Yada Yada Yada: Give Your Characters Distinct Voices

Just like real people, your characters have unique personalities, backgrounds, and worldviews—they should also have unique voices. Newbie authors often miss this lesson, and as a result, all 15 characters in their novel end up sounding exactly like the author. Here’s how I took my writing to the next level by giving my characters their own distinct voices.

There are two layers behind character voice: how they speak, and why they speak that way. Here are a few examples:

How                                                  Why

Big vocabulary                                 Insecure, trying to impress

Big vocabulary                                 Highly educated

Longwinded                                     Used to work as a teacher or lecturer

Longwinded                                     Arrogant

Blunt                                                  Doesn’t care about others’ feelings

Blunt                                                  Comes from a country where directness is valued

Loud voice                                        Lives with a hard-of-hearing relative

Loud voice                                        Attention-seeking

Notice, from the list above, that each how has multiple why possibilities. Also note that some of the whys on this list are personality traits (such as insecurity and arrogance), while others are related to the character’s environment (such as occupation and hometown).

Your job is to first understand your character’s whys, from both personality and environment perspectives. There are many factors to consider: character traits, education, upbringing, location, sense of humor, political and religious views, and overall attitude toward the world. Are they a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person? A leader or a follower? What are they afraid or superstitious of? Do they appreciate sarcasm, puns, or black humor? What kind of local slang or colloquialisms might they be exposed to? What job or hobbies do they have? Are they timid, assertive, or brash? Self-confident or insecure? How old are they, and how emotionally mature?

Next, determine how these whys inform how the character speaks. This means vocabulary, grammar, sentence length and structure, directness and subtext, just to name a few. This also includes verbal tics, similes and metaphors, and references to history, pop culture, etc. For instance, a college professor will likely have a wider vocabulary than a high-school dropout. Someone who studied abroad in France might exclaim “Mon Dieu!” while someone who grew up in Alabama might say “Criminy!” A professional engineer may use words like “delta” and “deviation,” while a hobbyist gardener may make analogies to roots, leaves, and flowers.

Then make a list of each character’s key hows and whys. Your lists might look like this:

Allison                                                                           Xweebob

12-year-old girl from New Jersey                               Middle-aged alien from Neptune

Hates school, but loves athletics and gym               Expensive education, has traveled extensively

Uses lots of slang, sentence fragments                    Speaks more formally, full sentences, big words

Makes references to sports                                        Makes references to home planet

Sarcastic sense of humor                                            Doesn’t understand Earth humor

Once you have a rough list for each of your important characters, do a round of editing just for dialogue. Print out your manuscript and skim through the whole thing, highlighting each character’s dialogue in a different color (you can do this digitally, but I much prefer doing it by hand). Then go back to page one, and read through only one color of dialogue. You’ll notice immediately if that character is repeating himself, saying things that don’t fit his voice, or using a verbal tic too often. Make edits as needed, then go back to page one and start reading through the next color. It’s time-consuming but well worth it.

And remember, crafting distinct voices doesn't mean slathering on the dialect or slang. For instance:

Character A: “Well, hawney, sun’s a-settin’, so yew’d better git on down the road thurr.”

Character B: “Croikey! Is it dusk a’ready, mate? Oi’d better get outta here ‘fore Oi get eaten boi a croc!”

Character C: “Dude, I’ve never seen, like, a real crocodile. That would be, like, super intense, like, you know?”

For one thing, no reader wants to wade through this jungle of phonetics. For another, this is so heavy-handed that the characters come across as stereotypes rather than real people. The art of good character voices is much subtler. Here’s a better example:

Character A: “Gettin’ dark out there. You better get on home.”

Character B: “You’re right, mate. Hope the crocs aren’t out tonight.”

Character C: “I’ve never seen a crocodile—you know, a real one.”

See how these lines give a flavor of the characters behind them, without choking readers with dialect?

As with dialect, verbal tics and pet phrases will add depth to your dialogue, but be careful not to overuse them. If a character says “I dunno” or “Holy crap!” every other paragraph, readers will notice—and not in a good way. Same goes for references, analogies, and metaphors. As with anything, moderation is key.

Hopefully, this gives you a good starting point for your own character voices. Now dive into that story and start talking!

