Bring Your Descriptions to Life

Janice Hardy has kindly granted me permission to re-post her article originally titled “5 Ways to Bring Your Descriptions to Life,” which is full of examples to help writers craft descriptions that count. Janice is one of my favorite bloggers and YA authors. Her blogging  goal is “to offer ways to build a solid foundation for your writing. To provide tips and advice you can take right from the posts and apply directly to your work in progress.” Though this article was written with a fictional point of view in mind, it is equally relevant to creative nonfiction. (This article was first posted on Writers on the Storm on April 13, 2012.)

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Leaves Floating on WaterWhen you think about it, everything in a book is description, because the author is describing an entire story to you. But when it gets down to the actual details of what’s in that story, it’s not uncommon for things to bog down into the minutia of what something looks like. Looks aren’t nearly as important as the reasons behind why that item is there to be seen in the first place.

The bulk of your descriptions are likely to be in the setting. Describing the world, the locations your protagonist visits and moves through, the things they touch and use. But if you just throw them in there, they become as flat and lifeless as backdrops on a stage. Description does nothing to move a story forward on its own. It’s how it interacts with the characters that makes or breaks it. You want details that breathe life into both your characters and your setting.

Making Details Come Alive

Let’s take a few random details in a scene. Rain, a clock, a restaurant, a window, pancakes, and an envelope. You might have a passage like:

The rain poured down the window of the restaurant. Bob sat at the table, a stack of pancakes beside him. He stared at an envelope in his hands, while above him on the wall, a clocked ticked.

It’s not bad, but it has no life to it. The details do nothing to tell us more than what this scene looks like. Is Bob happy? Sad? Do you care what might be in that envelope? Probably not.

Now, let’s turn those same backdrop details into living details by thinking about:

1. Who’s doing the looking?

A Navy SEAL will look at things a lot differently than a scared girl. Take the knowledge and attitude of your point of view character into account when you decide what they see. Think about how they would describe something, not how you would.

Navy SEAL: The rain beat against the restaurant window like rounds from an Uzi. Bob sat at the table, back against the wall, a stack of uneaten pancakes beside him. He gripped the envelope tighter with every tick of the clock above him. New orders. Great.

Girl: Rain covered the window, masking the tiny restaurant with its blurriness. Bobbi slouched at the table, her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes beside her. The envelope lay in her lap. She didn’t want to touch it, let alone open it. She glanced at the clock and sighed. Running out of time.

Same details, but notice how different these are from the first backdrop one. There’s a sense of who the point of view character is and what problem they might be facing.

2. Why are they looking at it?

Sometimes you scan a room, sometimes you’re watching for something in particular, and sometimes you’re looking to escape with your life. Your reasons for looking impact what you see and how you feel about it. If your protagonist has no feelings at all about something, why is it in the scene? While not every detail has to matter at this level, using details to bring out an emotion or thought from your protagonist helps make the setting more memorable. It won’t just be details.

Example: It was still raining. Why did it always rain when these things happened? Bob sat at the table, a stack of “have to order or get out” pancakes beside him. The envelope lay next to it with just as much obligation on a single neatly folded letter inside. He glanced out the window and sighed. Stuck in a stinking roadside restaurant today of all days. Figured.

Can you tell Bob has to do something he doesn’t want to do? Does his pessimism and frustration come through? And all because of why he saw what was there and how he felt about it.

3. What is important to them?

People notice what’s important to them. What’s important to your protagonist? Both in general and in that scene. A girl obsessed with fashion might indeed notice what everyone is wearing, while a tired mom might not. Spending time on details that mean nothing to your protagonist (or seem weird for your protagonist to care about) risks pulling the reader out of the story.

Example: Rain pattered against the restaurant window like tiny running feet. Bob sat at the table, smiling a dumb happy grin, the stack of pancakes beside him. He looked at an envelope again. How could one letter make everything so much better? The clock ticked and he hummed along with it. “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.”

Any guesses as to what might be in that letter? The envelope and what’s in it are what matter to Bob, and the rest of the details are just there. But here, they don’t feel just there. Bob barely looking at them shows his preoccupation with the letter, and adds to hints as to what it said and his state of mind.

