magazine

Excerpt 2:

“The new Coke bottle is part of the company’s efforts to make its containers from renewable ingredients. Coca-Cola debuted “PlantBottle” packaging in 2009, which is 30% comprised of plant materials. The new PlantBottle that Coke debuted this week is its first to be made 100% from sugar cane plastic.” –CNN

Analysis: The tone in the first excerpt is more casual and personable, while the second is more dry and factual. Your tone will depend on your (or your character’s) perception, your audience (are you writing for teen girls or adults?), and what you want to say (are you trying to convey humor or are you writing a horror piece?).

Example #3: Perception

Excerpt 1: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit…[Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” -Matthew 1:18, 25

Excerpt 2: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…[Joseph] went [to Bethlehem] to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” -Luke 2:1, 5-6

Analysis: These accounts are two different points of view of the same event–the birth of Jesus. In the first, Matthew focuses more on the virginity of Mary; Luke, on the other hand, focuses more on the location of the birth. Each author focused on the details he thought were most important.

This is why perception is so important to your voice–everyone will notice something different about the same event! This is because we all have different experiences, opinions, preferences, thoughts, and beliefs. Fascinating stuff, right?

Here’s another way to think of it: Three people witness a crime and give their testimony to the police. Each story varies a little, though all three cover the main events. Even though the accounts are different, that doesn’t mean the witnesses are lying–they just each saw the crime from a different angle, thus providing a unique point of view to what happened.

Your job with your voice is to provide a unique point of view on the world and your story’s events.

How Do I Develop My Own Voice?

The best way to develop you writer’s voice is to read a lot and write a lot. There’s really no other way to do it. -Stephen King

I remember being a new (and young) writer and stressing over voice in my writing. I didn’t understand what it was or how to make my writing stand out. Though looking back now, I was probably over-thinking it too much.

Everyone has a voice–you have one right now (although it may still be emerging or developing). Your voice will develop naturally as you write and grow.

I recently attended a lecture with Sena Naslund (New York Times best-selling author of Ahab’s Wife), and she offered some great advice for developing your voice:

Aim not for distinction, but, instead, aim to write well…We each have distinctive ideas about what “writing well” means… Realize that a distinctive voice for a writer emerges from a sense of being a distinct, unique, that is “different” person.

I know a lot of new writers will try to imitate their favorite authors. It’s okay to experiment with and “try on ” different voices as you’re finding you’re own. When I first started writing I imitated J.K. Rowling and used lots of colorful speech tags and adverbs. Now I can’t stand either.

As we learn the craft we will likely imitate our “teachers” (favorite authors). But as we mature and become more confident in our writing abilities, we should start developing our own voice. Please don’t strive to mimic another author–the world needs your voice! We don’t need another Tolkien or Hemingway or Jane Austen. We need you. Because no one can “do you” as well as you can. So why try to write like anyone else?

Write a lot, read a lot, and learn as much as you can about yourself. Grow not just as a writer, but as a person. Discover what stylistic choices you prefer, and discover your thoughts and opinions about the world.

So relax. Embrace your differences. Let your (or your character’s) personality and attitude come through your writing. This is your voice.

What is your writing voice like? Are you in the process of developing it? Has it changed over time?

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Active vs. Passive Voice

Passive and active voice explained simply, without all the confusing grammar lingo! Learn how to find and correct passive voice to make your #writing stronger. Passive voice. It’s one of those things you’re told to avoid in your writing like showing instead of telling, but what in the world is it? What’s the difference between active vs. passive voice? Why is it so bad? Is it lurking in your writing as we speak?? *ensue internal outpouring of writer worries*

Passive voice can be a confusing term at first, but don’t be intimidated by all the abstract grammar jargon–we’re going to get through this together. Seriously, I’m going to make this super simple for you. You’re going to be a passive-voice-destroying master by the time we’re through!

Now, into the fray!

Active vs. Passive Voice

Let’s start with the basics and define active and passive voice. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to drown you in grammar terms, I promise).

In active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action.

Ex: Greer chopped off the goblin’s head with her sword.

The subject (Greer) is doing the action (chopped off).

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not doing the action. Rather, it is being acted upon.

Ex: The goblin’s head was chopped off by her sword.

The subject (goblin’s head) is being acted upon (chopped off) by something else (her sword).

Also, it might be helpful for you to consider these similes for passive and active…

Passive: apathetic, indifferent, laid-back, static, uninvolved, docile, idle

Active: alive, operating, functioning, mobile, operating, working

See how these describe the two different types of sentences? Active voice is all like “Step aside, I got this!” Passive voice is more like “Meh, do whatever to me.”

