Libba Bray Beauty Queens; Suzanne Collins The Hunger GamesWhen you’re writing any piece for someone else to read, the narrative voice you use to convey your information can make or break you. Also known as the tone, how you say something is just as important as what you are trying to convey. For example, you wouldn’t crack jokes on a website for funeral home services.

Knowing your reader and being able to predict what their expectations are can help a lot as you prepare your manuscript. A middle grade contemporary novel about a 13-year-old girl is going to sound a lot different than an adult science fiction novel. But even within genre, there’s a lot of room for creativity.

Take, for instance, these two Young Adult tales of survival, The Hunger Games and Beauty Queens. Both have female protagonists fighting for their lives. But the tone of each novel is completely different, setting the reader up for a unique experience in each case.

First 128 words of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

First 172 words of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

“Are you all right?”

The voice was tinny in Adina’s ears. Her head ached, and she was wet. She remembered the plane pitching and falling, the smoke and screams, the panic, and then nothing.

“Am I dead?” she asked the face looming over hers. The face had apple cheeks and was framed by a halo of glossy black curls.

“No.”

“Are you dead?” Adina asked warily.

The face above her shook from side to side, and then burst into tears. Adina relaxed, reasoning that she had to be alive, unless the afterlife was a lot more bipolar than she’d been led to believe. She pulled herself to a sitting position and waited for the wooziness to subside. A gash on her knee was caked in dried blood. Another on her arm still seeped. Her dress was ripped and slightly scorched and she wore only one shoe. It was one half of her best pair, and in her state of shock, finding the other became important. “Can you help me find my shoe?”

The easiest way to identify the voice in each of these excerpts is through the details that the author chooses to focus on. In The Hunger Games, the narrator (Katniss) talks about the cold, the rough mattress, the one room that she and her mother and sister share. The telling detail involves her mother, though. The disillusionment as she describes her mother shows that life has been hard for longer than Katniss can remember, and that she might not believe it could ever be better than it is. All these details are important as the story unfolds and we learn what trials Katniss has to face.

In Beauty Queens, the narrative voice (a close third-person limited) shows Adina waking up after a disastrous plane crash, and focusing on the apple cheeks, glossy hair, clothes, and bipolar-ish emotional responses of her companion. The choices are ironic, to say the least, which is just what Libba Bray was going for in this work of satire.

There are so many variables that play into narrative voice. Word choice, details, cadence, pacing–all these things work together to create the tone of the narrative, informing by the way that they either align with the reader’s expectations or subvert them in order to call attention to something important. Hitting on your unique voice for the story you are trying to tell may seem like shooting at a moving target in a dark room. It takes practice, but when you get it just right, it’s worth it.

Voldemort; villain
Lord Voldemort, from Harry Potter

Ever find yourself watching a movie or reading a story and wondering what the “bad” guy’s problem was? And when there’s no real motivation, do you find yourself disappointed? Unable–or unwilling–to suspend your disbelief and stay with the story?

Believable villain motivation separates the memorable stories from the forgotten ones. When you can help your reader connect with, even empathize with the villain in your manuscript, they will forgive all kinds of crazy schemes and tactics that the villain uses to get in the hero’s way.

This doesn’t mean giving away everything right at the beginning of the story, either. It’s ok not to understand exactly why a character does something. But you have to give the readers a sense, a hint, an inkling, of what’s going on inside your villain’s mind. Otherwise we don’t care.

As your character’s motivations become more clear throughout the story, your reader develops more empathy with the villain. This can sometimes even raise the stakes. The more powerful the cause your villain has for his evilness, the more important it is for the hero to defeat him.

My favorite example of villain motivation is in the Harry Potter series (of course). Let’s take a brief look at Voldemort throughout the series.

Books 1-4

In books 1-4, Voldemort’s basic motivation was returning to his corporeal state. Completely understandable, of course. Who wouldn’t want to return from a weird, amorphous half-life to flesh-and-blood? (If you wouldn’t, let me know in the comments).