4. What is important to the scene or story?

Sometimes you need to put in a detail for plot reasons. Just tossing it in there might not be the best use of it though. Too obvious a description or too much focus is like shining a light on it for the reader. It practically screams “hey, pay attention here.” Maybe you want this, maybe you don’t, or maybe you want the clue to hide in plain sight for a surprise later. If something needs to be there and be seen, take a minute to think about how your protagonist might see it and how it can work with the scene, not just be in the scene.

Example: Bob slid into his usual booth by the window, watching the rain.

“What’s it gonna be today?” Sally asked.

“I think I’ll have the pancakes.”

“You got it, doll.” She tucked her pen behind her ear and turned. A pale blue envelope fluttered out of her order pad and floated to the floor.

“Hey, you dropped something.” Bob bent over and picked it up. Postmarked Columbia.

“What? Oh, that’s not mine.” Sally snatched the letter before he could read who it was addressed to.

“But I’ll toss it into the lost and found for you.”

“Uh, okay.” He glanced at the clock. “Put a rush on those pancakes, would you? I’ve got court at one.”

A longer passage, but it’s obvious the envelope is going to be important. So is that postmark. Could it have something to do with Bob’s court date? And does Sally know what it all means? The details help move the story and create interest in what’s going on.

5. What tone/theme/mood are you trying to achieve?

If you’re going for dark and creepy, describing bright and sunny is going to fight with your story, not help move it along. Small details can add to the emotion of a scene. They give you opportunities for similes and metaphors that flow seamlessly, because the detail evokes a feeling in your protagonist. They can help illustrate your theme in subtle (or not so subtle) ways. They can foreshadow and even raise the tension by evoking something foreboding or mysterious. 

Example: Bob learned against the wall, watching the rain wash away what was left of his life. A photographer walked over his body in the restaurant’s doorway, shutter snapping the broken clock, the pancakes he’d never finish, the shattered window. The police paid more attention to the envelope clutched in his cold hand. Idiots.

I don’t think anyone’s going to mistake this for a comedy or a romance novel. The details are still the same, but they’ve adapted to suit the tone and gritty, sad feel of a guy seeing his own dead body. 

Details mean different things to different people. How you show those details to the reader helps the reader better understand not only what’s in the scene, but who’s in it as well. The right detail can instantly pique a reader’s interest and make them want to know more.

Don’t just create backdrops. Make your descriptions count.

Janice Hardy RGB 72Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books in the trilogy are The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall, from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Storyor find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

Three Needs of Creativity

Lightbulb Key on Computer KeyboardI was recently asked to write an article discussing my creative process in regard to writing. My first thought was, “I have an idea, I visualize it, and then I write.” This eleven-word response doesn’t equal an article no matter how far I stretch each word out on a page. So I began to think more deeply about creativity, where it came from and how it manifests itself in my life.

Creativity needs exercise.

Like most children, my imagination came alive through play. My first memory of such things is of using my hands to interact as characters instead of using dolls. Later I made homes for crazy-haired trolls. GI Joe and Barbie became super heroes. The mesa surrounding my elementary school was the surface of Mars and the swings were my rocket ships. When Star Trek (the tv show) came along, my brother and I took turns playing Kirk and Spock, because they were, you know, the coolest characters in the show.

Outside of play, books were my entertainment early on and, with time, my escape. These stories came alive in my mind, everything playing out as the words formed their images. Then as a young adult in the military – to counter the all-out, flatline boredom of endless hours of waiting – I mastered the art of visualization in creating worlds in my mind filled with characters and their adventures. If you knew me at that time, you probably thought I was merely staring mindlessly into space like everyone else, bored senseless. But I was, instead, living in my waking dreams.

My mind still goes off on its own sometimes, and I’ll blink and realize I’ve been out there in another “dream world.” Piles of books wait at my bedside every night, bookmarks evidence my involvement in each of these worlds. I also have a Kindle that’s filling up nicely. And I love to play with my eight-year-old granddaughter, though I have to stop myself from directing her imagination. Where I want a band of Lego pirates to move through a story from beginning to middle to end, she still delights in throwing her people into one adventure after another without regard to logic or order.

Creativity needs stimulation.

If given the chance, a child will play for hours with dolls or Legos or sticks and dirt. A new toy (or rock) or storybook can ignite a whole new creative world.