That’s it. That’s all active/passive means. See, not so mystifying after all, is it?

More Examples:

Passive: When the castle was attacked, Will grabbed his bow and ran to the battlements.

Active: When goblins attacked the castle, Will grabbed his bow and ran to the battlements.

Passive: War on the goblins was declared by the king.

Active: The king declared war on the goblins.

Passive: The king was advised that his decision was just.

Active: The king’s adviser assured him his decision was just.

Passive: Funds were approved to raise an army.

Active: The king approved the funds to raise an army.

Identifying and Correcting Passive Voice

So now that you know what passive voice looks like, it won’t be hard for you to find it in your writing. One big red flag of passive voice is by. But sometimes you can have passive voice without the word by, as we’ve seen in the examples above.

So how can you find it? Here are two strategies.

#1: Look for a form of “to be:” am, is, are, was, were, be, being, or been followed by a verb in past tense (usually ending in -ed). So: He was (to be form) offered (past tense verb) the position of general.

#2: If you hate grammar lingo here’s a super easy strategy for you that you might have seen floating around the internet. If you can add “by zombies” to the sentence, you have passive voice. So: He was offered the position of general [by zombies].

To fix passive voice, rework the sentence. You may have to switch things around or delete/add words. Usually you will need to be specific and add more detail: The king offered him the position of general. Make it clear who is doing the action.

What’s Wrong with Passive Voice?

Passive voice technically isn’t a grammatical error. So what’s so bad about it then? Well, it can have some negative effects on your writing. Passive voice can be confusing because it is vague about who is doing the action. It can also sound weak or even awkward, and often uses more words than necessary.

Active voice, on the other hand, is more specific and direct. Use it whenever you can, but also use your judgement. If you have a sentence that sounds really awkward when you try to change it from passive to active voice, it may be an instance where you should break the rule (Ex. “Will was struck by lightening” is fine; “Lightening struck Will” is also fine, but may not work as well in the context of what you’re writing. It depends on which one you want to emphasize–Will or the lightening?).

You are now ready to go forth and conquer the passive voice!

Do you struggle with using passive voice in your writing?

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Know When to Show and When to Tell

Know When to Show and When to Tell | Learn the difference between showing and telling and why sometimes it's better to tell in a scene.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.            

―Anton Chekhov

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably had this phrase drilled into your head by now: Show don’t tell. But sometimes you need to break that rule. You can look like an amateur writer not just when you tell, but also when you show at the wrong time.

Crazy, I know.

But don’t get frazzled–I promise it will make sense by the time you’re finished reading this! Before we can break the “rule,” however, we first need to understand it. So what the heck does “show don’t tell” mean?

Showing vs. Telling

It’s really straightforward. Telling is when you state a fact outright to the reader. BAM. There it is. No muss no fuss. Showing, on the other hand, is when you allow the reader to experience the information for himself. You make it visual and sensual and bring it to life through sight, sound, touch, thoughts, reactions, dialogue etc.. But the more you tell, the more of that life you suck from your story. Let’s look at an example.

Telling: She walked down the beach.

Showing: The warm sand sank beneath her feet and she wiggled her toes in deeper. The ocean glittered beneath the noon sun, and she pushed up her sunglasses which were sliding down her sweaty nose. She veered toward the lapping waves and let them cool her feet.

The first example just states a fact. But in the second, we feel as though we are on the beach with the girl. That is the purpose of showing–to let your reader become part of your story.

So what’s so bad about telling? Well, first of all as you’ve already noticed it doesn’t draw readers in to the story. It keeps them at a distance and makes it hard to picture what is happening or share what the character is feeling.

Second, it’s like you’re talking down to your readers. If you’re constantly spelling everything out, your readers will not appreciate it. Don’t worry about your readers not “getting” it! They’re intelligent creatures and capable of keeping up, I promise. So resist the urge to explain!

And third, too much telling will slow down your story’s momentum. Every time you tell something, you’re stopping the story. Think of it this way: You’re watching a movie with a friend. It’s interesting and you’re enjoying it, but your friend keeps pausing the movie to explain what’s happening. “Did you get it?” he keeps asking. “Yes,” you grumble, annoyed by the interruptions, and think now let me watch the movie in peace!

You don’t want to be that friend. Or in this case, writer.

