Category Archives: Deborah Ratliff

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Five: Creating Unforgettable Characters

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

 

A playwright in a local writing group I attend posed an interesting question. He wanted to know what the group thought attracted readers to read the same authors repeatedly. The consensus reached was that we return to our favorite authors because they give us characters we identify with, cheer for and care about.

Think about a series of books you are fond of and consider what brings you back every time that author publishes a new novel. I’m certain the genre is appealing and likely the author writes well and is entertaining, but many authors are as well. I think one of the main reasons we favor certain authors is the characters they create.

Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Kay Scarpetta, Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Eve Dallas, Travis McGee.

These characters and countless others are part of our lexicon. They become important to us and remain with us long after we have read the first or the last novel of the series. My father handed me my first John D. McDonald book featuring the character Travis McGee when I was sixteen, telling me I would learn about life from McDonald’s words. I cannot tell you how many times I have read each of the twenty-one novels in the Travis McGee series over the years. A self-identified beach bum and salvage operator, McGee was more than that. He was a believer in justice, respected women, hated drugs and drug dealers, greed, and corruption. A modern-day Robin Hood who helped those who could not fight the system, a characteristic of many of the characters we embrace.

As a mystery writer, many of the names I have listed above are old friends, and while I do realize they are not real, their familiarity from novel to novel allows that suspension of belief we need to immerse ourselves in fiction. These authors make their characters unforgettable and so should we.

First Impressions

The first time we meet anyone we form an immediate impression, despite knowing we should not judge a person until we get to know them better. But we do, and your reader will form an opinion of your characters when they first meet.

As we discussed in Part Four of our series, “Plotting Your Story,” you should introduce your main character, or protagonist, as soon as possible in your first chapter. If you want the reader to become engaged in the story and read until the end, then make your protagonist compelling. Give your readers a reason to like the character, to feel empathy for them, for their plight.

You should introduce your main character quickly and important supporting characters within the first chapter, even if only by name, not appearance. Your protagonist should be alluded to even if not present in the first chapter. Let your readers see who they are rooting for and who they are not.

 

Types of Characters in a Story:

 

The Protagonist

Your story revolves around this character and your readers’ interest will, as well. As we discussed, you must define them clearly and quickly. This character is your story, he/she must define the plot and be the focus of the central action of the story. The conflict that exists in the story is what this character must face and ultimately make a choice on how to deal with. Put you protagonist in peril throughout the story to involve the reader in their plight.

 

The Antagonist

The villain is the foil for your protagonist and the source of their conflict. Introduce the antagonist early as you would your protagonist. However, you may introduce their evil deeds first and, dependent on the genre you are writing in, have them appear in the story or reveal their identity as the antagonist at an appropriate time.

 

Secondary Characters

All character’s other than your protagonist and antagonist fall into this category. These characters can play a pivotal role in the story or serve a role in a transitional scene, a clerk or service technician, a doctor, any role you need. The role of side-kick falls into this category, and these characters need development to convey the level of importance they carry in a story. Keep in mind, even the most mundane of characters is an opportunity to enrich your story. A taxi driver might appear briefly in one scene, but you have the choice to make that character memorable.

 

“There are no hundred percent heroes.” — Travis McGee, Cinnamon Skin, 1982, by John D. MacDonald

Making Your Characters Unforgettable:

