Hear Ye!

Happy new year! May your writing flourish in 2018!

On October 14th way back in 2017, StorytellerLizzie wrote, I was wondering if anybody had some reference material for writing dialogue in a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type universe? I’m playing with an idea of my MC being from a modern time and then being sent to a time/world/etc. where they use more of an “Old English” style of speaking. I mostly need colloquialisms that would replace modern phrases like “take it easy,” “calm down,” and such. Any help would be appreciated!

Lots of you responded.

Song4myKing: “Be still.”“Hold thy peace” (closer to our “be quiet,” perhaps).Verily, my main source is familiarity with the King James Version Bible. But behold, though it hath a few colloquialisms, they do not abound the way they do in common speech. Therefore, I wait with eagerness to see what others have to say.

Melissa Mead: What time period are we talking about? There were some big changes in there, and “Old English” doesn’t sound much like English that we’d recognize. Shakespeare added a whole lot of words to the language, too.

This might help. It’s the “Christmas verses” of the Bible in several languages, and the first few are different versions of English, with dates: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016555.html#016555.

Tangye: Try replacing single words with more old fashioned words. ‘you’ is an easy word to change. You can say, Thee, Thou, Thy (thy is your, but you get the idea.) One of my other strategies is to use fewer contractions. I think there are lots of ways to do it, so it depends on the exact style you are looking for.

StorytellerLizzie wrote back thusly: Now that I’ve looked at a rough outline of the English language through the years, I think I’m going for more of an Early Modern English vibe, 1440-1604ish. Fancy, but not so fancy that my MC has a huge learning curve just trying to talk to the other characters.

These are great!

Song4myKing’s nod to the King James version of the Bible is inspired, because, according to Wikipedia, it was translated between 1604 and 1611. And so is Melissa Mead’s Shakespeare suggestion, since he, too, was writing at the end of StorytellerLizzie’s period.

I’d recommend not going much earlier than the seventeenth century, because both the King James Bible and Shakespeare are challenging enough for a reader–this reader anyway.

However, despite my recommendation, if you want to do full-throttle post-Chaucerian, go for it. I’d say read a good deal from the period until the reading becomes easy. Work on thinking in period language. The reader may have trouble at the beginning, but if your story grabs her, she’ll hang in. Then, once she gets it, she’ll be immersed and will feel proud of herself for getting there. You might also consider using the same notation system that appears in Volume I of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, both definitions in the margins and in footnotes at the bottom of the page, which will take a lot of the work out of it for the reader. I tried and failed to find a link to a page online, but I’d bet your local library has a copy. Notations can be done in a lighthearted way, too. If we have fun with them, the reader probably will, too.

I’ve mentioned Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before on the blog. It’s also a time-travel story. Twain mines the old-timey language as well as the trappings of a courtly age to great comic effect. The novel is in the public domain, so here’s a sample from early on, before the main character realizes that he has time traveled:

“Fair sir, will ye just?” said this fellow.

“Will I which?”

“Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for—”

“What are you giving me?” I said.  “Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you.”

Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.


Since StorytellerLizzie’s story is also a time-travel tale, Twain’s example is particularly instructive. If it’s told by the contemporary visitor, then the narration will be different from the dialogue, as is the case with Twain, but if the POV is third-person omniscient, we can choose whether to go contemporary or old-fashioned.

I do not recommend this, but I’m offering it as either an example of the possibilities or a cautionary tale about the crazy lengths writers can go to. When I wrote Stolen Magic, I decided to limit my vocabulary to words that entered English no later than 1700, so I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for every word I suspected of later origins. (In case some of you don’t know, the OED is a historical dictionary that lists dates with quotations for every usage and nuance of a word. I subscribe to the online service, which isn’t cheap, but, again, I suspect your library subscribes, too. If you haven’t, I’d recommend looking at it at least once to see how it works and what it offers.) This foolishness slowed down my writing considerably–and I doubt it improved the book. However in StorytellerLizzie’s case, it might be worth checking a word every so often to make sure it isn’t an absolute newcomer. You can search phrases, too, as well as words.

And here’s another probably insane thought: Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, either rhyming or blank verse (no rhymes). Pentameter goes out the window with prose, but iambs are still possible. Iambs are ta DUM, ta DUM, ta DUM, in two-syllable units called feet in poetry. Take this line from Richard III, in which I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables: a HORSE, a HORSE! My KINGdom FOR a HORSE! A poetry teacher once told the class I was taking that Fitzgerald wrote chunks of The Great Gatsby (high school and up) in iambs. I wonder what it would be like to try that, what kind of voice that would create.