 

Novels Are Like Onions

When I started writing, my biggest hang-up was the misguided notion of Writer with a capital W. If I’m a real Writer, I thought, I should be able to sit down whenever I feel like it and write something good—nay, groundbreaking! If I’m a real Writer, the words should magically pour forth from my sweat glands onto the page! Right?

Wrong. And as a result, I spent years just trying to get off the ground as a writer. I would get a spark of inspiration, sit down to write the Next Great American Novel/Short Story/Poem/Whatever, then give up half an hour later when I realized the first draft wasn’t even close to perfect. I would then decide “I’m not a real writer” and quit writing for months—before coming back to repeat the process all over again.

Then a couple of years ago, when I started my current novel, something finally clicked. I was watching Shrek one night while working on my first draft, and I realized that novels, like onions and ogres, have layers. Many, many layers. This applies not only to book-length fiction, but to any form of writing, including memoirs, short stories, poems, and even this blog post. It takes a lot of time, thought, and effort to get all those layers in place and working together, so no first draft is going to be perfect. And guess what? That’s okay.

Imagine building a house: you can’t paint the bathroom until you’ve installed the plumbing. Some budding writers (including me, at one time) think that being a writer means pouring cement, wiring electricity, and picking out drapes all at once. But in fact, writing anything requires multiple drafts so you can put all those layers into place and make sure they’re working together. This, dear writer, is why the writing gods created revision.

Here are some of the many layers I’ve seen in my writing:

  • Premise
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Pacing
  • Characters
  • Physical description
  • Emotion
  • Motivation
  • Character relationships
  • Suspense
  • Foreshadowing
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Mood and atmosphere
  • Setting
  • Worldbuilding
  • Dialogue
  • Body language and facial expression
  • Internal thoughts
  • Themes
  • Symbolism
  • Writing style
  • Word choice
  • Imagery
  • Metaphors and similes
  • Chapter breaks and cliffhangers

I’m sure there are more. But from this list alone, can you see why it’s unrealistic to expect to do it all at once? Start with a single layer, or a handful, then let the others fall into place as you revise.

Which layers to start with? That’s up to you. In my experience, it varies from one writer to another and from one project to the next. My current novel started with a premise and a main character—they were the foundations of the house. Then I added elements that came relatively easily to me, like pacing, foreshadowing, and dialogue. It wasn’t until several drafts later that I finished fleshing out my worldbuilding and added my best imagery and metaphors.

Because there are so many layers, it can be hard to spot the ones that are underdeveloped or missing altogether. This is where critique partners and beta readers come in. If they’re reading for big-picture stuff (i.e., not copyediting for you), they’ll notice if something is lacking. I remember finishing what I thought was the final draft of my current work-in-progress, only to have readers tell me I had left out my main character’s thoughts and feelings. That’s a huge layer to omit—and because I was so close to the work, I never noticed it myself.

So don’t fret over these layers. Start with what feels natural and just keep going, getting help from your trusted readers. Like peeling an onion, let yourself discover the layers as you peel them back one by one. And yes, there will probably be a few tears, too.

Coping with Rejection: a 12-Step Program

Rejection can take many forms. For some of us, it’s our short fiction being turned away by one magazine after another. For others, it’s agents rejecting our novels at the query letter, partial, or full manuscript stage. And if you go the indie route, it can rear its ugly head as poor sales or harsh (so harsh!) reviews.

Since we can’t get our work into readers’ hands without facing rejection at some point, we have to learn to deal with it. Follow these steps to build a healthy relationship with your own rejection monster.

1. Expect it.

Even before the rejection happens—while you’re writing, revising, sending your submissions out, or waiting for responses—remind yourself that rejection is inevitable. Start preparing yourself mentally. And when the rejection does come…

2. Acknowledge it.

Sometimes rejection bounces right off you; other times it punches you in the gut. It’s hard to admit that a two-sentence email from someone you’ve never met just made you crawl under your desk and weep (been there!), but it’s important to stop and think about those feelings. Why did you want this so badly? Why are you so disappointed? Remind yourself that it's okay to feel this way.

3. But don’t wallow.

Every rejection needs time to process those feelings—sometimes a few minutes, sometimes a few days. But once you’ve unpacked your emotions, it’s time to let it go and get back to writing. No use crying over spilled ink.