  • Appearance: As you write your characters, no doubt you will know exactly what they look like. The question is how much of that description do you impart to your readers. There are two schools of thought, describe your characters the way you want your reader to see them or allow your reader to imagine them as they choose. Whatever you decide, do not throw out an ingredient list identifying characteristics. Incorporate those characteristics into dialogue or the character’s internal dialogue as your story unfolds. If you do intend on revealing hair color or any other feature, do so within the first chapter. If you tell your reader in chapter five, your character is a brunette, and your reader thinks redhead, their connection with the character could be destroyed.
  • Background: Your characters origins, place of birth, ethnic background, ancestry, education, career choices, sports participation, hobbies, etc. can all play a role in their development. What did their parents do for a living, what unusual events occurred to impact their lives, what childhood pets did they have, all impact who they are.
  • Communication: How do they interact with people? Is he friendly, curt, argumentative? Do they have an accent, special words, or phrases that they use that shows their personality and makes them unique? What does their voice sound like? What is their internal thought processes?
  • Relationships: How do they interact with family and friends? Do they make friends easily, are they awkward in social situations? Do they genuinely like people, are they shy?
  • Goals: Decide what do your characters want. What are the goals, desires, need that you should address in your novel to move the story to its conclusion. Stories are based on conflict, and you need to show how that conflict interferes with their goals and how to resolve the issue.
  • Flaws: Do remember that your characters do not need to be perfect. While Hollywood prescribes that all characters must be handsome or beautiful, the fact is real life doesn’t look like that. Give your MC a scar, have them throw a temper tantrum, have them drink too much or hate dogs or apple pie. Let them complain about their weight or their cousins. Make them real people.

 

There are some things to avoid.

  • All those classic boys/girls next door, the dumb sidekick, the brave solitary cowboy, doting mothers, rough Marine drill sergeants, all those stereotypes we have come to expect, don’t use them. Do not write the expected, give your reader a character that is unique.
  • Do not create simple characters. Give them dimension. You have a cast of characters that should be interesting. While you will focus on developing your main characters and those secondary characters that are important to the story arc, don’t forget to humanize your minor characters. Make them stand out, give them a funny line or a unique attribute. If you cannot make them real, don’t use them as placeholders to take you to the next scene, cut them from the story.

 

How do you create these characters?

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

― William Faulkner

Story coaches and experts will tell you that writing a character biography down to shoe size and favorite dessert along with a list of books they’re read is the only way to properly develop your characters. There are numerous character development sheet templates available online if you choose to microscopically dissect their personalities. There are some authors who write a multi-page biography before they commence writing their novel.

Then there are writers like me. I think of my story arc, imagine the character, give them a name and start typing. They will tell me their likes and dislikes as we experience the story together.

Again, as in all things writing related, choose what works for you. The main thing is to remember to create multidimensional main and secondary characters that enrich your stories and propel the plot to its conclusion.

 

“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”

― Berkeley Breathed

 

Resources:

https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3055:are-travis-mcgee-and-john-d-macdonald-still-relevent-&catid=54:reviews&Itemid=187

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/characters

Writers Unite! on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” Radio Program

Once again, Writers Unite! has appeared on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” radio program, which airs on WNZK, Detroit, Michigan. Host Paul Reeves and I discussed our sister Facebook site, Writers Unite! and the third installment in our series Writing Your First Novel, To Outline or Not to Outline.

Writers Unite! will be a regular monthly guest on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” program. We are looking forward to being on the show each month to discuss the writing process.

(https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/pwr/episodes/2017-06-05T10_40_50-07_00)

“Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” airs live each week on WNZK, 690AM, in the Detroit area from 11:00 a.m. – Noon Eastern Time. The show is also live streamed on Tunein.

http://tunein.com/radio/WNZK-690-s21615/

Writing Your First Novel Part Four: Plotting Your Story Idea

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART FOUR: Plotting YOUR STORY IDEA

Sing to me, Oh Muse… “

— Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey

The muse.

Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of “inspiration and artistic creation.”

Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.

Now, that your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?

In Part Three of our series, we discussed developing your story by beginning to write without a plan or creating your storyline by planning it out or plotting it. Deciding what your story is about is not the same as structuring the novel. In Part Four, we are going to examine how to put the pieces of your story together.

Story vs. Plot:

First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).”  A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.

Director Martin Scorsese offers the following explanation of story vs. plot:

“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” … Perhaps, in film, a plot could be said to be the sequence of (causally related) events that make up the narrative. The plot…it is what happens. Jul 29, 2014

Stories are about the characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.

As a mystery writer, I respect my readers’ need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.