Showing allows you to convey important information without stopping the action of the story. Be sure to reveal your information slowly to avoid info dumps, which will clog the story’s movement. Your reader doesn’t need to know everything all at once–nor should they! Leave some things a mystery to keep them reading. Only give them what they absolutely must have to understand the current scene.

When is it Better to Tell?

Now, as fantastic as showing is, you shouldn’t show all the time! There are moments when it is better to tell. A good writer knows which strategy is appropriate for the scene in question and creates a balance between the two. As you write more, you will begin to develop this instinct. So when is it better to tell?

1. Scenes that involve traveling from one location to another where nothing significant happens in-between. Unless you are J.R.R. Tolkien, we don’t need you to describe every moment of your hero’s journey and every blade of grass he comes across. Yawn. Instead, sum it up with telling and skip ahead to the next important scene. Example:

a) Three days had passed since they had fled the forest. They were now nearing Camelot, and they were weary from riding with little pause for rest.

b) She grabbed her backpack and drove to the coffee shop where her friend was waiting for her.

2. Scenes that involve the passing of time. Similar to the above. Skip over the boring, every day filler scenes of your character’s life like what they had for breakfast, their day at school, or their lunch date with their BFF unless it’s important to the story.

3. Scenes where something is being repeated. If a character is telling a story that he has already told or is describing events that already happened, recap it with some telling (ex. He recounted his fight with the dragon to the king). Don’t re-hash the whole thing. If readers already know the information they’ll be eager for you to get on with the story and will skim over it.

4. When you’re writing a short story. Telling is a quick summary, while showing requires more words. In short stories it’s acceptable and even necessary to do more telling because you have a limited amount of space to tell the story. You can’t go into as much depth as you can in a novel.

Here are some questions to ponder as you write or edit to help you view your scenes critically and check to see if you’re using the right technique:

show or tell

I think “show don’t tell” is misleading advice that can cause writers to overdo things. Perhaps better advice would be to “show and tell.” Think of balancing it in your story as 90% showing, 10% telling.

When do you think it’s better to tell rather than show? Do you struggle with telling in your story?

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Take Advantage of the Power of Beats in Your Writing

A beat is a useful tool for #writers. Beats help to control the #pacing, ground us in the setting, increase tension or emotion, and help us to connect with what the character is feeling. Learn how to use them to your advantage.Beats are one of the most awesome tools a writer can possess, and they often get overlooked. But just what the heck is a beat anyway?

The term ‘beat’ comes from acting, and is used in screenplays to indicate where the actor should pause in the dialogue. “But what does a screenplay technique have to do with novels?” you ask.

Well, because beats are also used in novels. You have beats in your writing right now without even realizing it.

Beats are short snippets in a novel that reveal a character’s actions, reactions, thoughts, or emotions within a scene. These little “pauses” from the dialogue of the story help to control the pacing, ground us in the setting, increase tension or emotion, reveal something about the character, and help us to connect with what the character is feeling.

Beats have a lot of power.

In screenplays, beats are usually used in emotional scenes when the writer wants to actor to pause in reaction or consideration to something that has just happened. In your novel, beats work much the same way. Adding in a beat with your dialogue lets your character pause and react to an event, and allows your readers to react along with them.

Of course, I can keep telling you how awesome and powerful beats are in your writing, but it would be better for me to just show you. Let’s look at a couple examples using Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel (by the way, if you haven’t read this series it’s fantastic!). I’ll show the same passage, the first without beats and the second with.

Without beats:

“You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”

“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie.”

“Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell? What do you think the Devil’s like?”

“Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock and all.”

“There’s no call to be rude.”

Original passage with beats:

Tessa bit into a roll, only to check herself when she saw Jessamine staring.

“You know,” Jessamine said airily, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”

“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie,” said Will.

Jessamine ignored him. “Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell?” She leaned closer to Tessa. “What do you think the Devil’s like?”

Tessa set her fork down. “Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock, and all.”

Will let out a whoop of laughter. Jessamine’s eyes narrowed. “There’s no call to be rude.”

***

The first example goes by quickly, and it leaves the reader blind and on the outside. We might imagine what’s happening, but we can’t really see it because the writer hasn’t shown it to us. We must also assume what the characters are feeling solely from their dialogue (which can be misleading since people often don’t say what they truly think or feel).

In the second example, the beats serve many different functions for the reader. They help identify which character is speaking, reveal their reactions to what is being said, and clue the reader in to the setting. Beats show what the characters are doing which gives us a better picture of the scene and helps us keep track of where they are and who’s doing what.

