What Pop Songs Teach Us about Voice

We’re going to play a game: Name that tune. Can you name the songs listed below? No cheating! I picked a variety of decades and artists. See if you can name them all.

  1. You may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one
  2. A singer in a smoky room / a smell of wine and cheap perfume
  3. Hanging out the passenger side /of his best friend’s ride / trying to holler at me
  4. Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth.
  5. We count our dollars on the train to the party.

What Pop Songs Can Teach Us about Writing Voice

That first song has a line which grabs your attention.

The second line sets the scene with sensory details.

The third comes from a song that defined a term for a generation. But it doesn’t tell us the [Urban] Dictionary definition straight out—it shows us through a scene.

The fourth song uses a handful of similes and other fresh imagery.

The fifth song characterizes the singer and her friends.

Together, these five songs show how important a unique voice is—and how popular a strong one can become.

How do you improve voice?

The opposite of strong voice is a generic, impersonal one. To create a strong voice, do the following.

  • Be relatable and understandable. (Don’t write in a way that the reader can’t follow. Don’t try to spell out dialect or accents phonetically.)
  • Use sensory detail that your character would notice.
  • Show what you mean using people or situations unique to your character’s experiences.
  • Use similes and metaphors. Revise cliches into fresh imagery.
  • Characterize through specific word choice.

Writing Exercise—Fifteen Blinks

Option One: Read this to find out what a Fifteen Blinker is. Choose five to ten specific words or images from one of the songs below and write a Fifteen Blinker using those words.

Option Two: Pick a song with memorable lyrics. Look up those lyrics. Rewrite the song by swapping out the words and imagery for those of another character’s point of view. Some ideas:

  • One of your characters
  • Romeo, the lovestruck Shakespearean teenager
  • A pothead (e.g. one of Cheech’s, Chong’s, or Seth Rogen’s portrayals)
  • A proper British lady trying desperately to impress her in-laws
  • A man who has been cryogenically frozen through several decades and just woke up
  • A seven-year-old who wishes to be a princess
  • A toddler

Want more writing exercises? See my tag. Want some critique partners to exchange work with? Join the community at StoryWorldCon. Want a writing workshop tailored to your work and your budget? Choose your course at StoryWorldCon. Subscribe to my blog for course dates!

Answers:

Click on the links below to read the full lyrics.

  1. “Imagine,” John Lennon
  2. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
  3. “No Scrubs,” TLC
  4. “New Slang,” The Shins
  5. “Royals,” Lorde

I’ve been listening to The Shins for years, but I never actually paid attention to the lyrics in “New Slang” until today. As I referenced above, they’re full of great imagery:

  • Turn me back into the pet I was when we met.
  • I’d ‘a danced like the king of the eyesores
  • New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries.
  • Hope it’s right when you die, old and bony.
  • Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall

Every time “Royals” comes on the radio (which is very frequently), I am awed by the fantastic diction. This was written by a fifteen year old: 

  • I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
  • We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
  • And we’ll never be royals. / It don’t run in our blood, / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.

What song has your favorite lyrics? I remember in tenth grade English needing to bring a song in to share with the class. I brought Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe.”

How I Chose My Pitch to Publication Writers

Pitch to Publication (#p2p16) opens up to submissions on March 5! There’s still time to enter, and I know some of you planning on entering might be worried about your pitches. Hopefully this will help you hook editors (or agents)! This year, MS Editors represent 20% of the participating editors in the contest. See the genres we will be accepting at the bottom of each of our interviews: Me, Elizabeth, and Kyra

I picked two writers last year. The narrowing-down process was brutal, one I tweeted about a couple times.

I started with 98 queries (two of the 100 were repeat submissions), and eliminated about 2/3rds on the first pass, leaving me with 33 maybes and probablys, which is very high compared to other editors’ stats. Then I narrowed those down to 10. Then I narrowed down my favorite choices by age category for my top three (MG, YA, and NA/Adult). Part of narrowing down included saying a sad “no” to two entries I didn’t think I’d be able to improve on. I encouraged these writers to query right then.

Anyway, let’s get back to my two final picks.

MG Pick

Some people were wondering about how to write the hook part of the P2P submission. This one caught my attention right away:

Oscar dreads a lot of things: oil-based shampoos, hungry giraffes, and going to school on Arbor Day. Life’s tough for a seventh grader with leaves sprouting from his head. It doesn’t help when, Matty, a boy no one seems to know shows up and declares Oscar is a wood troll. But then Matty also promises he can fix Oscar’s little hair condition – in return for a favor.

Hoping to never run from nest-building squirrels again, Oscar […]

Doesn’t that have a great voice? Look at those word choices and specific, characterizing details! Some people think it’s harder to get a solid voice in third-person, which is what all queries need to be written in. This is exactly how to do it.

