The Sound of My Own Voice

I’ve had the good fortune to take a few writing classes taught by Brian Shawver through The Writer’s Place. Either he is a fantastic teacher (very likely since he is now chair of English and Modern Languages at Park University), or I was lucky enough to have the teacher I needed at the time I needed him–maybe both. At any rate, one piece I worked on in one of his classes was Wasting Water. The story is told by a teenaged girl who lives on a farm with her mother and their animals in the near future when the rain has all but stopped. Brian noted that the voice of the character, Livie, is quite different from my own. That was the first time I realized my character’s voice was borrowed in large part from my father, the only person I knew well who had grown up on a farm during hard times and without one of his parents for much of that time.

Voice for a writer, so I am told, tends to be unique to that writer–his or her own way of using words and seeing the world, of interpreting that world and putting that interpretation down on paper. The voice used by Mark Twain in his many writings in unmistakable, as is the voice of Ernest Hemingway. The voice used by Jane Austen would never be mistaken for one of those other authors. Apparently, most editors in the universe are looking for writers with unique and distinctive voices.

I’ve just finished reading a chapter in one of my writing books about the use of voice. One of the things that struck me as good advise was to be sure your voice is consistent throughout any given book. Some writers may have a voice that comes through from the very first and remains constant throughout their career. Others may need to develop theirs over time. As a writer learns and grows, there is the possibility that how they express themselves may change, perhaps even within a single book. That is something I will be watching for in my own writing.

One might think it’s hard to write in anything but your own voice. However, I suspect a character that has a strong personality might be able to express themselves in spite of the author, just as my Livie did. I did not mean to write Wasting Water in my father’s voice, but his was the one I heard in my head. Livie spoke, and I just wrote down what she said.

Wasting Water will be appearing in Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change to be published by Alternating Current Press. They still are open for submissions through April 30, so check it out if you have poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or hybrid pieces dealing with climate change.

Image: My father, John P. Evans; mother, Geneva; older brother, Paul; and me, on a farm my folks once owned. Photographer unknown.

From Where I Stand: POV

One of the things that writer’s should never, ever do, we are repeatedly told, is “head hop.” You must establish your point of view and stick to it. You can change POV if you make a solid break in the narrative, but the rule is, no head hopping, keep a consistent point of view throughout a scene or chapter. The thing is, one of the greatest of writers, one of my favorites, anyway, Jane Austen, can tell you within a few paragraphs and within the same chapter, what two different people are thinking or feeling. And when she does it, it does not disconcert the reader in any way.

But, but, you may sputter in protest, she didn’t know the rules, or those were different times, or she was a great writer so she could get away with it. Maybe those things are true, but the real reason she did it was because it served the story. Without knowing what her characters think and feel, there is no story. She does this even if it means the scene or chapter is not told entirely from one person’s point of view. Nor is she being god-like with the ability to know and see all, distant and omniscient; rather she can jump from person to person because what the people are feeling is immediate and important, and that is how the story must be told.

People will tell you the dead (with the exception of zombies or vampires) can’t be narrators, can’t have a point of view. That would be silly–they’re dead. But Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote Sunset Boulevard with a dead man as the narrator. Alice Seabold in The Lovely Bones has a dead girl tell her own story from her personal Heaven. And in both cases, the story is told this way because it is the best way to tell the story.

Rules for writing are not made to be broken–they are made to keep us from looking like idiots when we write. Rules, however, are just rules, not laws carrying the death penalty if broken. It’s best to follow them when you’re a beginner, like I am, but if the story requires it, think long and hard, then break the rule without apology. After all, telling the story as it demands is not a rule–it’s the law.

Image: Stourhead, Wiltshire, England; view from the back. By Marilyn Evans.

Writing From the Well

I once thought my ideas for stories were like drawing water from a pond or tank. I thought I had just so many, and when those were exhausted, I would be done. The ideas I had, I hoarded and tried to keep close to me until they were written and polished. Only slowly, like a trickle from a tap, would I let them be released lest I dry up my source. I worried that writing exercises would deplete my pond. Of course, I was wrong. Ideas for stories and essays and books, writing in general, is much more like an endless flow from a river or a spring.

