Thursday, April 26, 2012

Voice, Tone, Style? Define That!

I'm more abstract than concrete; more intuitive than sensory. So, much of the time, I'm content to use words that I understand both abstractly and intuitively, in context rather than by dictionary definition. Sometimes, though, I should be bothered by the fact that this comes uncomfortably close to a charge that's been leveled at my temperament type in general: "Tends to believe 'I know all about that,' but when pinned down to explain and define terms, proves to not know much at all."

So what is this thing called VOICE? It's been discussed in a myriad of places, and we may not need another, but I feel the need/desire to state in a fairly concise manner what I believe it means for me and my writing, rather than rely on others' definitions or be all head-in-the-clouds imprecise about it. So, here follows my attempt at a definition:

VOICE (in writing): The intelligent designer, authority, or god behind the book, who speaks it into being and decides what it shall be made of. The essence and expression of one's "authorness" in the writing of it. In first-person, this voice is bestowed on and channeled through the narrator. In third person, it's expressed through the author's narrative persona.

What's TONE, then? My definition: The conveyance of an overall mood or emotion that pervades a book or scene, such as foreboding, humor, sarcasm, warmheartedness, and so forth.

STYLE seems broader, and I've had to give this a fair amount of thought, because I realize that the way I've defined VOICE makes it the top authority in our writing (and conflicts somewhat with other things I've thought/written about voice), yet it's a new-ish idea for me to state that style does not encompass voice. If voice is the authority, then it seems it would have to be voice that determines style.

STYLE: The voice's expression of the prose itself, in sentence structure, meter, word choice, punctuation, and connectivity between one idea and the next (for example, a style could be smooth and fast-paced if that connectivity is strong and direct, or convoluted and more leisurely if the author takes the scenic route).

What do you think? And how important is it that we define these terms?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

She Gave In? I'd've Punched Him! Or, Believable Emotions in Fiction

A month or so ago, I posted about some ways to handle implausible story elements so that readers might find them believable. Some of the good discussion that followed kept my thoughts on this issue going. Specifically, my thoughts turned from primarily plot elements more to emotional elements. The emotional arc of the main character is so important, because whether or not readers resonate with it has everything to do with how involved they can become in the story. Yet I've read many stories in which I find myself rooting for the MC to react or respond differently than she has chosen (or than the author has written her).

I've discovered that, in general, I am more willing to follow unbelievable (to me) emotions than events. Of course, sometimes emotions and events overlap a great deal. For example, I'll never forget the episode of Little House on the Prairie in which Mary Ingalls does not take her baby with her when she and her friend (whose name I do forget) evacuate children from a fire, instead leaving it to her friend to escape with her baby. I am so not the type to get up and scream at the TV set, but I'm pretty sure that time I did. As a young mother myself, I knew with every fiber of my being that Mary would have and should have simply taken her baby from the other woman's arms and then rounded up the rest of the kids. The only reason she didn't was because the plot called for the baby and the other woman to perish in the fire. The implausible action, supposedly fueled by the off-kilter emotion, spoiled the episode for me.

But plenty of times, I've read books in which I part company with the MC due strictly to her emotion in a certain scene: I buy what's happening, but I would not respond/react the same way at all. I realize that has seldom been a deal-breaker for me in the same way that implausible actions can be. My response to unbelievable emotion tends to fall into one of these categories:
  • I "should" feel more like the MC does instead of the way I actually do feel. Now isn't that interesting? And there may well be some truth to this, especially when the MC is taking the high road and I'd much prefer to tell somebody where to get off.  In other words, when the MC is less angry than I.
  • Precisely because of the above, I don't give up on the story because it has aroused so much emotion. Hey, I'm even more worked up than the MC is!
  • I've parted company with the MC only in that scene, not for the whole book, so I'm still invested.
  • I figure the MC and I are different people, and I signed on to read this book so that I may walk in her experience for a time. If the MC comes alive, which she should, why would I agree with her every step of the way?
What do you think? Do you struggle more with implausibilities in the action plot than the emotional plot, or vice-versa? Have you figured out why? Has any of it come as a surprise to you?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Critiquing Can be Weird