Books 5-7

In books 5-7, Voldemort has two goals. One, to be the most powerful wizard (and therefore the one in control of all the other wizards) and two, to kill Harry Potter. Being powerful is more than just about being in control for Voldemort. It’s about staying alive. If he doesn’t control everyone, then he will surely be killed. He’s done enough horrible things in his previous quest for power that he’s made plenty of enemies. He has to kill Harry to prove he is the most powerful wizard. Rowling sets us up to understand that fairly early in the series, and confirms it by the end of book 5.

As the series progressed, Voldemort’s motivations became more complex, but at the same time remained the same. He wanted to live just as much as Harry did. The reader can understand that, can even get behind some of the steps he takes to achieve that goal. The difference is that the readers wanted Harry to live more than they wanted Voldemort to live.

It’s important to recognize the role that back story plays in strengthening the villain’s motivations. When the time is right and you share that back story with your readers, the conflict becomes more powerful and your readers become more invested in the final outcome.

So don’t neglect your villains! Don’t let them be evil just for the sake of being evil. The better the villain’s motivations, the better the story.

Daily writing practice

These days, more than a few websites and blogs and social media posts offer you advice on how to finish your novel, easy hacks to getting published, ways to get inspired. And all of that advice can add up to success or to failure depending on how you implement it and what actually works for you.

But if there’s one thing I’m certain on, no matter what other advice you receive, know this: Writers Write.

The only way to be a writer is to write. Consistently. Not just that one time, not just someday when you have time. Sit down and write. Fifteen minutes. Right now. Go on. I’ll wait.

If you need, you can find a writing prompt somewhere out there on the internet. Or just pick an object on your desk and spend 500 words describing it (ouch… that’s such a painful exercise if you’ve never tried it).

Now, not everyone can write every day consistently, because … LIFE! But you can surely find two weeks to a month to set yourself a challenge of writing every day and here’s why it’s a good idea. If you write for fifteen minutes a day for 14-30 days, you will certainly begin building your writing habit. You’ll get used to sitting down and cranking out the words for fifteen minutes or whatever your set goal is. You’ll begin forming muscle memory and rewiring those synapses from their resistant, at-rest state to a state of readiness and ability.

Writing a little every day will give you the confidence that you CAN sit down and write whenever you want to. And then when your temporary challenge is up you’ll be able to set yourself realistic goals. Maybe in real life you only write a few times a week for longer periods. Or maybe five days a week instead of seven. Whatever works for you works for you, as long as you’re still writing! As long as you don’t let the time slip by you and allow your brain to go back to that state of rest where it’s hard to get motivated again.

Writers write. The more you write, the more you will find you are able to write. The more you write, the stronger your ability will become. So sit down and write. Write write write! You’ll never be sorry that you tried.

This Raging Light This Raging Light by Estelle Laure
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucille’s mom skipped out on her and her kid sister, and her dad disappeared after a nervous breakdown months earlier, throwing Lucille’s normal seventeen-year-old life into chaos.

I feel very privileged to have read an arc of this book before publication. Like I’ve been let in on some awesome secret. Estelle Laure hit the feels spot pretty early on in this book and I loved her characters the rest of the way through. Fiercely. Like, if things weren’t working out I was going to come in there and help make sure they were ok.

My only problem is, I felt like the world was too idealistic. I know horrible things happen, and no seventeen-year-old should be left to be parent to her kid sister, much less have to deal with the financial strain of keeping a roof over their heads. But the kindness of relative strangers makes me skeptical. I would wish for a world in which this kind of generosity exists, but I don’t know that I believe in it.

In fiction, in the context of reading the story, we should be willing and able to suspend our disbelief to take in what happens as inevitable. Of course people step in to help. It’s the only possible way that this story could turn out without being utterly heart-wrenching. Except that I didn’t get there. I still expected the “man” to step in. And when that didn’t happen, I thought “well that’s a nice story…” It’s not that I want characters (or RL people!) to suffer. It’s just that suffering is inevitable. And when fiction conveniently sidesteps it, or dials it back from the worst that could happen, I (and lots of other readers) notice.

