Tone Books

Reading is a crucial part of writing.  Actually writing is even more crucial, but reading is still a big part.  I like to stress how important reading is, but do you understand?  Do you?  Do you really?

Well... okay, then.  But today I'm going to take reading into a different place.  It's not just reading to recharge, or reading for inspiration, or reading for the sake of reading.  It's reading for tone.

Voice is one thing, which happens to be unique to each writer and very hard to find.  The tone is something different.  It's not as unique, but can be shared and borrowed by many different writers without any of them appearing derivative or boring.  Think about it.  Everyone you meet has a different voice, but through that voice they can speak in many different tones.  Those tones are the same tones you might use yourself.  The same goes for writing.  You have a voice that marks the story as yours, but the tone can change and resemble that of other books.

So what's the tone of your story?  Is it sad?  Is it happy?  Those are the obvious too, but there are many others.  You could write a social commentary either angrily or jokingly.  An epic fantasy could be grand and elevated, or it could be told simply and to-the-point.  The voice never changes, but although some writers have certain tones they like to employ a lot, the tone will often change from book to book.

But you know this.  You don't need me to tell it to you.  And I'm not really interested in explaining that right now— I want to get to the point.  The point is this: reading books affects your tone.

About a month ago, I was reading some Thomas Wolfe, because I wanted to catch up with what my generation had written.  (It was written before I got frozen, but I was more interested in joining the army than reading back then.)  At the same time, I was trying to write a fun novel about a young girl solving magical crimes.  No offense to Mr. Wolfe, but fun and magical does not mix with Southern American coming-of-age.  Not only were the stories different, but the tone I wanted was drastically different from the tone Wolfe used.

Was that a problem?  Well, yes.  I started unwittingly copying Wolfe's writing.  It wasn't a very good copy, because I'm certainly not Thomas Wolfe, but it was enough that my story didn't sound like the fun romp it was meant to be.  Funny thing, then: the moment I put down Wolfe and started reading the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer, stuff started working again.  My tone changed to become much more fun.  Based on the book I was reading, my tone changed.

Perhaps this is because I'm not experienced enough as a writer.  Perhaps Neil Gaiman can read comic books all day and still knock out beautiful prose.  But for me, whatever I'm reading affects the tone of what I'm writing.  I don't copy the author's style, nor do I copy the story itself, but the tone certainly affects it.

Since I realized that, I've changed the type of stories I experience.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is both Joss Whedon and the style that I want, so despite not being a book, it works well.  (Joss Whedon is amazing.  I'd love to be in a movie of his.)  Ally Carter, Maggie Stiefvater, and definitely Nancy Springer have all helped in the past month to give my story the tone I want.  For the most part, it's worked.  I haven't had a Thomas Wolfe day since.

So try it out.  Find the tone you want, and before you start writing, read a little from a book of similar tone.  Mary Robinette Kowal does this with Jane Austen to put the regency style into her magical romances.  Judging from those books, I'd say she's been successful.

Take it for a spin.  Read epic fantasy as you write epic fantasy.  Read contemporary as you write contemporary.  And if you, like me, are trying to write in the head of a teenage girl from the standpoint of a guy born in the '20s, you might want to read a little in that area.

On the other hand, there are those that can't read similar books to their works in progress or they'll start copying plot points and characters.  Don't do that, please, but knowing how this affects you is always difficult.  Try this out, but if it doesn't work, don't push it.  Everyone has a unique system.

Have fun!  Write words.  See you later.

~Captain America

The Character's Voice

Greetings, writers of lovely words. Today I, Thor, have a confession to make. It is that I have a weakness. Yes, even gods are not infallible, as much as Loki pretends to be.

Here is my confession: voice is one of the most difficult challenges I have faced thus far as a writer.

First, know that narrative voice is its own beast altogether and much more ethereal and undefinable than what I wish to speak of today. In this post I will list a number of my struggles -- all of which I have seen other writers make as well -- and the good advice that has helped me move past them. Before you are strategies to help make your characters' voices distinct and memorable.

Let us begin.

1. Focus on words, not letters.

Many beginning writers tend to lean heavily on accents to distinguish characters in their novels. This is most definitely a tool you can use, but more often than not it becomes burdensome for the reader. Apostrophes, missing letters, misspelled words; these can bog a story down more than livening it up.

