To become a seasoned writer there is a level of understanding in writing mechanics, which must be obtained. The sooner one learns these components the sooner they have control over the stories being told, and the sooner they’ll get past the noobie status.
Those who believe that they can be a great writers without knowing the techniques and mechanics of writing are wrong. Sure, they might have great luck with the first couple of short stories; they may have some natural talent that saves them from failing horribly (this usually involves spectacular timing and finding that well connected agent). But eventually, if the writer doesn’t make a consorted effort to understand the parts which make up great writing, they can neither understand pieces well enough to dissect them, nor achieve mastery over their stories.
What does that mean? It means that in a small-scale/short term they just might be successful, but once they try dipping toes into larger, deeper, and more delicate stories they stand a high chance of becoming defeated. Larger stories may start well, but will inevitably spiral into chaos. Characters will start off strong-willed and motivated, but ultimately end up confused or worse – transforming into something unanticipated. Worlds will crumble and fail both fiction and real life. And, toward the end of the second half or so some grand epiphany will strike causing the writer to rework the first three-quarters of the tale. Months or years could be washed down the drain along with tears of frustration.
I speak from experience.
As an author, it will only be your insatiable desire to transform yourself into something great, someone memorable that will drive you to crack open every book you can get a hold of on technique. That desire will be the only thing that motivates you to harass friends, loved-ones, and local librarians into recommending every great book they can think of that could help you understanding the immensity that is story telling mechanics.
If you’re anything like me, you didn’t have the privilege of going to school to learn this. If you’re like me, your best resources will the friends you make in writing communities and groups, or family members. The harshest lessons I learned were gleaned from the general public when I put my work out through small press publishers. I assure you, that was no fun. I say that knowing that I was very lucky to have friends out there that both told me the truth and then comforted me by telling me how to improve. Unlike many other fields, the writing community is unusually supportive of each other. Perhaps it’s because of the high level of failure, and the low level of chance that anyone will succeed in the publishing arena. The estimates of success are somewhere around 2% for mass market publication. Only two people in one hundred who try may make a name for themselves will succeed. Of those two percent, there are authors who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and are successful despite their lack of acuity in technique. Even though they might make it by pixie dust and unicorn tears, luck is certainly not something you should ever rely on. Resign yourself to becoming the best story-teller you can be and whether you make it into the 2% or not, you’ll have the chance to maintain your dignity and more than likely, a large following.
So, let’s talk about something all authors get judged by, voice.
When attempting to tell stories there are several questions you must answer to yourself before you ever sit down to write. These answers will be your keys for communicating clearly and effectively and they are tools that will help define your voice. Yes, voice, that elusive term readers, editors, and reviewers use but can never quite explain. As a writer, get used to people talking about your voice as though you were some sort of siren (or banshee if things don’t go well). Also get used to these same people giving you blank stares if you dare ask them to explain what they mean by your voice specifically. The reason they can’t give you a detailed itinerary of what voice means is because defining it is highly complicated, subjective, and whether your voice resonates in their minds relies largely on meeting or failing to meet many criteria. The only thing more difficult to explain than voice is theme, but that is a different topic for a different day.
The questions you must answer are:
Who is speaking by way of point of view: We covered the broad strokes in my last post, Life in the First. Along with deciding your point of view, you must also decide on what distance to employ that view. This is called Narrative Distance. The first person perspective is the most intimate. This is where you ask your reader to view your tale through the eyes of the main character (MC). You will rely on descriptors of personal experience and internal dialogue to present the reader with first-hand knowledge of what the character is going through. Each other point of view takes the reader/audience further away from the baseline perspective until you get to third person omniscient. In 3rd person POV you tell your tale from a bird’s eye view. In the omniscient perspective you’re given a little leeway in how you use your dialogue and descriptors to give your readers perspective into the hearts and mind of all involved. If you wish to pull back a little and only focus on one character, this is called limited omniscient.
Once you establish who is speaking, you must next decide to whom is the story being told. You have a few choices here.
Most stories are told to the reader. The reader most often takes a god-like seat in your fictional world, like an audience member watching a play unfurl.
Another choice is that the story is told to another character(s). The reader unwittingly/unwillingly assumes the role of a character in the story and the author utilizes techniques like letters or journal entries (as in epistolary novels) or like monologues. When considering this technique imagine that you, as the author, have just discovered some critically important or desperately interesting letters that have revealed something previously unknown, and you just had to share them with your audience. Think previously unknown letters from a historical figure to his previously unrevealed mistress. The thing that sets this choice apart from the others is that both the author and the reader are actively involved in the components of the story. Not telling/viewing, but having active roles.
The next most intimate is when you as the author talk to yourself. You force the reader/audience into a voyeuristic role. This is fun. In this role you essentially tell the world, this is about me, not you…but you may watch if you like. One method of exploiting this technique is again through diary or journal entries, but rather than you the author sending these thoughts to the reader, you’re writing them for yourself, “never expecting anyone to see them.”
And diving further into the concept of pushing the reader out of the active equation is a stream of conscious method. Think of the previous two paragraphs as levels drawing in to the brain. This method is in the brain. In the previous method you are still required to have some sort of continuity, grammar, and preciseness with the execution of the monologue because you are actively writing it out. This method here takes the reader right into the brain. Thoughts have little continuity and expressing them in this form is a wild ride. If you think this is the easiest mode of expressing your story, try it. It is a lot more difficult to not make perfect sense while following the rhythm of spontaneous synapse firing than you can imagine. Consequently, this is one of my favorite methods to do to break through writers block…but would I publish those ramblings? That’s a good question.
And at what distance. It’s called Authorial Distance. No, we didn’t just cover that in POV; that was Narrative Distance. Authorial distance is a little trickier to explain because it is not what is said, like narrative distance, but how you say it. Think of it like levels, again. If you want your audience to get drawn in and invested in a warm, personable MC, you’ll use warm, friendly, every day lingo. Their thoughts will be conveyed somewhat simply, and feelings expressed clearly with much detail. Whereas, if you want an antagonist who is an icy, arrogant bastard with whom the audience will shirk away from, you’ll give him/her lots of complicated dialogue with high-handed and rarely used vocabulary. You’ll give your audience just enough detail to dislike them. It’s my opinion that this element, authorial distance, lends itself most to the contribution of your voice. Once you master authorial distance you can control not only what your characters say, how they say it, but also how your audience feels about them.
It may take years to master these techniques and to utilize them with consistency and precision, but even a novice level of acuity will vastly improve your story telling.
Hopefully, some of this information will help you as much as it has helped me.
Next Tuesday, look for my post on identifying ideas, concepts, and themes.
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