Tags: voice

What You Get from the Analysis of First Pages

by Amber Keyser
Published on: July 10, 2015
Comments: No Comments

When I was first getting started in this business, I thought it was terribly unfair to get a conference critique or agent feedback on just a chapter or two. After all, how could they know what I’ve done with the rest of the story?

Now, I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that issues which occur early in the story are almost always carried throughout. That’s why it is possible to give feedback on a few chapters. If the author can carry the changes throughout, they are usually end up with a much much better product at the end.

Most of these large scale issues are things like narrative voice, consistent POV, realistic dialogue, and showing vs. telling. When the Scrivas do critiques (for each other or through our paid critique services), we point out issues and try to offer ways to strengthen the manuscript. Ideally, these suggestions are things that the writer can implement on their own in the rest of the manuscript.

After a few thorough revisions, we Scrivas turn our eyes and little red pens to line edits, parsing through each sentence for word choice and phrasing. This is the stage at which the writer has the opportunity to make every line sing.

And when the book sells, launches, finds readers… when the book itself soars… then we celebrate this amazing process that begins, as all true stories do, with a blank page and ends with the creation of a new world we can all inhabit.

It turns out that it is true: first pages are the key to everything!

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling Part III

by Amber Keyser
Published on: February 13, 2014
Categories: Craft, Other Topics
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Meet Kristi Wallace Knight, our lovely contributor to this occasional series (Part I, Part II) on how we can use revision to activate our writing.  Take it away, Kristi…

My own writing process is one of fits and starts.  I may go days or weeks without writing more than a sentence or two, and I can really struggle to get back into a story when I finally have time to sit down and write again. My preferred process is to grab a pen and a cheap spiral notebook (I buy them at Target at the beginning of the school year when they’re ten for a dollar), set a timer, and make myself write for 12-15 minutes. Nothing is off-limits, anything goes, and I have to keep my hand moving the whole time. After two or three sessions like this I’m usually on a roll and don’t need the timer anymore, I’m just going, telling myself the story, and the good and the bad are all swirled up together.

My next step is to type my pages into the computer. This is usually re-drafting, teasing apart the story from the places I’m telling myself the story. Sometimes the difference between the two is obvious, but sometimes subsequent read-throughs reveal more places to increase the action on the page and decrease the distance between the character and the reader.

 

Stella opened the door to the office her dad was in. He was writing furiously at his desk. He glanced up, nodded to her and stuck his left index finger in the air, then looked back down to finish his writing. When he was done he looked up and said, “hello, dear. How have your studies been?”

“Mrs. Bennett is seeing to my studies, why are you asking me something she can answer?”

Mr. Blackwood gazed over his glasses at his daughter, “my dear,” he began, “I had nearly forgotten who I was speaking to.”

“And just where have you been, anyway? You were due back three days ago.”

Mr. Blackwood got up and closed the door to his office. “I had an unexpected meeting in Pennsylvania, and was advised to have another in New York. So I extended my travel.”

This is boring.

Stella leaves her friend, Lana, and goes to her father’s office. The door is mostly closed. A frosted glass window keeps her from seeing who is inside, but the conversation she hears is heated. She approaches the door and hears: “two, three days at the most,” her father’s voice.

“You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood.”

“And more than doubled our success by doing so. The legend around this other piece…” the other man cut him off

“The piece itself is legendary, we can’t put a legend in the museum. These artifacts are spectacular, I’ll grant you, but will be years of study before they go on public display. Now I need you here, teaching and writing up your finds. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”

The conversation seemed to be over, and the door opened to reveal _________, the President of the University.

“Miss Blackwood, I presume.” Stella was acutely aware that she was one of few thirteen-year-olds seen on campus. “Do us a favor and try to keep your father in town through the semester, would you?”

 

And here is how I typed up the scene later:

 

            Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.

            “…a week, ten days at the most,” her father said.

            “You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood,” the other voice said.

            “And more than doubled our success by doing so. This piece is exactly as the legends describe, and the companion piece…”

            “The companion piece is legendary. The research is firm that legend was added hundreds of years later with the intent of creating a wild goose chase. We can’t put a legend in a museum, Gunter. The pieces you have are spectacular, but they’ll be two years of study at least before we can display them. I need you here for the rest of the year, teaching and putting your work in writing. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”

The door opened and the president of the university passed Stella and headed down the hall.

