Monday, January 28, 2013


The voice of a novel surfaces regularly among readers and writers as critical to the readability and impact of a book, yet remains elusive as an element that can be easily defined, or (for writers) learned.

At a recent meeting of The Women's National Book Association (of which I'm a member), we explored that topic with a guest speaker who teaches creative writing at a local university.

Susan Meyers, Assistant Professor at Seattle University, has done academic research on the subject, and is, herself, a poet and writer.

Susan began by asking each attendee at the meeting what the term "voice" means to them. The group's members include avid readers, librarians, and others interested in books for various reasons, as well as writers, and the responses ranged from the feel of the novel to the way the main character(s) talk/present the story.

As it turns out, those responses were similar to what Susan has identified in her research. That is:

  • Voice is typically understood as one of two things: an overarching or 'big concept' feeling to a book, or something akin to the personality of the point-of-view character(s). In the first of these, content, rather than style, is what is believed to constitute voice. It comes from a very intimate relationship between the writer and the characters and their environments. In the second definition, voice comes not exactly from characters' points of view, but from how, generally, the character perceives the world. 
  • Voice is both Text and Subtext. What is not shown or said is at least as important as what is.

We had a wonderful time at the meeting discussing these concepts and what they mean to us. 

As writers, we can really get our teeth into these ideas and learn from them. They are each loaded with depth in the sense that when you are writing, you are creating voice through layer after layer of what is said (or unsaid) and how it is presented.

For example, I've just started reading a historical novel that everyone else in the world has apparently already read: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.  It's about Thomas Cromwell and what happened to the churches of England by his hand in the 1500s. (backstory: Cromwell was an English lawyer from humble and violent beginnings, who became chief minister to Henry VIII, and was a leading advocate of the English Reformation, which included attempting to dismantle the Catholic Church. But long before that, when he was still young, Cromwell was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey's man of business as one of the first steps on his ladder to success.) 

What a writer Mantel is! The voice of this novel is powerful, yet indirect in many ways. I would categorize it as the first of the understandings Susan Meyers mentioned: an overarching, or "big concept" feeling. Subtext is used beautifully. Characterization is crystal clear and fully three-dimensional. The way Mantel achieves that is most definitely from "a very intimate relationship between the writer and the characters and their environments."

There's a scene early in the novel, for example, where Thomas Cromwell, as Cardinal Wolsey's man of business, is meeting with Wolsey about a delicate matter (Henry VIII wants Wosley to find a way to get his 19-year marriage to Katharine of Aragon annulled, since she has not provided him with a male heir). From this scene, I feel like Cardinal Wolsey is someone I know intimately. Mantel has researched him so thoroughly and understands him so profoundly that her character sketch of him is more like an x-ray, showing him from the inside out through his gestures, postures, sense of humor, and his turn of phrase.

Have you read (or written) something where the voice is recognizable as one of the two things Susan Meyers identified—either the big concept, or the way the characters perceive the world? How about subtext? How do you think about voice in what you write?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Expand Your Mind With What You Don't Usually Read

True to my pledge to myself to spend the majority of my time reading and writing, I have been enjoying a feast of said pursuits, letting myself veer off into favorites that I don't often indulge in because they're not in my genre. Namely: nonfiction, short literary stories, and poetry. Actually I've been writing the poetry. Believe me, you don't want me to share that part.

Conventional wisdom about what writers should read says two things: read what you love to write, and read all over the spectrum. So I think you are allowed to pick whichever convention suits you best. This week, I choose all over the spectrum. Next week, I'll go back to my current genre (historical fiction . . . I've already got a great one lined up called The Great Pearl Heist by Crosby, which combines my two genre loves: historical, and mystery, plus some medical mystery stuff thrown in. OMG!!)

If you are interested in changing things up a bit and looking for books to read that are outside your genre, here are a couple of nonfiction books I've delved into recently that come highly recommended:

My Life As An Experiment by A. J. Jacobs.

This book is hilarious! My son gave it to me for Christmas.

Jacobs is a writer for Esquire whose assignments seem to revolve around immersing himself in various lifestyles or, even better, concepts, and living them fully, without stepping out of character ever, for a given period of time (often a month). My Life As An Experiment is a series of vignettes describing exactly what it was like to, for example, give up multitasking completely (which means that when you eat your breakfast cereal you do nothing else. You do not read, you do not talk, you do not watch television. You eat, and pay attention to what it's like to eat breakfast cereal). This one is fascinating, given the way our brains are being trained into multitasking, while studies show multitasking is NOT effective.