Anything can be said in iambs, since to some degree English naturally falls that way, but it takes effort and a thesaurus, and it might slow the writing even more than constantly checking the OED. Still, we can try it with a paragraph and observe the effect. If we like it, we can make the effort with important moments in our story. Or, since the question is about dialogue, we can make a certain character speak in iambs. And there are other kinds of meter as well. I’ve read that Dr. Seuss wrote in anapests (ta ta DUM, ta ta DUM).

Of course, if we’re going for a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones sort of voice, we should look at those to get some tips. I pulled my Fellowship of the Rings off my shelf to see what’s going on. Mostly the language is standard modern English, but I did notice, as Tangye suggests, few contractions–some, but fewer than I use. I also noticed words like shall, befall, aye, depending on who’s talking. And the phrasing seemed more formal in the dialogue of some characters, like elves.

As for colloquialisms, I’ve many times used Faugh! instead of Yuck! A source that might be helpful is Louisa May Alcott. If I remember right, Little Women is full of archaic colloquialisms.

We got delightfully into the writing weeds in this post. Here are three prompts:

∙ A time warp has brought together legendary King Arthur, Shakespeare’s Romeo, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a bionic person of the 23rd century, and your 21st century MC. The scene is a forest, so no one is sure what the year is. Some may and some may not want to return to their old lives. Write their dialogue as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

∙ For the fun of it, try putting all of this from Twain into iambs:
Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.
Some of it is already done for you, like the end: so I was UP the TREE when HE arRIVED. (Maybe Twain did this on purpose, but probably not. English likes iambs!)

∙ Your MC has traveled through so many centuries that her head is spinning, and she’s returned with her mission accomplished. She’s discovered the words to a curse that will rob your villain of power forever. Pull out all the stops and have her issue the curse in language that grabs grandeur from biblical times to the distant future. Write the curse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Copy cat!

On May 8, 2013, Elisa wrote, I need help, I have a problem with my voice. My writing voice, that is. I’m a copy-cat. If I’ve recently read a book, say, by Shannon Hale, and then I go to write on my story, I find that my writing style is a lot like hers. If I haven’t read anything recently and have started writing, my writing is really bland. I do actually have my own “voice,” it’s quick, sarcastic and quite funny. (Think Patrick McManus, only, slightly less hysterical.) My problem is, I write a lot of serious stuff, and I’m not sure I like my “voice” very well for that type of tale. And, also, I can only slip into my “voice” every once in a while. I’ll come up with one thing, (say: “Atomic just doesn’t fit those cinnamon jawbreakers. No sir, Atomic just doesn’t do them justice.” Excerpt from one of my “try-out” stories, called “Ode to Atomic Fireballs.”) and then I come up with a whole string of them and mold them into a story. My problem is this “Voice” strikes at the oddest times, very rarely while I’m in a position to write stuff down and it never lasts long. In my “Ode to Atomic Fireballs”, my “voice” died out right before I finished the story (It is maybe two pages long) so the end didn’t quite fit. I have a problem and I don’t know how to solve it. Can anyone help?

I’ve said this before on the blog. Being able to imitate other writers is good. The ability proves that you’re impressionable. What you’re reading is permeating you, becoming part of you. Someone else’s style may pour out sometimes when it’s not wanted, but that’s a minor problem, easily fixed in revision. The great benefit is that you’re assimilating myriad ways of expression, which, once you’ve mulched them down, will flow out in interesting, flexible writing. This is cause for celebration.

Let’s look at the beginning of Elisa’s question, which seems to me to be written in a distinctive voice that isn’t sarcastic or especially funny. Here it is again: I need help, I have a problem with my voice. My writing voice, that is. I’m a copy-cat. If I’ve recently read a book, say, by Shannon Hale, and then I go to write on my story, I find that my writing style is a lot like hers. If I haven’t read anything recently and have started writing, my writing is really bland.

Do you see it, too?

The strength of the voice is in the short, snappy sentences at the beginning, followed by two longer sentences and repetition of the word If starting the last two. Plus, the term copy-cat has power. Elisa, I don’t know if you thought about voice when you wrote the question, but it’s there, and it isn’t bland.

If you want more of the quick, sarcastic, funny voice, which you liken to Patrick McManus’s, I’d suggest you study his writing. How does he get his effects? I’ve never read any of his books, but I googled him and then I checked out his writing using the search-this-book function on Amazon. He reminded me a little of Mark Twain, a high compliment. Anyway, he seems to pack a lot of his humor into his verbs, so I’d look at them in particular. Then try writing with him in mind, imitating on purpose. The goal is to have the funny voice always available to you.

