One Writer’s Journey

June 26, 2017

Find Yourself as a Writer

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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Tracee Ellis Ross is a comedian and a producer, a model and an actress.  Obviously she is a woman of great talent but I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw an interview where she talked about journaling.  I guess that as a writer, I tend to think of journaling as a “writer’s thing.”  After all, it is a great way to find your personal voice.

So it makes sense that as a comedian, she would also need to find her voice.  After all, she wants to sound like herself and not someone else.

That’s something that each of us definitely needs to do as a writer.  Find your voice.

There are multiple parts to this.  First of all, take a good look at where you came from.  I’m in Missouri.  I grew up in Missouri.  But I was born in Texas and have deep roots there as well.  I live in the city or at least the suburbs.  But again, I also have deep roots in the country.  My grandmother grew up in a small town so my grandparents made certain that I spent a lot of time in the countryside.  But I’m also well read and well educated.  All of this shows in both my personality and my voice.  As my son puts it — I’m not sure if I’m a liberal red neck or a red neck liberal, but I can swing either way.

Second, you need to know who you are as a writer.  I am primarily a nonfiction writer.  That said, my audience is not narrowly defined.  It stretches from third grade through high school.  I write about history, race, science and anthropology.  These are the topics that interest me, and I don’t try to defend them.  Young readers who are interested in these topics will get it.  They like them too.

Third, you need to know how you approach your writing.  I can be more than a bit irreverent.  I see truths that make my fellow adults uncomfortable.  I take this truth very seriously but my sense of humor is strong.  My mother in law has referred to me as cheeky which I take as a compliment.

All of this goes into shaping the things that I chose to write as well as my voice.  It is who I am.  Not everyone gets it but that’s okay.  This is me and what I write.  I’m not going to say that finding this spot was easy or quick, but it was essential.

So now let me ask – have you defined yourself?


December 2, 2016

Voice: Capturing the Specifics

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:53 am
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pick-upI’m 1/2 way through my scene outline for Iron Mountain and I have to admit that I’m getting jazzed.  I really want to get started writing this book!  But I’m going to have to do some work to recapture the voice.

I started another draft of this novel something over a year ago.  I had the perfect voice going.  It’s a bit like my own voice but not entirely.  My son lovingly tells me that I sound like a well educated pirate.  When cornered, almost literally, he explained that I have a tendency to combine grand-dad’s earthy commentary with the vocabulary that comes with a masters.

I don’t want the novel to sound entirely like me.  After all, each book should have its own voice.  So like me but not quite.  I think of it as how a poem sounds when recited by different readers or, as Lee Wind explained in his post, a song sounds when performed by different artists.  The example that Wind gives is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  He encourages readers to listen to various versions of the song and note how each artist makes it distinct.  He provides links to Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Slits and more.  What is it that makes each performance unique?  Figure that out and you’ve got a grip on voice.

The tricky thing is that I know the voice of this book when I hear it.  It is in the tones and sentence structure of the people I know in southern Missouri.  I heard it in the pages of Winter’s Bone.  I wanted to find it in a TED talk by JD Vance but he’s gone polished and loss that homey edge.  I know it when I hear it.  So as I get ready step into this world, I’ve got to hear it again.  I seem to remember the music in O Brother Where Art Thou nodding in the right direction.

Sounds like I’ve got some listening to do.


July 25, 2016

Character and Voice: When the Two Don’t Match

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:55 pm
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microphoneLast night we watched an old episode of Bones.  They were trying to solve the murder of a body builder who had been partying on the Jersey shore.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, the main character, Bones, is a forensic anthropologist who is brilliant but beyond literal. Because of this, she and the real world often don’t see eye-to-eye.

To solve this particular mystery she and her partner had to question “Guidos” and she had been watching a documentary to learn about their vernacular and customs.  Fascinated by the Guido tribe, she dove right in to participant observation mode, interacting with them as one of their own.  She used their phrases, “Yo, bro!”  and “Oh, no!” in particular complete with the correct body language.

The problem was that back in the lab she would sometimes pop off with one of these phrases.  It may have been a perfect fit on the Shore but back in the high-tech world of the Jeffersonian, it was a bad fit with a comedic result.

