Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Voice and Writing Every Day


Writers not only hear them, they're supposed to have one.

"What's voice?" the new writer asks. "How do I develop one?"

"I know it when I see it," answers the agent/editor/other publishing professional. Or they may try to help by recommending books they think have a great voice.

So the new writer absorbs the voice, tries to write something similar, is told the piece has no voice, and comes away feeling increasingly frustrated.

Artists, with their tracing paper, learn by copying. Why can't we? After all, isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Ah, but there's the problem: imitation.

Just like the high schools that are full of young people trying to find themselves by behaving exactly like all the other young people trying to find themselves, you won't find what's authentically you in someone else.

Writing is about self-expression. Voice is about the self that is expressed.

The reason we have trouble with voice is that we've absorbed so many influences and have built up so many assumptions about the nature of writing that we've lost touch with our own unique modes of expression.

Erin Reel, in a guest post on agent Rachelle Gardner's Rants & Ramblings blog, titled "Finding Your Authentic Voice," says:
"Don't write in a language that's not your own. Forget about following a genre trend just to get published. Tell a good story—one that a large audience will want to read and can identify with."
Her tips for finding your voice include read, practice, get clear about the story you want to tell, and make it your own. ("Make your story authentically yours by writing many rough drafts through which your voice will eventually surface.")

Writing every day will help you get past all the influences and assumptions you've internalized. I credit the journal I kept for several years for much of my own development.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing Intentionally: On the Advice to, "Kill Your Darlings"

There's a set of actors, usually comedians, who can do remarkable work if kept tightly under control but quickly become tedious if left to their own devices. Robin Williams and Jim Carey are two example that come immediately to mind. I'm sure you can think of others.

I think of such talents when I hear the oft repeated writing advice that we must, "kill our darlings."

Where did that quasi-homicidal advice come from? According to Kill Your Darlings ATL (a community for writers):
William Faulkner is rumored to have coined the literary expression “kill your darlings,” but the expression actually comes from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ...

When describing “style” in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,” Couch argues that “style” is something which “is not—can never be—extraneous ornament.” In an effort to stay on course, he created a practical rule to follow:
‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
“Murder your darlings” has since become “kill your darlings” as attributed to William Faulkner whose famously quoted to have said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” [See "The Meaning of the Literary Expression 'Kill Your Darlings'"]
While I understood and agreed with the sense of the advice, I couldn't help hearing its pithy formulation as, "you should delete the parts you like best." That implies you can only write things you don't like, which clearly goes too far.

A better way to say it would be, "if it's too precious to go, it probably should go."

But the best way to say it is that nothing in the story is nonnegotiable. Everything is open to scrutiny. If a word, phrase, passage, scene, or character doesn't contribute to the story, it should go. The overall balance of the story is more important than any individual element.

Which brings us back to the comedians. I realized that I find them tedious when they eclipse the story and reduce it to an excuse for a performance. But when a good director keeps them under control and allows them free reign only when it serves the story, the result can be delightful. Similarly, you don't have to kill your darlings when they're serving the story. If they call attention to themselves, "git the rope!"

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Writing Intentionally: "Revise Without Compromise"

Jael McHenry, writing on Writer Unboxed, address the question of whether revisions requested by agents and editors make the books more or less yours. She points out the difference between the two senses of the world, "compromise:" 1) to work together, and 2) to weaken the integrity of, and argues that working through revisions with agents and editors is all about compromise in the first sense and should never be about compromise in the second. It's a beautiful observation, marred only by my jealousy for not thinking of it first.

There's an important difference between trying to please people and finding ways to say what you're trying to say so that it's accessible to more people.

Some people think that as the source of expression, the artist is the sole guardian of the vision and any request for changes from another party will compromise that vision. Those people forget that writing for readers is a classic example of the old cliché about taking two to tango: you don't have "writing" unless the reader gets something they value out of your words.

But the notion of author as the source of pure expression is more deeply flawed. The words on the page are a lossy encoding of the author's ideas, so there's no such thing as a pure expression. Put in more contemporary terms, a writer is actually coding software that will run on non-deterministic wetware (i.e., brains). Real software developers have no qualms about debugging their code until it runs correctly. Why should authors complain when revision is essentially the same process.