Story Structure:

One of the most touted methods of creating a plot in the writing world is the three-act structure, or the five or seven-act structure.  The problem is stories do not occur in three acts. Three or more acts evolved as far back as the days of Aristotle from natural stopping points within a story to provide intermission for the audience.  While there is a lot of information and instruction on this method of developing a story plot, the truth is stories are not built on any number of acts. They are crafted by identifying the conflict the story is based on, and the action needed to resolve the conflict.

There is some confusion with the three-act method with how the plots within a story unfold. There is a beginning, middle and ending of a story but they flow from each other and are not specific acts.

The Beginning

The beginning section is traditionally used for exposition, the literary term for providing character information, backstory, any information that is pertinent to the story. (We will discuss how to present this information in a future installment of this series.)  You must establish your story, introduce your characters and reveal conflict that forces your protagonist to act. The catalyst for your story should be revealed in this section, murder, the discovery of a secret, a broken romance, whatever conflict your main character must overcome.

The Middle

The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle,” it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented, and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.

In this middle section, your goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story, leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.

The Ending

The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.

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While we strive to be original and innovative in our writing, we need to remember that there are reasons we are governed by laws. Rules and regulations keep chaos at bay in the courthouse, Congress, or on the road. Writing rules, while not rigid, keep your novels from becoming chaotic. Following a tried and true structure provides you reader with an expected ‘friend,’ allowing their emotions to rise and fall as your unique storytelling draws them in.

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Up next:  Writing Your First Novel  Part Five: Developing Memorable Characters

 

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Resources:

https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/nine-muses-in-greek-mythology/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plot

https://www.nofilmschool.com/2014/07/martin-scorsese-difference-between-story-plot

 

 

Write Your First Novel Part Three Plotter vs Pantser: To Outline or Not to Outline…

“Nora Roberts says she never knows where her story is going, that she sits down at the computer to find out.”

Writers, when they aren’t writing, love to talk about writing. It is, after all, our passion. A favorite topic of these discussions, and one that garners a lot of questions is “plotter vs.  pantser.” Do you outline your story before you begin to write or do you run with the idea that pops into your head without a care?

The discussion on how to construct a novel, outline or write without a plan, is one that elicits many opinions. There is no right or wrong way, the method used to write a novel is subjective and personal.

I admit to being a pantser, a writer without a plan. An idea will come to me, and I feel compelled to begin writing immediately. I formulate the beginning and end of the story in my head and work out how to get from Point A to Point B as I go along. Main characters come with the idea, and secondary characters materialize out of thin air as needed.

“Romance author Jane Graves, who identifies herself as ‘a big time pantser’ says ‘I’m cursed with not being able to see the good twists and turns of character and plot until I’m in the middle of writing the book. I can have a sense where it’s going, but absolutely nothing comes alive until the words start going down on the page. That’s when I start having revelations and seeing things I never saw at the synopsis level. For me, it’s kind of like remembering the words to an old song. If you ask me the words, I can’t tell you. But if the song comes on the radio and I’m in the middle of listening to it, I can tell you what comes next.’”

Pantsers usually cite one main reason why they prefer not to outline. They thrive on the unrestricted flow of creativity, which not having a plan gives them. Personally, I enjoy experiencing the story as it unfolds naturally. I don’t want to know what my character’s favorite food is or exactly where a murder is going to take place until the scene evolves. I prefer the characters surprise me.

Another reason is the tedious process of plotting out the story before writing. Many pantsers, this one included, feel very confined by a detailed plan. Outlining is akin to writing the story prior to writing the story.

There are problems with writing without a plan. You can write yourself into a corner, discover you have a major plot hole or realize the beginning of your story may be the middle and you have to develop further back into the story instead of going forward. A major criticism of this writing process is that without planning it often requires considerable rewrite to attain plot cohesion.

I suspect pantsters will admit they do some planning. Complex plots and numerous characters can be confusing. Some writers will sketch out chapters or write down key plot points as they develop them to keep track. I admit to doing both, I am notoriously horrible at remembering character names, so I keep a character list. I have also discovered that creating a chapter list, noting the significant plot events of the book helps keep me focused. My chapter notes are fluid, changing as the story unfolds, and my brief notes perhaps only a cryptic “ body discovered” but does help with keeping an even pace throughout the story.