In his office, Gunter Blackwood was staring at a collection of objects spread out on a black museum cloth on his desk.

“You’re three weeks late,” Stella said to the top of his head.

Her father looked up. His face was deeply brown, but his eyebrows had more white in them than Stella remembered. He had been away more than five months, on expedition with a small group of students in Mesopotamia, collecting artifacts.

            “My dear Stella,” he said, “how you’ve grown.” He stood and quickly embraced Stella. His shirt smelled of cloves and sunlight, she thought.

            “I will not be left behind again,” she said. Her father met her gaze, and Stella felt an uncomfortable lightness in her chest. She was glad to see him, and afraid she might cry.  Stella blinked. She looked at the objects on his desk. “What are those?” she asked.

            There appeared to be several rocks scattered about with two gold rings, a gold coin, a black box, and a statue that looked like the torso of a woman, without limbs or a head. The gold objects were beautiful but the statue was freakish and bizarre. Stella reached for one of the stones and picked it up.

 

So, what did I change? Most obviously, I moved the conflict between Gunter and the University president to the front. I cut down the description of Gunter at his desk, because it doesn’t move the story. I got bored writing it, so I know you’ll be bored reading it. As I read over this, though, I still see verbs that I’ll revisit in future revisions in order to bring Stella and her experience closer to the reader. For example, I expect to delete “she thought” after “cloves and sunlight,” because without “she thought” we’re just there in Stella’s experience of smelling the shirt, and that is where, as the writer, I want the reader to be. I make a habit of looking for what I think of as “distancing verbs” – “thought,” “noticed,” “observed,” “saw,” “heard,” and verb phrases like “could see,” “could hear,” — in my work, and I cut, cut, cut them to the best of my ability.  I also notice three adverbs in the typed version above – “slightly,” “deeply,” and “quickly,”  two of them preceded by “was.”  Adverbs are a sort of shorthand that is effective for moving the story along in a first draft, but usually can be eliminated or unpacked into more specific description in later drafts.

I skipped the description of the door – all we need to know is that Stella can hear what’s happening on the other side, we don’t need to know what the door looks like. But I had to write it that way at first because I was visualizing it and writing that down helped me into the story.  At the time that I’m finding it, details like the color of the hallway walls, the glass in the door, and the hardware are part of the story. Knowing when to keep those details in to inform the reader, and when to get them out of the way because the story is actually elsewhere – in this case, in the relationships between Gunter and the University president, and Gunter and his daughter – is an ongoing part of my process. The objects on Gunter’s desk, that Stella is about to pick up and hear the stories of, are objects that Stella and Gunter’s story will be built around, so they stay in. The brass door handles and frosted glass window can go.

Already I’m looking at places where I can further tighten the scene. The second sentence – “As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside,” contains two verbs: approached, heard; and a gerund: having.  Are they all necessary? Maybe. Or will the same information be conveyed even if they aren’t there?  Maybe. Here are other options:

A)    “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.”

B)   “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella’s father and another man were having a heated discussion inside.”

What’s the difference?   In (A), Stella is the one the verb refers to, and (B), the verb phrase “were having” refers to Stella’s father, and is a weak verb form at that. I want my reader to experience the story from Stella’s point of view, and I want the verbs to keep the story moving, so I’m going to choose (A). The reader is still aware that Stella is approaching her father’s office door, but that approach is happening invisibly by moving with Stella, and thus the reader, through the experience.

In my fiction, letting the lady scream is all about getting the right verbs in the right places, but even more so it’s about getting the wrong verbs out of the way of the action.

 

Kristi Wallace Knight has been writing Dangerously in Portland, Oregon since 2000. She has been published in Stealing Time Magazine, where she was the founding Fiction Editor in 2012. She is currently writing a Young Adult adventure series and does freelance editing. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2011 and can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/KWallaceKnightEditor

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling PART II

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 14, 2014
Categories: Craft
Comments: 3 Comments

Guest blogger Mary Cronk Farrell continues our occasional series on “Showing vs. Telling,” the eternal bugaboo of the writer.  (Read PART I here).  Take it away, Mary!

 

This is from my biography of Fannie Sellins, a labor organizer. It’s a longer picture book for older readers.  It’s actually non-fiction, which presents a different challenge than fiction, in that you must comb the facts for the details to bring your scenes to life.

