I don’t really play many Christmas songs for myself. Generallly, I get enough of them from the world around me in stores and in commercials. But for some unexplained reason I found myself at iTunes this week searching for Christmas music and discovered Christmas with Weezer. Whether it’s the crazy distortion on the guitar or just the moody tone, the band has stayed true to these classic songs while giving them new life for me.
And that’s one of the great beauties about art. Musicians, like other artists, can add their personality to their craft, making it their own so that no one song will sound the same when performed by two separate artists.
Writing is the same. Voice is so important to what we do. Writing voice gives our work personality. Character voice makes the players in our story stand out from each other. Two writers can tackle the same story with the same plot and characters and come out with different versions, completely unique thanks to the voice of the writer. Agents love it too as many of them say strong voice is what they look for in a writer’s work.
So how can writers perfect the art of voice? I often wrestle with this. I have the tendency to write out the voice in my writing. By this I mean, I appreciate craft and know this is also something readers and the publishing industry both value. Good writing is essential. But when I am too conscious of the craft of writing, the voice is dull. If I’m not careful, my focus on the structure can kill voice when I sit down to write.
So I try to find a balance, knowing I must have both. I’ve always felt the best way to write with great voice is to give myself permission for imperfection. Then the voice comes. After all, when the first draft is finished, I can go back and fix things that fall under the umbrella of craft. Most important to me is that the writing has personality and that the audience has read something from a unique perspective. So I hope you find inspiration in the arts this season and here’s to letting our voices speak.
Recently I took an informative webinar through Writers Digest on how to write effective query letters. Michelle Wolfson from Wolfson Literary Agency had lots of great tips and helpful reminders, but one thing she said particularly stuck with me.
Michelle emphasized that the goal of a query is to get agents to request pages.
Yes, some might say duh! Others might have never thought of it in such simple terms before. Writing query letters is the art of saying just enough about ourselves and our manuscript to tempt the agent for more. Authors may pore over their pitch, squeezing in every plot detail, fearing they might leave out something important. But not all of those details are important as long as the letter piques the agent’s interest.
If you take ten writers, each of their query letters will vary. Some may have a longer pitch, one bio may sound more fabulous than others, some will embody more personality. You would have ten different letters but each one of them can be successful in its own way. All it has to do is draw the agent in, tempt them enough to request more pages.
I come from a background in human resources and used to sift through a “slush pile” of resumes and so I think of it like a resume. On one resume, it’s hard to convey how wonderful you are at your job. But if you can write a resume with just enough hook that a potential employer wants to meet you, the resume has done its job.
Michelle’s tip is a good reminder for me and I hope it helps demystify the process for those of you who are writing your own query letter.
I came across news of this year’s Write Across Ontario and I wish every grade 7 or 8 student in Ontario who has ever dreamed of being a writer can participate.
Igniting the spark for writing at an early age is ideal. When I was in elementary school, I wrote a story for school. And I loved it. It was a story about a pair of ballet shoes that had been discarded as the little girl who owned them grew up. It was melancholy and sentimental (maybe overly so) but I was proud of it. I enjoyed writing it. And I was excited to hand it in.
My teacher wasn’t in love with the story as much as I was and I remember feeling discouraged by her comments. In general, I am not easily offended but I remember feeling the hit, thinking maybe writing wasn’t my thing, that I would find something else I was good at. Even well-meaning teachers don’t realize how harmful their feedback can be for kids, especially in areas of the arts because it is so subjective.
Thankfully my love of writing won out in the end but I wasted precious years to realize this.
When I see contests, like the Write Across Ontario, it excites me. It gives students who love to write a fantastic challenge and an opportunity to submit their work for review. They may allow their friends, family and teachers to read their stories, but sending it to an outside organization for critical review is great way for them to taste the world of publishing. In the end, whether they win or not, it’s up to us to encourage them and make sure they know that as writers, we want others to read our work but their approval isn’t always the end goal.
So if you know a student in Ontario in grades 7 or 8, please pass this along and encourage them to meet their muse. Maybe my muse remembers her original inspiration for the ballet shoes thing. I might have to revisit that.
I’ve been experimenting with writing targets. It’s not for everyone but writing and I get along best when I’m in charge. Some writers prefer to let inspiration come knocking on their door. I like to chase it into a corner or the project will run on and on. Like any creative process, different methods get different results for different writers. This one works for me at the moment.
This target has changed over time, but I think (without jinxing it) that I’ve found the right number. I have a daily goal of 1K, as measured by the target bar in Scrivener. It’s reset at the beginning of the first session of each day. Love that target bar. It goes from red to green, a visual reminder of my progress to that number. 1K isn’t much. Some days it’s enough, and others it’s just the start of a much longer writing session but it’s a goal that allows me to have balance with other things in my life. So I toil away until the bar is green, then either call it a day, or keep writing.
Most jobs require set number of hours worked in a day or week, mine does too. It’s not necessarily because I have a deadline, it’s just that without keeping track, I don’t feel done, I don’t give myself permission to do other things, including reading which often gets slapped on the back burner. This way I get balance. So whether I reach my target by noon, or hammer it out between the hours of 10 pm and midnight, the target is a tool that works for me.
But what about when targets are missed? After all, we are not machines. Life sometimes gets in the way of best laid plans. The problem with writing targets is the guilt trip associated with not achieving a daily target. This will happen. I try not to feel like it’s me vs. the writing target, like I need to conquer it, like I must win. This will lead to frustration. The target for me is a partner in the process, just one tool I use to get words on paper (or the screen). Then when I’m having a target-challenged day, I tell myself tomorrow might be better.