Notice the key qualifier in the statement about debugging? Software developers strive to produce code that runs correctly. Revisions that clear away confusion and help the reader to better understand and appreciate the story are equivalent to debugging the code.

But here's where you, the author, need editorial help: because you know what you meant when you wrote it, it's hard to see where others might misinterpret what you wrote. That's why revisions are all about compromise, in the first sense. You want to work together to make it better.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Story Bibles

One of the most important enablers for intentional writing is a system to help you keep track of story details. Having someone notice that the hero's hair color changes halfway through the book (without a trip to a stylist) is the literary equivalent of smiling with spinach on your teeth.

A family Bible, from Wikipedia
The best answer I've found is to turn to the bible. (A story bible, not The Bible.) A story bible and a high-level outline give me all the safety net I need to write confidently.

When writers talk about story bibles, they mean a place to collect all the information that pertains to the story. The notion comes (I believe) from episodic television where the producers had a document describing the situation and all the characters. They would give it to the writers brought on to pen different episodes so that the scripts they produced had a degree of consistency (e.g., you wouldn't want a character who is normally shy and retiring leap out to save the day in one episode and then go back to hiding under the table in the next).

When software architects design commercial data systems, they are careful to create a single source of truth. A story bible is really nothing more or less than this. It can be physical, like a folder or a binder (bound books are probably not suitable because you'll want to add, remove, and arrange your material), or virtual (anything from a text file to a database, depending on your ambition). All that matters is that it's the one place where you can keep everything related to your story.

Don't let the word, "bible," frighten you with visions of formalities with which you must comply. You'll probably come across suggestions that you subdivide your bible into sections on characters, settings, backstory, and so on. Those are reasonable but not the only ways to organize your material. You could also organize your story bible like an encyclopedia, with entries for each significant entity in your story. All that matters is that you have a way to organize your material so that 1) you can easily find it again, and 2) you know where to add new material.

Remember, this is your resource, so the only thing that really matters is to find something that works for you.

And, in the spirit of our recent discussion about writers who over-plan, don't let the bible become something that takes so much time to maintain that you have no time left to write the story. Promise yourself that the bible will forever be a private document, the information equivalent of what you look like when you get out of bed in the morning, so you're not tempted to try to make it presentable.

The good folks at The Write Thing have a thorough discussion of what you might want in a writing bible if you'd like more.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Independence for Writers

Independence is a funny thing: with tomorrow's celebration of the independence of the United States from Great Britain we will hear a lot about freedom but not so much about responsibility.

The standard narrative often runs along the lines of, "Things were difficult in 1776 but the founding fathers were men of vision and courage—and look where we are today." We conveniently gloss over the first 100 years of the country's history when its viability and sometimes its continuing existence were more or less in doubt.

Independence is a consistently harder road than dependence: like investments, greater rewards are always accompanied by greater risks.

During the last five years we've heard various proclamations that writers can now stand independent of publishers. The standard narrative about independent publishing is similar to the narrative about American independence: heavy on the new-found freedoms authors enjoy but light on the new responsibilities they must shoulder.

My aim in sharing these observations is not to argue that either the old or new ways are better, but to point out the deeper challenge of taking responsibility. The principle of taking responsibility should come as no surprise to writers: offering a book to readers under your name means you've taken the responsibility to provide intelligible, error–free, and grammatically–correct problems that tells a coherent story that will entertain and/or inform. One of the comforts in the old way of publishing was there were enough people involved that if you needed to apportion blame you could exempt yourself—the publisher chose a bad cover, the sales force to promote the book properly, or some event distracted the public, none of which was your fault. The inescapable truth of independent publishing is that, rise or fall, the book's fate is no one's fault but your own.

Some of you may think taking full responsibility for your book sounds harsh. There is nothing wrong with finding partners for your publishing project, but even there you are still responsible for making sure they are the right partners. While we might throw around dichotomies like right and wrong or easy and difficult, taking responsibility is ultimately about maturity—something to think about tomorrow, both as a writer and as a citizen.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /