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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Finding Your Voice (ConCarolinas 2013 Writing Panel Notes)

MMMYep, still a fan.

Finding Your Voice: A Magical Words Panel
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, Faith Hunter, Misty Massey is a website for readers and writers of fantasy that started in January 2008. Faith Hunter, David B. Coe (now also writing as D.B. Jackson), and Misty Massey all met at a convention and clicked, and the concept was born. Over the years they have brought in other writers and related folks. They have many regulars and guests. Enjoy another discussion with the founding members!

Voice: The most amorphous, the least easy to define, and yet probably the most necessary part of any kind of writing. Especially fantasy.

Voice is the distinctive tone, mood, and style that makes any particular piece of writing sound unique.

Voice in the dictionary: You will not find any reference to literary voice. This is a term that gets used in literary circles but doesn’t get used outside of that.

The term gets used in different ways by different people even within writing circles.

Types of Voice

Voice works on different levels, different kinds of voice. There are 3 major types:

Stylistic voice – Personal style and genre influences. Authorial voice (voice of author – can tell different betwen Faulkner and Hemingway – voice of author stands apart.); genre voice (an epic fantasy by Dbc and an urban fantasy by dbc red differently. Different subgenres. Supposed to be diff critters.)

Ambient voice – The mood of the world you’ve created and the book you’re writing. The Jane Yellowrock books read different from the Thorn St. Croix books. Partly because the worlds are different. The narratives are different. The characters are different.

Character voice – Particularly with 1 Point of View character. Character voice is the voice of your narrator, the way they express themselves or tell their story. If the POV skips around, you want different voice between each character, too.

FH: They blend so much, they’re hard to keep separate. Views voice because she writes first person, the voice types blend. Finding the break betwen things is harder to do in first person.

DBC: You as an author have a voice. Someone picking up your book recognizes it as your book.

Which books have influenced your voice?

MM: After reading The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, which was rich and powerful, in-depth and thrilling, she wanted to write something that made somebody feel the way that book made her feel. Also Michael Moorcock. Dark, bitter, angry, cold quest fantasy. She wrote the book she wanted to write. Not by following a commercial trend.

DBC: Steven R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. Having read Tolkien it never occurred to him that a character could be dark, bitter, horrible, and still be worth rooting for. And then he read Guy Gavriel Kay and wanted to write like that. When we start, we have nothing to go on besides what we’ve read. But our own voices emerge that are our own unique compendiums of our taste and the writing styles of the books we’ve read. Then when he wrote Thieftaker, he started writing as D.B. Jackson, which was different from his work as David B. Coe. Thieftaker is historical urban fantasy, not epic fantasy. So he went for a different style.

MM: When writing Mad Kestrel, set at sea, she tried to use language that was rolling and moving, like something on a ship. Now she's writing something else set in Nebraska, and so is going for long and distant.

Audience comment: It felt that night and day in Thieftaker were written differently. There was a different voice at night.

Audience question: As you’re writing Chapter 1 of a new series, how much time do you need to invest in the new voice?

DBC: Starts a book, especially a first book in a new series, and finds upon completing a 400 page novel that the start needs to be rewritten the most. He takes time to find characters as he’s writing. Forstalls it by worldbuilding and writing short stories set in that universe. It's important to write stuff that doesn’t matter. Play with the world through short fiction is a fabulous way to start developing that ambience, that mood, for the larger work you’re going to write.

FH: Starts with first page and first line. Once she knows the character’s name and where she wants to go she’ll go back and work on it again and the voice is there.

MM: Doesn’t start with a short story. Loves playing with a world and getting it out in 20pgs or less.

DBC: Thieftaker was originally an alternate-world (epic) fantasy. Although it’s set in Colonial Boston, it has an otherworldly quality.

Audience question: How do you inject life in to something structurally sound that lacks it?

DBC: It helps to have great editors and beta readers. He put the book away because he wasn’t ready to make it the book he wanted it to be. Then he thought about how he could punch it up. How do you breathe life into something like this? He added action, showed the character in action. Made one change to first chapter and it was like a row of dominoes, and that broke him out of the stuff he thought that couldn’t be fixed. It changed his mindset.