4. Lean on other writers.

Commiserate with your critique partners and writer friends. Read the blogs and memoirs of published writers, who often share their own rejection experiences. Stephen King famously got so many rejection letters that the nail on his wall couldn’t hold them all. If he could go from that to being, well, Stephen King, there’s hope for you too.

5. But know that everyone’s journey is different.

Just because Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling, or your critique partner Bubba got a hundred rejections before their big break, that doesn’t mean you won’t get a hundred and one. Or two hundred. Or twenty-five. Or a thousand. Everyone’s journey is different, and your rejection count is no reflection of your quality as a writer. Because…

6. There are many reasons for rejection.

A rejection doesn’t mean your story sucks; it just means it wasn’t a good fit for that agent, editor, or reader at that time. Maybe it doesn’t mesh with the other stories she’s acquired for the next issue of her magazine. Maybe he’s currently representing something very similar to your book. And maybe they genuinely didn’t like your work—but that doesn’t mean none of the other seven billion people on the planet will.

7. Remember, it isn’t personal.

For whatever reason, this piece of writing didn’t work for this person. It’s as simple as that. No, they don’t hate you. No, they haven’t stuck your first page on the water cooler for their colleagues to laugh at. Don’t let your fragile writerly ego jump to the worst conclusion; give yourself the benefit of the doubt.

8. And it is personal.

Agents and editors have varying tastes just like us mere mortals. And because they get so many submissions, they have to genuinely love a manuscript before they add it to their already-full plate. They may like your work or think you’re a talented writer, but if this book doesn’t give them that glowing, choir-singing-in-the-background feeling, they don’t have time for it. That’s no fault of yours. You just have to keep submitting until you find someone who loves your book as much as you do.

9. When one door closes...

I know, I know, this isn't what your bruised ego wants to hear after suffering yet another rejection black eye. But it's true. Submitting your work is like dating: now that this agent/editor/magazine has rejected you, you're free to court others. It's only a matter of time before you find someone who really connects with your writing.

10. Learn from it.

Make the most of rejection by using it as a learning experience. If you get feedback with a rejection letter or one-star review, use it (or at least consider it). Next time you submit, that feedback could make the difference between a big fat No and a Yes, please!

11. Remember how far you’ve come.

Maybe you’d hoped to be agented/published/famous/obscenely wealthy by now. But where were you a year ago? Ten years ago? Landing a book deal or self-publishing a bestseller aren’t the only measures of progress on the writing journey. Reading, writing, revising, learning the craft, joining a critique group, going to conferences—that all counts as progress. Take some time to recognize what you have accomplished, rather than fixating on what you haven’t.

12. Stay brave.

Remember Step 1, Expect rejection? You knew what you were getting into before you typed your first sentence—and you still sent your baby out into the unforgiving world of publishing. That takes guts, so give yourself some credit. And don’t let the rejection scare you into not being brave next time.

Spring Cleaning: Give Your Writing Space a Makeover

I have several writing spaces, including the couch, the library, and (weather permitting) the patio. But when I really need to focus, I have a designated, distraction-free place I can retreat to. I call it my “cave,” but it’s more like a hobbit hole: cozy, comfortable, and colorful. Here’s how I did itcomplete with photos!and what to consider when creating or reviving your own writing space.

Location

For most people, a writing space needs to be quiet, isolated, and close-able—meaning you can shut the door when needed and not be disturbed by noisy children, spouses, televisions, etc.

I chose a nook in my spare bedroom, partly because it was one of the few unused areas in my 800-square-foot apartment, and partly because it has a window. (I’m not sure why, but I’ve always believed there’s a special creative energy that comes from placing a desk under a window. Or maybe I just like looking up from my writing and being reminded that there is, in fact, a world outside the one on the page.)

Workspace

This is how much flat space your desk or table offers. More is usually better—personally, I like to have room for my laptop, a notebook, and a mug of cocoa at the very least. I would have loved a nice big L-shaped desk, but since space is at a premium in my apartment, I had to settle for something relatively small. I found a cute little desk at a thrift store for $20, then spent a weekend repainting it and replacing the hardware.

