Sunday, May 13

Real Life Diagnostics: New and Lost: Tips on Fixing Immature, Voiceless Writing

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s question:
This is my very first WIP. I understand I have a long way to go before I find my voice, but something feels "off" whenever I read my own work. I think my writing is just simply "immature" for lack of a better word to describe it. Are there any specific tips you can offer that can target "immature/voiceless writing?"

Market/Genre: Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Kline dismounted and swaggered to the unlucky trio. “Look at this one’s bravado. Congratulations, you’ve managed to piss me off twice in one week without dying. Yet. Surrender, and you may live to tell the tale.”

The men horsemen tightened the circle. Swords and spears anxious to lunge forth. Worst of all, Maya couldn’t think of a plan, she was never the one running before. She couldn’t believe she might die now. Sharp points poked her shoulder, and Ana yelped in fright. But Leo was waiting, calculating. Hopefully, it wouldn’t get them killed.

“I have orders to bring the apprentice alive, but not you…” something caught Kline’s attention. “Do I know you?” He stepped closer, to examine Leo’s face.

Before his foot touched the ground, Leo shouted, “Now.” They dove to the ground. His skin beamed silver. He drew in his arms, then snapped them out, sending a ruinous ring of energy from his body. The current exploded over their heads, ripped through the rows of calvary encircling them and smashed the bark off trees, pelting everyone with a rain of splinters. The fearsome wave cleaved men and horses in two, and blasted many off their mounts. Kline ducked in time, but the blinding flash of energy left him dazed for a few seconds.

Enough time to run.

Snatching Leo’s and Ana’s arms, Maya bolted through a sea of writhing bodies. Maya realized her hearing was coming back when she noticed the wails of horses and men sounded in the night. But there were more to the dispatch. Despite Leo’s devastating strike, there must have been twenty, or fifty more men on foot and hoof. Ready to hunt. Ready to kill.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Kline dismounted and swaggered to the unlucky trio. [“Look at this one’s bravado. Congratulations, you’ve managed to piss me off twice in one week without dying. Yet. Surrender, and you may live to tell the tale.”] It might just be the way the text came in, but this dialog feels like it's being said in reference to Kline's swagger. If so, it would be on its own line. If not, whoever is the point of view (POV) character would see Kline swagger toward them, not "the trio."

The men horsemen tightened the circle. Swords and spears anxious to lunge forth. [Worst of all, Maya couldn’t think of a plan, she was never the one running before. She couldn’t believe she might die now.] The way this is phrased makes me think this is her POV. I'm in her head hearing her thoughts. [Sharp points poked her shoulder, and Ana yelped in fright.] But this feels like I'm in Ana's head, and if so, I'm head hopping to another POV character. But it's possible Maya gets poked at the same time she hears Ana yelp. If so, separate the actions so it's clear which event belongs to which character. [But Leo was waiting, calculating. Hopefully, it wouldn’t get them killed.] I don't know which girl thinks this.

“I have orders to bring the apprentice alive, but not you…” [something caught Kline’s attention. ] I'm in his head, which hops POV again “Do I know you?” He stepped closer, [to examine Leo’s face.] This tells motive, and it's something the POV character wouldn't know. They would only see Kline step forward, not know why.

[Before his foot touched the ground, Leo shouted, “Now.” ] telling here. This tells the reader something happens before it actually does, as if someone on the outside knows what's about to happen or has seen this all happen already They dove to the ground. His skin beamed silver. He drew in his arms, then snapped them out, sending a ruinous ring of energy from his body. The current exploded over their heads, ripped through the rows of calvary encircling them and smashed the bark off trees, pelting everyone with a rain of splinters. The fearsome wave cleaved men and horses in two, and blasted many off their mounts. Is this paragraph all Leo seeing this? Whose head am I in here?

[Kline ducked in time, but the blinding flash of energy left him dazed for a few seconds.] Telling here. An outsider who knows what's going on would see Kline duck and know he did it before the blast could hit him, but someone in the middle of this might not even see Kline duck. Or if they did, they'd see him duck and the magic pass over him, or not affect him. Whatever the outward signs of this would be. Unless he acted dazed, they wouldn't know it.

[Enough time to run.] Who thinks this?

Snatching Leo’s and Ana’s arms, Maya bolted through a sea of writhing bodies. [Maya realized her hearing was coming back when she noticed the wails of horses and men sounded in the night.] Telling here. It tells readers what happened and why instead of showing her unable to hear, then slowly being able to hear again and what she does hear. [ But there were more to the dispatch. Despite Leo’s devastating strike, there must have been twenty, or fifty more men on foot and hoof. Ready to hunt. Ready to kill.] Is this what Maya sees?

