Voice seems to be one of those elusive things I have encountered as an aspiring author. What is it? How do you know what your voice is? How do you know if it is unique? Until recently, I just avoided the whole issue because it seemed so convoluted.
But the day must come when we chase down that elusive concept in order to fully develop into who we are. So here it is, wrong or right, my own view and explanation of voice.
An author’s voice is not one tangible element in a novel, it is the culmination of all the flavors an author brings to their writing. From genre choice, to settings, typical characters, humor, to even word choice – it all goes to develop a unique voice.
Take a look at this picture:
What story comes to your mind?
My first thought was a woman lying in bed, fumbling for a shoe to throw at the cat that never stops meowing out her window. Typical image? Yes, but give me time and I will develop it into a storyline that is unique. What if she killed the cat by accident? And what if it was her neighbor’s prize winner? Or even better, there was a note attached to it revealing a danger no one could have foreseen. Oh, so many ideas are skittering through my mind…
Maybe your first thought was a mystery, a ghost story, or something altogether different. Your author voice can change depending on your genre choice, and most of us tend to pick a particular genre and stick to it.
Mary Connealy has a voice I love. She has humor focused on the cowboy days of the west. Her females are almost always strong, independent women with quirky ways. Her characters are always unique and at odds with each other. Whenever I pick up one of her books I know there will be an element of danger, sweet romance, a splash of humor, a cowboy setting, and characters that make me smile.
Jen Turano is another author with a unique voice. Whenever I pick up one of her books, I know they are going to take place in a city setting, with characters who are oddball in some way, danger will ensue, and hilarity prevails. When I need a good laugh, I turn to her or Karen Witemeyer.
My friend and critique partner, Joanna Davidson Politano, will be releasing her debut novel in October. While I won’t share details of her story now (you will have to wait until next month) Joanna has a voice that makes me swoon. Whenever I read her submissions, I know I will step into a Regency world clouded with mystery. Her books read like a mix of Bronte, Daphne Du Maurier, and Dickens. To read her work is to float through a world that entrances and intrigues, and I absolutely cannot wait for you to read her books!(Okay, swooning over.)
Bottom line, your voice is what a reader can expect to find when they pick up your book.
Finding Your Voice
Evaluate your writing. Do you notice certain trends? Are your stories dialogue heavy? Witty? Detail oriented? Do you add humor to your work? A little? A lot? Do you have odd ball characters? Do you choose a particular type of hero?
What settings do you tend to choose? Cities, the country, a particular region? Are they darker, brighter? Winter, Summer, Autumn, Spring? That can change with each book, but if you notice a particular trend, that just may be part of your voice.
Is your writing very formulaic or is it organic? Susie May Warren is very formulaic in her writing. She works in twenty chapter patterns and has a plan of what has to happen in each segment of her story. For others, there is no discernable pattern beyond the standard three-act plot.
By evaluating your writing, you can determine your strengths and weaknesses, elements that you want to refine and improve upon, maybe even elements you want to weed out of your writing altogether.
My voice is still developing, but I have decided that my voice includes a few elements: Danger and murder plots, women who are independent but get into lots of trouble, heroes who generally fall into the law enforcement category, clear villains, a splash of humor (although nowhere near the amount I thought I would have), and broken families. Forgiveness, redemption, and family are strong threads in what my stories encompass. Do I have a lot of work left? You betcha! Is my voice completely clear and finished? Nope, but I am working on it.
Now it is your turn to share. Comment below.
What do you want a reader to expect when they pick up your books? Have you discovered your own voice? Do you agree or disagree with my view of author voice? What would you add to this?
Characters are more than just the sum of their actions. In the previous weeks, I discussed character archetypes and negative/positive personality traits, but all of these really just boil down to actions. So what more do you need to create a living, breathing, well-rounded character?
To give your characters the breath of life, you need to give them a past full of good and bad experiences, even though their full back story will never be revealed to the reader. Susie May Warren does a fantastic job of explaining how she does this in her book The Story Equation (SEQ), and I highly recommend getting it. For the meantime, here is the basic process derived from her SEQ.