Faith: She has to write the story she needed to write. Presented something her editor rejected in a different voice. It was a substantially different book. She was able to take what she wanted and what editor wanted and make a much better story.

Audience question: Character voice – what do you do to differentiate between different characters? Especially when they're from the same culture?

FH: Characters are not just one thing. Voice should be dependent on what your characters have gone through. Where do they come from, what are their histories, what have they lived through?

DBC: Point of view characters: You’re in their heads. It’s not just about dialects or language, you have to get into emotion. Ethan Kaille is broken, and has a history of being broken. Characters are a product of who they are and where they’ve been. E.g. Schlomo the Kosher Vampire.

Audience comment: Faith has a great example of the different voices between Jane Yellowrock and Beast.

Faith: Beast develops vocabulary as she grows. And Jane recognizes her primitivity.

DBC: Jane in Book 6 is not the same as Jane in Book 1. Ethan in Book 4 is different from Ethan in Book 1.

MM: Kestrel, too. She doesn’t have the luxury of the immaturity she had as quartermaster when she becomes captain in Book 2.

DBC to MM: How did you prepare Kestrel as a character before writing the first book? What influenced you?

MM: Kestrel is a street orphan, and Misty knows her origins and background. She comes from the streets and having to survive on her own from such a young age. It hardened her, made her more streetwise and clever than average kid. She knows how to handle people. How to not be afraid of people. How to assess situations and fights, and whether or not she can get out of them. BUT Misty focused on communicating character rather than communicating the background details.

DBC to FH: You didn’t do much prep work with Jane Yellowrock, but that works with story because Jane has no memory.
FH: Yes, and it was a process of discovery. She couldn’t do prep work; if she had, she’d have shared it too early. She’s discovering Jane as she goes. As Jane discovers herself.

DBC: Ethan spends his time as a thieftaker recovering everything he’s lost.

Audience question: What are the benefits of Pantsing versus Outlining?

MM: Pantsing is really really hard. She had to learn how to outline, but it’s so much simpler to have a map. Not necessarily every single detail, but a basic roadmap.

DBC: Do you mean that characters take over, go where we don’t expect? (He re-outlines as he goes along because characters will surprise us with things we can’t anticipate. That doesn’t mean you should avoid having that narrative roadmap. Knowing where the next plot point is gives the characters more freedom.

FH: Writing an outline in the character’s voice told her what her weaknesses were and how to fix it. She solved a plot problem that worked for the character, and fixed it, and made it work for the character’s voice.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The First Five Pages (ConCarolinas 2013 Writing Panel Notes)

Hey everyone. How has your April been? Mine has been absolutely insane.

Don Rocko and I were both part of a wonderful wedding between two of our close friends. (Not so unexpected, but still intense.) We didn't quite get much chance to take a breather after ECCC. Add bachelor/ette parties, holidays and requisite feasting into the mix, and it was busy, to say the least. Busy but fun.

I also sadly had to say goodbye to my maternal grandmother this month. To call it "not fun" balances out the narrative of the preceding paragraph, but doesn't really do the situation justice. Sometimes my penchant for euphemisms, though an excellent skill at key times that call for tact, instead leads to me doing an injustice to myself. That's about all I have the energy to say right now.

So if that was all tl;dr for people, the long and the short of it is that I've been very busy, and the result is that I've got a decent collection of notes I haven't had a chance to post, so my goal for May (and the days leading up to it) will be to share as much as I can. One of the great things about this is that it's good for me, too. When editing these to share here, I remind myself of what I learned in the first place. Now, let's get started with an exceptionally useful subject, taught by some of my favourite writers: a manuscript's beginning.

* * *

The First Five Pages: A Magical Words Panel 
Faith Hunter Misty Massey, David B. Coe is a website for readers and writers of fantasy that started in January 2008. Faith Hunter, David B. Coe, and Misty Massey all met at a convention and clicked, and the concept was born. Over the years they have brought in other writers and related folks. They have many regulars and guests. Enjoy this discussion with the founding members!