The question:
Are there any specific tips you can offer that can target "immature/voiceless writing?"

I'm always flattered (and impress by their courage) when first timers send me a page to diagnose. It takes a lot of guts to put your work out there, especially for new writers.

I don't think this is so much an issue of being voiceless as it is just being new to writing. There are things you haven't yet learned and that's making it tough to get the writing to sound the way you want it to. And those two things are issues pretty much every writer struggles to overcome.

Point of view (POV) and show don't tell.

Let's do POV first, as fixing that usually fixes the shown don't tell problem.

Right now, there's no POV character. The story hops from head to head and the reader doesn't know whose perspective this story is being told from. So they feel lost and confused. The story feels ungrounded because there's no one in the driver's seat so to speak.

To fix this, decide which of these three protagonists is the POV for each scene. Don't hop from head to head, but stick to one person and show the scene from their eyes. What do they see? What do they think and feel about what they're seeing? You do a good job with your internalization in some spots of this already:
The men horsemen tightened the circle. Swords and spears anxious to lunge forth. Worst of all, Maya couldn’t think of a plan, she was never the one running before. She couldn’t believe she might die now.
This sounds like Maya thinking, "worst of all..." I feel in her head here, which is good. You're starting to do this, so it shouldn't be hard to shift to doing this all the time. A tighter POV will make it even easier, because you'll know who is doing the looking and the thinking.

As for the telling, that happens when the author is explaining actions and motives and not dramatizing it for the reader. When this happens, it comes across like an outsider poking their head in and explaining what's going on. (like someone explaining the movie during the movie to someone who hasn't seen it yet) Since you're the author, you know what happens and why, but the characters don't. They can only know what they see and experience, so if someone acts, all they can see is the action, not the reason why. For example:
Kline ducked in time, but the blinding flash of energy left him dazed for a few seconds
If Maya is the POV, what would she see? A blast of energy, and Kline ducking. She'll have no idea if it's in time or not. She also won't know he was left dazed for a few seconds unless she was watching him, saw him duck and then stagger or look dazed in some way for her to assume he was dazed. It might look like...
Kline ducked and the flash rolled over him. He staggered to one knee, shaking his head, but jumped to his feet again a moment later.
You could even add in a judgment call from Maya...
Kline ducked and the flash rolled over him. He staggered to one knee, shaking his head as if dazed, but jumped to his feet again a moment later.
The "as if dazed" is what Maya thinks happened to him. She doesn't know, she just sees him act in a way that makes her suspect he's dazed.

I'd suggest focusing on point of view and getting that down. Odds are the telling will disappear as you get more proficient in sticking to a POV and showing the world through that character's eyes. (If not, that's a good next step once you feel good about POV). I've found that a solid grasp of POV fixes just about every basic writing problem out there.

Here are some posts to get you started. These will cover a lot of the things I mentioned here:
Through My Eyes. Or Your Eyes. Or Somebody's Eyes. POV Basics
View to a Skill: Understanding Point of View
Room With a (Point of) View
Stepping Out: A Look at POV Shifts
How Far is Too Far? Far Narrative Distance vs Telling
Thinking to Myself: Internalization 101
And Coming up on the Left, Stuff: Writing Description
I Told You: Mental Signposts That Tell, Not Show
Send up the (Red) Flag: Words That Often Spell Trouble
Don't Tell Me Why: Words That Often Tell, Not Show

For a first novel attempt you're doing fine. There's a lot to learn and you had the writer instincts to tell you something was off. That says a lot that you're able to recognize a problem even if you're not sure yet how to address it. If you work on the fundamentals and build a sold writing foundation, then you'll see improvement and your writing will sound more like you want it to.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

3 comments:

  1. I would say this is inexperienced, rather than immature. And the reason it's voiceless is because the writer hasn't settled on a point of view for the story.

    I would assign the following homework (heh): Rewrite this scene from a tight 3rd person point of view of every named character in the excerpt, which by my count is 4: Kline, Maya, Ana and Leo. That way each iteration forces the writer to stick with just one POV, but also helps to build characterization muscles.

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  2. Brave, brave, brave!

    I remember my first diagnostic sent in to Janice. After I "licked my wounds" I realized how right she was. I have learned sooo much! Thanks Janice for this opportunity whether we're newbies or a little farther along the road.

    Good Luck Anonymous Writer!

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  3. Michael, great tips, thanks for sharing. That's a great exercise.

    Amelia, thanks :) I'm thrilled that so many of you guys come out every week to offer feedback. So generous of you all.

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