Developing Character History
Your character is who they are when they walk on the page due to their histories. As an author, it would be impossible create a comprehensive life story for your character from birth to the time they walk on the page. Many of those details are not important.
The important details of our lives are those life-altering parts. Those moments in time that end up wounding you, burying a lie deep into your heart, and creating fears. Susie May Warren calls these Dark Moment Stories.
Dark Moment Stories
These dark moment stories aren’t as vague as “my parents divorced.” As bad as divorce is, moments within the divorce will be what really shaped the experience of your character. They are the stories that can be retold in detail to another character.
For example, take a story of a four-year-old boy whose father walked out on him. That memory is so painful, so poignant it becomes immortalized in the mind, twisting and growing roots down to the soul.
He can remember his Dad loading up the car, ignoring the son as he followed behind asking questions.
“Daddy, where are you going?”
“Can I go, Daddy?”
“Why is Mommy crying?”
“Can I help?”
Then it happened. Dad closed the door, separating the boy from him forever. The boy runs to the window and watches as the car putters off into the distance without one backward glance from the driver.
Imagine the wound developed by that. What fears would develop from that experience? The fear of abandonment. The fear of being unworthy. The fear of being out of control.
Lies will develop from this experience. I’ll never be good enough. I am unlovable. I can’t trust people. People I love will always end up leaving.
These lies and fears developed from the wound determine the actions of our characters and make them believable. The wounding story is what makes us sympathize the character and even connect with the character. You don’t have to have your father abandon you to understand the feeling of abandonment.
Bringing your characters to life means giving them experiences that readers can connect to and identify with. Give them experiences that define who they are at the beginning, but are overcome and redefined at the end.
Exercise Your Brain
This week, come up with your own dark moment story for a character (or use a real experience, we’ll never know!). Then tell us the possible lies and fears developed from that dark moment story. Come back and encourage one another and comment on the different stories.
*This is an expanded edition of my guest blog post to Southern Writer’s Magazine on December 14, 2016.
Crafting the Perfect Chapter – It’s Elementary, My Dears
Before becoming a stay-at-home-mom, I taught fifth-grade students to analyze writing. I hadn’t given much thought to applying what I taught to my own writing until I substitute taught a fifth-grade reading class. That day, I discovered a crucial concept for every fiction writer.
Students all over the country are forced summarize every chapter they read by looking for these key things: Somebody… wants… but… so… then…
We, as writers, need to zero in on every chapter we write to make sure we can answer: Somebody… wants…. but…. so… then…
How do we do this? It’s elementary, my dears.
To illustrate this concept, I will use chapter eight of George Washington’s Socks. I will assume most my readers have not had the enjoyment of reading this children’s novel, so I will just give a very brief introduction to the story.
George Washington’s Socks
A mysterious rowboat transports five adventurous kids back in time to the eve of the Battle at Trenton where they experience the American Revolution. Through encounters with Hessian soldiers, revolutionaries, and even George Washington himself, Matthew, Quentin, Hooter, Tony, and Katie watch history unfold before their eyes as they see first-hand, the grim realities of war and the cost of freedom.
– Amazon.com Blurb
Somebody… wants… but… so… then…
Let’s break it down:
Who is the central focus of this chapter? This can be one or two characters if you are splitting your story between points of view, but even if there are multiple points of view, a chapter is generally about one person. Who would students identify as the main character for your chapter?
In George Washington’s Socks there are five focus characters, however, chapter eight focuses solely on the perspective of Matt.
This is the goal of the main character for this chapter only. What is it that the character wants to accomplish in this small timeframe? More often than not it is a small goal that builds into something bigger.
For Matt, his initial goal in the chapter was to return General Washington’s cape.
No story is engaging without conflict, and neither is a chapter. What obstacle does the character face? It can be internal or external in nature, but it needs to be plausible and, if at all possible, unforeseen.