I find the simplest things spark my creativity, and usually when I’m not looking for inspiration. While going through my junk mail several years ago, I read about a ministry in the Philippines that addresses the needs of orphans who live in a cemetery. I began to wonder about their lives, and that led to my newest fantasy world and the trilogy I’m working on now called The Last Bonekeeper.

From a writer’s point of view, life experience adds dimension to our creative endeavors. After a certain number of years we all know what rage feels like, and heartbreak. We’ve been hungry and alone. We’ve known the joy of love. Watched people die. For everything in between, observation and study can fill in the gaps. Listening to coffee shop conversations. Walking in the rain. Volunteering at hospitals. Visiting a firing range. Eating new kinds of food. Traveling. Life can stimulate our creativity in practical and immediate ways or at a more subconscious and subtle level. And sometimes, for me, all the brain needs is a bit of rest. I often wake up in the morning with the best story ideas.

Creativity needs an outlet.

If you give young children crayons, they will create something, whether or not you recognize their creation. If you ask them what their squiggles are, they might tell you one is a dog, another is their binky, and a third is Mommy. Maybe in their minds, that’s exactly what they see or maybe it’s what they meant to draw. 

An artist just starting out might have an idea in her mind of what she wants to create, but when she goes to sculpt it or draw it or paint it, it doesn’t come out the way she imagines. She might not be ready for years to create that thing she sees in her mind, but she keeps practicing and working at it until one day, there it is emerging from her fingertips.

I think writing often works the same way. When we first start out, what we put on the page isn’t always what we have in mind. There’s something missing. It’s just not right, but the more we practice the better we get. There are times when I have to stop writing because I don’t know how to create a particular scene or portray a character arc. I have to put the manuscript away and come back to it later when time has changed me or practice has improved my technique. Or I’ve studied how other authors approach the same problem.

What makes one person more creative than another?

Maybe we’re all creative in our own way. Some people write, some invent practical gadgets or new ways of doing things. Others take a pile of ingredients and form them into a wonderful meal – actually make it look appetizing and taste great, and enjoy the process while they’re at it. I’m not one of those people. I like to color coordinate my food: chicken + boiled potatoes + corn = yellow!

Creativity can be nourished (and starved). And I think the ability to express creativity can be taught and learned. When I sit down to create worlds, visualization is my foundation – I see characters move through their world, hear their conversations, feel their emotions, and then transfer it onto the page.

So what does your creative process look like? How does it differ from mine?

Free Resources for Writers: The Basics

?????????????I love free stuff. I’ll jump on a free book, no questions asked, even if it’s not a genre I normally read—you never know where a gem might be hiding just waiting to be unearthed. The same is true for writing resources.

There are tons of free resources to be found on the Internet, but here’s a short list of foundational ones that continue to help me in my writing journey.

The “Why” of Writing:

The Writer’s Manifesto by Jeff Goins is a “small eBook about getting back to the heart of writing…a call for writers to fall back in love with writing for the love of it.” If you’re ready to be inspired to write for the best of reasons, get a free copy of this short, read-in-one-sitting e-book by joining his newsletter list (or pay $.99 on Amazon or Barnes & Noble).

Research:

Make Reference.com your first stop on your road to research. Enter your topic in the search bar and watch how much information pops up.

You’ve probably already found Thesaurus.com and Dictionary.com but you may not have discovered WordHippo.com. This site provides definitions and synonyms/antonyms, as well as rhyming words, translations to other languages, word tenses, and pronunciation.

Etymonline.com is an online etymology dictionary. It’s a useful resource to add flavor and accuracy to your writing, to make sure words or phrases were indeed used in a certain place or during a specific time period. Take the noun “stuff.” I thought it was a fairly modern word, but etymonline.com tells me it was used in the 1570s to refer to “matter of an unspecified kind,” whereas usage in the context of “having a grasp on a subject” (to know stuff) isn’t recorded until 1927.

If you’re searching for names for your characters, you could check out a list for boys or girls or you could step out and use one of the many online generators. My favorite is Online Name Generator. Both the Random Name Generator and the Fake Name Generator produce realistic character names. Besides “normal” names, the site also generates ones for elves, pets, bands, clans, businesses, teams, fantasy characters, superheroes, vampires, pirates, as well as evil names and code names.

