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

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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.”

Becoming a Fan Favorite: Writing Description and Direction

In today’s post, I talk about stage directions in fiction, writing natural descriptions, why some books are constantly reread by readers, and, to an extent, immortality.

Orderly Description

Ever played that “blind drawing” party game? You close your eyes or put a piece of paper on your head and someone gives you direction upon direction to cram into one picture?

Here’s an example for the party planning website Sophie’s World (which, consequently, is the title of one of my favorite books):

“I’d like you to draw the outline of a house. Just a simple little house, right in the middle of the page… Now, beside the house I’d like you to add a tree, a medium sized tree, not too big, not too small… Oh, I forgot! You need a front door on your house. Please draw a front door so that the people can come in and out easily… Oh, did I tell you there are apples in your tree? Draw a few apples, maybe 5 or 6, in your tree now… And don’t forget the windows in the house! I think two would be nice… Did I remind you to draw a chimney? Let’s put a chimney on the house, with some smoke coming out the top… Oh, and look! There’s a dog in the yard… And a picket fence… And of course there’s a family…”

This is the kind of experience a reader has when you describe something in an unnatural order:

blind drawing
It’s also what it’s like when description is given out of order. When describing a scene, consider camera shots.

Zoom in from broad descriptions, ending on one specific detail. Or zoom out, starting on a detail and working your way out to observing the whole. Pan in one direction. Going in an unnatural order gives the nauseating effect of “shaky cam.”

Adding details too late, after the reader has already created the image in his or her mind, gives what I like to call the “awkward goat” effect.

Writer: “I went to give the goat a kiss. Then the other goat—”
Reader: “Wait, there’s another goat?”
Goat: “SURPRISE! I’ve been here the whole time!” (maniacal goat bleating)

surprise-goat
While this is used effectively in visual comedy, redirection doesn’t really work in fiction.

Overcomplicated Stage Directions

Another problem of ineffective description is overcomplicated stage directions. I see sentences like this all the time in unpublished manuscripts:

“Come with me,” Jorge said and turned around while kissing my hand as we ran away together.

Though these are most often found in dialogue tags, I see overcomplicated stage directions all over. That sentence above is just one I made up, but let’s rewrite it so it doesn’t seem like “he” is doing a hundred things at once.

First, find the perps: “and,” “as,” and “while.” The two latter words can often be cut in stage directions. The former is a fine word that sometimes gets overused. Let’s focus on no more than two actions at once.

Said + turned, kissing + ran

“Come with me,” he said, turning around. He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

Let’s also apply what we just learned about orderly directions, and cut the unnecessary dialogue tag.

Jorge turned around. “Come with me.” He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

What did I just do? I took advantage of my friend the progressive verb.

A progressive verb is a verb ending in -ing. That ending tells us that the -ing verb is happening while something else is going on, while letting us cut the “while” or “as.”

“While” and “as” aren’t bad words. It’s not about the word, it’s how you use it. By all means, use “as” to make a simile (e.g., “as [adjective] as a [noun]”). “While” is an innocent preposition until proven guilty. The problem is using them to show more than one thing happening concurrently. Show me a manuscript which uses “while” or “as” in the first page in stage directions, and there’s a big chance that same construction will keep showing up over the next ten pages.

Doing a find/replace search for all instances of “as I,” “as we,” “as she,” “as he”  (depending on your POV), repeating the search with “while,” will help you see if you’re going overboard. Also be on the look-out for “then” and “before,” more signs of wordiness and or disorderly directions.

Use them a few times, and that’s fine. Do it a few times per page—or worse, per paragraph—and you’re just being unnecessarily wordy. Gone are the days when novelists are paid by the word.

The Divine Detail

Remember, your novel has to compete with online, in-demand television and movies. You need to keep your reader’s attention. That doesn’t mean your novel needs explosions or murders every other chapter; it means your prose needs to be immediate and precise rather than longwinded and wordy. You want to be Robin Williams giving his Seize the Day speech, not Ben Stein droning about economics. The difference isn’t just subject, it’s diction. Do diction right, and you’ll engage readers that otherwise don’t care one iota about your subject. That is, until they start reading your book.

When describing, choose one or two vivid details, referred to by editors as “divine details” that can set the scene or characterize, and let the reader fill in the rest of the image. Compare the chaos of the drawing above (ain’t I an artiste?) with expansion drawings done by children:

expand-drawing

Image via ArtMommie. Click for more images.

When the reader is allowed to contribute, your work takes on a new form. It evolves in the readers’ individual minds. It’s a spark which they build upon to create a conflagration.

Letting the Reader In

It doesn’t matter how brilliant of a writer you are—writing and reading are collaborative efforts, and that collaborative effort will bring more life and beauty to your work than you could hope to do by yourself.

Sometimes we write because we’re control freaks. We are the masters of the universe, and we will plot and plan and tell our characters exactly what they should do. But when we let our characters breathe and give them freedom, when we let the reader have some creative liberty, our work takes on a life of its own.

Maybe that’s a cliche, but if you want your work to live on after you’re gone, you need to let your reader experience your world naturally. You need to let them read between the lines and contribute to the meaning and world of your fiction. When you let them participate, readers will not only want to buy your books, they will want to reread your books over and over again, letting them become part of their life, seeing how their interpretations change over the years.

Friday Reads: MS. MARVEL, Vol. 1: NO NORMAL

Regarding Graphic Novels

Read my introduction below, or skip ahead to the review.