Plotters, or outliners, on the other hand, thrive on detail. They wouldn’t dream of writing, some quite meticulously, without planning the entire story. Spreadsheets, index cards, journals, loose paper, word docs, all serve as platforms for the all-important outline. During the years JK Rowling was publishing the Harry Potter series, she gave a television interview where she discussed the large spreadsheet she created to plot out and track events in her epic novels. The enormous undertaking required to produce a series like Harry Potter underscores the plotters’ belief in planning. Multiple characters, plotlines, and volumes require attention to detail and even as a pantser by nature, I can see the value of plotting.

One of the serious issues that plague many writers is their inability to finish a project, short story or novel because they lose track during the middle. While a beginning and an ending are often known, how to navigate through the story to reach a conclusion often eludes them. Planning each scene, or chapter can help with this issue by providing the impetus to construct a solid middle.

There is a downside to plotting. I had a conversation with a writing coach, who loved the index card process and told me that I must write my story on the cards and then write my first draft. I didn’t. Writing a detailed outline, including every scene, every nuance to me defeats the point. When the last index card includes the words, ‘the end,’ I’ve already written the book. I don’t choose to write it again.

Also, plotting to such detail boxes one into a corner. If you have an epiphany in the middle of writing based on a detailed outline, you have two choices. Chuck the outline or rewrite it. Rewriting is tedious and time-consuming and unnecessary.

I suspect most of us are a combination of a plotter and a pantser. How much of each of these processes we embrace depends on our need for direction. The one thing I have noticed is our predilection to choose one of these styles seems to follow how we go about our daily tasks. Some calendar everything, make copious lists, some (like me)  ask, “Was that today?” What is important is choosing the writing process that offers us the most productivity and the most joy.

 

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Quote Resources:

http://www.autocrit.com/editing/library/plotter-or-pantser-the-best-of-both-worlds/

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Write Your First Book  Part Four: Plotting will be posted soon.

Writing Your First Novel Part Two: The Question of Genre

Writing Your First Novel

Part Two

The Question of Genre

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“Readers will stay with an author, no matter what the variations in style and genre, as long as they get that sense of story, of character, of empathetic involvement.”  — Dean Koontz

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From the first children’s book, comic book, or novel that we choose, we begin to develop our sense of what type of story we are drawn to read. For me, I was intrigued by mystery and science fiction at a very early age. In my teenage years, romance entered the mix, and I soon found that my favorite stories to read were combinations of these separate genres.

In Part One of the Writing Your First Novel, we discussed the importance of reading and how it impacts your writing skills. One of the strongest influences of reading is an enhancement of vocabulary. Many of us tend to use the same words in our everyday speech. Reading will expand your selection of words and enrich your writing. Reading also provides an awareness of sentence and story structure and correct grammar. Reading current work allows you to discover the latest trends in the genre can assist in helping you decide the focus of your novel.  Choosing popular works within a specific genre allows you to explore the latest trends and can help you decide the focus of your novel.

Merriam-Webster defines genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” Fictional genre is further categorized into specific topics such as romance, mystery, science fiction, historical, contemporary or young adult among others.

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“I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts.” — Jonathan Lethem

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The traditional brick and mortar publishing houses have long categorized novels into specific genre descriptions. Even though there are numerous sub-genres under those headings, a cozy mystery or detective novel will still be displayed under the ‘Mystery’ banner in a bookstore or library. Based on statistics and marketing plans, it proved easier to control the advertising dollar and consumer focus if novels fit a certain niche. Shelving of books in a retail store is coveted and easier to acquire shelf space for a book in the single mystery genre rather than one in the mystery/science fiction/romance genre. What area of the store do you place a book of mixed genre? It’s a publisher’s marketing nightmare.

That issue has changed considerably with the advent of on-line publishing and search hashtags which have allowed authors to market their works in multiple genres. When genre lines are blurred, the only limitation a writer has is their imagination. Shelf space is no longer a consideration when as Lethem says, “boundaries are confused.”

