Tag Archives: voice

Writing: That Ephemeral Something

Writing is 40% sweat and toil, 40% technique and 20% other. I’m just making up these percentages but the proportions are near enough. It’s the other, the ephemeral something that can’t be taught.

When I started writing, my prose was purple. What’s meant by purple? It was so laden with description and adjectives that the action was lost in the story. My stories were convoluted, meandering and possibly lacking in tension. I don’t even have the earliest versions; they’re long gone or lost in a file somewhere. But I remember those first critiques from the creative writing class I took at UBC. Subsequently I probably went to the other extreme, removing all adjectives and most descriptions to the point of having talking heads and the reader not being able to see anything that was happening. But I was paying attention and learning and trying new ways of writing.

The next year I was accepted into the Clarion Writers workshop in Seattle and I have to remember that had I had exhibited no writing skills they probably wouldn’t have taken me. Presuming they had more applicants than spaces, that is. Clarion showed me I was low on the writing ladder, in terms of skill, but I was probably one of the people who moved the farthest along the ladder, while others stood still. I didn’t have as much ego back then, and therefore could learn more. ūüôā I had a lot to learn.

Over the years I worked on my skills, learning punctuation, grammar, plot and story arcs, tensions, dialogue, lacing in descriptions, etc. That was part of the sweat and toil. The other part includes researching your markets, reading guidelines, either writing pieces to suit (if there’s a theme) and submitting submitting submitting. Perseverance all the way, in learning to write and in getting work published. I would be nowhere if I’d given up after the first 100 rejections. And I cannot count how many rejections I’ve had.

But what makes a good writer? It is these elements I’ve mentioned. But it is also that ephemeral something. It can be voice, the way in which you tell a story. It can also be the story; how have you imagined it. Take a story about a bear that morphs into a human and in the process loses the ability to maintain the love he had but in the end replaces it with power to cover the loneliness. Give that plot to ten people and have them write a story. In almost all cases you will have very different stories from each person.

I once had an editor tell me my story could have been written by a cipher. I pondered that comment for a very long time and never forgot it. I wondered exactly what he meant and now I’m pretty sure I know. A story written by a cipher has no personality. Artists of every description develop style, whether painters, or dancers, or writers. It is both what individualizes the work but it can also pigeonhole you when your audience/fans always want something done in the same style. We can change our style but keep our voice the same. We have different ways of writing; wordy, crisp, rambling, descriptive, emotive, etc. And sometimes our style is our unique way of seeing things, the story itself.

Indeed, what makes or breaks a story is very ephemeral. Selling depends a lot on the likes of an individual and I have pieces that had been submitted numerous times, being rejected every time before they sold and had good reviews. You can’t really teach this ephemeral voice to a person except to say practice practice practice. Write all the time, study other writers, experiment and maybe you’ll develop a voice or style or personality. Mine is shifting and sometimes I’m not sure what it is. You can’t pluck this from a jar, nor plant it in your brain. You just have to keep trying.

Oh, and one last note. I’ve just sold It’s Only Words” to Des Lewis’s Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies out of Britain sometime this summer.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Culture, Writing

Writing: What Constitutes Fantasy

Discussion has recently come up on my writer’s list about fantasy stories. One of the members asked a range of questions, not because she needed advice but because I believe she’s had discussions with other writers on what constitutes fantasy. Most of the members had close to the same answers here so I’m listing her questions and how I view each of them.

1.     Should a writer write down to an audience, or just use their own conversational voice?

¬†I took this to mean, should a writer condescend to, take on an instructional tone in explaining to an audience that may not know as much. Or should the writer¬†use the author’s voice. However, I believe she meant, use your regular writing voice, thought that wasn’t clear. I have elaborated on my original answers.

I’d think neither. You’re writing using characters so your characters should help reveal the world. A character has a personality and a unique voice and depending on the point of view, that will affect what voice is used. You could have a condescending narrator; in that case yes he/she would talk or write down to the audience.

To explain the particular setting/technology/society of a world requires deft revelation, some of which may be through a particular character. Albeit, some exposition is required in a novel, but it shouldn’t be talking/writing down so much as making sure your regular reader understands the functioning aspects of the world as needed to understand the story. Example: I recently edited a book for someone who had all sorts of words/slang about airforce planes but on a level most of us (unless we were pilots) wouldn’t understand. He needed a bit more info in context so that the reader could understand what was going on.

