Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Voice and Writing Every Day

by Deren Hansen


Writers not only hear them, they're supposed to have one.

"What's voice?" the new writer asks. "How do I develop one?"

"I know it when I see it," answers the agent/editor/other publishing professional. Or they may try to help by recommending books they think have a great voice.

So the new writer absorbs the voice, tries to write something similar, is told the piece has no voice, and comes away feeling increasingly frustrated.

Artists, with their tracing paper, learn by copying. Why can't we? After all, isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Ah, but there's the problem: imitation.

Just like the high schools that are full of young people trying to find themselves by behaving exactly like all the other young people trying to find themselves, you won't find what's authentically you in someone else.

Writing is about self-expression. Voice is about the self that is expressed.

The reason we have trouble with voice is that we've absorbed so many influences and have built up so many assumptions about the nature of writing that we've lost touch with our own unique modes of expression.

Erin Reel, in a guest post on agent Rachelle Gardner's Rants & Ramblings blog, titled "Finding Your Authentic Voice," says:
"Don't write in a language that's not your own. Forget about following a genre trend just to get published. Tell a good story—one that a large audience will want to read and can identify with."
Her tips for finding your voice include read, practice, get clear about the story you want to tell, and make it your own. ("Make your story authentically yours by writing many rough drafts through which your voice will eventually surface.")

Writing every day will help you get past all the influences and assumptions you've internalized. I credit the journal I kept for several years for much of my own development.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Saturday, July 27, 2013


I was in Ann Cannon’s WIFYR workshop last month. She offered plenty of advice on the craft and among the gems, she shared how she revises a novel.

The first thing she does is print out a copy of the story. She puts it in a three-ring binder then celebrates that she has a book. Good in and of itself. We need to pat ourselves on the back whenever we can.

At this point, she puts it away for a few weeks. This is so when she returns to it, she comes back at it with fresh eyes.

Next – and this is important - she checks into a motel for a day or two just to read the story. Got to get away from the day-to-day interruptions – family, friends, the garden, chores – half finished chores, chores not started, etc.

In the motel, armed with colored sticky notes, Ann reads the book several times through. She has a different purpose with each pass over. She reads looking at plot, to see if the story makes sense. Are there gaps in logic? Is it is moving forward in a logical manner? Does one chapter lead to the next? Do readers want to find out what happens next? At WIFYR, Ann spoke of grounding the characters in the space/time continuum, which she looks at her initial reading as well.

With a different colored sticky, Ann reads again, concentrating on her characters, asking questions as she goes. How soon do readers learn names, age, and gender of the main characters? Do we know what they want and have a sense of what is preventing them? She looks at the minor characters. Are they distinct in name and personality? Do you have too many of them and if so, can you combine them into fewer? For major and minor characters, are their motivations consistent and realistic? Do they have purpose other than to just to move the plot?

Another reading and Ann looks at setting. Does she have enough physical description to give a sense of place? Does she maximize setting to create mood or to tell about the characters. Has she engaged the readers’ senses?

Then Ann reads just for language, to insure clarity of meaning and intention with a rule of thumb: precision first, flowery words second. Is she saying things the best way possible? Has she avoided passive language?

Great advice. Wish I had followed it. I have been 99.9 % finished with a project the four months. I’m tired of it and want to get it into publishers’ hands soon. I did not shelve it for weeks. I didn’t do the different colored stickies, nor read it several times. Probably should have checked into a motel for a few days, too. There’s way too many things going on that interrupt the flow of analyzing a story.
(This article also posted at )

Friday, July 26, 2013

Do It For The Joy

Last night I saw the film "20 Feet From Stardom" about exceptional (and very busy) background singers who appeared on countless hit records without ever (mostly) becoming recognizable names. Some of them had brief flirtations with fame as solo artists, but for the most part, their attempts to step out of the shadows led to frustration and disappointment.

While most of the film's insights were obviously about the music industry, some of what was said really affected me on a personal level because they apply equally well to writing, or any other form of entertainment.

There are obvious differences between being a background singer and an author. An author has no shadow to step out of. We're putting our stuff out there with our name on it, and hoping for stardom. But many of us would love to have a somewhat anonymous sort of stardom, to have our names recognized as a quality brand on a book cover, but not necessarily to have our faces recognized or to get all the trappings of fame, other than maybe the money.

The women in this movie had some of the most incredible voices I've ever heard, but with the exception of the great Darlene Love, I was not familiar with them. I hadn't even heard most of their names, despite being a lover of music and hearing their voices on many great records. Time after time, their stories involved being very much in demand for their voices and vocal styles, then trying to step up and become known, maybe having some success but mostly hitting walls while watching lesser voices soar to great fame, sometimes giving up on singing entirely, then eventually realizing that it's not the fame they desired that they really loved, but the music and the performances.

They spoke of frustration when people who haven't paid their dues or built their "musical spirit" find an easy way to fame through shows like American Idol or by just being in the right place at the right time, while others worked for many years, had voices you wouldn't believe, were known to industry insiders, and still hit barriers all along the way. But the epiphany was almost always that the fame and name recognition don't matter. It's all about their art and being good at it and doing it for the love of the music and the talents they were given.

That's what we should be doing. We should all be developing the talents we have, becoming the best we can be, fighting against the barriers that are thrown up but ultimately writing for the love of story and the written word. There are so many factors beyond our control in our quest for success and recognition, but maybe recognition is the wrong metric when evaluating success. Maybe we should look at success as completing the long, difficult journey toward a finished work, multiple times, and getting better at it with each attempt. No matter how good you are, you will compete with people who are better and who have bigger names. Lisa Fischer could not win in a field of musical artists that included Aretha Franklin, no matter how amazingly she could use her voice. At the same time, no matter how talented you are and how hard you work at it, you're going to see people with less talent easily rise to the top of the best seller lists while you struggle with rejection after rejection in your attempts to find an agent.