The question you should ask yourself is what genre do you feel comfortable writing. I have seen numerous writing ‘experts’ say you should write what you know. The problem for me is that I love science fiction and murder mysteries. But, I have never been in space, and I haven’t committed murder, so I don’t have those experiences to draw from when writing. Author John Grisham is a lawyer and his stories center on his experiences practicing law. Not all of us are afforded the luxury of writing with such skill sets. What do we do?

We read, read, and read more novels in the genres of our choice and we do the necessary research to provide plausible details to your writing.  There are certain patterns and expectations that exist within genres, and your reader will feel cheated if those characteristics of the genre are not present. A noir murder mystery novel needs to have a dark, sparse, gritty quality that you will not find in a cozy murder mystery.

The key, I believe, in successfully writing a multi-genre novel is balance. One of the genres chosen must be the primary focus of the story, while the other one, two, or more genres should support. For instance, I wrote a science-fiction/murder mystery/romance novel where the overall science fiction theme is the focus, the murder mystery is the vessel to deliver the story, and the romance builds tension as the two main protagonists, who are emotionally connected, face danger. Throughout the novel, any of these components may take the lead in scenes, but the story balance remains the same.

I do hold to the theory that any genre can mesh with any other, and the combinations may open new vistas for your readers. The fact is these genres are a measure of what can and des occur in our lives. While there may not be dragons in our real world, we have fears that manifest themselves as such and can be symbols within a story.

One thing to remember, throughout this process of learning to write you should also be writing. Details can be added or corrected in the editing process. The important task is to write and to write until the story is complete.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part Three:  To Outline or Not to Outline…. (Pants or No Pants)

Coming soon…

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Resources:

https:qute//www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/genre.html

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genre

 

Writing Your First Novel

One of the common questions asked by novice writers on our sister Facebook site Writers Unite! is “How do I start?” To help new writers with the daunting but fun task of writing, I have begun a series of articles on how to prepare writing your first novel.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part One

Read

 “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
― Neil GaimanThe Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

All those words Gaiman speaks of rattle around inside of us. Eventually, the urge to allow them to escape becomes overwhelming. Time to write a story.

Fledgling writers come from all walks of life with a wide-ranging knowledge of the writing process. I remember my own experience when I decided to begin writing. Writing was not new to me, throughout my career I had written research papers, manuals, newsletters, speeches, and advertising copy.  However, crafting a fiction story was something I had not done since college. I recognized there was a lot to learn.

The question is where to start?  We can jump right in and begin to put words to paper or screen but are we providing ourselves and our future readers with the best effort we can make? Before we write, let’s explore the steps we should do to prepare ourselves to be good writers. Let’s begin with reading.

Read

What better than a book to fuel the imagination. One of my favorite quotes is from George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Reading the works of others is fundamental to the writing process. Any genre and any author (even a not so skilled author) can provide you with useful information. I do recommend selecting best-selling books in the genre/genres that you wish to write in, as well. Successful works related to the story you want to write can provide you with trends and what the readers of the genre prefer.

What you do you as a new author gain by reading? There are several reasons:

Vocabulary:

Reading increases vocabulary by presenting words we may not hear or see on a normal day. A diverse vocabulary is a great asset for any writer by providing an enhanced collection of words that convey the meanings and emotions of your story. A large vocabulary also provides alternate word choices which improve your writing style.

Grammar:

Grammar rules are analogous to rules of the road. Authorities expect us to obey the speed limit, stop at red lights, and follow the other traffic laws. Otherwise, chaos ensues on the roads. The same is true for writing. Grammar rules provide a framework for writing a clear and concise story that a reader expects. When reading, pay attention to sentence structure, verb choice and agreement, how complex or simple the sentence are. You will begin to acquire a feel for the author’s style which can help you find your own.