¬†Unless you (the author/narrator) are an integral part of your novel, the authorial voice should not be there. When author’s drop into their stories it’s disconcerting and pulls the reader out of the world. Terry Pratchett from time to time uses an authorial or omniscient narrator (as you suspected, dear reader). It takes skill to use it in a way that enhances a story as opposed to detracting from in and ruining the atmosphere.¬†¬†

2.     Should a fantasy novel assume lack of science and technology?

No. Even a world of magic has some technology or science. Whether it interacts with the story is another matter. Cups, weapons, dyes,¬†plows, walls, etc.,¬†are all a science when they’re discovered/invented. Pre-industrial societies had science and or technology. Stories that involve alchemists (as an example) often mix science with magical properties. Books have been written where magic and science blend equally.

If you mean the logic/science behind how magic works in a particular world, then yes it still has to make sense and work in the story. But science does not negate magic necessarily.

3.     Should a fantasy novel assume a pseudo-medieval milieu?

No. It can, as is evidenced by numerous novels, but some are of far earlier societies. Some are integrated in later worlds and some are just plain ole alien. I read Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Mistborn, which had a plantationesque era and established magic. There was science as well. I really liked it for being of a different milieu.

Often there is the accepted trope that in a world that is not industrialized, magics develop in different ways within people. But a world could have magical creatures, i.e., not found normally on planet Earth and still not be medieval. Many medieval fantasies fall into parallel world tropes, where it is the middle ages but some element of magic is real. Many take an Earth like world and values but create fictitious places. Everything from the myths of the ancients up to the modern urban fantasies, like Charles de Lint’s (his name came up often in this discussion) are fantasy but not medieval. And really, a fantasy story has a better chance of selling if it is different rather than the same as every other book on the shelf.

4.     Should a fantasy novel necessarily encompass magic?

Again, it doesn’t matter really. Yes or no, depending on your world. A world can just be “other” or different from the world and the past we know, yet have nothing magical about it. It will still fall into the fantasy category. The lines between science fiction and fantasy can be blurry. Anne McCaffrey’s famous dragonriders of Pernseries started out as a medieval fantasy where people in feudal style societies rode dragons that killed the invading threads. She argued that it was science fiction because it was a different world, where originally the humans came from someplace else.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books were similar in that they started out in a medieval style world, where some people had special powers. But as she wrote more and more books, there was interaction with people from other planets and spaceports. Fantasy or science fiction? Yes.

5.     Should magic in a fantasy novel be hard or just part of the norm like breathing?

Depends on if everyone does it, or if it’s a gifted few. Are they born with it or like us, do they go through a crawling stage before walking and then flying? Many books have magical talents begin with puberty.¬†In others, the person must study and earn the talent. It could be a world that has an inherent magic in the way it works such as creatures that change shape. It all depends on what is integral to the plot and how that affects the outcomes and solutions the protagonist must find.

Overall, I’d say almost all of these are not hard and fast. It depends on how the world is set up, what tale you’re trying to tell and how integral magic is to that story line. But questions like these are always goods to ask because as writers, it keeps us thinking and examining what we do. And sometimes it pushes us outside our comfort zones and we move beyond the box.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Culture, entertainment, fairy tales, fantasy, flying, history, horror, life, myth, people, Publishing, science, science fiction, Writing

Writing: Reviewing Reviews

Because I write mostly short stories and poems, reviews are few and far between. A magazine is less likely to be reviewed than an anthology and an individual story even less likely. I’ve never seen a review of any of my poems and I suspect the only way one would get a review is if it was a collection of poetry in a book or chapbook format.

Reviews can be a curse in their own right, with more negative than supportive comments, and it’s a chance any artist takes when putting work into the public forum. Still, I would rather have a review than not. A review can stir up discussion or controversy and some people will decide to form their own opinions (as I often do with movies) than take a reviewer’s. The reviewer is a buffer: I know reviewer A never likes xyz, but I do so if they hate it, I will most surely like it.¬† A review can be used to weed out what you’re going to read or buy. And reviews do give publicity of a sort, whether negative or positive.

Under the review umbrella are a host of chameleons: those written pieces that actually don’t review a piece so much as recap it. I have read reviews that give no indication of whether a story is good or bad, written well or not. All the reviewer does is reveal some of the plot line or all of it. These are not reviews. A review should have an opinion on the storyline and writing. There are the damning with faint praise reviews: this is not very deep, a piece of fluff but was enjoyable nonetheless.

Some reviews take into account that it may be the writer’s first major work. Some discuss the style of writing but don’t go as much into plot, while others will look at the depth and intricacies of plot, the sophistication of writing style and the expertise of the writer’s knowledge in the area in which they are writing.