In Ireland there are holy wells fed by springs that flow year round. Originally they were sacred to Brigit or Boann or some other form of earth goddess. Nowadays they are sacred to various saints. My favorite is Saint Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill. One well in Ireland that is dedicated to her is a lovely place with a statue that people decorate, and where gifts and offerings are regularly left.

Ireland gets a lot of rain. The water percolates through the earth and emerges again in the springs. Some spring-fed wells have existed for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, and the water always flows. But in County Galway, I saw a well that had once been dedicated to Saint Brigit that no longer had water and instead was full of trash. Perhaps the town had grown around Bridget’s well in such a way that the underground water course was blocked and could no longer supply it. Perhaps the saint had just been neglected for so long that she moved her blessings elsewhere.

Writing is nothing like a pond or tank but rather like those rain-renewed wells. And the rain that renews writing is the practice of writing. The flow is endless, but must be tended. Writing begets writing.

I once thought I could never come up with enough ideas for a blog, but I have been surprised how easily the ideas keep coming–at least so far. I thought I’d have maybe three books in me at most, yet now I find five, six, more waiting their turn. I tend my well of ideas by writing more, not less. I have begun to collect writing prompts, exercises, and inspirations from other writers. Once I get going, my brain won’t shut up at night and let me sleep until I at least make a few notes to work from in the morning.

My well may run dry some day, but I will keep tending it. I will make my offerings of time and study and whatever else it takes to keep my saints or goddesses happy. And surely they will let the words keep flowing.

Image: Marilyn at St. Dympna’s Well (note the different spelling), County Galway, Ireland. By Jonathan Hutchins.

J. D. Salinger Got Edited

For a time, I had the privilege of serving as editor of a little magazine called The Rune. I pretty much had no idea what I was doing, but I seldom let that slow me down. The previous editor, Lane Lambert, taught me a lot and kept me from making too big a mess of it. Because we were always looking for good content, we were happy to accept some pretty rough stuff if the authors were willing to make recommended changes to improve their material. Over time, I watched some beginners become much better writers and, in at least one case, a very nearly great writer. But there was this one guy–you know the type–who was too good to be edited.

This fellow had previously published a piece in another magazine, and he submitted that same article to The Rune. The content was pretty good, but the writing needed work. When I recommended some changes, he was incensed. It had been good enough to be published as it was before, he insisted. How dare I suggest changes? He eventually withdrew his submission relieving us of having to commit to publishing something that wasn’t up to our standards.

One of the comments I’ve gotten about my novel is that the editing is really good. My guess is these reviewers are used to self-published books. My book is as well edited as it is because I had an editor.

If you’re going to be a good writer, you need an editor. You may be lucky enough to be able to do it for yourself, but that’s not the way to bet. My friends are willing to help, but they know me too well. Folks who don’t know me won’t always understand what I’m trying to say and will need more detail or clearer explanations to get my drift.

A good editor doesn’t get so caught up in the story that they slide over the typos and dropped words, and can see inconsistencies in the plot line. An great editor can tell you One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest should be told from the Chief’s point of view.

Shannon O’Cork wrote in How to Write Mysteries, “Only amateurs and gods write their words in concrete.” She almost had it right. Some of the other people who write their words in concrete are bad and mediocre writers, or writers who would be without editing. The worst crap I’ve ever read was written by a really good author who got so big and famous that no one dared to edit her work any more. Everybody needs to be edited. J. D. Salinger got edited.

If you find that everyone loves everything you write, without any changes or revisions, please, become my editor, because I can’t do that. I know I’m not a god, and I hope I’m past being an amateur.

Image: Words written in concrete. Cardiff Castle, Wales. By Marilyn Evans.

A Wild Ride

Welcome to the writer’s life, Marilyn! This is the wild ride, the ups and downs, the agony and joy of writing, or so it would seem.