First of all, critiquing can be valuable! In fact, not "can be," but is. I belong to a face-to-face critique group that's been meeting for at least 16 years, maybe longer; I'm not quite sure. And I've been critiqued in other situations: conferences, one-time manuscript exchanges, even in a second crit group (online) for a short time. Besides critiquing for my long-time partners, I do a whale of a lot of critiquing as an ICL instructor, I've served on critique faculties for conferences, and I even run a fairly frequent critique contest on this blog. But, sometimes, critiquing can be weird.

For one thing, it's so subjective. One person's "Ugh" is another person's "Couldn't put it down till 4am." A personal rule of thumb I've come up with is this: If TWO people say something is wrong at a certain spot, something is wrong at that spot. They may or may not agree on how to fix it, and you may or may not take either or both suggestions. But you have to find a way to answer the objection.

For another thing, it's the critiques that make you feel worst at the time you receive them that often turn out to be the most helpful. I've found that it's sometimes best to put the raw, torn-to-shreds thing to bed for three days or so while you kvetch, and then take it out and look at it. By then, I usually "know that I know that I know" which parts really do need to be overhauled, and which advice I'm going to decline and why. And specific ideas for solving the problems are usually beginning to form.

Then there's the irony that a critique group may not always help all that much. Sometimes, frankly, if all the members are newbies they are the blind leading the blind, and I know some agents advise their clients to get out of critique groups that are "holding them back." It's often best to join a group that has a mix of newer and more seasoned writers, and/or to be sure the people in the group are seriously working to improve craft, have studied and written long enough to have gained at least basic knowledge, read widely, and know something about the field in which you write.

Here's one more thing I find a tad strange: critiquing is the process of identifying what is and isn't working in a piece of writing, and there is "always" something that can be improved. Except ---certainly there are times when writing that is actually ready to be marketed is submitted for critique. We, as critiquers, feel duty-bound to find something "wrong," but there have to be times that nothing is wrong, because the piece is in fact ready to send out. We submit our work knowing that an agent or editor will have revision notes for us, but the work is still the best we can make it at the moment, or we wouldn't send it out. Yet if we were to take that ready-to-go work to a critique group, they'd be "supposed" to find something wrong with it.

Maybe I'm just getting silly here, or maybe I'm easily tied in knots. :) How have you found critiquing either frustrating, helpful, or both?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

April Book Pick -- May B, by Caroline Starr Rose

May is being sent to help out on a neighbor's Kansas homestead, because the neighbor's new wife just isn't adjusting to life in a soddy on the prairie. It's only till Christmas, her parents assure her, but that doesn't help much. She knows that if she spends this time at the Oblingers', her parents will be paid some money plus not have to feed her. How can they pass up this chance? And they can't send her brother Hiram because "boys are important." She is not.

May finds Mrs. Oblinger not at all amenable to learning how to manage, so she must indeed do all the work around the tiny soddy. Not only that, but she now has no time to pursue her education, and she wants nothing more than to obtain her teaching licence when she is fifteen or sixteen. That is, if she can overcome her reading difficulty, which we would identify today as dyslexia. And that seems impossible, now that nice Miss Sanders has left the school to be replaced by a teacher who considers May stupid.

Then, the worst happens: Mrs. Oblinger leaves, her husband goes after her, and neither ever returns. Abandoned an unimaginably long fifteen miles from home with winter coming on, May must fight to survive on her own in the soddy and eventually find her way home.

May B is a beautifully written verse novel; it allows the reader to savor the language yet enjoy a fast pace. Say what they will about historical fiction not selling -- I'll gravitate to it again and again, and I know I've got company. Also, as an aside, this book was especially interesting to me because in my historical novel The Journey of Emilie, Emilie and her brother must spend several days on their own in a log cabin during a Wisconsin blizzard. Definitely recommended.