I know of a few writers who do not read their reviews, afraid that the comments, possibly scathing, will puncture their egos like a helium balloon. I’m happy–well, maybe not happy–to read any review. Perhaps I will¬†learn something about my writing and what I need to fix or change the next time around. Perhaps the reviewer will like it and I’ll feel encouraged. So far, there have been very few reviews of my work, the most probably being “The Fathomless World” in Cone Zero, and those again fell into mostly recapping the stories.

It’s important to note though, that many reviewers are just like you and me. It’s their opinion. Some reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt. I always figured I could be a good art critic because I can look at/read something and personally dislike it but examine the technique and skilled unbiasedly and see if the artist knows their stuff. Still, I would get down to what I don’t or do like about a piece as part of the review.

Some people love steampunk. Some hate elf and unicorn stories. Some hate free form verse or poems about flowers. Others dislike first person stories, or plots involving government overthrows and secret spies. These likes and dislikes will always flavor a review, but the good reviewer will be able to examine the writing as a whole. Aspects that reviewers might touch on are: depth and variety of characterization, plot flow, conflict and resolution, plausibility and depth of storyline, atmosphere, description, language, voice (authorial as opposed to characters), overall readibility and whether the author’s voice insinuates itself, etc.

So, in the spirit of reviewing, if someone would like to review something I’ve already written, please let me know and I’ll send it to you. This is a limited time offer (in case there are millions out there.) I will also post the review, whether favorable or not and then probably crawl away into my hole and rethink my view that I’d rather have a review than no review at all.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Culture, entertainment, erotica, fantasy, horror, movies, people, poetry, Publishing, science fiction, Writing

Writing: The Lovable Bastard

Several editors have said that you have to have a protagonist that the reader can identify with. If the character is a bastard, he has to be a lovable bastard. And in essence this is true. In any story, whether a short story or a novel there has to be some character that the writer can like. Often this will be the main character or one of the viewpoint characters.

The biggest problem, if you make all your characters bastards or despicable murderers, is that no one will identify with them except perhaps the odd psychopath. If no one identifies, then no one cares. The reader is not invested in seeing if the protagonist wins against her personal conflict or not. Does the hero beat the evil overlord or die a valiant death? Who cares if it’s only evil overlords battling each other…unless there is something human about them, a softer side. The evil overlord who has a little puppy that he loves dearly will garner some sympathy from the reader compared to the overlords that eat the puppies.

So why have a¬† lovable bastard at all? As the realm of speculative fiction writing grew and changed, it began to reflect deeper plots with more well developed characters. It wasn’t just about the giant space ship with a tachyon drive going through space with a man, any man,¬†battling the alien elements. It was now about a specific person, a woman or a man, who was much like you and me, but placed in a different time or world. The “every man” “every woman” aspect means that we can relate to these characters because they are human. They’re flawed. They have good days and bad days, have shining aspects of their personalities and flaws that can be their downfalls.

No one is a hero twenty-four hours a day. Even the most valiant knight must eat, drink, fart, defecate and sleep. He’s human. In spec writing you may have an alien, a god, some other life form and they may be truly alien in their actions or thoughts, but if you don’t have some character that the reader identifies with it will remain too hard to fathom for the average reader. I have a story I wrote a long time ago with alien larval and insectoid creatures. No matter who I sent the story to (even when I stopped rewriting every time), one editor would find¬†the¬†character too alien and the next would find it too human.

Perfume,¬†by Patrick Suskind¬†was ¬†a book about a man born nearly blind but with a sense of smell so acute that he could “see” with it, could tell the past and almost the future. It won the 1987 World Fantasy award and though the world portrayed was vivid and nearly magical, I didn’t like this book. The main reason was that the main character, more an antagonist than a protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was a bastard, and not lovable in the least. He was a murderer bent on procuring the ultimate scent, who had no compassion for his victims. The victims themselves are not with us long enough for the reader to care for them. The movie took a slightly different twist to probably portray a victim long enough (and her father) so that we had someone to relate to and care about.

Stephen Donaldson, many years ago, wrote the Thomas Covenant series (Lord Foul’s Bane, etc.), which encompassed two trilogies. His main character was again a bastard, a reluctant hero. Thomas Covenant, to me, was not lovable either. He was a big whiner. Being a whiner is okay in a story, if it changes, but Covenant whined until he died and then his girlfriend took over whining. The story was of larger scope than Covenant but the whining made him too unlikable.