The lesson?  Be careful when you create the voice for your character.  You don’t want your Union soldier to sound like a pirate — unless your end goal is to have my teen son imitating your character for all to see and hear. You don’t want your teen age boy to sound like his mother.

The exceptions?  When you are using it for effect. Maybe you are showing us what your character loves or is interested in.  Maybe this is a clue about their early origins and they’ve carelessly slipped back into an earlier speech mode.  Maybe you’re pirate longs to attend Oxford.

Yes, you can do it for a laugh, but you have to create a reason for your character to be speaking like this.  Otherwise, it just seems off.


June 15, 2016

Finding Your Voice

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:54 am
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fiction voiceI’ve long suspected that at least in terms of nonfiction I have found my voice.  That was confirmed by the critique I got from Chronicle’s Taylor Norman at the Missouri SCBWI Advanced Writer’s Retreat.  I submitted the picture book version of What’s Up, Chuck?  which is basically a scientific take on vomit.  Yes, there is actually enough information for 14 spreads.  In reality there’s enough for much, much more. To make a short story long, Taylor commented positively on my voice.  Woo-hoo!  She not only found it, but she liked it.  I have a nonfiction voice.

That said, no one has ever made that comment about my fiction voice.  Part of the problem is probably that I simply don’t share my fiction very often.  They aren’t going to have anything to say about it unless they read it but I don’t think that’s the entire problem.

I also need to make sure that my voice is a good match for what I’m writing.  This weekend, we had the opportunity for first page critiques.  Out of a dozen commentators, two people loved my voice.  Several others commented that they thought the character’s vocabulary was too much for a 7 year-old. Yet several more felt that the story should be a chapter book.

In reality, I think these are all comments on my fiction voice.  The vocabulary level is “enriched” and its a bit cheeky.  That makes it a natural fit for middle grade on up.  Picture books?  I’ve read plenty of picture books with this type of voice but I wonder if they are typical.  I suspect that they are far from it.

Does this mean that I should change my voice?  I suspect not.  But I am going to have to write more fiction so that I develop confidence in this facet of my voice.  Until then, I’ll keep writing with the knowledge that I sound like myself and the awareness, that at least for some, my voice may be an acquired taste.






June 14, 2016

Voice: The Many Faces of One Piece of Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:24 am
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voice facesWhen a new writer asks about voice, I always feel myself hesitate before I respond.  What does she want to know?  Is the talking about character voice?  Author voice?  The tone of an individual piece of writing?  Because voice is all of this and much, much more.

This past weekend at the Missouri SCBWI Advanced Writers Retreat Taylor Norman of Chronicle Books took us through a session on voice.  The first thing that she did in this session may have been the most important.  She helped us realize just how complicated the voice of a work can be because all of these elements can play a part:

  • The author’s voice.
  • The character’s voice.
  • The narrator’s voice.
  • The voice of the person narrating the audio book.
  • The voice of the librarian reading it aloud.

This is only a fraction of the things on her list which was probably about twenty items long.  Even this abbreviated list can help you see how and why this topic is so complex and so very difficult to discuss.

First things first, fix your voice as the author.  How your writing sounds will depend on a variety of factors.  Where and when did you grow up?  This will influence many of the words and phrases that you use — ice box vs refrigerator, pollywog vs tadpole.  Next comes your level of education and your field.  Even when writing fiction, an astrophysicist with a Ph.D. will write very differently from a philosophy major with a bachelor’s degree.  Other things that factor in include your hobbies because relevant terms will find their way into your vocabulary.

Now what about your character’s voice?  In my current fiction wip, my main character is a 12 year-old girl who is a mechanical marvel.  Her voice is very different from either of her brothers.  The youngest is 9 and adores animals.  The oldest is 21 and a veteren.  Think about how different each of these character’s would speak.

That is their character voice which is influenced by my voice which may, one day, be influenced by the voices of the people reading it aloud. Its almost more than a body can wrap her head around.




May 11, 2016

Voice: Nonfiction vs Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:39 am
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singer recording.jpgIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I don’t like to read middle grade fiction while I’m writing middle grade fiction.  When I do, the other author’s voice has a tendency to sidetrack my character’s voice.  Annoying!