Laure’s style, the voice of Lucille in this book, was raw and consuming. I felt the feels and I thought the thoughts that were in her head, the head of a seventeen-year-old. More than once I wanted to write down passages so I could read them over again, they were so delicious.

In all, This Raging Light is a well-crafted read that I would recommend to others.

View all my reviews

writer's block; writing; how do you write?; Neil Gaiman

Writer’s block. The old foe of creative minds everywhere. Standing in the way of completed manuscripts since… well since people began writing, probably!

If you’ve ever felt writer’s block, you know it’s a horrible experience. There you are, chugging along on your manuscript when suddenly you freeze. You can’t think of what to write next. Maybe you perceive a problem or plot hole and you can’t think of a way around it. Maybe you woke up, sat down to write, and no words came.

I’ve been there. And I still end up there regularly. Usually it’s because I’m afraid of messing up my project, and I want to get it right. Well, newsflash, self. I can’t get it right all the time. And first drafts are supposed to be messy.

Still, just telling yourself to buck up doesn’t always get the words flowing. So what can you do instead?

Three ways to fight writers block

  1. Write something else for a while
    Walk away from the manuscript for a little while. Write a blog post. Or work on a different project for a few hours/days. Give yourself some time away and then come back and see if you have any new perspective or ideas.
  2. Pick a writing prompt
    The other week I had been dealing with the stress and frustration of writer’s block with a current project. So I went to a prompt generator site (two of my favorites are Writer Igniter and Seventh Sanctum) and picked a prompt that would lead me into writing about my characters again. I probably won’t use much from that writing session, but the point is to grease the wheels, to get the fingers flying across the keys again, and to get your brain back into that world and thinking about those characters again.
  3. Do something completely different
    Occasionally it makes sense to put down the pen or walk away from the keyboard altogether for a short time. Try painting, or take a long walk. Give your brain time to be creative in a different way so that whatever problem you’re working through in the manuscript has time to marinate. You’ll come back to the page with a better perspective and more ideas.
No matter what you have to remember to do what works for you. And when it stops working, try something different. Writer’s block is not a “forever disease.” So give yourself time and space to work out the puzzle that has presented itself. You’ll be pleased with the results when you finally get back to it.
Utopiacon Writing Conference
My favorite conference to date

I’m gonna start this week with a fun post. Writing conferences may not directly relate to the nuts and bolts of your writing practice, although frankly they should!

If you’ve been toying with the idea but you’ve never actually made the leap to attend a writing conference, I want to give you seven reasons why you should seriously stop stalling and attend a writing conference.

Seven reasons you should attend a writing conference

  1. The People
    Seriously. The people are the best thing about a writing conference. We writers can tend to get isolated. Writing is a solitary practice and it can leave you feeling cut off from the rest of the world. A good writing conference will reconnect you with all the other wonderful, weird people like you! Trust me on this.
  2. The Confidence Boost
    Part of connecting with other writers at conferences is that you’ll recognize that there are plenty of other people who are struggling with the same problems that you are. Others have actually found a way to beat those problems! And they’re there to cheer you on and help you get the most out of your writing. You’ll leave feeling much better about yourself.
  3. The Ideas!
    Oh, the ideas! What happens when you put a bunch of creative people in a room together? The creative sparks do fly. Just five minutes brainstorming with other writers and you’ll come away with more story or post ideas than you could ever have time to write.
  4. The People
    Did I mention the people? Because… connections! You’ll expand your platform and your professional network like crazy if you take the time to talk to people, develop relationships with them, and geek out over the same things. Totally worth it.
  5. The Experience
    Depending on the type of conference you attend, the panels and/or critique sessions will really boost your knowledge and experience in the publishing world. And let’s face it, that plus your professional network are the two most important and valuable things you’ll get out of attending a writing conference.
  6. The Motivation
    Not to mention the amount of ass kicking you’ll get when it comes to completing, submitting, and publishing your writing. If you have confidence issues (no one will like my writing) or procrastination issues (I’ll finish that WIP later) you’re bound to find a group of writing friends at a conference who are willing to push you to get your writing out into the world.
  7. The People
    Seriously, the people you meet at writing conferences are amazing. If you take the time to research the events and find your perfect conference you will most certainly find your tribe, those particularly weird and unique writers who geek out over the same awesome stuff you love and who will be your cheerleaders for life
All of these reasons add up to why your writing practice can only benefit from attending a writing conference.
We’ll talk about the types of writing conferences in another post (Utopia Con is my favorite), but just know that there are plenty of options out there, so you’re bound to find one that fits your particular personality, writing needs, and genre preference.
Sign up for my email list to keep up with the conferences I’ll be attending next year! Maybe we’ll meet face to face at one of them!
star wars crawl prologue