Additionally, beats help control the pacing and tension. They break up the dialogue, slowing down the reader. If you want a long pause, use a long beat. If you want a short pause, use a short beat. If you want things to move quickly, cut out your beats. And by revealing what the characters are feeling by showing their reactions (and thoughts in the case of your POV character) you will charge the scene with emotional tension that will keep the reader on edge.

Now that you know what beats are and how they can affect your story, harness their power and use them to your advantage!

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How to Use Word Choice to Set the Mood of Your Story

word choiceDo you pay attention to mood in your writing? If not, you should!

It’s a subtle and very powerful tool for writers. And not something you want to overlook! By setting the mood of a scene, you can manipulate how you want the reader to feel. It’s like the Jedi mind trick of writing. Pretty cool, huh?

So just how can a writer take advantage of this awesome power? There are several techniques you can use. Let’s get started!

What is Mood?

When you hear “mood” you might be confused or intimated and think it’s some vague literary term. Maybe your English teach forced you to analyze the mood of different novels in the past and you’re now wary of the word. But don’t panic–it’s really simple. Here’s the definition of mood from Dictionary.com:

A state or quality of feeling at a particular time.

When applied to your story, mood means what a certain scene makes a reader feel. The mood of your story should be directed by the feelings of your characters.

Mood Comes from Character

Before you set the mood for your story, reflect on how your character is feeling. What are his thoughts or feelings about this place or moment? Is he awed, frightened, curious, or sad? Sure you could select any mood at random for your scene, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of creating a mood for a scene is to allow the reader to experience the story as the character does. If the character is frightened then you should work to create fear in the reader.

When you don’t match characters’ feelings with the mood, it can hurt your story. If your character is lost in the wilderness and you’re describing the beauty of nature, it won’t flow as well–imagine trying to jam together two puzzle pieces that don’t fit. Your reader might wonder why the character is admiring the trees and squirrels when he’s lost in the middle of nowhere. This will also keep the reader from fully feeling the character’s panic and fear at being lost.

You should also consider your character’s personality, as different people will experience the same place in different ways. For example, for Character A a circus is exciting, but for Character B it’s terrifying, and for Character C it’s a bore. If you love the circus, don’t describe it in a positive way if your character hates it!

So basically, the reader’s feelings of a scene should be filtered through the POV character so the reader can experience the story as the character does.

Techniques for Setting Mood

There are three basic ways to create the mood for a scene: details, similes, and vocabulary choice. Let me show you a couple examples of these techniques in action.

Example #1:

The pine boughs tickled Snow White’s arms as she wandered through the forest. Robins sang and flitted from branch to branch overhead, and a rabbit scampered past. She paused to admire a Dogwood adorned in white blooms so that it looked as though its branches cradled fluffs of cloud. She plucked a blossom and stroked its petals, which were as soft as a mouse’s fur. A squirrel nestled in one of the branches peered at her from behind its bushy tail.

Example #2:

Bare branches scratched at Snow White’s arms as she stumbled through the forest, and. A raven cawed and swooped over her head, startling her. Twisted tree roots snatched at her feet like the fingers of a corpse emerging from a grave, and dragged her to the ground. The damp earth stained her blue dress like thunderclouds smudging out a summer sky. She swallowed back her tears as a wolf’s wail pierced the cold air.

These examples are pretty overdone and melodramatic, but you get the point. Both convey a specific mood, which reflects what the character is feeling and draws the reader in to share her experience.

  • Details

What does your character notice? Different people will notice different things, so it will depend on her personality. You don’t have to include every detail your character might notice. Choose specific details that will be most helpful for setting the mood you want.

In the first example to make the scene feel warm and fuzzy, I mentioned details like robins, bunnies, squirrels, and a tree in bloom. These are also details an animal-lover like Snow White would probably notice.

In the second example, I chose to describe the details of a raven, wolf, twisted tree roots, and damp dirt. These are all things a frightened Snow White might notice while struggling through a forest.

  • Similes

The second technique you can use to convey mood is similes. Comparing one thing to another can evoke emotion and give the reader a vivid picture of how the character is feeling/perceiving the scene.

In the same way you would consider what details your character might notice, consider what he/she might use as a comparison for something. For example, an art lover might express themselves through art comparisons, or a sports player might make athletic comparisons.

In the first example I compared the spring blossoms to fluffs of cloud, and the petals to a mouse’s fur. In the second, I compared tree roots to a corpse’s fingers, and the dirt staining her dress to thunderclouds blotting out a clear sky. The comparisons in each example reflect the character’s mood.