And don’t forget your desk’s necessary sidekicks: a comfortable chair and good lighting. Seriously. If you’re going to do most of your writing here, you need a place to sit that won’t give you chronic back pain. And if your room doesn’t have an overhead light, you’ll need to add a desk lamp or floor lamp. Otherwise, as my mother would say, you’ll ruin your eyes trying to write in the dark.

Storage

It’s important to have additional storage so your workspace doesn’t disappear under a pile of clutter (trust me, it happens faster than you’d think). Wall shelves, a hutch, desk drawers, and desktop organizers will put everything you need within easy reach while leaving plenty of room to write.

Although my writing desk doesn’t provide as much workspace as I’d like, it makes up for it with four spacious drawers. I’ve put them to good use, storing things like pens, paper, binders, staplers, writing resource books, lip balm, and emergency chocolate bars.

Décor

This is your space; spruce it up in whatever way speaks to you. For me that means bright colors, cute knickknacks, inspirational quotes, photos of my family, and any potted plants I can manage to keep alive. Many of these have some kind of meaning or positive memory attached—the owl statue I rescued from the dumpster, the glass bird my in-laws bought for me in Ireland, the inspirational quotes given to me by my mother. Obviously, you don’t want anything that will trigger negative emotions. Think rainbows and unicorns (or Hufflepuffs and hippogriffs—whatever floats your writerly boat).

Inspiration

Last but not least, my writing space wouldn’t be complete without my Wall of Encouragement. This is where I frame my successes—stories I’ve gotten published in magazines, the cover of an anthology I was featured in, an award I got in a novel contest. Any time I’m reeling from a rejection, struggling to write a tough scene, or just feeling discouraged, looking at this wall boosts my confidence and helps me get back on the horse.

Instead of a wall of encouragement, you could do an inspiration board where you tack up photos, magazine clippings, and quotes that help you visualize your work-in-progress. Or you could have a vanity shelf, filled with the books you’ve published or magazines you’ve appeared in—even if it’s empty, it’ll remind you of where you’re headed. Or you could hang up meaningful things like the first story you wrote as a child, the brochure from your last conference, a photo of you shaking hands with Neil Gaiman…whatever works to boost your writerly mentality.

Now, let’s see how I’ve incorporated these elements into my writing space…

What does your writing space look like?

Lessons Learned from My First Writing Retreat

A few weeks ago I attended my first-ever writing retreat, organized by my friend and fellow writer Natasha Watts (of RMFW’s Writer’s Rehab). I spent a weekend in a cabin in the Rockies with five other writers, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing life. Here’s what I learned, and what I’ll be doing next time.

1. Have a plan.

To get the most out of your retreat, you should have an idea of what you’re going to work on. This can be a specific goal, such as plowing through 20,000 words of your first draft; or it can be more vague, like researching a new project. Just make sure you spend time before the retreat deciding what you’ll work on, so you don’t waste any of your precious retreat time. It’s also a good idea to have a backup project in case you get burned out on your work-in-progress. For this retreat, my main goal was to make a dent in the next round of revisions on my novel. I also had a couple of short stories to work on when I needed a break from the novel.

2. Disconnect.

One of the biggest draws of a writing retreat is the chance to get away from ordinary life—and all the responsibilities and distractions that come with it. Take advantage of this. This doesn’t mean going completely MIA, it just means scheduling your communications rather than being in touch constantly. Check your phone two or three times a day, and then turn it off. Skype with your family for an hour after dinner, then disconnect from the internet. Don’t get on social media, and certainly don’t stay on it while you’re trying to write. Minimizing these distractions helped me maximize my productivity, and contributed to the overall calm, creative atmosphere of the retreat.

3. Take breaks.

It’s easy to think you’ll spend every waking hour of your retreat toiling diligently on your work-in-progress. But in reality, nonstop writing is rarely the best strategy for your productivity, or your general well-being. Everyone has their limit, and it varies from day to day and project to project. After a few hours of feverish writing on my novel, I sensed when I was running out of steam and allowed myself to take a break—whether to watch a movie, socialize with my fellow retreaters, take a nap, or work on a different project. When I returned to the novel an hour or two later, I was refreshed and recharged enough to dive into it again. And guess what? I made huge strides in my novel revisions, even though I wasn’t working on them 24/7.