 

Telling

Fannie Sellins went on a national tour speaking about the garment worker’s strike and asking for donations. Everywhere she went, she saw people working long hours for low pay in unsafe conditions. Her message was always the same—If we stick together, we can make change.

 

Showing

"A little spinner in the Mollohan Mills, Newberry, S.C. " Photo by Lewis Hine, 1910

“A little spinner in the Mollohan Mills, Newberry, S.C. ” Photo by Lewis Hine, 1910

Fannie Sellins traveled from city to city by train. She saw girls in Chicago button factories cut their fingers on the jagged shells used to make buttons. There was no medicine to treat infection. Girls in New England cotton mills got hurt or even died when their hair or arms accidently caught in powerful weaving looms.

“Help us fight,” Fannie told coal miners in Illinois.  “We women go into factories among dangerous machinery and many of us get horribly injured or killed. Many of your brothers die in the mines.”

The miners stomped and shouted agreement. Some wiped tears from their eyes.

In Iowa, union carpenters listened to Fannie. “If we stick together, we can win,” she said. People jumped to their feet, clapping and whooping.

“Pass the hat,” someone hollered and it went hand to hand. Coins jingled and bills rustled. Fannie collected one thousand dollars to help striking garment workers feed their families.

Wherever she went, working people interrupted her speeches with cheering.

“You need new pants?” Fannie asked. “Don’t buy from Marx & Haas. Buy union label.”

People did. Orders for pants went down so much, Marx & Haas had to close one factory. With the money Fannie raised, strikers held out for two years until Marx & Haas agreed to re-hire union workers and raise wages.

 

Thanks, Mary!  Great example!

Sensory details are particularly important in bringing nonfiction to life.  Notice that Mary wasn’t there when the union carpenters passed the hat, but she knows that coins jingle and bills rustle when you throw them together.  Those sounds really put us in the scene.

Don’t forget to pre-order Mary’s newest book:

PURE GRIT: A STORY OF RESILIENCE & SURVIVAL


American forces on Corregidor Island surrendered under a hot sun at noon, May 4, 1942.
After five months of brutal combat nursing, 68 American women became Japanese prisoners of war.

The women had arrived in the Philippines unprepared for war and expecting a tropical play land. Rising to the occasion, they were driven to the limits of endurance nursing wounded and dying American soldiers. Now the woman faced the horrors of prison camp–disease, starvation, and humiliation by their guards.

With ingenuity and dedication to duty, the U.S. Army and Navy women set up a hospital for other prisoners, nursing as long as they had the strength to rise from their pallets. For three years behind barbed wire the women would turn suffering into humor, hope and the will to survive. Their pure grit testifies to the resilience of the human mind, body and spirit.

 

ABOUT MARY

She’s an award-winning author of children’s and YA books and former journalist with a passion for stories about people facing great adversity with courage. Her books have been named Notable Social Studies Book for Young People, SPUR Award for Best Juvenile Fiction about the American West, Bank Street College List of Best Children’s Books, and NY Public Library Best Books for Teens. Her journalistic work has received numerous awards for excellence from the Society of Professional Journalists and two Emmy nominations.  Find her at her website and on Twitter.

 

 

Giving blood then removing the self

by Amber Keyser
Published on: August 14, 2013
Categories: Craft
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Recently, I read an article (which sadly I can’t put my fingers on again) about realistic, multi-dimensional character building.  The author suggested “giving blood.”  In other words, if we bring our own deeply-held and often painful experiences into our characters, they become well-rounded.

My friends know I’m a “method” writer, which means there is a lot of blood-letting on my pages, but during the revision process, I find it necessary to reverse the process and remove myself from the work.  When one of the Scrivas observed that the mom’s narrative was over-whelming that of my main character, it’s because too much of me remains.

The good thing is that the characters have taken on a life of their own during the process so when I strip the authorial voice and experience out of the manuscript, something good and true remains.

Take a minute to think through where your own experiences motivate the action in the manuscript and where they overshadow it.  Perhaps like me, you need to both give and take during revision.

Breaking habits, tics, and tweaks–critique partners required!