Other experiments include: 
  • completely outsourcing his life, including phone answering, email, arguing with his wife, etc. (if you've read Maria Semple's fiction bestseller, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, this will sound familiar)
  • the Rationality Project, in which the misleading biases natural to our brains are exorcised, and Jacobs does such important experiments as testing all the toothpaste brands he can find to determine which, rationally, is best
  • posing as a beautiful woman—one who he actually knows and who has given him permission to do so—on an internet dating site 
  • a major mind-bend: Radical Honesty—a movement created by a less-than appealing person, in my opinion, named Brad Blanton. Complete honesty, the good, the bad, and especially the ugly, are encouraged here. Oh, my.
  • the Ideal Husband month—A.J.'s wife, Julie, got to set all the rules for a month, and he took on all the household and childcare chores she normally handles (hint: he had no idea that most of these chores even existed—sound familiar??), plus he fulfilled her other wishes, like getting her little gifts. It's inspiring, and gets pretty darned funny when A.J. takes it to his own imagined level of 'ideal.'
There are quite a few other experiments, as well.

Jacobs is an engaging writer with a good sense of humor and, as he points out, a wife who is a saint to put up with all this. (Although she doesn't take it lying down, as he also points out. When he was doing his 'encyclopedia project' some years ago, for example, she fined him a dollar for every irrelevant fact that he inserted into conversation.) Definitely a fun read.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

This book focuses on the interaction between the technology explosion and brain activity. Brain science books are big these days, and this one is highly accessible. Carr opens up talking about Marshall McLuhan and his seminal work five decades ago about the power of technology to affect us. Even if you never read McLuhan, you probably know the phrase that is most remembered from his work: the medium is the message. It is not just that we get information and entertainment from a medium, like tv, it is that we become creatures of that medium to some extent in the way we think and live. McLuhan was talking about television at the time, but Carr points out how prophetic that phrase was for the world we live in now. (McLuhan also predicted the creation of the World Wide Web thirty years before it was developed.) Needless to say, Carr had me at his opening.

I'm only part-way into this book, but it is fascinating. Carr explains how the constant use of technology is actually reconfiguring not only how we think, but how our neural pathways are physically structured. That is huge.

Carr was a college student when personal computers were a glimmer in MacIntosh's eye, and he thrilled to each new technological development. But he was also trained, as part of his generation, to think critically and deeply by reading and analyzing tomes. He claims that now, because he is so used to using hyperlinks in online articles to find the information he needs for his job, and to think in terms of the most efficient way to obtain information, he's literally lost the ability to think in linear terms or read a book like War and Peace. Dire as this sounds, he also suggests that there's an upside to bouncing from source to source—the breadth of knowledge we can acquire, and the value of lateral thinking.

It looks like the medium may be even more than the message!

I love this book and know many others who do, as well.  (I'd have read it all by now if I had it in paper form rather than as an e-book. Yep, I love the paper! Those pretty pages just keep pulling me in like a siren, and that's what I reach for when I want to read, which means I forget I've got this other great book waiting for me in the ether! Wonder what McLuhan or Carr would have to say about that?)

I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have, and get some huge benefits out of shaking things up in your reading habits. The jury is still out on how this is working for me to bring fresh life to my writing, but I'll let you know when I've got enough pages down to get a glimmer. What happened with the Shawnee Indians and the settlers in the 1780s in the Ohio River Valley seems, literally, a world apart from these nonfiction romps, but can our understanding of what happened to those incredible individuals back then benefit from broader thinking? Something to contemplate.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New Book To Come Out Next Month for Heather McCorkle

I met Heather in the summer of 2009 at the Hawaii Writers Conference, and have counted her as a wonderful friend ever since. She has a combination of determination and generosity that is amazing, as evidenced by her series of terrific books in the past two years and by her unstinting support of her friends and fellow authors. It is my pleasure to help her celebrate the cover reveal of her newest novel: THE DRAGON EMPIRE. Below is all the information you need to learn more about Heather and to know that you've got to have a copy of this new addition to her fast-growing shelf of her books. For more info, go to Heather's website, listed below.

Congratulations, Heather~ THE DRAGON EMPIRE looks fantastic!