A main character may be so flawed that they are not likable. Then the writer needs to have the faithful sidekick, the every woman that you and I feel we could be. Lane Robins handled this deftly with Maledicte. Her main character is tempestuous, jealous, vengeful and ridden by a god that darkens the soul.¬† Maledicte isn’t that likable but then there is Gilly, a human servant, a conflicted man who is just a man. No gods afflict him and he has no special powers. He is the simple unsung hero to Maledicte’s antihero.

Overall Maledicte is more successful as a book than Perfume when it comes to characters and making your reader care. At times I even care for Maledicte and, like any bastard who is the main character, Maledicte should change by the end of the story, and does. Grenouille never changes so that I did not care if he lived or died in the end. With Covenant, I was relieved when he died.

These three books have stuck in my memory, two becaue the characters weren’t likable and one because there was a sidekick who was. You might think this is okay then but Perfume had a unique world and I could never stomach another Donaldson book again. I tried but found the one book I tried had a character too much like Thomas Covenant. I couldn’t put up with any more “poor me” whiners through a complete series.

To have a likable character, whether faithful sidekick or lovable bastard is truly essential to almost all stories. There are exceptions but for a writer starting out, it’s a must. So here is to the lovable bastards out there; may they all have some redeeming qualities.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, entertainment, erotica, fantasy, horror, myth, people, poetry, science fiction, Writing

Writing: Poetry Slams

Poetry slams began some twenty years ago or so and so this site says: http://www.slampapi.com/new_site/background/what_is_poetry_slam.htm¬†they were intended to increase the public’s awareness of poetry and involve the audience.

In Vancouver, I was doing poetry slams in the late 80s I guess. However, now reading what the slams were supposed to be like I can say I probably only did one. The one slam was called something like Poetry Faceoff, and was, I think put on by one of the writers organizations. It was in a bar with a dance floor area that they had roped off like a boxing ring with balloons in the corner. This was some publicity thing and two poets would be given a subject and five minutes to write a poem, then perform it.

The judges were some well-known jock and a writer. They scored a winner from each round and then those two would face off. In the end I won the poetry slam and still have the wall plaque. The judging aspect is supposed to be what a poetry slam should be like.

However those early days here had a bit more of a biased and ruthless variety. Most of my friends ran screaming from the word poetry, believing it to be moribund and incomprehensible. When a few of my friends did come with me to a few readings they found my poetry as well as the other poet’s much more accessible and lively. Of course we were doing performance poetry or spoken word.

The slams, though, were another thing. They’d be held in different bars and I would go with my written poems, like everyone else. Then each poet, or maybe two against each other, would read a poem and the audience would boo or cheer for the one they liked the best. This is different than what traditional slams are, where a few select members would be judges, scoring the pieces and making it somewhat fairer, one poet to the other.

The problem with just the audience cheering to decide the winner was that usually the poet with the most friends present won. It had nothing to do with good or bad poetry or performance. On top of that there was a predilection for certain poets to read every poem in the same impassioned way. Every line would end on an upward inflection, as if you were asking a question. Therefore someone loud using this cadence would outweigh a truly good poem read well but without the dramatics.

I saw good poets get torn down because they didn’t have a large crowd of friends and didn’t read their poems in the popular cadence. After a few of these, I decided they were too brutal. Poetry is hard enough to write and if a person has the guts to stand in front of a crowd and read or perform their work, they should be encouraged, not lambasted. So I stopped going.

The one thing to remember if doing any sort of slam or a spoken word reading, is to put life into a poem. Don’t read it as if you’ve come from the grave, unless the poem is about you coming from the grave. Then it will need to be wry. If there is delicate imagery, read it delicately; if it is harsh and bold, read it that way. The aspects of good acting apply to performing poetry: vary your cadence, don’t speak at the same volume all the way through and emphasize some elements to draw attention. I took a voice and speech class at one point, more for acting but it works equally as well when used with any spoken performance.

Maybe the slams have evolved, if there are any these days. I haven’t heard of many but then it seems I also fell out of doing readings a few years back. It might be time to pick up that thread and do some readings or spoken word again. Other cities have a much more active slam circuit: Toronto, Chicago, New York. Maybe we’re just too West Coast here. I just know that going to a slam the way they used to be here, is not for me. Maybe just maybe I can drag¬†a friend or two with me the next time I read.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetry_slam

1 Comment

Filed under art, Culture, entertainment, erotica, fantasy, history, horror, life, people, poetry, Publishing, science fiction, Writing

Writing: Talking Heads

When you write a conversation between two or more people, you have a dialogue. However, for many new writers a common problem is what we call “talking heads.” Dialogue goes back and forth between Dick and Jane but there is no setting, no description whether of the room or of their actions or mood. The reader will become lost, not being able to differentiate from one character to the next, or in being able to tell what is going on besides talking.