When I went to Planet Comicon, I had a wonderful time talking to writers, hearing them speak about writing, getting tips, and being inspired. The Cosplayers were great, the guests were awesome, the pop culture was thorough fun. It was an inspiration and a joy.

Then I did my first reading and book signing at 3 Wishes, another wonderful time. I saw a lot of old friends I hadn’t seen in ages. I met people I’d never met before. I didn’t flub the reading too badly, and we sold some books. It was, in all, a really good.

Then I read some of my on-line reviews. Some are great, all praise and love. Some are less wonderful, but fair and honest. I agree with the criticisms and know that those are the sorts of things I hope to improve in my next books. And then there was the one review.

I can understand not liking the main character. I can understand hating the plot. I know this book isn’t for everyone. But I have to take exception with the criticism of Winston, the cat. The reviewer, in her bio, claims to be a cat person. If that is so, I feel sorry for her cats.

The character, Winston, a very large cat with some interesting character traits, is based on several cats I have been privileged to know over the years. To describe their behavior as uncatlike might distress them, if they weren’t cats and therefore don’t give a crap what people think.

Bad reviews happen. It’s part of the ride. Not everyone will like every book. There are highly touted classics I can’t abide. And because people have different tastes, we have available to us a vast array of authors and genres and books–something for everyone, we hope. The thing is, I can’t let the bad reviews steal the joy from my writing. I can’t let someone not loving me or my writing or my cat keep me from the fun, the thrill of creation, the daily process of working at what I love.

I will have more bad reviews. I will encounter people who don’t get my jokes, who don’t like the created people I’ve come to love, and who will take exception to my interpretation of the world. But that’s all right. If I don’t get on the horse and ride, I’ll never experience the inevitable ups that follow close behind the downs. I can’t please everyone, but I must please myself, and I must keep writing.

Image: Jonathan Hutchins riding Crystal Perfection, Fort Leavenworth Hunt, spring fox hunt, 2003. Picture by Marilyn J. Evans.

Quo Vadis?

Quo Vadis is a Latin phrase that was used as the title of a book and later, a movie based on the book. I didn’t like the book much and wasn’t fond of the movie, but I’ve always liked the phrase. Quo vadis is usually translated “whither goest thou?”

Whence and whither are not much used in English these days, and I’m a little sad about that. They would make it so much easier to ask “where did you come from” and “where are you going to” without leaving you with that awkward preposition stranding–that is, when a preposition is far from its intended object. We do it all the time in spoken English: what are you talking about; what is he up to; this bed looks slept in.

Editors can get touchy about stranding, which can lead to authors getting touchy in return. In response to a zealous editor who tried to remove all the dangling prepositions, an author (it is attributed to Winston Churchill) wrote, “This is the sort of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.” This response clearly demonstrates that getting too crazy about rearranging sentences to avoid stranding can make them sound pretty silly.

In trying to minimize the use of dangling prepositions, I’ve discovered that often my preposition is hanging out there because I’m using the wrong words. By using a different word or words, the problem goes away, and the writing gets better. Instead of saying “where did I come from,” my character might actually be asking, who were my parents or what was my country of origin or something else entirely. When I find myself using one of these terms that strands my proposition, I ask myself what am I really trying to say? Is there a better word or phrase that removes the problem and says more clearly what I’m trying to convey? Did I really mean “this is nonsense I won’t put up with”, or did I want to say “this is nonsense I won’t tolerate”?

I am not likely to be using whither and whence in my writing any time soon (unless I’m writing something historical), but I will be trying to keep my sentences undangly at the same time avoiding rearranging them into silliness. But sometimes, you just have  to let your prepositions hang out.

Image: Quo Vadis, Jonathan? Jonathan Hutchins at Danebury Hill Fort, Hampshire, England. By Marilyn Evans

You’ve Got to Call It Something

The first thing someone asks when they find out you’ve written novel is “What genre?” Readers, publishers, book sellers, everyone wants to know what kind of book it is. It’s got to have a label. Beloved Lives was a reboot of a horror story but ended up being classified as paranormal romance with some suspense thrown in for good measure.

