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.”

Playing Lawyer: Defending your Story with Evidence

Sometimes I live-tweet writing advice while editing. I can’t help it; I’m a writing coach!

Here’s a lesson from today:

You never want a reader to say “I’ll have to take your word for it,”
the response to when you tell us something w/o showing us.(Tweet)

Telling DOES have a place, but you need evidence to support it—
something the reader can experience. Play lawyer; give us Exhibit A. (Tweet)

When revising, look for abstract/subjective adjectives (bad, good,
beautiful, mean, sad)—then PROVE IT to the jury: the reader.(Tweet)

To sum up:
Your story’s on the stand.
Readers are the jury.
You’re defending counsel.
Make jury believe your story with evidence.(Tweet)

And here’s a Making a Murderer meets John Baldessari image to pin or share:

Playing_lawyer

How’s your writing going, by the way? Getting ready for all the upcoming pitching contests?

If you need help, check out my editing services. Here’s a look into my inbox, and the feedback from clients I’ve been getting:

“I really appreciate all of your comments. You’ve given me a lot to think about and great specific ideas on how to make my story better.”

“Thank you so much for taking the time to do this critique. Seriously. Your ideas and insight into my story are incredibly helpful. You are the first person to suggest not only using comps, but you are the first person who gave me some titles to consider using.”

Author Chats: Interview with Jackie Lea Sommers

Jackie Lea Sommers‘ debut novel, Truest, is available for preorder! Find it at your local independent bookstore, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.

About TRUEST:

A breathtaking debut brings us the unforgettable story of a small-town love, big dreams, and family drama.

Silas Hart has seriously shaken up Westlin Beck’s small-town life. Brand-new to town, Silas is different from the guys in Green Lake. He’s curious, poetic, philosophical, maddening—and really, really cute. But Silas has a sister—and she has a secret. And West has a boyfriend. And life in Green Lake is about to change forever.

Truest is a stunning, addictive debut. Romantic, fun, tender, and satisfying, it asks as many questions as it answers. Perfect for fans of The Fault in Our Stars and Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have).

author-chats-sommers

Hi Jackie, thanks for agreeing to do this interview! 

Your debut novel, Truest, is coming out in just a few DAYS(!!) Do you care to talk about your publishing journey?

2013 was a whirlwind! I queried literary agents and signed with one, won the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult Writing, and was offered my book deal with HarperCollins all within a period of a few months. It was exciting and rewarding and terrifying. I celebrated by having my first panic attack and getting a prescription for Ativan. (But really.)

Querying was an emotional rollercoaster. I spent months perfecting my query letter and researching literary agents who seemed like a good fit with Truest. All told, I had about a dozen agents request full or partials, and in the end, I signed with Steven Chudney, who really resonated with my characters and my writing style.

Truest is your debut novel, but it isn’t the first novel you’ve written. How did you know when to shelve your first book, and how did you know Truest was “the one”?

Back in 2012, I queried about forty literary agents and only heard back from one. It was pretty clear to me that it was time to shelve the novel I was working on and tackle something else. That first novel was written for adults; this time, I wanted to try my hand at writing for teens. The entire process felt so different. I had learned so much in the previous four years of writing that first novel, and all of it was put to use in writing Truest. I spent about six months writing a first draft, then handed the manuscript out to a couple beta readers. They and I both knew that this novel was different, that this one was going to be my debut novel.
How long did it take you to write Truest? Any idea how many revisions you went through? Any darlings you had to murder?

All told, there were over twenty drafts. I spent six months on a first draft, another year on revisions, one round of revisions with my agent, and another year on revisions with my editor at Harper. I murdered darlings like it was my job—even right up to the very last draft!

Are you a plotter or a “pantser”?

That’s a good question—and the answer differs depending on what stage I’m in. In general—and especially at the beginning of a project—I’m a pantser. I don’t know the ending when I start writing the novel. In fact, I might not even know the ending until several drafts in. But once I’m in the middle of the project, there is a lot of planning and organizing that has to be done.

See: after pantsing all the freewriting, I had to get them all in the right order. This project looks more like a plotter’s work, doesn’t it?

sommers-plotting sommers-plot-cal
But, if I had to choose only one, I’d say I’m a pantser. If I plot prior to the first draft, the project dies a sad death and I can’t find any energy in the project anymore.

I’d plotted out an entire other novel (for my next book), and once I did, I didn’t want to write it. I returned to my pantsing ways and wrote a different story.

sommers-plot-chart

And then I wrote yet another one. That story will be my second novel.
How long have you been writing? 

I’ve been a storyteller my entire life. I’ve wanted to write books since second grade.

I love the sixty-nine test—where you gauge whether you’ll really like a book by flipping to its 69th page and reading it. (It is an easy number to remember.) Would you care to share yours?

“Yup,” he said. “Afraid so. You know my secret … well, one of them.”

“One of them?” I raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have any other siblings, do you?”

“I’m for real, West.” He shoved my shoulder with his own. “Let’s be good to each other.”

“Friendship doesn’t work like that, Silas. You don’t just decide to be friends.”

“I just did.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

He looked me in the eye. “My girlfriend is in Alaska, and my sister is messed up. Your boyfriend lives on a tractor, and your best friend ditched you for summer camp.”

“Hey!” His choice of words stung. “She—”

“Let’s be good to each other,” he repeated, and his eyes were so sad and serious and intense.

“Starting when?” I said, trying to mask the panic in my voice.

“Starting now.”

truest

What’s the best / worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten? 

Best: Write “shitty first drafts” and give yourself short assignments. Thank you, Anne Lamott.

Worst: Wait to write till you’re inspired. As Stephen King wrote, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
I’m sure all of your characters are your brain children, but if you had to pick a favorite, who might it be?

I adore Silas Hart, one of the characters in Truest. But I’m also enchanted by Asa Bertrand, the main character of my next novel. Rowen Lucas, Asa’s best friend and the girl he’s in love with, is a strong, artistic badass. I want to be her.

Your gorgeous blog has posts about faith and OCD. How do either of these affect your writing? Will we see these themes in Truest? In your next book?

My faith affects everything in my life, and especially my writing. God and I wrote Truest together, and God had all the best ideas.

My OCD doesn’t affect my writing in the same way, but having a nearly life-long battle with clinical anxiety has affected my writing life.

The main character in Truest—Westlin Beck—is a pastor’s daughter, and faith is a big theme throughout the novel. I think (and hope) it’s addressed in such a way that anyone can enter into the conversation though.

OCD/anxiety is something I’m tackling in my next novel, Mill City Heroes.

When my blog readers finish Truest and are anxiously awaiting your second book (working title: “Mill City Heroes”), what should they read?

Everything by Melina Marchetta.

If you could have any superhero power, what would it be?

Flying!!! Or running so fast that it’s nearly flying. I can do these things in my dreams.
Which Hogwarts house would you be sorted into?

I’m a proud Ravenclaw.

Last question. Favorite Billy Joel song. Go.

“She’s Got a Way”

Sommers-chat-sprite

Are you an author that has been (or will soon be) traditionally published? I’d love to interview you and turn you into your own adorable 8-bit sprite! Contact me on Twitter or e-mail me: query lara at gmail dot com.

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.