Mostly when I’m writing fiction, I’m not concentrating on voice. I’m focusing on my characters and what they’re thinking and feeling, which will lead them to act or to speak. Basically I’m trying to get out of the way so my story can tell itself. I want my readers to lose themselves and not to be pulled out of the narrative by the antics of my voice.

Same thing when I’m writing this blog. I want you to be concentrating on the meat of what I’m saying, not on my language.

I do think about smooth and lively writing, decent writing – about varying the lengths of my sentences, about not starting more than two sentences or two paragraphs in a row with the same word, about not repeating sentence structure, one sentence after another. An example is a string of sentences that are two independent clauses connected by and. Another example is a succession of sentences that also have two independent clauses connected by but. In the first case, I’ll break some of the sentences into two shorter ones. In the second, I’ll sometimes start with Although. Or I’ll use however, just to avoid monotony.

And since I’ve been writing poetry, I’ve become more aware of the sound of my words, like more and aware have the same ending sounds. I could have written more alert to instead of more aware of, but I like the similar sounds. I often go for alliteration when I can. But I never sacrifice clarity for euphony. Clarity trumps everything else.

When I deliberately create voice, I’m generally writing dialogue. For example, Masteress Meenore, the dragon detective in A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic, peppers ITs sentences with fifty dollar words. There’s also a cadence to ITs speech that I fall into. The ogre, Count Jonty Um, says little, and what he does say, he expresses economically. When I’m writing his speech, I trim away any unnecessary words. His vocabulary is excellent, and he’s by no means stupid, so I may throw in a big word here and there. But not many words anywhere.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with a quick, sarcastic, funny voice. I just don’t think you should strain for it. My guess is that it pops out when it’s needed. And the less noticeable voice (not bland!) may be what’s needed to push your story to the fore.

Here are four prompts:

• As I suggested to Eliza above, try imitation on purpose. Read a page or two of a book you love. Analyze it if that’s helpful. What is this writer doing? Long sentences? Short ones? Paragraph length? What is the tone? Action-packed? Reflective? Funny? Now, go to a story you’re working on. Rewrite a page in that voice.

• Do the same with another writer.

• Do the same, if you haven’t already, with an author who wrote at least fifty years ago. A hundred years ago. Out of curiosity, I once compared Jane Austen’s style with Charlotte Bronte’s, whose work came later. In particular, I wondered which one used longer sentences. The answer surprised me. Check it out!

• Retell a fairy tale, concentrating on varying your sentences and paying attention to the sounds of your words. Work in assonance, alliteration, repeat end sounds. Include dialogue. Give Snow White, for example, a different way of expressing herself from the evil queen, the hunter, a dwarf.

Have fun, and save what you write!

POV Picking and Popping POVs

Copyright questions come up often on the blog, and I happened to hear this astonishing report on the radio. Click to listen and be amazed: http://www.onthemedia.org/2013/mar/08/happy-birthday/.

The title of this post is a tongue-twister. Try saying it ten times fast.

In November two questions came in about POV. In the first, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I’m writing a novel with a goal to get it published. It’s set in a fantasy land, and it’s in third person. However, each chapter (or half chapter or something–I don’t like writing in chapters until the end of the book) the POV switches. One chapter it will be told in one person’s point of view, the next minute another, while still in third person. How can I make each narration stand out? Both characters have very unique personalities. (Okay, okay, they’re not that unique, but they’re different from each other.) However, whenever I switched POVs, it seems like it could be narrated by the other.

I’m doing something similar in my revision of the book formerly known as Beloved Elodie now known as I-Don’t-Know-What. In my earlier drafts, I switched first-person POV back and forth from my human character Elodie to the dragon Meenore to the ogre Count Jonty Um. But I found that I wasn’t communicating the ogre clearly – he kept seeming unintelligent, which he isn’t. So I switched to third person, but not omniscient. If Elodie is in a scene, the POV belongs to her. Otherwise, it’s either Meenore or Jonty Um, all in third person, and the book is working better.

The narrative voice is the same from chapter to chapter, but the star of each is the POV character. For example, Meenore often challenges Elodie to solve the little puzzles that add up to the big one of the mystery. Usually doesn’t get the solution right away, and she feels under a lot of stress. Here’s an example:

“…Lodie, how did I conclude some calamity had befallen the Oase or the high brunka?”