Some writers resist the pigeon holes they are slotted into. Margaret Atwood long insisted she did not write science fiction. Certainly Cat’s Eye is fiction, plain and simple. The Handmaid’s Tale could fairly be called dystopian future fiction, but she insisted,  “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” She seems to have accepted the label in the end as she has accepted so many awards for her superb writing.

When you write in a genre, you are expected to at least try to stick with it. It is apparently literary suicide to follow a paranormal, romantic suspense novel with, say, a Regency romance, a historical fiction, a mystery, or a space opera. Sadly, those are the novels that are currently agitating to be written in my poor, beleaguered brain. In fact, I’ve already written the space opera although it needs a lot of rewriting and editing. The research for the Regency romance is done, and the book itself is about a fourth drafted. The historical fiction has caused a mountain of research documents to clutter my life. The mystery is about half done.

My husband, bless him, said he reads novels by people who write three or more a year. He was right, of course. Why couldn’t I go ahead and write a paranormal romance to follow my first one? Trouble is, I didn’t have a single idea for the plot, the characters, or the location. Or did I?

I had this idea some time back for a story about a couple–but why did it have to be a couple? What if they became a couple during the course of the story? Suddenly, I was mugged by ideas, hijacked by locations, pestered by characters. The words started falling out of my brain and into my computer as fast as my little fingers could type. I wake up every morning eager to write instead of struggling as I had on some of my recent projects. Almost as quickly as problems come up with the story, the solutions present themselves. I’m really enjoying writing this thing. It may not be a good book, but, like Beloved Lives, it’s being fun to write. And best of all, it’s a paranormal romance with elements of mystery. Or at least that’s how I’ll label it. Because, you’ve got to call it something.

Image: Tamara experimenting with the horror genre.

Tamara J. Sanchez at Powell Gardens.  Photograph by Jonathan Hutchins.

 

 

About Time

I’m always amused when someone in a film or TV program says something like, “We’re going to blow up in thirty seconds”, then the characters proceed to talk, argue, vow undying love, or whatever for a full minute before the bomb is defused in the last seconds. I’m waiting for someone to put a stop watch on one of these encounters and blow them up in the predicted thirty seconds while they are in mid sentence. I always feel a little cheated that their thirty seconds are longer than mine.

Time and timing are important. The entire human race is a bit obsessed with time, or so one would think, based on the monumental sites around the world dedicated to tracking seasons, sunrises and sunsets, and so forth. Humans have been finding ways to measure time for centuries. Some insist it is the one dimension that defines all the universe and the phenomena in it.

Recognizing the importance of the logical use of time for actions and events, many books about writing well tell you to create a time line as part of your plotting and planning. This helps keep story lines straight and tells you who is where when. Realistic spans of time for actions and events can keep disbelief at bay.

I recently read a mystery that had actions taking place simultaneously at different locations with different characters who would all be meeting later down the road. Each change of scene and chapter was headed with the location, date, and time. This took skillful plotting of both action and time by the author, added greatly to the suspense in the novel, and helped me keep track of what was happening where.

My novel, Beloved Lives, takes place, for the most part, between Mother’s Day and July 4th, and the required me to do some adjusting as I fit the actions to my dates of events. There are also flashbacks that cover many decades and even greater spans of time. At one point I was counting out years between events and determining what might have been going on in the world during those times. All of this was important, at least to me, in keeping as faithfully as possible to a span of time that wouldn’t challenge a reader’s credulity.

In one of the stories I’m currently writing, I’ve gotten all messed up on seasons and actions. I’ll need to go back and get it straightened out with a detailed time line before I go much farther. Otherwise, someone may get blown up in mid-sentence, or worse yet, I may make my readers unhappy. That would never do.

Quite a Character

I recently finished another book by one of my favorite authors, C. J. Box. I first encountered his books at a gift shop in Yellowstone National Park, a wild and beautiful place where the action in his stories takes place from time to time.