The Dragon Empire by Heather McCorkle -- February 2013 / Compass Press
On Yacrana, dragons stand at the top of the evolutionary ladder instead of humans. Such an advanced species is not without its issues though.

There's trouble in the Dragon Empire, the kind that could start a war between dragons and the races of people. Hidden factions of dragons believe they should rule the lesser races, not simply stand aside and allow them to develop as they will. Having lived so long in peace, the Emperors turn a blind eye, many oblivious that such attitudes even exist.

Despite being only an architect class, emerald dragon, Grendar is willing to risk banishment and death to stop that which his rulers refuse to see. The hope of peace lies not within the scaled breast of a dragon however, but within the hands of a group of people. But if the hidden factions have their way, these people won’t live to fulfill such a destiny. With a reluctant seer at his side, Grendar must leave his precious Empire for the outside world to save those that will one day save his kind. 

Heather McCorkle
I am an author of fantasy, in all its many sub-genres. Living green, saving endangered species, helping other writers, and supporting fabulous authors are a few of my passions. I am also a volunteer for the IS Foundation which works to make the world a greener place. When I'm not volunteering, writing, or surfing my social networking sites, I can be found on the slopes, the hiking trails, or on horseback. As a native Oregonian, I enjoy the outdoors almost as much as the worlds I create on the pages. No need to travel to the Great Northwest though, you can find me here, on my blog, and Monday night's on Twitter where I co-moderate the #WritersRoad chat.

Author Links:

Monday, January 7, 2013

Back to Basics

This morning I am sitting in a cold house waiting for the repairman to arrive. My furnace went out Saturday afternoon. Naturally. Whether it's us getting sick, or the functional machines of our homes getting sick, it always seems to happen on a weekend or a holiday. At least this isn't a three-day weekend because of a holiday! At any rate, I do love my fireplace right now.

Which got me thinking along the lines of something that has cropped up in my mind over and over recently: getting back to basics. It's the time of year when we reflect on how we want to change our lives for the better. Paring down to what really counts seems important. In my case, I'm also reflecting on basics because I'm neck-deep in developing a book set in the wilds of the Ohio River Valley in the late 1700s, which sort of defines 'back to basics' in terms of survival.

But I'm no mountain woman. That's not the kind of basics I'm after in my personal life. I got a small hint of that sort of living when I was little, and that seems to have been enough for me. Our family vacations were almost always camping and fishing. My father was devoted to that life. We're talking old-fashioned heavy canvas tents with the posts you have to pound into the ground (at least we had a tent); and the campfire, which you use to cook, also being the only source of heat at night, other than your clothes and your sleeping bag. To this day I believe that I could still not only catch fish if I wanted to (I did a lot of that back then), but I could gut and clean them with dispatch, and perfectly, because I watched my father do it expertly at the side of a fast-running creek so many times. These are things to know in the world of survival basics.

By age eleven I'd had it, though. No more peeing in the woods for me. No more fending off hordes of mosquitoes in camp or along a river, and no more getting lost in the forest. (I never did have anything resembling a sense of direction, and there were no cell phones back then. Sometimes it got a little dicey.) Fresh-caught trout cooked over an open campfire are delicious, but that was not enough. At age eleven I declared myself emancipated from the camping life. Ah, joy! Ah, modern plumbing!

Nonetheless, here I am, all these years later, appreciating the value of what I learned back then. Not only because I have a sense memory that I can now use to relate to what daily life must have felt like to the settlers and Native Americans in the 1780s (essential to what I'm writing about), but because having had that experience did imbue me with an awareness of the value of basics.

So, while I don't want to get rid of my nice home and car and microwave and iPhone (and I'm really looking forward to that repairman arriving to fix my furnace), for my New Year's Resolution, I am going for basics. Basics in writing. Paring down to what really counts: 1) time spent writing, and 2) time spent reading. These are the two things that are most important, I believe, to honing style, knowledge, competence and voice. The other basic thing we writers need, of course, is heart, which makes the difference between good and great writing. That's where the unknowable comes in, though, and we just have to go with what we we've got.

I can't see myself giving up conferences and social media altogether, but those things are getting prioritized way lower on the list of what's important. At least for now.

Have you been thinking about what you want to change in your writing life in 2013? Are you launching any wild and exciting or weird writing adventures to propel you into the year? Or reflecting on what would mean most to you and how to get there?