Redwood’s Medical Edge is a blog by author and RN Jordyn Redwood designed to help both historical and contemporary authors learn methods to write medically accurate fiction. She fields medical questions, analyzes medical scenes, and posts on topics that can increase the tension and conflict in any story. Check out her blog archives for topics.

At Videojug learn lots of things your modern characters might need to know to survive in their world or should know in their particular line of work. Find out about digital photography or dance moves under Creative & Culture, or how to repair fireplaces or stack wood under DIY & Home. For survivalists, go to Sports & Outdoors/Camping/Wilderness Survival to learn How to Make Fishing Nets, How to Hack a Flashlight for Emergency Power, and the all-important How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

Go to Written Sound for “how to write the sound of things: onomatopoeia and words of imitative origin” (like weapons fire or a person choking).

Here’s another one of my favorites – a list of British words not widely used in the United States (okay, I haven’t used this in my own writing, but it’s good to have in case I need it someday, and to help when watching those great British tv shows). Along the same lines is a list of words having different meanings in American and British English.

Worksheets:

From The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates. Use this link to download 23 different worksheets to help with things like avoiding clichés and keeping track of description and supporting characters.

From Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Go here to download more free and helpful worksheets, such as At-A-Glance Outline, Character Sketch, and Character Revealing Scenes.

I limited myself in this post to what I think are the basic resource needs of a writer. I didn’t include any of the awesome websites for writing advice, which I do consider a resource, but I’ll deal with those at a later date.

There are so many free resources on the web to help us with the basics of research and setting up our stories, please comment to share some of your favorites.

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue

LongRoad2bDialogue in any kind of story is useful for revealing motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information; as well as for creating tension and suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory when writing memoir, you can still produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions.

In a memoir, can you really recreate pages of dialogue? No. Key phrases may live in your memory, but few [people] can remember word-for-word exchanges. For this type of writing, you’ll have to rely on reconstructed dialogue, but it needs to come up against the standards of good dialogue.  ~ Darcy Pattison

Like all of us, your characters’ speech is influenced by their education, family, friends, where they’ve lived, their way of thinking, and the particular circumstances they find themselves in. A teacher will speak one way in front of a group of children, another way with her colleagues, and still another when she’s at home. 

The following are basic ways I’ve found to effectively capture interaction between characters through dialogue.

Use Contractions: In modern conversation, people say “don’t” instead of “do not,” unless they’re trying to make a point or for emphasis. “Timmy, don’t touch the skunk.” And then, “Timmy, do not touch that skunk again. Do you understand me?”

Don’t Overuse Names: We might say “Bill, is that a venomous spider on your back?” to get his attention, but when our husband comes home from work, the conversation doesn’t sound like:  “How was your day, Bill?” “My day was so-so, Barb, how was yours?” “Well, Bill, I stubbed my toe.”

Avoid Niceties: When people meet or talk on the phone, they might begin with the weather or inquire about each others health, but unless a person is fixated on these things (as part of their personality) or they’re important to the story, skip it. So when Bill comes home from work, instead of asking about his day, Barb might greet him immediately with, “I had the worst day ever. I stubbed my toe.”

Dialect: Writing dialect, and doing it right, is a difficult thing to do. What might sound right to you in the writing – because you know what you’re trying to say and how it sounds in your mind – might not come across to the reader the same way. Pick a few words, like “y’all” and “yonder,” and pepper them in the dialogue for best effect.

Vernacular: As with dialect, common language can be overdone. Include a few words to get the flavor, such as “gonna,” “gotta,” “wanna.”

Here’s an example of dialect and vernacular from Bobbie Christmas*:

The following is the kind of dialect editors do not like: “He ben goin’ ta dat sto’ ever’ day since thin.” It is much better to write in the vernacular – the lingo – of a character’s speech, spelling words correctly, but using the character’s word, as in this rewrite: “He been going to that store ever day since then.” 

Beware Exclamation Points: Overusing exclamation points becomes either annoying to the reader or meaningless like white noise. Instead of using an exclamation point every time characters get excited or angry in conversation, show this in their mannerisms or other physical reactions. Use them only when you have to and never more than one per instance. According to author Terry Pratchett, “Five exclamation marks [are] the sure sign of an insane mind.”