  • Vocabulary choice

The last tactic you can use is vocabulary choice. Consider what words you will include to create a specific mood and how a reader will react to them emotionally.

Notice how in the first example I used words like tickled, sang, flitted, scampered, admire, adorned, blossom, fluffs, bloom, stroked, soft, nestled, and bushy. Each of these word conveys a feeling of tranquility.

In the second example, I used bare, scratched, stumbled, swooped, startling, twisted, snatched, dragged, damp, wail, pierced, and cold. Notice how these words make you feel…not very pleasant, right?

It takes practice to become aware of and intentional with your word choice but it’s well worth the effort. Words are powerful, and you should take advantage of your word choice to manipulate how you want the reader to feel about a scene.

Do you pay attention to mood in your writing? What techniques do you use to set the mood?

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How to Use Paragraphs to Control Pacing

paragraph pacing 2Many writers may not pay attention to paragraphs, especially when starting out, but they hold a subtle power over your novel.

But don’t underestimate them–paragraphs can invite a reader into your novel or drive them away. And if you learn how to manipulate them, you can use their power to your advantage.

Beware Unwieldy Paragraphs

When you pick up a book at the store and thumb through the pages only to find unbroken blocks of text spanning an entire page or more, how do you feel? I don’t know about you, but when I see back-to-back giant paragraphs, I don’t get the warm and fuzzies.

Giant paragraphs are hard on the eyes. All that text going on and on and on…it’s intimidating to readers and can scare them off.  Your readers might think your book will be a tough read and decide to drift away to something easier. The last thing you want is to make your novel look like a textbook!

White Space is Your Friend

Using paragraph breaks more frequently creates more white space, which invites readers to linger on the page. Readers need white space because it gives the eye a place to rest.  That’s why when you skim through a book, you’re probably drawn right to the dialogue–switching between speakers offers more white space.

When you’re writing, look for subtle shifts in topic where you can break paragraphs. Let me show you what I mean using Edgar Allen Poe’s the Tell-Tale Heart. Here is the original without paragraph breaks:

Example 1

“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it –oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly –very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously –cautiously (for the hinges creaked) –I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights –every night just at midnight –but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.”

That’s a giant paragraph if I ever saw one. Now, here’s the same paragraph again, but with breaks:

Example 2

“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.

And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it –oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head.

Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly –very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed.

Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously –cautiously (for the hinges creaked) –I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.

And this I did for seven long nights –every night just at midnight –but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night.

So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.”

Paragraph Lengths

Which one would you rather read? I’m betting the second example. It’s easier to read and less intimidating. But how exactly does it work its magic?

By controlling the pacing.

Readers hate giant paragraphs because it takes longer to get through them–it can feel like forever. White space allows the eye to move through more quickly. And in our modern times, readers are impatient and like things fast.

But how long is too long? I’d aim for an average paragraph length of 3-4 lines, but don’t go any longer than 7 or 8 lines. And you can never go too short–you can even do single-line paragraphs for dramatic impact.

Controlling Pacing

Now that you understand the subtle effects paragraphs have on readers you can use them to your advantage. Paragraphs are an effective technique for controlling pacing, and one you definitely shouldn’t overlook.

When you want to slow things down in your story, like making a romantic moment linger, lengthen your paragraphs. It will take your reader longer to get through them, and make them feel like the scene is lasting longer.

When you want to speed things up, keep your paragraphs short and punchy. This is perfect for action scenes. More white space and fewer words means your reader will be flying through the pages, and the scene will feel like it’s moving quickly. The shorter you go, the faster things will move–you can even go down to single lines if you want.

Do you take advantage of paragraphs in your writing?

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How to Write an Opening Line that Will Hook Readers (and a Publisher!)

post4The first sentence of your story is the most important you will write. It will determine whether the reader (or publisher) decides to keep reading or toss your book aside.

Think of it this way: when you meet someone new you decide from your first impression whether or not you like the person and are interested in continuing a conversation. (Or if that Hitler stache is just too creeptastic and you want to hightail it out of there first chance you get).

The first sentence is your story’s first impression to a reader. So you need to make it brilliant.

The first thing I do when I pick up a book at the store is read the opening line. If it catches my interest, I’ll examine the book further, maybe even buy it. If not, it goes back on the shelf. So how do you keep a reader from putting your book back on the shelf?