That said, I don’t have the same problem when I write nonfiction. That’s a good thing since I read a lot of reference material, nonfiction all, whenever I undertake a new project. I think the primary reason for this is that my nonfiction voice is so well-developed.  As my son describes it, I sound like a very well read pirate.  When I glare at him, he translates this as “educated but irreverent.”

Because I have developed my nonfiction voice, I can read nonfiction that is poetic or chatty without getting sidetracked.  I can read a rhyming picture book.  I can read a scholarly article.

The only time that I sometimes lose track of my nonfiction voice is when I write about something that I studied in college.  I’m usually pretty good when its history or cultural anthropology but when I write archaeology?  Acadababble emerges.  Acadababble is, quite simply, academic babbling.  No longer do I sound smart but cheeky.  I sound like a professor.  The reason? The hours spent working in archaeology at this point still exceed the hours spent writing about archaeology for a nonacademic audience.  The solution?  Write, write and write some more.

Incidentally, that’s the same thing that will eventually make relocating my fiction voice easier.  Write, write and write some more.



May 10, 2016

Reading as a Writer

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:46 am
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wing and clawNot long ago, I pointed out to my critique group that since I’m writing an early middle grade novel, I shouldn’t read middle grade fiction.  “What do you mean that you’re writing middle grade but you never read middle grade?”

Sigh.  No.  Right now.  Right this moment.  For the next month or so, I probably shouldn’t read midde grade.  Why because I’m drafting an early middle grade novel.  I have discovered the hard way that if I read a novel written at more or less the same level with amazing voice, it hijacks my voice.

This time around, I made the mistake of picking up Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park.  WOW.  Wow.  wow.  Every now and again I pick up a book and think “I wish I had written this.”  For me, this is one of those books. That’s the good news.  I’ve found a book to go all fan-girl over.

But the bad news is that I’ve lost my character’s voice.  Not entirely.  Every once in a while Clem once again sounds like Clem.

She never sounds like Park’s character.  That would be another problem altogether.  When I lose her voice, she sounds all Midwest neutral.  She has no accent.  She could be announcing the news.  Pbbt.

So how am I going to rediscover Clem’s voice?  First things first, because I am Fan-Girl, I’m going to finish reading Forest of Wonders.  Then I’m going to reread the begining of the book.  That’s where I heard Clem’s voice loud and clear.

I’m not going to find where I lost it.  I can fix that later.  And I know there will be plenty of things to fix.  But I am going to read it and reread it where her voice comes through.  Hopefully it will allow me to reclaim it as I move forward.  If not, I know what speech patterns inspired this voice.  Push comes to shove, I’ll take a road trip down to the Bootheel.  Otherwise I’ll see if I can find a radio show or something that will allow me to hear what I’ve lost.

Until then, I have a boy and a bat and a girl and a bear and some other critters and kids to read out of trouble.  Excuse me, won’t you?


December 21, 2015

Reading to Fuel Your Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:22 am
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fuel your writingOne of my writing buddies and I have been comparing notes.  When she writes, she reads things that are similar in tone, theme or subject to her work-in-progress.

Because I do a lot of research when I write, I read things that match my subject before I begin.  I need to have a certain amount of information before I begin.  As I draft, I leave blanks with notes to myself.  WHAT WOULD THEY HAVE EATEN FOR BREAKFAST?  TRAIN OR BUS? After I finish one draft, I’ll do the reading necessary to fill in these blanks.

But things that are similar in tone or voice? Nope.  I avoid anything like that while I’m writing a particular project.  This means that when I’m writing middle grade fantasy, I don’t read middle grade fantasy.  Sometimes I avoid young adult and adult fantasy as well if the individual piece is too similar to what I’m writing.  If I don’t, my voice skews towards what I’m reading or at least away from how it should sound.

When I’m writing picture books or nonfiction, I’m much less cautious about what I read.  A picture book is much less likely to skew my picture book voice than is a middle grade novel.  A piece of nonfiction isn’t going to effect my own nonfiction voice?

Why the difference?  A picture book is short and easy to hold in my head.  I’m not having to hold on to that voice day after day, week after week.  I can throw down a draft in an afternoon and then walk away from it for a few days.