Not only did this hook paragraph have solid voice, but it also introduced the character’s desire and the story’s inciting incident.

Now, I wasn’t sure if I wanted a portal fantasy, so I initially marked this as a maybe (see how subjective slush reading is?), but when I read the pages, I laughed and got literal goosebumps. If a book can create that much of a response in me in the first chapter, I’m going to want to read more. Turns out, an agent felt the same way.

YA Pick

This one had a solid query, and I liked the concept a lot: a YA romance with Middle Eastern Pirates? Color me intrigued!

But what really hooked me was her first page—which I tend to read first—and how she started right in the middle of things:

Make it stop. I cringed, my head throbbing from the off-key voice. It was a song that most people would sacrifice their first-born to never have to hear. Most that heard it never lived to hear it twice. Because of all the dangers of the sea…

…Nothing was worse than pirates.

As I read on, the sensory details and lush settings drew me in further, and the chemistry between the two leads dragged me right under.

Yes, you read that right. I look at the first five pages before I look at the query. The Pitch to Publication submission includes personal-ish questions so editors can get to know you better. Since I assume everyone submitting to me is totally awesome, I usually skip this part until I’ve made my choices, otherwise the sting of sending rejections is too great. But I do enjoy reading those, and what you say can determine if I end up passing (red flags=run!) or if I follow you on Twitter so we can be friends and so I can cheer you on (we have things in common).

Hooking the Reader

Part of Pitch to Publication is working together to make the best book possible. Their pitches and queries don’t look exactly the same today as they did then. But hopefully this gives you a good idea of what can hook me:

  • Specific details that set the scene or characterize
  • Word choice (this and the previous are what make your “voice“)
  • Active, not passive characters
  • A cool concept or a pitch that makes me HAVE to know what happens next.

Which of these elements does your query or first five pages have? Are there any elements you don’t have but could work in?

When Voice Doesn’t Match

Have you ever gotten feedback that your book is too literary?

Have you ever been told your protagonist is too old for his or her voice?

But my book is is full of sex and violence! How could you say it sounds middle grade?

Even if your content matches your age category and genre, your voice needs to match, too.

How do you make your voice match genre and age category?

First, determine whether you are using enough Anglo-Saxon or Latinate English.

See my post on the difference between the two by clicking here or on the image below.

diction anglo-saxon latinate-01

Second, make sure your tone and subtext reflect the outlook of your protagonist’s age.

Here are a few observations for three age categories:

A Middle Grade protagonist is concerned about her abilities. She will observe what others are doing and how she fits in—because she does not want to be perceived as babyish or unable—but she still has fun without much effort. A MG voice uses more “can,” “could” and “will” language, probably because preteens think about what they can do currently and what they’ll be able to do in the future.

A Young Adult protagonist is concerned with his identity. What kind of person is he? Who influences the way he thinks? What circles is he in, and how does he act within each? How can he still have fun without wrecking relationships? Others’ perceptions might be more important than self awareness. Writing a YA voice isn’t about injecting slang, which is too easy to do wrong—it’s about implications and subtext that imply tone and feelings. It’s about generating emotional reactions. A teen is also thinking about the physical world in a relational context, so he/she is more likely to talk about body parts than MG or non-romance adult literature.

An Adult protagonist is concerned with purpose and priorities. She’s also going to be more concerned with practicality since she’s got to take care of herself (and possibly others). Work is important, her relationships are important, and she’s still learning more about herself. She’ll be more concerned about consequences than teens or children, so when figuring out personal pursuits, she’s more likely to question whether she’s shirking responsibilities. An adult is more likely to be nostalgic about his or her childhood, looking to the past to inform the future. He or she might also have more regret. Words like “would” and “could” are more likely to creep in.

See Kyra Nelson’s post on her linguistic studies of YA literature and how it differs from children’s and adult lit. It’s fascinating!

Do you agree with these observations? Disagree?

Interview with #p2p16 editor Lara Willard @laraedits

One of my picks from last year’s Pitch to Publication, JD, interviewed me on his blog today. What is it like to work with me? Find out below.

A writing spot for JD Burns

Hi there,

So #p2p16is right around the corner and today I have a super-awesome, super-timely interview. I managed to talk Pitch-to-Publication editor Lara Willard into giving us some of her time. No small feat, given the number of hats she wears – huge thanks for stopping by Lara!

Lara: Honored you asked me to come over! Next time, I expect snacks.

Yikes! I can’t believe I forgot the snacks! *** flings open pantry doors and stares at empty shelf where chips should be *** Oh that’s right. I’ve been binge watching old Godzilla movies.

editorIn last summer’s P2P contest, I was fortunate to be one of two writers Lara took on for a month of heavy duty revising. Rather than go on and on about how great she is, I thought it would be interesting to get her take on how she works with writers (like me) when she’s editing their manuscript. Kind of a peek inside…

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