I’m going to preface this with the disclaimer that I’ve always loved superheroes, but comics were not easily available to me as a child. I didn’t know anyone at school who was into comics, and on the rare occasion I was far enough away from my rural upbringing that I could get my hands on comics, I’d grab a single issue. I was often disappointed in the lack of variety, the women without agency treated more like scantily clad objects of desire or killing rather than heroes. I watched Batman and Spiderman cartoons and loved Supergirl.

Pre-internet, I grew up thinking that geek girls were an endangered species.

Now I have immediate access to comics thanks to the internet. I live in a city with comic book stores and a huge interlibrary loan system.

I’m a small-town girl late to the game, but I have every intention of catching up. And let me tell you, there’s never been a better time to get into comics, especially if you’re a woman or a child.

More female characters are being given agency—they are treated as individuals, not objects. More are fronting their own series. Women comic creators are generating a ton of amazing content online and in print.

Our library separates the adult graphic novels from the teen ones, and the teen ones from the children’s ones, a division I’m very thankful for as a mother.

Go to your library, browse the spines, judge them by their covers, and take a stack home. This week I picked up Saga vol 1 (Mature: contains very graphic sex in chapter/issue 4), A Boy & A Girl (pg-13 for brief nudity and language), This One Summer (pg-13 for language and sexual references), Ms. Marvel vol 1, Misfits of Avalon, and a stack of Star Wars ones for the Captain.

I’ll likely be reading and reviewing newer releases, ones that are either stand-alones or the first in a new series. This isn’t a comic or graphic novel review blog—it’s a blog about writing and editing—so I’ll be reviewing ones with a broad audience, ones that should be available at local libraries or bookstores.

But do comment below with your favorite graphic novels! It’s no secret I’m a fan of The Dreamer, but I won’t be reviewing it, since Vol. 3 is out in stores now.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal

msmarvel

This is a very mild origin story (think Peter Parker without Uncle Ben dying), so whether you’ll like it or not depends on how well you connect with Kamala.

Kamala Khan is the kind of superhero I craved as a preteen. She’s geeky and spunky and relatable. (Again, a lot like early Spider-Man.) I can see why some might consider her a Mary Sue character, but in #5, when she had her first “victory,” I was hooked. If the conflict and stakes don’t keep intensifying, then I’ll probably walk away, but for now, I’m so in.

kamala-khan

If you have daughters that want to get into comics, I’d recommend Kamala for 8+

Writing Exercise

Pick up a copy of Ms. Marvel Volume 1 from a library or bookstore (you could read the whole thing just standing in between stacks). Then write a 15-blinker origin story.*

*It doesn’t have to be a superhero story. It could be about your origin as a writer.

And don’t forget to comment with your favorite graphic novels, comics, or webcomics below, if you’ve got some!

Friday Reads: THE BASEBALL PLAYER AND THE WALRUS

I received an ARC of The Baseball Player and the Walrus and am excited to share this picture book with all of you!

Image links to Amazon Smile. With Amazon Smile, every purchase helps the charity of your choice!

Short Version

A sweet, surprisingly deep*, story about balancing responsibilities with pursuing dreams. Children will empathize with the characters, and adults will enjoy the details and theme.

*This isn’t to say I’m surprised that any picture book would be deep, since most have a lesson or takeaway element (that, and the illustrations, are why I love picture books!)—I just expected this to be a fun, silly story, and I was pleasantly surprised that it was much more than that.

Illustrations

Alex Latimer’s illustrations are packed with amusing details that demand encore reads. My favorite are the suitcases overflowing with bills and fish, and the trophies scattered haphazardly on the bedroom floor.

Story

Ben Loory has written a crafty tale about the unfortunate choice between work and passion. While the recommended age for this book is 5-8 year olds, I (mother, writer, artist) read it to my four-year-old son. He enjoyed it and was emotionally attached to both the baseball player and the walrus. I don’t want to give spoilers, but when I asked him what he didn’t like and what he liked about the book, his answers were dependent on the emotional state of the characters, rather than, like, a dragon or explosion or something “cool.” I can’t recall him empathizing with a picture book character before now, so that’s something I’m really pleased about. That’s why I advocate all people read—reading makes us empathetic humans. Every online troll should read picture books with empathetic characters. Maybe they’d learn something.

Oh, the preschooler also said he liked the walrus’ tusks. So there’s that.

Recommended for

Besides trolls who need a lesson, I’d recommend this book to elementary teachers during read-aloud time, since some of the words might be difficult for early readers. But I’d also recommend it to high school seniors and adults. The subtext and some of the humor will be appreciated by adults who live the dilemma posed in the book, asking themselves whether it’s more important to have “lots and lots and lots of money” and a job they succeed at, like the baseball player, or to invest time and energy into something more fulfilling.

On our first read through, the theme spoke to me as a mom trying to decide between working full time and staying at home. But on the second read, it spoke more to me as a creative, one who is constantly deciding between good paying jobs and really exciting ones.

Have you ever heard the quote “You can never step into the same book twice, because you are different each time you read it”? It’s attributed to John Barton. I think it only applies to books with relatable, human experiences. With theme and subtext.

It applies to this book.

Buy Links

Benefit a local, independent bookstore by preordering via IndieBound.

Benefit a charity by pre-ordering online via Amazon Smile.

The Baseball Player and the Walrus will be available for purchase on February 24, 2015.

Writing Exercise

Write a 15-blinker about a choice between passion and responsibility.