Nonfiction, I think, is simply my comfort zone.  I’ve written so much non-fiction that I’m secure in my voice and can find it without too much trouble.  That’s not to say that I never lose it but it is much easier for me than fiction.

Reading does fuel my writing but I never know what will inspire me.  Because of this I like to read diversely.  That said, it is easy to fall into habits.  To find out how I’m stepping outside my reading comfort zone in 2016, check out yesterday’s post on the Muffin.


December 11, 2015

Voice: What it is and what it isn’t

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:57 am
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voiceAll you have to do to get a room full of writers to panic is to say “voice.”  Why?  Because voice in an intimidating, somewhat vague topic.

Why do I say “vague”?  Because you can point to the where and the when and all the little sensory details and say “this is setting.”  You can list details about the protagonist as well as tag lines and specific actions and say “this is character.”  You can just as easily point to plot, symbols and theme.

Voice?  That’s a lot less specfic but it also gets confusing because there is voice and author voice.  In short, voice is how a story sounds. Author’s voice is how you, the author, sound. One encompasses a single story.  One is built story upon story.

Think about it.  Jane Yolen is known for being literary and lyrical.  That’s her author’s voice.  But if you read her picture book Owl Moon it sounds very different from How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight, another picture book.  Owl Moon is poetic and lyrical.  Dinosaurs has the rhythym and feel of a poem but with a cheeky humor.

The Commander Toad books sound different still because they are early readers.  That means that the sentences are simpler and shorter.  They have to be for the readership.

Young adult, fantasy, historic fiction, Yolen writes it all and each story has a voice that it appropriate for the type of story, the setting and the audience.  Each story is distinct from the others yet they all combine to create her author’s voice.

So what do we get out of this?

The voice for a particular piece of writing will be determined by an amorphous cloud of factors.  When I write for Red Line, I adapt their academic but friendly style.  I say adapt because I can frequently tell when my editor changes something.  The voice of the individual book is flaovored by the examples and individual words that I choose.  My editor’s choices?  Not quite the same.

So a lot of voice is word choice.  What factors go into your word choice?

  • Where you were raised
  • Where you live now
  • Your age
  • Your education
  • Your hobbies and interests

All of these things go into how you describe a dog, a sunrise or a dog barking like a fool at the sunrise.

But the particular piece of writing also factors into your word choice.  People Pray sounds completely different from What’s Up, Chuck? That said, they both sound utterly and entirely like me.   Educated and cheeky.  That’s by people who like me.  Otherwise cheeky is often replaced by irreverant which is actually okay by me.

To get a feel for voice, you have to write.  A lot.  You have to read it out loud.  You have to know what sounds like you, what sounds over written and what sounds like your editor filled in a missing example.


February 16, 2015

Write as Your Genuine Self

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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selfeditingI’ll be one of the first people to admit it — I love snarky children’s books. Those lines that are a bit cheeky that make the adult reader cringe?  Yep.  Those are the ones.  Not sure what I mean?  Think of any Kevin Henkes book with Lily in it.  Yes, Lily often ends up in the uncooperative chair but she makes me laugh while she does it.  I get why kids love these books.

So why does my own work have so few moments like this?  The writers in my critique group have actually asked me this question.  “You’re so funny. Why don’t you write funny?”

First things first, writing funny is really hard.  I’m not sure why, but it is.  It takes a great deal more effort than letting fly with a snarky one liner in conversation.

But I have to admit, that that isn’t the only reason.

More often than not, I’ll include something snarky, hilarious and, admittedly, immature.  But then I hit backspace, backspace, backspace until its gone.

The reality is that I have the sense of humor of a teen boy.  I know this because I laugh at 90% of the things that my son and his friends laugh at.  In fact, I laugh so hard I snort.  Then I turn around and one of the other moms or, worse yet, my husband is giving me that tight lipped look.  You know the one.  Grow up already.

But when I don’t edit away these bits of snark, my writing is that much better.  It has voice.  No, my work will never appeal to certain readers but that’s okay.  They wouldn’t get the real me anyway.  To read about my search to “write what I know,” see yesterday’s post at the Muffin.


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