Using “Dick said,” “Jane said” with every line of dialogue becomes overly repetitive and boring to read. It also doesn’t show what the character is doing or feeling while they are talking. Writers will sometimes fall into: “I love that coat,” Jane said excitedly. “It costs a fortune,” Dick replied morosely.

Adverbs ending in “ly” can slow down the action. They’re also used to “tell” when the writer should be “showing” instead. Using the above examples with showing could result in much more information: “I love that coat,” Jane said as she ran over to the rack and pulled out the purple Armani.

Dick scowled and kicked at the faded carpet.¬† “It costs a fortune.”

Here we have Jane’s excitement shown by her actions. Dick’s disapproval is shown in his expression. We now have mood and something of setting, though not a lot. This could be extended to the next lines: Jane turned and looked at Dick, noticing his hunched shoulders. “How can you say that? It cost less than your golf clubs.”This now adds more on their relationship, and notice I didn’t even have to say “Jane said.” It’s obviously Jane because I’ve mentioned her. I’ve also now made it her point of view. By noticing Dick’s shoulders, we are seeing through her eyes. Once in a character’s point of view, you need to stay there and not jump back and forth from one character’s POV to another, or you risk giving your reader whiplash and further confusion.

You can get through a few lines of dialogue without description but very few. Even a half a page is too much without something. The reader needs tone of voice, emotions or actions. Adding tone of voice is a delicate thing. You don’t want every piece of dialogue to have: he expostulated, she snarled, he growled, she simpered, he bellowed, she screamed. It gets a bit much, bringing melodrama where it shouldn’t be.

All in all, you can have a dialogue heavy scene and still show action and setting and emotion. It takes practice and balance. Variety is part of the solution. Falling into a pattern of he said/she said, or having dialogue that always ends in action is a pitfall for repetition. The important thing is to keep the action active and to stay away from passive language.

1 Comment

Filed under entertainment, fantasy, horror, people, Publishing, science fiction, Writing

How a Blog is Different Than an Article:By Me Anyways

Last year I researched and wrote a blog for a marketing company. They knew they wanted a blog but they didn’t know really what a blog was or what the different types were. So I did up a paper and printed off different blog sites to show them. I wrote a blog for the length of the contract where, because of what they marketed, they found the blog wasn’t really helping them a lot. It was also very specific and I warned them that there was a limited life on what could be written about.

Blogs can serve several purposes. There are the dear diary, hello my friend styles that are personal, chatty and set for people who know the writer. There are blogs done by companies, which can be troubleshooting or informative, advertise and raise sales. These might be in an informal style or have a particular voice. There are blogs that are for entertainment (gossip of the stars, humor, trivia) and blogs that are opinion pieces (or rants). Of course, you can have a blend of entertaining and informative, or opinion and chatty, or whatever.

I write a blog for several reasons. As a writer, when I can’t get to writing fiction every day, it gives me some exercise in writing. With a keen interest and opinion on many things I like to write about them and share my knowledge or insights, sometimes see if there are like minded people out there or if I’m just off the wall. Sometimes it’s to inform and sometimes to entertain. I also post some previously written articles that had a limited exposure on sites long gone.

What I don’t do with a blog is research very long. These are often personal interest, comments on current events or informative pieces. But the way I see it, I don’t have time to do a lot of research, unless I’m being paid. When I write an article for a magazine I do more in-depth research that might include interviews, going to the library, and some good ole fashioned legwork on top of internet research.

An interesting observation that I’ve noticed in general with my blog pieces. Since I started this blog in April, the entry “A Whole Rainbow of Possibilities” (on gay pride) probably had the most hits in a day. The “Fuel Efficient…” article had a lot of interest at first. The “Stones of Ireland” has been my most consistently read piece and the “Teenage Sex and Teachers” has skyrocketed over the weeks since I wrote it. I can conclude only that if you have sex in the title, especially coupled with teenagers, you’ll get many hits. Maybe I should title everything with sex. Sex Chocolate Chip Cookies. Sex Looking for a New Car. Sex Shopping for Clothes. Etc. I wonder how that would skew the views from those just looking for sex.

But in general, when I’m writing a blog entry I’m going on my memory and knowledge and some internet searching. Usually some Wiki and a few other sources, such as reliable newspapers or specific sites to do with the topic. So a blog satisfies my need that people will read it. Maybe not a thousand hits per day (yet! Unless I put sex everywhere) but still I’m one small voice in the cave. And of course I write because it’s fun.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, entertainment, life, memories, news, people, Publishing, Writing