Information Dumps: To keep a reader’s attention, large amounts of information should not be imparted all at once in writing, and certainly not through dialogue. When we talk to each other, we don’t usually go on and on about a subject. And when people do, we (as listeners) often tune them out. We don’t want to do that to our reader. Give us important information through description, exposition, in bits and pieces, and break it up naturally in dialogue. Even when making a speech, the speaker will pause to take a drink of water or ask for questions from the audience. A storyteller will pause for affect, catch the eye of listeners, talk with his hands.

Filler Words: People pause when they talk, using words like “ah,” “uh,” and “um.” Sometimes we do this out of habit and sometimes just because we’ve lost our train of thought. Even though this is a natural way of speaking, it fills up space in dialogue and is annoying to read. For a character who speaks with pauses as part of who he is, use these sparingly as you would with dialect and vernacular.

Dialogue Tags/Beats – Tags and beats let us know who is speaking.

Use “said” whenever possible – it doesn’t interfere with the writing because the reader tends to pick up the important information (who’s talking) and skip the “said.” Use another word, such as “whispered” or “shouted,” when it’s not already clear how the character is speaking through word choice or the use of beats (see below).

Insert a dialogue tag where it feels most natural in the conversation, and sooner than later. Waiting until the end of a paragraph can be confusing or distracting to the reader if they don’t know who is speaking. In the first sentence of the next example, the reader doesn’t know who’s talking until the end, and it could make a difference in how the reader imagines the scene: “Well, that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?” Barb said. Or, “Well,” Barb said, “that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?”

A beat is a description of a physical action that falls between lines of dialogue. It adds variety and movement to the writing, aids the reader in “seeing” the scene, adds to characterization, and helps with the writer’s work of showing-not-telling. Where you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. Do this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider.” Barb brushed the creature off Bill’s back. Not this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider,” Barb said, brushing the creature off Bill’s back.

Paragraph Structure: Give each character in the conversation his own paragraph, even when using dialogue tags or beats or if it’s a one-word or one-sentence paragraph.

For memoir, we rely on our memory to write dialogue, but even having a recorded conversation doesn’t mean it converts smoothly into dialogue. For This New Mountain, I was able to transcribe a recorded interview with AJ Jackson’s mentor that became an entire chapter. This was a real-life, in the moment exchange, but straight transcription wasn’t enough to make it work. I added dialogue tags and beats. I cut filler words and vernacular. And to keep the movement going and spark interest, it was necessary to summarize some of what was said and include additional, relevant information.

Learning how to write good dialogue is a process. And like most kinds of learning, it takes reading and study and practical application. Go out into the world and listen to conversation. When composing dialogue, let it play out in your mind between your characters, and then share the end result with others to get their feedback.

(*Bobbie Christmas/Zebra Communications, the Writers Network News April 2012. For a free newsletter and Tools for Writers go to www.zebraeditor.com/tools_for_writers.shtml.)

What are your suggestions for writing realistic dialogue?

Pick a Throwaway Title and Keep Writing

Writing2In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know what it will be before beginning the manuscript or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain. I knew one would come to me in time.

There came a day, though, I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

I had already brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if that was settled it would help me move forward on the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering most of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one, The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson, that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without spending any more time and frustration trying to choose an actual title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title – and the book became Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. A very catchy title (and don’t ask where that came from), but now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes to include with each chapter name, I found this: 

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before. Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello This New Mountain.

“Dirty Underwear” is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title to something I’m working on. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one, not liking the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

What are some mind tricks you use to make sure you get things done (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late)?

Breaking the Writing Rules

Everyone uses clichés to some extent when they speak. They stick in our brains and it’s easier to let them out rather than try to think up some other descriptive phrase. If you listen to AJ Jackson tell a story, it won’t be long before you notice her use of clichés – phrases like, “yelled to high heaven,” “turn them out like clockwork,” and “drive like a bat out of hell.”

In normal conversation, clichés are fine, and in writing dialogue it’s also acceptable if that’s how a particular character speaks. But in narrative, using a cliché to describe something is considered lazy writing. Coming up with an alternative to a cliché can take some thought, but doing so makes a piece of writing unique and more fulfilling to the reader. 