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away… you know the line. But let’s all admit it. We’ve read our share of bad prologues. Especially in sci-fi and fantasy, prologues get abused — a lot. Show of hands: How many of you skip prologues without actually reading them? I thought so.

And it seems the publishing industry is over prologues. Most agents and editors nowadays will tell you to cut that prologue right out of your WIP. Or worse, they won’t even look at a manuscript if it has a prologue.

Still, just because prologues get abused and overused so much, doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Before I get to defending them, though, let’s go over a couple of things a prologue is NOT.

A prologue is not…

  • a place to store irrelevant back story and force it on your readers.
  • a scene that happens in the same time/place as your story (usually)
  • written from the main POV of your story (also, usually)
In most cases, novels don’t need prologues. The information they contain can usually be dispersed throughout the first chapter without breaking the flow of the narrative.
But occasionally prologues are the perfect place to showcase a piece of necessary information, or a voice that would otherwise not be included. The prologue to Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, for example, gives us a wider, more omniscient view of the character Kote. Without spilling all the beans at once Rothfuss sets the tone for the novel and for how we should view his main character, a detail that is very important to the telling of the story.
Star Wars is the perfect example of a prologue being put to good use. At the time that the movies released, science fiction was a relatively unfamiliar genre for the general public. The prologue, therefore, was crucial in setting the overall tone, outlining the basic rules of the universe, and orienting people with the main conflicts that the characters will face.
When well done, a prologue draws us into the story. It cracks the lid on all the juicy awesomeness that’s yet to come, calls to our curiosity, and whets our appetites for adventure.

Figuring out where to start your novel can be difficult. Where your readers enter the story, what they see, who they meet, will color the way they view the rest of the novel. The first few pages are where the reader gets their footing and learns just what the story is all about, where it’s going to take them, whether or not they should trust the voice that is taking them through this foreign story land.

Sometimes, when you’re not sure just how you should start your novel, it can seem like a good idea to start with a dream or a flashback, your character remembering something that happened before the reader came along, or something that never happened at all. There are 3 reasons not to do this.

  1. The Confusion Factor
    In the first five pages of the novel, you should be setting up your reader’s expectations of the character and world that they’re going to be sharing with you for the next 200 pages. If you then suddenly shout “just kidding!” and change everything that they know or thought the novel was going to be about, you risk at worst losing their interest, and at least confusing them.
  2. It’s been done (and done and done and done)
    You want your story to stand out in your reader’s mind. You want to grab people’s attention and hold it. If you resort to this trick that everyone else has tried, how well are people going to remember your book in the midst of all the others? Be worth remembering. It may take a little more work, but it’s worth it!
  3. If it’s a flashback, why didn’t you just start there in the first place?
    If you absolutely have to start us in the “past” and then jump forward, ask yourself why? Why didn’t you just start us there in the first place? For a flashback to work at the very beginning of a novel, the event you’re taking us back to must be pretty earth-shattering for your character, but then not matter at all until the current time. The fall of Voldemort and Harry’s arrival at the Dursleys’ home were both HUGE to the plot of Harry Potter. So J.K. Rowling, instead of having a character remember those moments later, plunked the reader down right there in the moment. She started with a deeply significant event and showed it to her readers, and by doing so, those events had more impact.
Finally, you can choose to do a flashback or a dream at the beginning. If it’s right for your book, it’s right for your book. But you’ve gotta wow us with it. Make it a flashback or dream to remember!