Instead, focus on the words your character speaks. Focus on the order in which they speak them. Sometimes simply rearranging their sentence structure can have a dramatic effect on the way their voice sounds to the reader.

2. Less is More

Another mistake I see often is made in writing extremely smart characters. One might assume that a brilliant person will use many large and complex words when they speak. However, the contrary is often true. A highly intelligent person is usually very gifted at explaining things in their simplest terms, concisely and succinctly.

This is not to say they won't use unfamiliar terminology when necessary, they simply know the proper time and place. Take Dr. Banner and Mr. Stark for example. If only the two of them are speaking, they can use highly technological jargon and know they will be understood. But in the presence of others they (usually Dr. Banner) will often take the time to simplify things for the rest of us.

3. Research

There are many films and books available that are fantastic examples of character voice. One of my personal favorites (aside from our film, The Avengers, of course) is Disney's Wreck-it Ralph. If you have not had the pleasure of seeing it, I suggest you change that. Not only is Ralph a large and mighty man like myself, but I enjoy watching this film because of the character voices.

If you were to take almost any line from that movie and say it out of context, those who know the characters would still be able to easily identify whose line it is. When you can do that, you know your voices are distinctive. Study how others do it, and soon you'll be able to do it yourself.

4. Know Your Characters

Beyond anything else you hear today, this is the most important: KNOW your characters. I don't mean their favorite color or perfect date (though those would be good in certain circumstances). I mean you should know what they would notice first upon entering a room, and why that's what they notice. You should know the kinds of metaphors/comparisons they would instinctively make. You should know what their biggest weakness is; their greatest desire.

All of these things will inform the way your character speaks and thinks. If you are at all hesitant about whether you know your character, perhaps you should explore it more. Ask yourself who they are, and why they behave and believe the way they do.

I hope this is of help to you. These simple bits of advice have certainly assisted me over the years.

May the words flow for you,


Writing a Young Adult Voice When You're Not Such a Young Adult Yourself

Some of us Avengers are no spring chickens. The Captain, after all, is a thawed-out popsicle from the mid-20th century. I can't calculate how old Thor might be, gods being famously immortal. And I, Dr. Bruce Banner, am no "young adult" unless you compare me to those two.

Being a little long in the tooth, so to speak, can make writing for young readers a little daunting. After all, Holden Caulfield might be a fictional one, but like him, most real life adolescents hate what he called "phonies" - and they can smell one at twenty paces. Trying to be cool, act cool, or sound cool around an adolescent is like putting your ego in a Cuisinart and hitting the "puree"button.

Wait - do kids even say "cool" anymore?

See what I mean?

So here a few things I've learned about crafting an authentic YA voice.

1. Listen Up
You want to know what young people sound like? Listen to them. I'm not saying that you should hang out at a mall in a trench coat with a small tape recorder. In fact, please don't. But when you're around young people, listen to the way they talk, and not just the words they use, though teen slang is fun (see below). Pay attention to the way they talk, the rhythms and cadences of different teen tribes. There's the sweet, slightly sad song of a somewhat insecure girl whose sentences rise up a few notes at the end: "So I'll wear a skirt to school tomorrow if you do? But, um, only if you do, okay?" Or the somewhat flattened out buzztone of a neohippie: "Dude. You're, like . . . crushing it." Just be careful not to create stereotypes or cartoon characters. Nothing will mark you as a phony faster.

2. Teenspeak: Keep it Real (as the kids used to say) But Don't Overdo It

You need your young adult voices to sound like young adults, not like parodies of young adults. In other words, you may have learned a lot of really nifty teen slang by sitting near the kids' table at the holidays or hanging out on Twitter chats or trawling, but you don't want to overdo it or you sound less like an actual adolescent and more like you're trying to sound like an adolescent. You want to create a character who sounds like an actual teenaged human being, not some old fart's caricature of an actual teenaged human being. So don't throw in a lot of lines like

"OMG, that Kendall Jenner is so bae! Her eyebrow game is so strong, I mean, like her eyebrows are on fleek."

You're going to alienate your audience and look pretty foolish.