Plot Structure:

Read to understand how the author constructed their story. How do they open their novel, what hook did they use to draw you into the story? Notice the author introduces their main and secondary characters, build tension toward the climax, or employ foreshadowing, plot twists? Learn what techniques work to provide the reader with an exciting and emotional experience.

Trends:

While you should read all genres for a better overview of style, you should also select numerous books within the genre that you wish to write in. Trends are not only for clothing, but genres are also subject to the latest fad or the focus of a best-selling author. Knowing what your potential reader might prefer when choosing a new novel. A word of caution, trends fade, and by the time your novel is ready for publication, some other trend may have taken your place. Write your story the way you want.

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In subsequent articles, we will look at these topics in more depth as well as other tools for the novice writer.

(Quotes: https://www.brainyquote.com/)

Deborah Ratliff: Radio Interview “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk”

Host Dr. Paul Reeves asked me back on the “Dr. Paul Family Talk” radio show this morning to discuss the phenomenal growth of the Facebook writing group, Writers Unite! and discuss our new blog, “Writers Unite!”  We also discussed the upcoming Writers Unite! Short Story Contest which will launch in January 2017.

When I first appeared on Paul’s show in July 2016, our Facebook page membership was just over 6,000. Today, November 28, 2016, we reached over 20,000 members.  An amazing accomplishment for a writing group barely a year old.

Here is a link to my interview. Hope you enjoy!

(https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/pwr/episodes/2016-11-28T13_43_14-08_00)

“Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” airs live each week on WNZK, 690AM, in the Detroit area from 11:00 a.m. – Noon Eastern Time. The show is also live streamed on Tunein.

 http://tunein.com/radio/WNZK-690-s21615/

Deborah Ratliff: The Writer’s Voice and Other Elements of Style

As I write this, the manuscript for my first novel and I exist apart. The words I’ve written now in the capable hands of my editor. It was a conversation with him regarding my writing idiosyncrasies that provided me with a clearer insight into my writing style and the voice I choose.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of writing to comprehend is the concept of style. Like fingerprints, one author’s style of writing is unique from another’s and can vary depending on several factors, including the intended audience. Sentence structure, word choice, and the more elusive writer’s voice constitute the elements of style.

Before I returned to writing fiction, a passion from my youth, I wrote professional articles, policy and procedure and training manuals, newsletters, and advertising copy. At times, I might work on policy in the morning, a newsletter in the afternoon. What I failed to realize was I was changing my writing style to fit my readers.

Let’s look at how the description of a thunderstorm varies from one audience to another.

A scientific journal article on the elements of a thunderstorm would present a technically correct explanation of how warm moist air rapidly updrafts into cooler layers of air forming cumulonimbus clouds. Precipitation follows, and cold air sinks creating downdrafts and winds. Electrical charges build up in the water and ice cloud particles and release as lightning, which heats the air with such intensity producing a sound wave we know as thunder.

A storyteller would write of the darkening clouds, the rising winds, a prickly feeling on the skin as the storm intensifies, the driving rain, brilliant lightning flashes, the roar of thunder. Thus, setting a mood or a backdrop for the characters to interact.

The same author can write in an impersonal, technical style or in descriptive prose. It is the choice of words, sentence structure, and the author’s voice that creates style.

Word choice:

Writing experts teach authors to eliminate unnecessary words. To be concise, to choose the best word, an action verb demonstrating a physical or mental act or a concrete noun conveying sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to convey meaning. We limit our use of adjectives and adverbs and the overuse of certain words such as ‘as,’ ‘that,’ and ‘it.’ Polysyllabic words, alliteration, and consonance create flowing sentences, while onomatopoeia and monosyllabic words can break up the flow.

Sentence Structure:

Good writers carefully structure sentences to extract the most meaning and to facilitate flow. When constructing a sentence, vary the length of the sentence to achieve different rhythms. Also, consider the word and phrase placement within a sentence which can emphasize the sentence meaning. Removing unneeded, vague or repetitive words, and including subordinate phrases and clauses will tighten up a sentence and make it more readable.