Elodie felt the familiar pressure of her brain being squeezed. “Er… Masteress, you sang so that someone might hear us. Er… You knew brunkas have especially sharp ears. And a brunka came. Wasn’t that what you expected?” Her coming couldn’t mean anything! “Er… Um…”

Most of this is dialogue with only two sentences in narration. Take this one: Elodie felt the familiar pressure of her brain being squeezed. It’s a plain sentence, no particular personality coming from the narrator. But if the POV character weren’t Elodie, the narrator wouldn’t have said a word about what’s going on in her brain. I don’t mention Meenore’s feelings or the state of ITs brain when IT questions her, although I can guess what they are: pride in her abilities and mischievous pleasure in making her struggle.

Here’s another example, this one from Count Jonty Um’s POV:

A winter hare hopped across the snow to the right of the brunka’s cottage. Master Canute would warn the humans, who would flee the mountain if they could, and they’d drive their herds and flocks along with them. His Lordship clasped his hands and squeezed until they hurt. The wild beasts wouldn’t hear the warning or understand it if they heard. They’d stay here and die in pain and terror.

Again, the language of the narration is straightforward. It’s not the way he would tell it himself, because the ogre mind is different from the human mind. But the narration does reflect his concerns. The other character in this scene, whose thoughts I can’t reveal since I’m not writing from his POV, wouldn’t be thinking about the fate of the animals on this mountain.

So, sounds like you’re doing it right, unsocialized homeschooler. If you’re working in third person, the narrator’s voice should be the same throughout. If you want the voices to change, first person is the way to do it, and you might want to reread my posts on voice.

If you stick with third person, then I suggest you focus on the thoughts and feelings of the POV character in each scene, and be scrupulously careful not to stray in narration into the thoughts and feelings of anyone else. These non-POV guys can say what they’re thinking and feeling in dialogue and they can show it in action, but the narrator should never reveal their inner workings. The narrator who isn’t omniscient is allowed into only one head and heart at a time. Or possibly two heads, if you’re doing it that way, for example if you have a duo working together.

If your characters’ specialness isn’t showing through, you may not be shining your authorial spotlight on their unique ways of reacting to situations, whether or not it’s their POV turn. Meenore, for example, is always clever, and always reveals ITs cleverness in dialogue. Count Jonty Um is always shy and says little and is aloof and dignified. If I keep these traits in mind, each of them will stand out on the page, and Elodie will too by contrast.

So I’d suggest thinking about your characters’ distinguishing characteristics in every scene. If the moment belongs to your POV character, look for ways to bring the other guys in, doing what they do most, reacting as they do.

In the second question, Michelle Dyck wrote, How do you choose which character’s POV to use in a scene when more than one choice could work? I know that a good way to choose the POV is by evaluating which character’s experience in the scene would be the most crucial or interesting, but what if two characters’ POVs are that way? In the scene I’m working on right now, my two MC’s are faced with the same big decision, and although their thought patterns and emotions vary, both of their experiences are quite similar. I’m not sure which to choose.

It’s nice when you can just pick to please yourself!

That’s one option: Which will be the most fun to write? Which interests you the most?

There are other questions, too. Who has the most unexplored corners, which you can most easily investigate in his or her POV? Simply, whose turn is it? Have you been in Jack’s head a lot lately and you need to shift because the reader is getting too accustomed to being in there? Can you tip the balance in the scene so it isn’t quite so equal, and the choice will then become obvious? Can you split the scene? The first part goes to one character; then there’s some kind of natural break, and you shift to the other.

Here are two prompts:

• Your story moves from the home of one of your three characters to a museum to a row boat in the middle of a lake. The three have a common enemy, which can be anything, a former friend, a wizard, an assassin, Frankenstein, a virus, whatever you choose. And the three have different strengths and different weaknesses – different personalities. Write a scene in each location. Try it two ways, in third person alternating POVs and in first person alternating POVs. If you like you can add a fourth scene, from the POV of the antagonist if it’s a character, which you would also write in third person and in first.

• Return to the rowboat scene. One of your three characters has drowned. The remaining characters have to decide what to do next. Try it from the first-person POV of one and then the other. Then switch to third person. You are allowed to row them to dry land if the row boat is too confining.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Story history

Before I start – Caitlyn posted this link early this morning, which you may miss: www.writeaboutdragons.com, which may be of interest to many of you, so I don’t want you to miss it.

On May 26, 2012, Inkling wrote, …I’ve almost kinda decided to start on my book, but I’m having issues. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of the southern U.S., but I’m having trouble working on the time period. I want enough time to pass (after the disaster) for everyone to forget what happened, but I still want houses standing from when the disaster happened. Then, when I try to write the beginning (which I thought I had planned out), the wording doesn’t sound right! I can’t figure out how to put the backstory in, and I’m pretty sure it needs to be told fairly early on. I would be EXTREMELY grateful for any help!!!!