3.  Tempus Fugit
Time flies. And language evolves. (Listen, kids, in my day we spelled "any more" as two words!) Slang changes seemingly overnight while publishing notoriously moves at a snail's pace, so the ultra current hip word you use in your draft may sound hopelessly dated when the book comes out.

Yesterday I heard a kid refer to something he liked as "super clutch" (as in, "If someone developed an antidote to gamma radiation that turns you into a big green rage monster that would be super clutch.") My first thought was, "I have to work that into a conversation in my work in progress." But then I reconsidered, realizing that by the time I finish my WIP, query it, get it accepted, edited, revised, edited, revised, and finally published, anyone still saying "super clutch" will be marked as a caveman so out of touch he should be institutionalized for the community's safety. While you may fall in love with a slang word - and word love is what drives a lot of us to writing - be aware that sometimes, for future authenticity's sake, you just don't go there. (Do kids still say that? "Don't go there"? Yeah, I didn't think so. Which proves my point nicely.)

In short, try to capture how young people really talk, just as you would try to capture how anyone really talks; enjoy the slang but don't overuse it; and don't be a phony.

Until next month - happy writing!

Short Month, Big Topic-- February Wrap-Up

For some reason, it felt like this month was shorter than the others.

Okay, it was.  It's February.  But that doesn't mean anything to your friendly neighborhood writing blog.  It was a small month, but it was a packed month, and while we didn't get to do everything we wanted to, we still accomplished a great deal.  The topic of the month, you'll remember, was structure.  It's a topic I enjoy, and I hope you gained a lot from it.  If you didn't, no worries-- you've got a whole wrap-up post before we move on.

The month begins with Black Widow.  The Hero's Journey monomyth is a creation of Joseph Campbell's, based on much research in legend and fable.  It boils down basically every tale ever into a standard arc.  It isn't meant to be a checklist for storytelling, but it's a nice point of interest and gives inspiration at times.

Hey, then there's me.  I posted about what I called genre-structures-- genres that are so iconic and individual that they demand their own structure, just to keep things tidy.  I only talked about the first two I could think of (and I left out a bunch of them), but I managed to go over heists and thrillers, which have become two of my favorite types of stories.

Thor time!  The god of thunder aptly posted about the most famous kind of structure (to my knowledge, at least): the story of three acts.  I had to do a quick movie marathon to figure out how Harry Potter worked with it (not that quick, actually-- it's takes like twenty hours to get through all those movies, not to mention the books).  However, I've seen the three act structure work before, and I can attest to its effect.  It's simple, easy to remember, and packs a huge punch.  Much like Thor himself.

Coulson: the man, the agent, the... romantic?  I guess so.  He walks us through romantic structure in a way that, I confess, I was unable to do in my genre-structure post.  (I have less experience than Coulson in the game of love, frankly; I didn't want to chance it.)  It's clear and concise in a way that romance usually isn't-- well worth the read.

Hey, deja vu-- that's me again.  I'm back to talk about how to apply all this wanton knowledge.  It's like a lot of other stuff: you learn a lot at once, and it takes a while for everything to click in.  Just be patient and you'll get it.  Structure is a really cool idea when you finally figure it out, but until then, you can only wait.  I'm still working on applying all these things to my writing, so I'll wait with you.

Did we expect to hit more?  Well, yes, we did.  We meant to host another Twitter chat like last month's, about structure this time, with the same #YAvengers tag.  But life hit all of us hard.  I had a lot of travel time to and from missions (great for post-writing and -scheduling, but terrible for a live chat), Stark had some injuries flare up (honestly, what he manages to live through astounds me-- go admire his alter ego now), and between assignments, tests, and [classified], everyone else was tied up.  We wish it weren't so-- we wish this job counted as extra credit with Fury and the other big boys-- but we do our best with what we've got.  It's only thanks to you, our brilliant and wonderful readers, that we get anywhere.  So thank you.  You are the most creative people we know.

We look forward to sharing a new (hopefully more productive) month with you!  We're talking about voice, mood, and style next month.  It's a huge, ambiguous topic, but we've got a lot of great ideas so far that we're eager to share.  It's going to be amazing.  So live, create, and write.  We'll see you soon.


P.S. If you're looking for more on structure, the Writing Excuses podcast is using March as their structure month.  (Copycats.)  Check out their latest episode, as well as weekly episodes all about that topic.  It's a great resource.