The topic, in a nutshell: If you are unpublished and you want to become traditionally published in the traditional market, your pages have to be better than anyone else’s first five. Here’s some great tips on how to do so.

Getting Started

FH: Established authors can get by without a huge hook because they are known quantities. This has to be tough. If you’re already published you can get by with more than a new author.

DBC: Disagrees, because he thinks that editors understand your first 5 pages aren’t going to be as polished, clean, etc. as a writer who’s experienced. They want to see that you have potential, an understanding of how to write, and that you’re capable of taking a good idea and turning it into something that will last over the entire arc of a book. They might not see the same quality because they see the potential. Yes, your first five pages should be kickass.

FH: Editors are looking for a reason to stop reading, to throw out the manuscript, because they have a huge stack on their desk.

MM: Even for short stories. 14 stories were chosen out of 200+ submissions for The Big Bad anthology.

FH: The professional editor at a big house gets hundreds and hundreds. FH and DBC were lucky slush pile pickups.

Every manuscript needs a good beginning, character development, good conflict, resolution of conflict.

Your opening needs to contain a bait and hook. Something that will prove pivotal later in the book. Also: engaging characters, immediacy, conflict, strong active word use. And voice.

Focus on the event you see on the first page. Don’t open with an island and twelve monkeys unless they need to be there in the book. What the book’s about. Whatever’s there on the opening page is what you want to carry through in the rest of the book.

MM: Mad Kestrel opens on a ship in a storm, with another ship bearing down on it that suddenly vanishes.
-    Have an event, use a writing style that sets the tone, sets the genre, and hints at conflict
-    Immediacy: it has to be important
-    Time limit: e.g. the ship that’s bearing down on the main character’s ship.

DBC: He believes book begins where it needs to begin. At the moment when the events leading to the climax start to matter. It sets up the things that the book is about. The opening needs conflict, voice, all the above, but there are as many ways to get to those elements as there are writers trying to write a story.

Example: Thieftaker opens without a body. It begins with the main character, Ethan, chasing a thief. (This sets up that he’s a thieftaker, the original Private Investigator.) Ethan can smell smoke because there are riots happening in the city (the Stamp Act riots), confrontation with the thief leads to his use of magic, and the kid he arrests assumes he’s working for his rival. Lone wolf using magic. The mystery doesn’t begin until the third chapter. DBC likens the main character to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: there are two opening scenes, one for Robert Redford’s character, and one with Butch Cassidy. Ten minutes into the movie, we’re rooting for the characters already. He wants his readers to know Ethan isn’t someone to be taken lightly.

FH: Research is key. Lots of research on pirates and dance. David has a PhD in history.
“because with a PhD in History you can get an exciting job writing Fantasy novels!”

FH: There are several basic types of opening – the narrative, the dialogue, and the action. Old ones include journal entries, someone waking up, news article, dream. We want those first five pages to be unique and exciting. She’s opened a story with a character waking up, but not in her first novel.

Where do you go to research your first 5 pages?

MM: Read everything. What works and what doesn’t. Learn what other people have done and why it worked or didn’t work. If not, make notes and figure out why it didn’t work. Remember why they worked and why they didn’t. Avoid tropes: something that has been done to death. Not quite a cliché, tropes are done to death but keep being done. E.g. the magic baby trope – conceived, born, grows to adulthood in a week. Has been done and overdone but is still done because someone likes to read that.

DBC: Another example: the young person who doesn’t know they’re destined for greatness. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur. Not done to death, but narrative touchstones that we come to again and again.

MM: It becomes a cliché when you misuse the trope, because you don’t understand the trope. E.g. if you use it “because everyone else did it”. For example, using the reasoning “Tolkien did it” isn’t enough to understand why it was used.

FH: Find your own story, your own opening, something that weary editor cannot put down.

DBC: Agrees with MM. Read, read, read. Fionavar Tapestry. Ender’s Game.