In response, carpelibris wrote, Inkling, what are the houses made of? From this list, it looks like the oldest houses standing in the US are from around the 1600s: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldest_buildings_in_America

How long it takes everyone to forget will depend on if you have electronic communications, newspapers, books, widespread literacy, professional lore-keepers or storytellers, etc.

What doesn’t sound right about the wording?

And Inkling answered, I’m not really sure what the houses are made of (the thought never occurred to me!), but probably about the same as the houses today, since that’s what they look like. No electronics, whatever happened knocked everything back about 200 years from now. There’s still books, but literacy is considered useless for the most part. My MC can read, though, and has read several books she’s found. Most of the people are pretty much nomads, and just wander around to different houses. There are still some “towns” but they’re more like old west towns.

I’m trying to fit all the info about my MC’s family into the first few paragraphs since she leaves at the beginning of the book and you never actually meet them. I’m having trouble figuring out how to do this without it seeming all shoved in there.

When I followed carpelibris’s link, I noticed with pride that my house falls into the time line on Wikipedia’s list, although it certainly isn’t anywhere near the oldest continuously occupied home in the U. S. It was built in 1790, a simple wooden farmhouse, and it’s probably good for another few centuries, as long as it’s kept up. If it hadn’t been lived in and maintained, it probably would have rotted and collapsed long ago. We also still have the outhouse (just for historical value). It’s wooden too, and the effects of weather are obvious; it gets eaten away bottom up. If we don’t deal with it every few years, it will be a goner. So upkeep would be another factor for Inkling to factor in.

carpelibris suggests several areas to think about: composition of houses and other buildings, communications infrastructure, historical records, storytellers, interest in the past, education, possibly degree of civilization. I’d add that if people are nomads, you’ll probably need to know what the roads are like and how people are getting around, whether by car or mule or bicycle, whatever.

Usually I work this background info out in my notes. I don’t have to know everything at the outset, just as much as I need to get going. I can figure out the rest as I move along.

Inkling is asking several questions: how to figure out the world; how to drop in the backdrop while still moving the action along; how to find the right voice.

For the first, carpelibris and I have raised some topics to consider. More may come up as Inkling continues. But there was another part to the question. Everybody in this post-apocalyptic world has forgotten the disaster, which worries me a little.

One of my greatest challenges as a writer is my tendency to over-complicate my stories. I put in elements that strain credulity and then I have to explain them. Sometimes the explanations introduce new complexities that demand further explanation until I’ve erected such a tall, wobbly structure that it all comes crashing down, and I have to build fresh out of the rubble, and if it’s going to work, the next assemblage has to be much simpler.

An entire population forgetting the disaster that destroyed their civilization sets off alarm bells for me. How could they forget? How did they fall into general illiteracy? What happened?

The collective amnesia does tie into the question about the houses. How much time would be necessary for such forgetting to happen? Would all the artifacts of the earlier civilization have to have disappeared, been buried, been obliterated?

It’s interesting to consider. The classical world was all but forgotten, I think, in the Dark Ages and then gradually rediscovered during the Renaissance. How that happened might be worth some research.

I confess that my knowledge of events before I was born is spotty. I know only the high points that I was taught in school, those that I remember. And I’ve forgotten a lot that’s happened during my life. But many people do know. The knowledge is available.

Anyway, maybe Inkling has an answer. Whatever it is, probably simplest is best.

If Inkling hasn’t come up with an answer, I’d suggest reconsidering the forgetting. Is it necessary? And for everyone else (and me!), I warn us all of the dangers of basing our stories on a premise that’s hard to explain.

On to the second question, how to drop the info in. I’ve written posts on this, which you can find by clicking on the labels back story, backstory (sorry about that!), fantasy world introduced, and flashbacks. A Tale of Two Castles begins similarly to Inkling’s story. Elodie leaves her family and doesn’t see any of them again for the rest of the book. But she thinks about them and brings them to life for the reader with her thoughts and without interfering with the forward action. So I’d say that background can be dropped in in short bursts at quiet moments in a story, generally in thoughts and narrative, sometimes in dialogue.

For example, Kiara leaves home while her family is sleeping so she doesn’t have to say goodbye. She pauses to look down on the form of her brother Bobo in his bed. He’s an imp when he’s awake, but, oh, how sweetly he sleeps, nose to nose with his stuffed toy chipmunk. On a hook by the door hangs her mother’s blue scarf, which smells of carnations, her mother’s scent. Kiara takes it and ties it around her own neck. She’s about to slip out when she notices her father’s umbrella with the broken rib. She takes this too, even though it’s the dry season. Her father never buys anything for himself, and this will force him to get a new umbrella. The tears are flowing when she closes the door behind her. As she walks through the silent streets she thinks more about her family. Later, at important moments, if we decide to go that way, she can be guided – or misguided – by what members of her family would advise or do in her place. She can be homesick sometimes and recall a memory in her thoughts. In A Tale of Two Castles Elodie now and then spouts her mother’s sayings.