For This New Mountain, I broke the rules a bit in regards to clichés. But if I didn’t include these kinds of common phrases as part of the narrative voice, the memoir just wouldn’t have been true to AJ. It wouldn’t have sounded at all like she was the one telling her stories. In this case, the way she talks and her internal dialogue are unique to her, clichés and all.

Another choice I made in breaking writing rules had to do with sentence structure. We’re taught in school that run-on sentences and sentence fragments are bad, bad, very bad. Again, in dialogue it’s normal. I did away with the run-ons, but I included sentence fragments in the book to make it consistent with AJ’s way of speaking. Sentence fragments also work great when trying to make a point, build tension, or move through an action scene. In the following excerpt from the chapter “Gone in Six Seconds,” one of AJ’s helpers has just talked AJ into letting her “steal” a repo, and AJ is watching and waiting from her car parked outside the owner’s house:

Cherise nodded her head, closed her eyes for just a second, took a deep breath, and jumped out of the car. I started counting.

One thousand one. Cherise was at the end of the driveway. One thousand two. She was at the driver’s door. One thousand three. She put the key in the lock. One thousand four. She was in the pickup. One thousand five. Still in the truck. One thousand six. No engine turned over. Faster, Cherise! I glanced at the light in the window. Nothing seemed to be moving inside the house. One thousand seven. The engine was still silent. One thousand eight. Now I knew something was wrong for sure.

From an early age, we’re taught that breaking the rules is wrong and can lead to some unwelcome consequences – traffic laws are in place for good reasons. If the rules are broken too often in a piece of writing, it can be distracting to the reader, but when it’s done with intent, it adds flavor to the writing.

Do clichés drive you batty? Is there something you’re willing to overlook in a story because the rest of it is so engaging?

Beginnings: The Voice of a Memoir

When authors start out on their writing journey, they’re often told to find their Voice – that thing that makes their writing unique among thousands of other voices in print. “Finding” isn’t really the right word, though, as if they had it once and then lost it somehow.

Developing an authorial voice is more what a writer does. It’s a long process, and it takes reading the masters in many genres. It takes sitting down and writing for years, getting comfortable with the true sound of words and cadence, experimenting with complexity of language, playing with the rules. When she “finds” this voice – this style – it flows naturally in a story and is found throughout an author’s body of work.  

Narrative voice is something else found in fiction – the voice of the point of view character or narrator that carries the reader through the story. The voice of the author and narrator are tied together. (For a more detailed discussion of authorial and narrative voice, go to this article by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake). 

To make This New Mountain as genuine as possible for the reader, I put aside my own developed voice and my own style in favor of writing the memoir in AJ Jackson’s voice. Doing so wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it would be. I listened to hours of AJ’s recorded stories (often more than once), had lengthy phone calls with her several times a month, and met with her on a regular basis. While stringing words into sentences and sentences into chapters, I heard AJ clearly speaking to me in my head. My goal as I wrote was for the reader to also hear her – as if she was sitting across the table, sharing a pot of coffee while telling her adventures in her own straightforward, unpolished style.

I hope friends and family will recognize the person they love in the pages of This New Mountain. And I hope readers who are new to Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson will quickly learn to love this country-wise woman with her unique voice.

You will find a bit of me in there, too – my own voice woven into the fabric of description throughout the book. I couldn’t help seeping in. After all these years, AJ is a part of me the way the lives of all true friends become entwined.

Of the authors you enjoy reading, and keep going back to, is it their style of writing, their storylines, or their characters you like the most?

Beginnings: Choosing a Book Title

Along with the first tentative outline for the memoir This New Mountain, I brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if I had that settled it would help me move forward with the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering many of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one – The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson – that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know right away what it is or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir. One would come to me in time.

As usually happens when I write without a title, there came that day I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without actually choosing a working title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Don’t ask me why (because I don’t have an answer), but within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title: Dirty Underwear. No, you’re not allowed to ask why.

So the book started out as Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. Catchy title. Now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes I wanted to include with each chapter name, I found this:

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before.

Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello (thank goodness) This New Mountain.

Dirty Underwear is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one just because it doesn’t want the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

Do you have a mind trick you use to fool yourself (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late), or am I the only strange one out there?