FH: It’s about reading analytically. When you learn how to write, you’re often self-study. Figured out that since she couldn’t go to college, in order to make a living she’d learn how to write herself. Taught herself how to write with coloured pencils in books she’d read and marked great pieces of dialogue. Wrote what was good about something.  Or why something didn’t work. Learned to read analytically. Read blockbusters, things that resonate with the world. Even if it doesn’t resonate with you. Find what resonates with you and understand it. There is a trend for faster openings these days.

FH: Conflict is where so or something is struggling with something and the outcome is in doubt. Man vs. Nature, Man, himself. Introduce with some form of conflict. Doesn’t have to be  the main conflict, but it’s got to be something to do with your book.

Authors who write great hooks: Rachel Aaron, Jim Butcher.

What about internal conflict?

FH: I has a lot to do with voice. In Skinwalker, Jane Yellowrock walks into a new city, into the business of a woman whose type she usually kills.

MM: Kestel’s internal conflict is a secret she has to keep. Something that would change her life completely if the rest of the world found out. There are moments when she missteps/misspeaks, and she’s terrified of that getting out. Don’t just have one type of conflict for your character. Not just one. There has to be other conflict, internal and external, different ones that you encounter as you go along.

DBC: The secret to making it work: start off by knowing your character as well as you can, the emotional basis of their personalities. E.g. Ethan was a prisoner, and now he’s getting his life back. Know your characters well enough that you understand what sets them off. In the narrative, put the things that make them crazy, sets them off, in their path. This makes for compelling, interesting characters.

FH: It’s different from journalism, not the 5W’s and an H. Introduce with the tension of all these questions to be asked when the reader starts reading, but answer them throughout. This makes for a compelling story. You have to answer those questions by the story’s last word.

Audience comment: the First 5 pages are for the reader to decide whether they’ll keep reading.

FH: The opening has to be the best work you can do. It has to be the right opening for that book.

Audience comment: if things aren’t happening quickly enough, you’ve either started too early or too late.

DBC: The start has to be where the narrative that leads to your climax begins. Knowing what events set in motion the story that drives the narrative for the next X-hundred pages.

MM: Avoid the infodump (spilling everything in the first 5 pages).

FH: Start where it first makes sense. For Jane Yellowrock, there’s tension building up to meeting Katie (the vampire seeking to hire her).

MM: “Start the moment where things begin to go wrong.” —Marion Zimmer Bradley

FH: Sometimes it’s luck. Sometimes the editor will say, “Unfortunately, we bought a book just like this.”

DBC: Write the book you want to write. Don’t try to anticipate the market.

Audience question: How much backstory’s acceptable in first 5 pages?

FH: Not wise for a first novel. Introduced in the second third of the book. Unless you’re Stephen King, but you’re not. Set the backstory in the second third of the book. Lasagne analogy: don’t throw the ground beef into one corner of the pot and the onion and noodles in the other – set it instead to layers. Chopped into small pieces. Give it as needed for the story. Should evolve with the cahr. Answering those questions is what the book’s about.

Audience question: Instead of backstory, what about hinting at backstory?

FH/DBC: There’s nothing wrong with that. Immediacy’s good. Little hints are awesome.

Audience question: How often does it happen that the first five pages need to be rewritten?

Everyone: ALL THE TIME.

Faith: Mostly through revisions. Rarely ever does she have to tear it up and rewrite completely.

MM: Don’t look at first 5 pages and keep tweaking. Only tweak because the book needs it. Don’t fiddle. Be aware of why you’re looking at your first five pages and want to fix it, don’t just fiddle.

FH: Do you have a last great bit of advice to writers before they send their work to an editor?

MM: Move onto the next thing. Don’t sit and wait. Publishing is the slowest business. You’re used to sending in and getting response right away. You’re wasting our own time if you do. Work on something else.

DBC: When he finishes a manuscript he puts it away 4-6 weeks then goes back to revise. He tries to create as much distance between editing and writing experience. That helps him catch as many flaws in the book as possible, both before and after beta readers.