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably creative. You’re probably a writer with an overactive imagination. That’s great! You’re my favorite type of person. That deep and beautiful imagination is what drives you to do what you do, to write and create worlds for you and your readers to get lost in.

So what do you do when it comes time to share that world with others, when it’s time to tell the tale that’s been growing inside your fertile mind? People who have the widest imaginations have the hardest time getting to the heart of their story. What details do you include? How much history to you reveal? After all, you’ve worked so hard to cultivate your characters, who they are, how they and their world came to be. Surely your readers are interested in the details and the back story as much as you are.

And you’re right–up to a point. I love discovering the depth of detail and planning that an author has gone through to create the character that I am following and the world that character lives in. The problem arises when I get socked with that back story before I’m ready to appreciate it, before it matters to the story at hand.

If you throw too much detail at your reader too soon, they’re not going to know what to do with it. At the beginning of a story, your reader is busy figuring out how things work, who the characters are, what they want most, and what’s standing in the way. They’re not gonna want to know WHY things work that way… not yet… or the deep personal histories of the characters yet… they don’t know to who they’re supposed to care about yet!

You’ll have the same problem if you throw in too much detail at the end, too. Your reader will likely skim right over back story revealed too close to the ending, in order to get to the “important part” of the story.

So how do you  know what back story to include and where? Here are four questions you can ask when you feel the urge to type out your character’s family tree:

  1. Is this bit of back story relevant to what’s going on RIGHT NOW in the story? (follow-up question: Will your reader understand that it is relevant right now?)
  2. Does the back story you’re including move the story forward? 
  3. Does it reveal something important about character motivation?
  4. Will your reader be confused about what’s going on without this back story?
If the answers all of these questions are yes, include your back story! If any of these answers are no, you might want to reconsider revealing that back story now.
The last thing you want is for your reader to skim over any part of your tale. It’s better to reveal back story on a need-to-know basis rather than dumping it all on your reader when they’re not ready for it. The right bit of information presented at the right moment will hook your readers and then they won’t be able to get enough!

There are some places where pop-culture references really rock (take last Friday’s blog post, for example). When you’re writing a blog post or talking with your friends and looking for a good example to illustrate a point about storytelling, look no further than Hulu or Netflix or (less and less) cable TV. Pop culture references can be relate-able and can relevantly illustrate your point to your target audience.

When it comes to your novel, though, there are three good reasons to avoid pop-culture references.

  1. It dates you–quickly. (Also a problem for people using technology references in novels)
    As you’re probably well aware, in this age of the Internet, trends are like meteors flashing brightly on their way through the earth’s atmosphere. They last just a moment. If you want your novel to endure, to really feel timeless, don’t have your characters sitting down to season four of The Sopranos (or worse, Magnum PI!). Unless your story is clearly supposed to be rooted in that time period, you’re limiting yourself.
  2. Not everyone will get it.
    The last thing you want to do is alienate your readers. If you spend time making references (no matter how witty) to a show or meme or trend that your readers haven’t seen or heard of (or that they’ve already forgotten about!), you’re going to lose those readers, confuse them, or cause them to come out of the story in order to figure out what you’re talking about. That’s the last thing you want! Do whatever you can to keep your readers connected to the characters, invested in the story, and turning the pages.
  3. It’s unoriginal.
    Seriously. It’s your world, even if you’ve set the story on modern-day Earth. Take a few minutes to imagine your own version of the soda, tennis shoes, or TV show that your characters are referring to! Own your world and show off that brilliant imaginative mind. (Bonus; No one else will have the same reference in their novel, so yours will stand out!)
So next time you’re tempted to slip in a witty line about Downton Abbey or New Coke, stop! And use your imagination to create references that are an organic part of your own world, a world your readers will love and won’t want to leave.