4. Be social.

Again, you may envision yourself locked in your room, writing away, for the entire retreat. But try to suppress this urge. One of the main benefits of my writing retreat was the connections I made with fellow writers. Loosely scheduled activities such as hikes, board games, meals together, and critique sessions helped us get to know each other and share valuable writing lessons. We discussed our works-in-progress, time management strategies, conference experiences, and pretty much anything writing-related—which really got our creative juices flowing and lent a great energy to the retreat.

5. Enjoy the view.

You can hole up in a room at your own home—so while you’re on retreat, take advantage of the change of scenery. My retreat took place in a cabin in the mountains, so it was perfect for hiking, hot tubbing, taking photos, and enjoying the view. If you’re in a city, visit museums, art galleries, libraries, and restaurants. Go for walks around a park, zoo, or botanical garden. Take a class or work on an art project. These things will invigorate you and get fresh ideas flowing for your next writing session.

The biggest thing I learned from my first writing retreat is that I have to do it again. I got a lot of writing done, as expected, but I also got so much more out of the experience. If you get an opportunity to do a writing retreat, take it—your muse will thank you.

Word Economics 101

As my critique partners can attest, I’m a big proponent of what we call word economy. Not a technical term, exactly, but here's my definition: using only as many words as the story needs.

Of course, every story has different needs. Some need a clipped, concise writing style, while others need a more flowery voice. Some need mostly action, while others need lots of internal reflection and characterization. No matter what kind of story you’re writing, word economy always applies—and should never be overlooked. Word economy will help you keep readers engaged and make you look more professional to agents and editors. Here are my strategies for getting the most bang for my literary buck.

Firstly, I always keep in mind what I consider the Prime Directive of storytelling: Every single element (subplot, character, scene, paragraph, sentence, or word) must further the story in some way. This means each element has to move the plot forward, reveal character, and/or illuminate theme. No excuses.

I know, I know, your three-page description of the sunset is just so pretty! But don’t be so naïve, dear writer. Don’t flatter yourself that an agent, editor, or reader will love those three pages as much as you do. If they’re not meeting the Prime Directive, your story doesn’t need them.

Now, how do you determine which elements are meeting the Prime Directive? As you revise, give each element this litmus test: If you cut this element completely, would the story still stand? Too many side characters, subplots, and descriptive passages—especially if they’re not meeting the Prime Directive—can dilute your story. Cutting or combining them will make your story feel tighter, punchier, more powerful. If, however, cutting an element results in a weaker story, then that element is meeting the Prime Directive. The story needs it, so it can stay.

How could a three-page sunset meet the Prime Directive? Maybe it symbolizes the protagonist’s marriage coming to an end, or brings up memories of her father’s death, or foreshadows the murder she’s about to commit. But if not, cut it. And be prepared to be ruthless with your scissors.

When revising for word economy, it helps to start big and narrow your focus over time. In the early stages, consider word economy on the story level: subplots, characters, and scenes. Does Character X have an integral role in the story? If he serves a purpose, but not an integral one, could you combine him with Character Y to create a single more impactful character?

When evaluating scenes, consider each scene’s role in the overall plot. Does the scene bring your protagonist closer to or farther from her goal? Does it reveal some new, critical piece of information? Does it forge an alliance or drive a wedge between two characters? If not, it may be time to pull out your scissors again.

In later revisions, when your plot, characters, and scenes are in place, look at word economy on the word, sentence, and paragraph level. Is that chunk of backstory absolutely necessary, or is there a more concise, engaging way to deliver that information, such as through dialogue? Could those two sentences of description be reduced to one sentence, or cut altogether? Is that adjective or adverb telling the reader something he doesn’t already know?

Revising for word economy can be a liberating experience. It helps you break your story into elements and look at them more objectively, making it easier to “kill your darlings.” But with great power comes great responsibility. Don’t use your revision scissors lightly, or for the wrong reason. Word economy is not about sacrificing your voice and style so your story can be as short as possible. It’s also not about whittling your story down to fit the word count guidelines for your genre. It’s about what your story needs.

Writing is about giving your story what it needs—and word economy is about trimming the fat so the heart of your story can shine through.