C. J. Box has written a series of mysteries with a protagonist named Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden with a loving family, a dedication to his job, and a talent for destroying pickup trucks. Box has also written some stand alone mysteries. I say mysteries, but they are suspense novels as well, packed with action, wilderness locations, and great characters.

One of the things I love most about Box’s writing is his masterful way of introducing characters. I have to admit this is something I’ve struggled with, because I’m never fully comfortable telling what a character looks like right off the bat. I’m not sure why that is, except maybe it always seems a little artificial to me. But readers want to know who they are dealing with, and how will they know unless the author tells them?  Why not give them what they want?

When Box introduces a new character, you not only know what the person looks like, you know what kind of person they are likely to be and how they are likely to act as the story unfolds. Reading Box is a master class in character description. For example, when a man walks into a ranger station in Yellowstone to confess to killing four people, the ranger sees “a big man, a soft man with a sunburn already blooming on his freckled cheeks from just that morning, with ill-fitting, brand-new outdoor clothes that still bore folds from the packaging, his blood-flecked hands curled in his lap like he wanted nothing to do with them.” That right there is the way I’d love to be able to write.

It’s been said over and over, but it bears repeating: reading good writers makes you a better writer.

Keep writing, Mr. Box. I’ll keep reading.

Writing and waiting for the seed catalogs

The folks replacing the water lines on our block are taking a day off. I suspect it’s due to the black ice on the streets and the wrecks all over Kansas City. My husband is working from home so there’s one less thing to worry about. The cats are snoozing, thankfully not on the keyboard. I’m wrapped in a blanket, sitting at my computer, and trying to figure out how to blog.

They tell me all authors need to blog these days. I’m game. I’m always happy to talk about myself–no false modesty here. Problem is I’m a bit of a Luddite. Still, I’ve managed to get a book published, or so they tell me. It was all done electronically, so I think it went through as expected. I’ve seen the Amazon page for ordering it and told all my friends, hoping they’ll tell their friends. I haven’t actually held a copy in my hands yet, but that’s coming. I hope.

I take a lot of things on faith. I assume my editor is going to pay me. I assume what I write will be read by someone. That’s why Facebook is good for me: I get a thumbs up or comment that indicates what I sent into the ether was read. But even if I got no feedback, I’d still write. It’s a sort of disease. Or obsession. Or hopeful dream.

I write the way I plant seeds. Seeds look like dead things, dry and lifeless, but they do contain life. I plant them and wait, taking it on faith that something will happen. When the green shoots start coming out of the ground I never quite believe it’s real, never quite believe that dead thing I planted has become this tender plant that will grow into flower and fruit. It always seems like a small miracle.

When I write, I begin with an idea. Oddly, the title often comes first. As I write, I add, discard, embellish, strip, and rearrange words, thoughts and ideas. I give the preliminary mess to friends who nod sagely and hold their peace. Sometimes they make helpful suggestions, but relying on my friends for constructive feedback is sort of unfair. They are my friends. They kind of have to be nice to me. Some might be brutally honest, but that’s not the way to bet.

I like writer’s groups, but good ones are hard to find, and sometimes don’t last long.  I’ve had the great, good luck to take some writing classes with writers and teachers who have helped me tremendously, but in the end, I have to be my own harshest critic, exceeded only in harshness by my editor, and I have to have done the hard work before she ever sees it. It’s not unlike the hard work that goes into preparing the soil in the autumn and the early spring before the seeds go into the ground. Even after the green things break through the soil, the flower and fruit is a long way off. Like watering and weeding, there  is more editing, proofing, and all the rest of the attention that is required to get to the harvest.

I haven’t made it to the harvest yet. I still have to promote the book, try to arrange signings, and maybe give some interviews, if I’m lucky. And blog. They tell me I must blog. We’ll see how that goes. I suspect I’m going to have fun doing it, and I take it on faith that someone somewhere will read what I write.