As for voice, I suggest trying different ways until you find something that pleases you. Here are a few possibilities imagining the moment when Kiara stands over her brother’s bed.

Bobo, how chilled out and all innocent you look there with your silly toy. Do you want your big sister gone, no more Miss Bossy forever? No more me always knowing your secret mischief? You going to remember to keep safe against old bad Mr. Milton?


A shaft of moonlight illumined a curl in the center of Bobo’s forehead. How could I leave that curl?  And the rest of him, that knowing look when he caught me in a lie to Father. But he never told. I mouthed the words: “Take care, Bobo. Give Mr. Milton a wide berth.”


Leave, Kiara, I told myself. Ignore Bobo and his chipmunk. Harden your heart. Think of yourself for once.

And of course there’s the choice of POV and tense, both of which will influence the voice.

This has been a long post! Time for prompts.

∙ Write Kiara’s departure as told by an omniscient third-person narrator. Keep going with the story.

∙ Write it in the voice of Kiara’s older sister, who is pretending to be asleep. Keep going.

∙ Write a page of notes about how the disaster came about that destroyed a civilization. Explain how the descendants of the survivors have lost all knowledge of what went before.

∙ Write a scene in which Kiara discovers an artifact from the past. Her curiosity is aroused. She decides to find out the meaning of her discovery, but there are forces that don’t want her to succeed. Continue with the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Talking to the reader

On Feb 22, 2012, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, What do you think about writing in questions in books? Like if a story was in third person and at the end of a paragraph I write something like “could this be true?” or “well, what would you do?” or something to that extent, like a narrator almost. I do that a lot in my writing without thinking, and I’m not sure if it’s cheesy or if it sounds silly or not. If it does, is there a way to avoid this?

I certainly don’t think your practice is cheesy or silly. It’s a matter of choice and voice and distance. When you ask these questions, your narrator, who can be first person as well as third, is addressing the reader directly. This speaking to the reader can be in the form of statements, not just questions, as in, You will soon learn the after-effects of the smart slap Duchess Claudette delivered to the cheek of Master Rex.

If you decide to address the reader, you need to do so early in your story or book and be consistent, not in every paragraph, which would likely be annoying, and maybe not even in every chapter (although possibly), but at least once in every, say, fifty pages. If the reader hears from the narrator for the first time on page 368, he is likely to be startled and possibly confused.

(I can’t remember if Charlotte Bronte ever speaks directly to the reader before she says **SPOILER ALERT** near the end “Reader, I married him.” If she didn’t, well, she’s doing it in the wrapping-up, when the reader is already disengaging. You may be able to do that, too, once, right at the end. Try it, if you like. And, although this is a lame excuse, she is Charlotte Bronte and might have even gotten away with tossing a few kangaroos into a novel set in England!)

I suspect you can also talk to the reader in a prologue and not again, because the prologue is a little separate from the story that follows.

Speaking to the reader acknowledges that there is a reader and that this is a book or a story. The question or statement addressed to him takes him out for a beat. I’m not saying this is bad or good; it just is. If the story has him by the throat, he’ll dive right back in. If the story isn’t engaging, whether or not you use this device, he’s likely to wander off.

This technique often has an old-fashioned tone, but that’s not necessary. If the voice of the story is contemporary, the words to the reader can be too, or can be consistent with the time period. J. D. Salinger manages it in a contemporary way in Catcher in the Rye. A narrator in a 1960’s novel might say to the reader, “You dig?” A first-person narrator in love with science fiction might ask, “You grok?” A modern, casual narrator might say, “Get it?”

In Beloved Elodie or whatever it’s going to be called, one of the POV characters, the dragon Masteress Meenore, is itching to address the reader, but I’m not letting IT because I haven’t done so anywhere else and I don’t want the reader spending even a second in thinking Huh? Why can IT do this and no one else? (The others don’t want to.)

Which leads to a question worth asking yourself: What kind of narrator am I writing? Even an omniscient third-person narrator has a voice and an implied personality. Compare some books you have that are written in third person, both classic and contemporary. When you’re making the decision about speaking to the reader or not, consider whether the voice is comfortable talking to beings outside the book.