Do you have writing targets? How do they work/don’t work for you.
When I start a new writing project, I like knowing where the story starts, where it’s going to end and all the hot spots along the way. I do extensive character profiles until I know what their favourite breakfast is. Then when I’m ready to start writing, it makes sense to hammer out chapter one, scene one. Except, that’s not always the case.
Sometimes at this early stage, when a new novel is on the cusp of taking its first breaths, it’s all about one scene, and it’s not always where the story begins.
When I think back to some of my most loved books, it’s often one scene that jumps at me. It doesn’t have to be a pivotal moment, just one that is important to the character, and it usually involves dialogue that pops (I read it aloud if it’s really good).
As a writer, I have my favourites too, knowing when a scene I write is a winner, one I hope others will remember.
At the moment, I’m here at the start of a new project and there’s a scene that has to be writtten first. It happens one-third of the way through the plot but it has to be first out of the gates. It may not be the beginning of the book, but it most certainly is the beginning of this creative journey.
Note: This blog now offers subscription. Sign up with your e-mail on the sidebar and get e-mail updates when there are new posts.
by Marianne Su
I have a song in my head. Its repetitive tune drowns out the coherent thoughts that are losing the battle. The driving beat sends my feet faster along the path, the one I swore never to take. I shut out the voice that’s scared, I won’t listen to fear, it has never served me. I only want to be alone.
The sun dies as I head deeper into the woods. Dead branches cast shadows on the ground like veins, exposed and vulnerable. Darkness takes over, spreading through the forest, through me. Quiet descends, chasing away the life. They know too.
When I reach the stream, I stop. Blood courses through me. It thumps in my ears. My fingertips tingle with its force. I am here, in this place, ready.
I close my eyes and feel her nearby. Her spindly fingers reach for me like the tips of bare branches. They brush my shoulder, play with my hair, kiss my cheek. The rush is over, my patience has been rewarded. I stand very still, letting the shadows invade me.
So my bags were packed last week. Took the family on a vacation armed with my writing journal and my favourite pen.
I had the next chapter laid out in my head, the plot points set, the scenes visible in my mind. All I had to do was put it down in writing. I started on the plane. There’s nothing like a fresh page and four hours in one spot to get some work done. I got a few paragraphs finished before the drink cart arrived. And that was the end of my writing.
I tried. I popped that book in my beach bag each day. It saw lots of sun. But instead of my inspired words, the pages are filled with the kids’ doodles and countless tic tac toe games that were battled under the palm trees on the beach. The journal, my journal, was commandeered by the kids to play games. It’s all good.
After all, who works on their vacation? Even people who love their jobs take a break from them once in a while. So I forgave myself for not writing after a few days (the mojito’s helped drown the guilt). That’s what a vacation is for. Besides, the chapter is still alive in my imagination. I’ll get to it soon…after all the laundry is done.
by Marianne Su
The train screeched along the tracks through the narrow tunnel. Headlights beamed across the grey walls of the station. I took tentative steps across the platform, clenching my fists the way I always do. I walked through the crowd of passengers, my hollow form invisible to them. No one noticed me that day either, not until the train’s brakes screamed in alarm.
My toes curled over the edge. The billboard was gone but its ghostly imprint lay on the dusty tiles across the tracks. Its message was still clear in my mind, with pink hearts and curly lettering. To most it had been harmless and frivolous without the taunting undertones that screamed to me.
Rumbling echoes grew louder. I leaned forward but the moment was never right, not like it was that first time. There were no frantic brakes or horrified screams, just a reminder that since that day when everything changed, some things stayed the same.
I came across a poem lately that can mean a lot of things to many people. They are beautiful words about accepting the growth process of things in life, including ourselves. But I also hear something in this poem about the writing process.
It speaks to me about the evolution of a story, about how we may be frustrated along the way but to trust that there is a story somewhere developing to its full potential. All writers get frustrated with the growing pains of a story but it’s liberating to think of the process in a less hostile way, that everything is as it should be, growing into itself. I hope you find something inspiring in this poem, whether it’s for your writing or some other area of your life.
A Seed Thought by W. Timothy Gallwey
When we plant a seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as ‘rootless and stemless’
We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed.
When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear.
We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development.
The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies.
Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly alright as it is.
How much of a character’s backstory should a writer know? I’m not talking about the main character whose history, even though not always a necessary part of the story, is something you would have in your mind. I mean the secondary characters.
I’m in the process of re-writing a large portion of a novel and found myself drawn to a secondary character whose role in the story is key but limited. But then I got wondering about her, about her relationship with her dad (who is also a small character in the book). Who raised her? When did she first decide to turn her back on her legacy? I wonder if this is how it starts when authors write short stories about characters in their novels because I can totally see a short story in the works for Gabrielle.
But what I found when I resumed writing her scenes is that the whole backstory question added a component to her that I had been missing. She took on new life. All the questions about her that I’d figured out in my mind, even though what I reveal to the reader is only ten percent of what I know about her, filled her out and made her real.
I do character profiles, internal and external, for the main characters in my stories. There are lots of details about these people that you may never need but when it comes time for them to make a decision, even if it’s as simple as what they order in a restaurant, it helps to know them inside out.
But I get lazy when it comes to the other guys, the minor characters. My light bulb moment may have changed that. Even if it’s not a full blown character profile, I think I will be spending some time with all the faces in my book to look into their backstory, peel away their layers, so that they are real each time they hit the page.