Who is Who?

Monday, March 27, 2017

One of the hardest things about writing characters is giving them distinctive identities that stand out on the page. All primary characters and many secondary ones should have identifiable personalities. Still, readers sometimes forgive lapses for less-important role. They don’t forgive the writer if the protagonists are too alike.

My current work-in-progress has two protagonists, and both are point-of-view characters. Julia and Fannie are 12-year-old cousins. They have very different personalities, and that must come through in my writing.

Both girls are upper-middle-class, intelligent, and have good vocabularies, so I can’t use any of those characteristics to distinguish them. But Julia has an imagination while Fannie is practical and has a literal mind. As a result, Julia’s chapters incorporate metaphors and similes and vivid images, while Fannie’s tend to be straight-forward.

That raises another issue. Julia’s chapters are fun to write, and hopefully that will make readers enjoy them as much as I do. But it’s harder to add interest when metaphors and other creative figures of speech are unavailable. So what can I do?

One way to create interest is to fill the Fannie chapters with heart-stopping scenes. Interesting events also occur in the Julia chapters, of course, but Fannie’s experiences are more intense. Another strategy is to make Fannie an unreliable narrator of her own and Julia’s motives. She reports the facts accurately but doesn’t always interpret them correctly, especially when they involve her own feelings. Since the reader has a more objective view, Fannie’s misperceptions produce an occasional laugh.

But however characters are written, it isn’t enough to make them interesting.

They must also be distinctive.


The picture at the head of this post does not represent my image of Julia and Fannie, but it does show two women from that approximate time. The drawing is in the public domain because of its age.

Don't Change My Voice!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Being an effective critiquer isn’t easy, and few people do it well. The first problem is that a good critiquer can’t worry about hurting the writer’s feelings. Yes, the critiquer should be sensitive and respectful, but the point of the exercise is to help the writer improve. That means pointing out what is wrong as well as what is right.

The second problem is distinguishing between craft and voice. The line between the two is thin, but it’s also crucial. When critiquing someone else’s work, craft is fair game. Voice is not.

So what does it mean when we talk about a writer’s voice? I’ve heard many definitions, but the one I like best comes from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Edition), which says voice is:

The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book.

As I see it, voice is a combination of tone and style and something even harder to grasp. It’s what makes it easy to distinguish Mark Twain from Jane Austin from Stephen King. Or, to modify the well-known adage, it’s what makes it possible to say “I know the writer when I see his or her work.”

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow writer mentioned that her new critique group has been telling her to use more deep POV. As far as I know, there is no rule that says a writer must use deep POV. In fact, conventions over the type of POV to use change with the times. Just look at Charles Dickens or George Elliot or most of those classic writers who used omnipresent POV with a narrator who knew everything the characters didn’t. That practice is no longer in fashion, although a few writers do still use it. Using a particular type of POV correctly is important if you want to keep your readers immersed in the story, so that’s craft. In my opinion, however, what type of POV you use and whether it is near or far is a matter of voice.

I cringe every time I read a poem by e.e. cummings. I want to go through and add capital letters to make it grammatically correct. But that would be interfering with his voice. Or there is the poet in my local critique group who writes without punctuation. I love his poetry, but it took me a long time before I stopped itching to add commas and semi-colons and periods.

One “rule” says good writers should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Or some people think that is a rule, anyway. If it is, it’s one I often break. When I edit my work, I eliminate some of the conjunctions that begin sentences, reword other sentences so they don’t need them, or change two sentences into one with the conjunction to join them. But sometimes starting a sentence with a conjunction creates a smoother transition while giving the sentence greater emphasis. Those sentences stay in, and they have become part of my voice.

Different people have different tastes. If I don’t like someone’s voice, I won’t read that person’s work. Or if the writer is a critique group member, I try to limit my comments to craft. When a particular use of voice creates unintended confusion, I mention that because there may be a craft way for the writer to revise it without changing the voice. But I’m not perfect. The line is a thin one, and I’ve crossed it from time to time. Still, I try not to.

Because craft is fair game, but voice is not.

Sell Your Books but Not Your Soul

Monday, March 13, 2017

I’m currently reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi as research for my next book. Although I’m enjoying it, I was finding the structure confusing.

There are many places in Life on the Mississippi where Twain appears to have thrown in material that doesn’t belong. In one instance he even admits it, stating at the end of Chapter 35 (as a lead-in to Chapter 36), that:

Here is a story which I picked up on board the boat that night. I insert it in this place merely because it is a good story, not because it belongs here—for it doesn’t.

At least he was right about it being a good story. But in Chapter 52, he tells a story that I didn’t even find interesting. Although he tried to connect it to the Mississippi River by placing some of it in St. Louis, the story itself had nothing to do with life on the Mississippi. As that example shows, Twain always manages to find a way to transition to the extra material, but the insertion is still jarring. This is especially disconcerting because Twain is contemptuous of writers who use what he sees as unnecessary words.

Almost by coincidence, I’m also listening to a Great Courses lecture series on Mark Twain with Dr. Stephen Railton from the University of Virginia as lecturer. My confusion cleared up when I listened to Lecture 4 on “Marketing Twain.” Now I know that he sacrificed creativity to make money.

According to Dr. Railton (and to other sources I’ve read in the past), Mark Twain loved making money more than he loved writing. Unfortunately, he was a terrible business man. But the one business decision that did bring in an extra profit was selling his books by subscription—using direct door-to-door sales to customers rather than selling through bookstores. He liked subscription sales because they brought in more money, but those customers also demanded longer books and lots of illustrations. The illustrations may have added lasting value, but I believe the padded material in the text detracts from it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Mark Twain’s humor, and he deserves to be called the greatest American humorist. But imagine how much greater he could have been if he hadn’t sacrificed creativity for money.

I don’t have a problem with writing for a popular audience, and I’m glad Mark Twain’s writing was a commercial success. I wish my books would do a tenth as well.

But I won’t sell my soul for it.


The photograph at the head of this post was taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907. It is in the public domain because of its age.

The Secret to Forty Years

Monday, March 6, 2017

My brother was honored on Friday for his 40 years on the faculty at Tennessee State University. That’s 35 more years than he originally intended.

When Donald finished his PhD in Communications and accepted the job at Tennessee State, he told me he planned to teach for five years and then he’d try something different—perhaps producing documentary films—for the next five. He expected to change positions every five years or so because he wanted to be challenged and keep learning.

Thursday night I reminded him of his five-year plan, and he laughed. He said there was always something new to learn right where he was. He teaches television production classes, and the technology is constantly changing, so maybe that was what he meant. But it was clear from the reflections and comments from colleagues and former students that Donald couldn’t have stagnated if he had tried. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he mentors new faculty and is everybody’s student advisor, whether assigned or not.  

I am going to use Donald’s experience to make a point about writing, but first I’ll take a short detour to post a picture of all the family members who attended. My children couldn’t make it, but my brother Gordon’s family were all there, as were my cousin Gail and her granddaughter and great-grandson.

Now back to the original itinerary.

I’ve never wanted to stagnate, either, and that’s as true of writing as it was of law. My original attempts at fiction were okay, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed if they were published. But every subsequent book has been better. And that’s the lesson for writers. There is always something new to learn.

So if the next book isn’t better than the last one, hit the refresh button.