Here’s a prompt: If you’re in the habit of speaking to the reader, try deleting those sentences. How does your story read without them? If you decide to put them back in, consider whether you might phrase the statements or questions in a new way. If you never speak to the reader, try it. See how you feel.

You’ll likely find that a narrator who speaks to the reader has a strong presence. He, she, or it, has an attitude toward the story. If you want your story’s events to unfold naturalistically, you may want to steer clear of this kind of narrator.

This blog takes a conversational tone. I do speak to you, and occasionally I struggle with perspective. Sometimes my we refers to the reader and sometimes to the writer. Sometimes my you is to the writers out there and then I worry that maybe I’m being condescending, since we’re all writers, but I do it anyway if it seems to suit the topic.

Still, I might take a more academic approach and never talk to you. Let’s look at the beginning of my second paragraph as an example. Instead of this:

If you decide to address the reader, you need to do so early in your story or book and be consistent, not in every paragraph, which would likely be annoying, and maybe not even in every chapter (although possibly), but at least once in every, say, fifty pages…

we’d have this:

When an author decides to address a reader directly, the technique will be most effective if begun early in the narrative and consistently applied thereafter, not constantly, which might annoy, but frequently enough…

I’d probably lose most of you.

Here are some prompts. Think about which you enjoyed writing the most and which worked best. I hope you don’t commit to any future voice, but just experiment.

∙ Retell an anecdote from your life, preferably a funny one, from the POV of an irreverent narrator who speaks to the reader.

∙ Retell it straight, using an invisible third-person narrator who doesn’t intrude on the story.

∙ Retell it yet again in your own voice as if you were telling a friend or relative who knew nothing about it.

∙ Fictionalize the anecdote and introduce an embarrassing element. Make it not have happened to you if that helps. Have your narrator tell it in narration to a disapproving reader.

∙ Pick a fairy tale to tell straight in an old-timey fairy tale voice, including asides to the reader.

∙ Tell the fairy tale as if you were a stand-up comic, performing the tale in a nightclub or a one-person play.

Have fun, and save what you write!

In good voice

Before I get to today’s post, I want to tell you that the website is close to going live.  Thanks for all your suggestions!

When I mentioned that I would move the blog over to the website, two of you expressed concern about leaving Blogspot, which is what I will do, probably not instantly but soon.  I’d hate to lose anybody or stop hearing from any of you, so I want to assure you that there won’t be a change in the level of safety.  The host will be invisible, as Blogspot is, and it will be a big company too, with a long history of hosting websites and blogs.

Also, I have a couple of events coming up for my new picture book, Betsy Red Hoodie, which will be out on September 14th.  By events, I mean I’ll read from the book, maybe the entire book, answer questions, and sign.  Here are the events:

September 21st at 4:30 PM, Bank Street Books, 2879 Broadway (near 114th Street) in Manhattan, (212) 678-1654.    

October 9th at 2:00 PM, Ulster Plaza Barnes & Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue, Kingston, NY, (845) 336-0590.

As I always do at an event I’ll ask if anyone is there because of the blog, and I’ll tell the unaware about it.

By the way, I love that this has become a place for sharing writing ideas and support.  I don’t always weigh in, but I always read and enjoy.   

On April 29, 2010, Debz wrote, I’ve been having some trouble with voice in my story. Like for one paragraph in my story it’s told perfectly, and sounds just right, but then the next paragraph, the voice changes and sounds all wrong for the story, and no matter how much I edit it, nothing seems right.
And on May 6, 2010, F wrote, Ms. Levine – I was thinking today, about how they say that you should write, write and write until you find your ‘voice’ and style of writing (And coincidentally how yours always has that ‘fairytale’ feel to it). Whenever I think upon this topic, I’ve always mused idly that my voice is sure to differ from book to book. Coincidentally, I came upon a similar topic on the net, where someone had mentioned authors whose voices have differed from series to series, leading to their readers not recognizing them.
    What are your thoughts on the matter? Is it important for an author to write in a consistent voice? Or is it all right to differ from book to book?

Chapter 15 in Writing Magic is called “Voice” and is about voice.  I just reread it and was mighty pleased!  So you may find it helpful to take a look.  Here is the first paragraph, which defines this slithery, tricky concept:

        Everything written has a voice, from advertisements to warning notices.  “Trespassing prohibited” is written in a different voice from “Stay out!  That means you!”

And a few paragraphs later:

        Suppose I’d just written “Voice is ubiquitous” instead of “Voice is everywhere”.  The meaning is the same.  I’ve changed only one word.  But the voice is a little different, isn’t it?
Editors, when asked what they look for in a manuscript, sometimes say “Voice” and then can’t explain what they mean.  Miss Red Pencil, a hypothetical editor, says she knows voice when she sees it.  She’s being honest but not helpful, and her response makes voice seem scary.  If it can’t be defined, how will I know if I have it?  How can I go after it, work diligently, and get it?