Matt’s challenge comes in the form of a captain who believes Matt is a rebel soldier.
This is the reaction to the conflict. What does the character do? What does he/she think? Do they change their goal? What about the supporting characters? How do they respond to the conflict, and how does their response affect the main character?
Matt changes his goal. He goes from wanting to return General Washington’s cape to retreating to the safety of the boat.
This is where a consequence occurs or an additional problem is added to the plot. There could be a hint to the subplot, or a difficult obstacle the character must face, or it could leave the reader with a cliffhanger. Whichever course you choose, the “then” is used as a hook for the next chapter.
Matt’s chapter doesn’t end with him being forced into battle. His “then” is the fatal injury of the only man who can get Matt home.
Combine all the elements and you get:
Matt wanted to return General Washington’s cape but a Captain thought he was a rebel soldier trying to desert, so Matt tries to return to the boat. Then, as Matt is being forced into battle, the only man who can get Matt and his friends home suffers a fatal injury.
Somebody… wants… but… so… then… is a quick, easy summary that drives to the heart of a chapter. Do each of your chapters contain these elements? Could you summarize them in this way?
Even scarier…. could a fifth-grader?
I challenge you to share one of your chapters in this way, and just so I am being fair, here’s my example from chapter one.
Kessara wants to pay off her grandfather’s debt, but she doesn’t want him to find out she had to save the family name again, so she goes to the cemetery at midnight to retrieve her secret stash of money. Then as she is returning to the carriage she stumbles upon a clandestine meeting between two criminals who spot her.
What do you think? How would you break down one of your chapters?
Have you struggled with flat characters? Difficult to plot stories? A lack of knowledge on how to correct these issues?
Oh my! I must admit I fall very solidly in this category. After the ACFW Conference, I realized just how much of a beginner I am. It feels like I have scrapped my story for the umpteenth time, but this time I have a solid plan.
One of the many benefits of attending the conference was connecting with Susan May Warren, a wonderful author and teacher. She has created this wonderful online community that is lesson based. It does require a membership, but the investment has been definitely worth the cost so far.
Due to the fact I do pay a membership, I have been hesitant to share what I have learned. I would not wish to break any copyright laws nor infringe on what Susie has spent so much time creating.
But lucky for you, one of the most helpful sets of lessons has recently been transcribed into a book that, even with access to the courses, I have added to my library of resources.
The Story Equation: How to Plot & Write a Brilliant Story From One Powerful Question by Susan May Warren
Susie’s wonderful method is based on developing your POV characters from the inside out. I will not steal her thunder, for the information is not mine to share, but I will say this has become my new favorite method to work my story.
It is organic and naturally encourages great depth. The plot, theme, and premise developed around my characters with surprising results. My story already feels stronger with the use of the Story Equation (SEQ).
I will not lie. As a beginner, I have spent many hours doing the courses, redoing them, and reading the book over and over again, working my characters as I did so. My characters are finally (mostly) solid and I am working on developing my major plot points.
The Kindle Edition of the book costs only $6.99. Let me tell you, this is an AMAZING price for an invaluable book. It is a quick and easy read, and easy to apply. If you can afford a monthly membership to her community, The Novel Academy, I would HIGHLY recommend that as well.
Below is the book blurb from Amazon. If you have any questions or experiences with the SEQ or Novel Academy, please comment below. I am so excited to share this resource with you!
“Discover The Story Equation!
One question can unlock your entire story! Are you struggling to build a riveting plot? Layered characters? How about fortify that saggy middle? Create that powerful ending?
You can build an entire book by asking one powerful question, and then plugging it into an “equation” that makes your plot and characters come to life. You’ll learn how to build the external and internal journey of your characters, create a theme, build story and scene tension, create the character change journey and even pitch and market your story. All with one amazing question.
- The amazing trick to creating unforgettable, compelling characters that epic movies use!