Let’s look at some examples of opening lines. On a scrap of paper, jot down which numbers make you want to read the rest of the story.

  1. “I’ve been locked up for 264 days.”
  1. “The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.”
  1. “She killed him in the darkest part of the night, before the dew had settled on the grass.”
  1. “Around midnight, her eyes at last took shape.”
  1. “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
  1. “Laurel’s shoes flipped a cheerful rhythm that defied her dark mood.”
  1. “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”
  1. “Chauncey was with a farmer’s daughter on the grassy banks of the Loire River when the storm rolled in, and having let his gelding wander in the meadow, was left to his own two feet to carry him back to the chateau.”
  1. “After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point.”
  1. ““Four-ball, side pocket.” Aislinn pushed the cue forward with a short, quick thrust; the ball dropped into the pocket with a satisfying click.”

Which of these books would you like to read? Which opening lines arouse your curiosity and make you want to know what happens next?

The odd-numbers are examples of excellent opening lines; the even-numbers are examples of weak opening lines. I’m willing to bet the odd-numbered examples were the ones that made you want to read the rest of the story.

And guess which books are on my bookshelf? That’s right–the odd-numbers. They aroused my interest enough to make me want to buy the book, which is exactly what you want as a writer.

So what makes the good lines good?

  • They arouse curiosity: Why is she locked up? Why did she kill him? Why would she kill her true love? Why is she surrounded by wolves? How did she become a slave?
  • They present conflict: Will she escape prison? Will she get away with killing him? Will she really kill her true love? Will she be killed by the wolves? Will she escape slavery?
  • They start near the action—things are happening or about to happen. There is the feeling of forward momentum from the combination of curiosity and conflict. You want to plunge your reader into the heart of the story as quickly as possible—start in the middle of the action.

What makes the weak lines weak?

  • They don’t arouse curiosity or present conflict.
  • #2 tries to be profound but just ends up being confusing.
  • #8 is description, which slows down the story before it even starts.
  • The problem with opening with dialogue as in #10 is it’s somewhat jarring–we haven’t been introduced to the characters yet and we don’t know who’s speaking.

In case you’re curious, here are the books whose opening lines were used in the example: 1. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi 2. Eldest by Christopher Paolini 3. Claire de Lune by Christine Johnson 4. Fallen by Lauren Kate 5. The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater 6. Wings by Aprilynne Pike 7. Shiver by Maggie Steifvater 8. Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick 9. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas 10. Wicked Lovely by Marissa Marr

The purpose of your opening line is to hook the reader by arousing curiosity and/or presenting conflict and action. Give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages! Are you up to the challenge?

Go to a library, bookstore, your own bookshelf, or even amazon.com, and browse through some books examining the first line. Which ones draw in your interest? Which ones don’t? Share below!

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The Secret to Vivid Writing

Vivid WritingYou know how some writers have a way of bringing a scene to life and making it feel as though it’s real? It’s a strange enchantment. We are willing to believe anything the author says because it’s so vivid, how could it not be true?

What is this sorcery, you ask? Thankfully it’s not really magic, and it’s something you can learn too. So listen up, because I’m about to spill some valuable secrets here.

The secret to vivid writing is: specific nouns.

Um, what?

Allow me to elaborate. The more specific you are in your writing, the more vivid of an image you will create in the reader’s mind. The more vague you are, the more hazy the image will be. Specific nouns reveal more about your characters and their surroundings.

Sounds simple enough, right? It is, but it does take some practice and requires a little more thought and work. What do I mean by this?  Well, look at this sentence from a Middle-Eastern inspired fantasy story I wrote:

When night unfurled her stars, the nightjars emerged from their nests and the assassin strung his bow.

I could have just said the birds emerged from their nests–it would have been easier on my part. But I felt that the image could be stronger, so I researched nocturnal birds native to the Middle East and came across nightjars. Additionally, my character did not simply carry a sword–it was a shamshir (a curved, Persian sword).

Do you see how these little, specific details reveal more about the character’s world?  Be specific whenever you can, and be wary of using vague nouns as they can imply a lazy or inexperienced writer.

Let’s look at a few more examples. Take note of the differences in the images each sentence makes you conjure:

  • The bird sat in the tree VS. The owl perched in the pine.
  • Her garden was full of flowers VS. Roses, petunias, and dahlias crowded her garden.
  • The man got into his car VS. The lawyer slid into his black Mercedes.

Remember: specific, specific, specific!

What are some books you love where the story was brought to life through vivid details? How do you use them in your own writing?

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