Voice is an amalgam of many elements: word choice, vocabulary, sentence structure, kind of sentence, sentences combined together, mood, point of view, even tense.  So let me go through them one by one.

Or start with two, because I’m not sure if word choice and vocabulary are the same.  Vocabulary level is obvious.  Does the voice in question run in a sesquipedalian direction?  Meaning, does the writer use a lot of big words?  But word choice is more than vocabulary.  Words have tone.  My late, much missed friend Nedda was once asked by a native French speaker, “Which is more elegant, ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’?”  (Imagine the question asked with a charming French accent.)

Maybe and perhaps are synonyms, but we probably encounter perhaps more often on the page in narration and maybe more often in speech or in written dialogue.  The level of difficulty is roughly the same for both.  Possibly we learn maybe in first grade and perhaps in second.  But the tone isn’t the same.  Perhaps is a tad more formal.

rage – fury
argument – dispute
antediluvian – ancient
huge – gargantuan – ginormous – massive

In the word sets above, one word can often replace another.  Think about which you’re drawn to.  Do you like rage better than fury?  Or vice versa?  I think they’re equal, but one might seem angrier to you than the other, or you might prefer the long u in fury.  Of course, rage is a verb as well as a noun, but consider both in their noun forms.  Maybe you’d use one in a particular place, the other in a different situation.  Or you might alternate them so you’re not repeating words, if you’re writing something with a lot of hostility in it.

Consider all the word sets, and when you choose words, be aware of your choices.  Notice words in other writers’ work that they use and you never do.

Sentence structure.  I’m thinking here of simple sentences – a subject, verb, maybe a direct object, and that’s it – compared to medium complex ones – a statement but and an opposing statement, or two simple statements joined by and – compared to really complex sentences with many dependent clauses, possibly a parenthesis or two and a statement between dashes (kind of like this sentence).  Some writers are given to sentences that take up half a page.  My sentences are usually straightforward.  In Ever in particular they’re very short.

Kind of sentence.  Do you use questions a lot, as I do?  Or exclamations?  Or mostly sentences that end with a period.

Combos.  Are you mixing up your kinds of sentences: long after short, statement after a question?  This is worth being aware of.  Most of the time you don’t want sameness to creep in, because sameness is often dullness.

Mood.  Is the feeling happy, somber, funny, sarcastic, straightforward and unemotional?

Point of view.  For example, if you’re writing from the first-person POV of a twelve-year-old boy, the voice will be different from the voice of the same character looking back forty years at his twelve-year-old self.  And so on.  This will come naturally in the writing.

Tense.  Are you writing in the past or present tense?  The two feel different.  I wrote Ever in present tense, because past would have suggested something about the book’s outcome.  Present tense sometimes gives a book a feeling of immediacy, as if events are happening this week.

Debz, you can analyze your voice according to all these elements and change it.  Experiment!  Alter sentence length, word choice, and so on.  Fool around even with the paragraph that seems right.  Maybe if you revise it, the rest will fall into place.

Also, I hope you haven’t stopped writing until the segment is right.  You may wind up cutting this part.  Or something you write later may show you what you need to do.  The whole may guide the pieces.

F, I think it’s fine to change voices from book to book, and I don’t see it as a problem if a reader doesn’t recognize an author’s voice.  The reader is likely to be interested in the variation.  My fairytale voice in some of my books is absent from others.  Ever isn’t precisely written fairytale style.  Dave at Night certainly isn’t, and neither is The Wish or Writing Magic or the blog.

Taste varies when it comes to voice.  I don’t tolerate extra words well, but some people may not mind.  If you like spare, graceful prose, William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is worth reading.  Let me change that, it’s a book you should read if you haven’t already.  If you’re in high school heading for college, you may need it when you get there.

Last of all, there’s muddled voice, which accompanies errors in grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation.  A reader can’t sort out the voice from the mistakes.  Becoming best friends with a book of English usage will help.  I’ve recommended Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I before, and this is a fine occasion to recommend it again.

The prompt is to take a page from the beginning of one of your stories, the beginning because that’s where voice is established.  Rewrite the page three or four or more times, trying different sentence lengths, different vocabulary.  Fool around.  This is only an experiment.  Try writing a paragraph entirely in exclamations.  Write another as if someone were screaming it, do you hear me?  Another as if all your characters were on a stage, exaggerating everything.

Have fun, and save what you write!