Voice:

The most subjective of the three elements of style is voice. Voice is unique to each writer and impacted by the author’s personality and one element of style, word choice.  Whether detached, passionate, objective, humorous, serious, it is yours.

This discussion of style brings me back to my conversation with my editor. I had two repetitive issues in my writing. The underuse of the word ‘that’ and my love of run-on sentences.

Somewhere, while reading what all the writing ‘experts’ suggest, I took the suggestion to eliminate the word ‘that’ where I could. Apparently, there are times when that makes a sentence clearer. My editor decided to replace those I had eliminated in my own edit. Then he read the story again and took them out, deciding the inclusion interfered with my writing style.

The run-on sentences are another issue and result from my desire to write with a smooth flow. I wrote a short story for a challenge a few years ago and received this critique, “Great story, well-done, but use an ‘and’ every now and then.” Apparently, I didn’t heed that message.

My editor offered the following advice. That the choice to construct sentences in this manner was mine. It was my style of writing and my decision to change them. It was at that moment I realized I had the final say on how my book would read.

Granted, I am at liberty to make these choices because I am self-publishing. I doubt the editor of a traditional publishing house would allow me the leeway of making these decisions for myself. The fact is I respect my editor and will likely take his advice, but his words made me realize that the style I choose to write in, my writer’s voice is mine.

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Deborah Ratliff is an administrator for the Writers Unite! Blog and Facebook page. Her first novel, Crescent City Lies, a murder mystery will be published in the Fall of 2016.

Personal Blog: the coastal quill

Author Page: D.A. Ratliff

Facebook: Writers Unite!

Deborah Ratliff: The Lonely Writer

Writing is lonely work. At least, that is the opinion of friends of mine who are not writers. They ask, how can you sit at a computer all day and not talk to anyone? Somehow, telling them, I’m never alone, that I talk to my characters would likely not reassure them being alone is good for me.

The fact is that despite the witty or testy or romantic conversation we have with our creations, writing is lonely work.

My career provided a writing outlet. I wrote research papers, training, operations, and policy manuals, newsletters, print and broadcast advertising copy.  While necessary within the scope of my work, and writing advertising was certainly challenging, I never felt fulfilled. When time to write presented itself after a corporate downsizing resulting in a layoff, I took the plunge. I started writing fiction.

As an only child, the solitude of writing was never a concern. What I did discover was that the support provided by co-workers, those who possessed good grammar, or could help with a word or phrase or paragraph was conspicuously absent. While Google is our friend, spewing out all sorts of information about point of view, world building or when to use ‘who or whom,’ bouncing ideas off of Google is not possible, and Siri quit talking to me.

Writers need human contact. We may sit at our keyboards, fighting aliens for control of the universe, playing detective to catch a serial killer or write about a first kiss while lost in our imaginary worlds, but we need each other. We may have a question about the correct verb tense to use, or how to phrase a sentence or redo a paragraph that is driving us to eat ice cream by the pint. We need each other.

The question becomes where do you go to find such support?

I first found a local writing group and was quite pleased with the members and the cordial but targeted feedback. But meeting once a month and an inactive Facebook page didn’t provide the interaction I was hoping for. Having listened to the “experts’ who drilled that a writer needs a social platform, I took the plunge and joined Facebook and searched for writing groups.

Still, I was dissatisfied, the groups I joined either devolved into cliques or arguments. Then I was asked by Karl Taylor to join his new group, “Writers Unite!” and I found a home. A writing group that focused on writing and strove to keep discourse at a minimum. A haven for writers of all levels of expertise to share their work, gain constructive feedback and learn from each other.

This is what a lonely writer needs. We need to know someone, who understands our struggles is willing to listen to our questions and give their advice. Someone who will read our work and provide critique in a respectful way. We may have our characters to chat with, but we need each other to complete our goals.

Thanks to all who have joined us, as “Writers Unite!” on Facebook has grown in from one member, Karl Taylor, to a membership rapidly approaching 15,000 in one year. As we expand our outreach to the web with the launch of the “Writers Unite!” blog, we hope you will join us in our goal to learn and improve our writing.