In the world of writing it’s sometimes impossible to know which rules and guidelines we should follow, which ones we should break. It’s simple. All of them and all of them. One thing my experience as an editor and writer has taught me is that anything goes.
For instance, some of my fellow Astraea Press authors and I were recently discussing several well-known writers who head hop. With most publishing houses this is a big no-no. Yet these authors’ books are making the NYT best sellers list. Same with those evil words we’re not supposed to use such as to be verbs, words ending in -ly, the word “that”, etc. A number of famous writers constantly break these rules and no one is slapping them on the hand. So how do they do it? What’s their secret?
It boils down to the V’s: VOICE and VIBE.
First and foremost you have to develop a voice as a writer. Voice is the way the author tells the story. It’s a specific style that is unique and expresses the writer’s interpretation of the story. Are you rolling your eyes thinking you’ve heard this before? Trust me when I tell you it’s one of the most valuable pieces of advice you’ll ever get.
In a recent post on Terry O’dell’sblog, she discussed using the word “was”. More specifically, she talked about how fiction writers aren’t supposed to use passive verbs. She listed several citations from both classic and current books to demonstrate how much of a staple the word “was” truly is even though the rules say avoid it.
The best example came from the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities. I thought it would be interesting to rewrite it, taking out “was”. Here’s what I came up with:
Good times and bad times abounded. On one side stood the wise. The other side, the foolish. You couldn’t tell the epoch of belief from the epoch of incredulity. The season of Light, the spring of hope, said we had everything before us, we were all going direct to Heaven. Yet, the season of Darkness, the winter of despair, proved we had nothing but the promise we would go direct the other way. In short, the more things change, the more they remained the same.
Not to toot my own horn, but not bad. At least not until you read Charles Dickens’ version:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Some of you might argue that this is a classic, so of course we wouldn’t change it. But why is it a classic? What made Dickens special? Even now he’s considered a master of fiction, and I guarantee if A Tale of Two Cities was being published today most editors wouldn’t touch that opening. I wouldn’t. His voice stood out then just like it does now. I cried when I finished it and, twenty years later, my heart still aches when I think about Sydney Carton. Dickens’ writing elicited that kind of reaction from me. His voice was that strong and he gave me “the vibe”.
There’s an episode of Friends in which Joey is reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Joey goes to Rachel and Monica’s apartment crying because he’s just read the part where Beth dies. Rachel asks him if he wants to put the book in the freezer and he shakes his head yes. That’s how I want to feel when I read a book.
Some of you might be thinking, “Isn’t that the same thing as voice?” No, far from it. Vibe goes much deeper. Voice entertains our mind, while vibe caresses our heart. I remember the first time I experienced such a strong feeling with a book. I was in fourth grade and the book was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. My emotions ran the gamut. Sad one minute, anxious the next. Angry, and then, finally, grief. While I loved the story, adored the characters, and could totally relate with a boy’s love for his dogs, it was more than that.
I care about my neighbor. We’re very close and she’s a part of our family. But when her dog died, I didn’t cry. I was sad for her, felt bad, but no tears. When Billie’s dogs Dan and Ann died in Where the Red Fern Grows, I was devastated and bawled like a baby. I literally felt as if I had lost a loved one. Same with Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry when the kitten died.
Sometimes vibe is better when seen through the eyes of a child.My two-year-old son came running into the house all excited the other day. He was babbling about something but the only words I understood were fast, daddy, bucket, tractor. Even at that, he had my full attention. Not because he’s my son, but because of his excitement, his passion.
The funny thing is, when my husband walked into the kitchen and I asked him what Cage was going on about, he said, “Oh, we took the tractor and a bucket to the end of the driveway and picked up some of the rocks in the yard.”
Pretty boring and uninteresting, right? Just a mundane, everyday task. But the way Cage told it, eyes wide and dancing with delight, little hands moving all over the place, grinning from ear to ear, I was totally enthralled to here, “Blah blah fast blah blah daddy blah blah bucket blah blah tractor.” He did more than just tell me what he had done. His words (VOICE) and his excitement (VIBE) painted a picture that engaged my senses.
How many times have you loved an author’s work, couldn’t wait to read the next book, and then something changes. The pros are great, the plot is wonderful, but you just don’t “feel” it. The author’s lost his luster, so to speak.
Voice is like riding a bicycle. Once you’ve figured it out, you’ve got it and you’ll never lose it. It becomes second nature. Vibe, on the other hand, is like riding a horse. You might not forget how it’s done, but you always have to think, react, and be on your toes. No putting the kickstand down and parking a horse for a year or two and then coming back to pick up where you left off. Horseback riding might be an ability you can master, but it’s definitely a constant learning experience that takes extreme dedication. We own five horses and they all have their own personalities, quirks, and flaws. I can ride them all, but I ride the one I enjoy and even that is challenging at times. Each book you write is unique in its characters, plot, setting, etc. Yet your voice remains the same, just like riding a bike. But your vibe must change, compromise, vary, and adjust with each new project, much like riding a horse.
Now, I’m in no way implying that an author’s voice is easy and anyone can do it. Voice takes skill, talent, and practice. Maybe riding a bike is second nature now, but was it when you started out? Didn’t you fall off quite a few times before you learned how to ride? But once you got it, you got it. Same with voice. It takes awhile to develop your style. You have a bunch of hits and misses along the way. But once you know how to write prose that work, where to end a chapter to make your reader want to keep turning the page, when and where to weave in back story, and how to balance showing with telling, it becomes engrained in you. It’s a technique that you never forget.
Vibe, on the other hand, has to change to fit the story, yet must maintain the same power and impact that readers expect. It’s a daunting task, but the payoff is remarkable if you perservere.
When you put the two V's together, you get a variety that will keep readers coming back for more. The important thing is to practice, practice, practice, and V all you can V.
Kim works as an editor for Evernight Publishing and writes when she can. She just had her debut novella WAYWARD SOUL published with Astraea Press.