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 9, 2012
Categories: Craft
Comments: 2 Comments

All writers have stylistic habits.  Good ones give us that ineffable “voice.”  Bad ones require assistance to root out and destroy.  These verbal tics range from small–in my case, over use of just, upwards, the em dash, and descriptions of hair–to large ones such as over use of sentence fragments and similar sentence structures.

The tricky bit is finding our tics.  We don’t tend to notice our own habits.  Here is where critique partners and editors are invaluable.  They see what we gloss over.  Once we know where the quicksand is, we can fight back.

Part of careful revision is examining each sentence and varying the way we use language.  I love the “search” function in Pages (the Mac counterpoint to Word).  It allows me to search on “hair,” for example, and see all 127 instances in the manuscript.  I can jump from “hair” to “hair” and choose describe other facets of my characters.

Repeat this enough times, and I guarantee it will break you of the habit!  After eliminating something like a million instances of just in my first novel (okay maybe only 198), I cringe at typing the word, even when my editor wants me to add it.

But what about those big issues?

Ever tried this site: I Write Like?  You paste in a few paragraphs of your writing.  It crunches away on some sentence analysis and–POP!–out comes your writing doppleganger.  I just put in the first few paragraphs of this post and…

… I write like H.P. Lovecraft.  (That is a truly weird result!)

The point here is that we have repetitive patterns in our writing and these can be highly influenced by what we are reading or writing in other contexts.

A fascinating recent article in the New York Times by Michael Erard, describes this phenomenon which is called “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.”

He describes it this way:

“Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically… Our words and sentence patterns are also primed in the same way, such that the words we chose are the words we will choose later.”

Some of the less egregious cases of “accidental” plagarism could, no doubt, be chalked up to this kind of priming.  Erard offers some excellent fixes to this problem for writers.  I want you to read the rest of his article to get them.

Getting back to the role of critique partners… I’ve often thought it would be a great exercise to try and write in the style of one of the other Scrivas.  I bet I could nail it!

And just for Emma Dryden, I promise I won’t describe anyone’s hair fanning out behind her!

Voice – By making our characters sound like kids, do we make kids sound like idiots?

by Amber Keyser
Published on: September 9, 2012
Categories: Craft
Comments: 1 Comment

Voice is tricky AND essential.  We create voice through both dialogue and narrative.  By deliberate use of specific vocabulary, unique sentence structure, and the focus of our character’s observations and thoughts, we create voice and, thus, bring our characters to life.

When I first started writing novels, Scriva Nicole was constantly pointing out vocabulary that sounded too “writerly.”  She was right, of course.  I love words and am happy to pepper my prose with slightly obscure ones, but those words didn’t sound like they should come out of the mouth of a 13-year-old boy.  Did I really think he’d say a river was “silvered” by moonlight or “imbued” with internal light?  I revised and revised until my character was using unique but relevant words.

All of this is to say, I understand why authors would choose to eliminate the divide between subject and object pronouns.  Authors I respect do it in books I love.  But it is driving me bat-shit-crazy.  Let me show you.

 

Long ago, when we were little, me and Chrissy did something bad. We said we were going to Annie’s house to play, but we didn’t.

 

 

 

 

Upstairs, it’s just me and my parents, Professor Twitchett down the hall, that flight attendant lady who’s never home, and the couple across the hall from us.

 

 

 

 

 

Then we went back to the hotel. There were parties there, but it was mostly college kids.  Usually we can get in, because me and Link and Marty and Calista, we can turn on the charm.

 

 

 

 

The effect in all three quotes is to create a kid voice.  After all, adults know that SHE AND I will go to the movies not SHE AND ME.  Kids haven’t quite got it down, right?  Unfortunately, after my kids and I finished reading Project Jackalope aloud, I realized that my kids’ regular speech was full of incorrect pronoun usage:

Me and Joshua are going to play Wii.

Beryl and me need a snack.

OMG!  My kids sounded like idiots.  The hub and I came down with a grammar-hammer, and they are starting to sound like people who could hold down jobs one day, but it got me thinking about the cyclical nature of story-thought-language-story.

It’s all connected.

I know enough from my days studying linguistics at St. John’s College to know that language evolves.  (Google it, if you want proof!  Ha ha!)  I’m pretty sure that if we continue to write this way, language will follow us.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it for a kid-like sound, but if you do, ME AND YOU might never sound the same!

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