- How to create riveting tension to keep the story driving from chapter to chapter
- The easy solution to plotting the middle of your novel
- The one element every story needs to keep a reader up all night
- How to craft an ending that makes your reader say to their friends, “Oh, you have to read this book!”
Using the powerful technique that has created over fifty RITA, Christy and Carol award-winning, best-selling novels, Susan May Warren will show novelists how to utilize The Story Equation to create the best story they’ve ever written.”
– Blurb from Amazon
In my search for the perfect story structure and plotting, I have read many books and continue to do so. However, so far, Michael Hauge’s 6 Stage Story Structure has been my favorite. I love his linear, clear-cut structure.
Mr. Hauge’s structure is centered around script writing and is very formulaic. Although the percentages are more a reference to script writing, they can be loosely used for novel writing.
Stage 1 – Setup or “Everyday Life” (0%-10%)
- Introduce your hero in their everyday world
- Create identification with 2 or more of the following:
- put them in jeopardy
- make them likable
- make the hero funny
- make them powerful
- The hero exists completely in their identity.
- Their identity may be centered on what they do, their religion, or how they want others to see them.
- Their identity is what protects their core essence. (People pleaser vs “I am fine the way I am.”)
Turning Point 1 – Presented with an Opportunity (10% marker)
- Creates in the hero a desire to move into a new situation, something new
- This is not the desire for the true endpoint.
- Hero gets a glimpse of what it would be like to live in their essence
- They refuse the call to change
Stage 2 – New Situation (10% – 25%)
- The adjustment
- What are the new rules?
- How can I get along?
- Usually, hero believes it will be easy.
- Hero gets a glimpse of what it would be like to live in their essence.
- Reject living in their essence.
Turning Point 2 – Change of Plans (25% marker)
- The visible end goal is established.
- The character realizes, “No, I have to do this.”
- A foot in who their initial identity is and a foot in who they really are – their essence.
- They struggle back and forth with who they are and what they were.
Stage 3 – Progress (25% – 50%)
- The plan seems to be working.
- There must be conflict, but the obstacles are avoided, overcome, delayed, or by-passed.
- They are still straddling the fence of their essence and identity.
Turning Point 3 – The Point of No Return (50%)
- When the hero is closer to the goal than the start, and they have become so committed they burn their bridges, making it impossible to turn back.
- The hero’s life as he knew it is over.
- Their identity is stripped away.
- They realize their essence and begin pursuing it.
Stage 4 – Complications and Higher Stakes (50% – 75%)
- It is more difficult to accomplish the goal, but also more important to accomplish.
- They have more to lose.
- They continue pursuing who they really are.
Turning Point 4 – The Major Setback (75%)
- The reader has the sense that all is lost.
- The plan they had is out the window but they can’t turn back.
- They must make one last push or die while trying.
- The hero has fully committed to living in their essence but now the outside world starts coming in and frightening them.
- The hero retreats back into their identity. They run away from who they are.
Stage 5 -The Last Push (75% to ?)
- Do it or die while trying.
- Everything is put on the line.
- They realize they don’t like who they were anymore. They have had a taste of who they truly are and they have to go after it.
- They have to find their destiny, even if it means risking everything to get what they want.
Turning Point 5 – Climax (% Depends)
- All the problems are resolved.
- The hero can fail, succeed, or change their mind.
- The length of the climax depends on how many problems you have to resolve.
- The moment they fully realize who they are.
Stage 6 – The Aftermath
- Responding the climax emotionally.
- The wedding, reconciliation, etc.
- The hero is going to live their new life as they truly are.
Interested in examples and learning more about either Mr. Hauge’s structure or the hero’s journey? I highly recommend buying the audible recording of his and Chris Vogular’s presentations. It is worth every penny. I have listened to it half a dozen times already and plan on listening again as I drive to Nashville for the ACFW Conference next week.
Michael Hauge’s website also does a great job showing examples.
Tell me what you think about this plotting format? Does it make sense to you? Are there any movies or books you can identify with this plot structure?