If your dream is fame and monetary success, by all means, fight for that dream. But if you find satisfaction in the work you do, if you are constantly pushing your limits and growing, if you can fight through the publishing frustrations and just keep growing as an artist, then you will be a success, even if you never sell a book. And maybe the other will follow, if things you can't control go your way.

On a related note, one of the trailers last night was for the new documentary "Salinger." Looked pretty amazing.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing Intentionally: On the Advice to, "Kill Your Darlings"

by Deren Hansen

There's a set of actors, usually comedians, who can do remarkable work if kept tightly under control but quickly become tedious if left to their own devices. Robin Williams and Jim Carey are two example that come immediately to mind. I'm sure you can think of others.

I think of such talents when I hear the oft repeated writing advice that we must, "kill our darlings."

Where did that quasi-homicidal advice come from? According to Kill Your Darlings ATL (a community for writers):
William Faulkner is rumored to have coined the literary expression “kill your darlings,” but the expression actually comes from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ...

When describing “style” in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,” Couch argues that “style” is something which “is not—can never be—extraneous ornament.” In an effort to stay on course, he created a practical rule to follow:
‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
“Murder your darlings” has since become “kill your darlings” as attributed to William Faulkner whose famously quoted to have said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” [See "The Meaning of the Literary Expression 'Kill Your Darlings'"]
While I understood and agreed with the sense of the advice, I couldn't help hearing its pithy formulation as, "you should delete the parts you like best." That implies you can only write things you don't like, which clearly goes too far.

A better way to say it would be, "if it's too precious to go, it probably should go."

But the best way to say it is that nothing in the story is nonnegotiable. Everything is open to scrutiny. If a word, phrase, passage, scene, or character doesn't contribute to the story, it should go. The overall balance of the story is more important than any individual element.

Which brings us back to the comedians. I realized that I find them tedious when they eclipse the story and reduce it to an excuse for a performance. But when a good director keeps them under control and allows them free reign only when it serves the story, the result can be delightful. Similarly, you don't have to kill your darlings when they're serving the story. If they call attention to themselves, "git the rope!"

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Monday, July 22, 2013

Need More Time to Write?

by Julie Daines

Finding time to write is a struggle for every writer. But more often than not, it's more than just finding time, it's using it wisely.

I've never met an author yet who doesn't lament how easy it is to sit down at the computer to write, and then get lost in the Internet while and hour or two slips by. Before we realize it, our writing time is wasted away.

Here are a few self-motivting options that can help you stay on task to make the most of your writing time.

For those of you who measure your writing by time, there are a lot of desktop timers you can download. These timers range from simple clocks to timers that keep track of how you spend your time. Check out MinetuerTimer, and Timer for Mac for free downloads. For more sophisticated timers, try 
Desk Top Task Timer or XNote Stopwatch (PC).

 My personal favorite is this 30 minute hourglass my husband bought me. I guess I'm a little old school, but if I find my mind wandering, I turn over the hourglass and don't allow myself to do anything on my computer other than write until the sands run out. Usually, after 30 minutes of serious work, I'm so into my story that other distractions loose their appeal.

Time is a good way to measure writing progress, because often, writing involves research and outlining and character studies and such--all of which aren't accounted for if your goal is simply word count.

Word Count Targets
Many authors manage their writing in terms of word count, setting goals such as 2000 words a day. This works especially well for things like NaNoWriMo. My favorite application for word count is the Project Targets feature in Scrivener.

I find great satisfaction watching my word count goals creep up the bar, changing from red to orange to yellow to green when the goal is finally achieved.
You can set daily goals, or project total goals with or without a deadline.

There are other apps out there that have similar functions and work without Scrivener, such as Word Counter.

What motivates you to use your writing time wisely?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Butt in chair

Much has been said about what it takes to write a book. There are opinions on character and storyline, protagonists and antagonists, internal conflict, emotional and concrete goals, and on and on. But it doesn't mean a thing unless you sit down and actually write.

Writing can be hard and sometimes it doesn't work. That is what email and the Internet and Words With Friends are for: to give the brain a break when the writing isn't happening. It’s an easy distraction to fall into.

There's always your other life, the one without the imaginary friends. Demands takes precedence over writing sometimes. And/or too many things pop up that need attending to. You'd think a school teacher on summer vacation would have two hours a day to dedicate to writing. Not so.

There’s writing related tasks that get in the way of sitting at a keyboard. Sometimes you need authenticity so you check things out on Wikipedia. Or your writer’s group has something due.

Still, it comes down to sitting down and writing. That means priorities must be established, sacrifices made, schedules rearranged. And it comes down to dedicating yourself to the story.

Writer's Digest had a recent Peter Stenson article on this, called The 90-Day Novel: 5 Simple Steps to a First Draft. The first thing is to establish a habit, to make daily writing part of your routine. Stenson says it best: "Make a deal with yourself and your long-dead writing heroes: I’ll write 90 days in a row, no matter what, even with seven presentations at work and kids crying and a resentful spouse alone in bed. Give yourself the three-month gift of an hour or two of daily writing. Be alone. Sit down and lock the door. Disable your internet connection. Write one word after another. Every day. For 90 days straight."

Easier said than done, but the logic is good.

Stenson discussed the nature of a rough draft and expectations to have for it. He ended with advice on how to give yourself over to a novel. Quoting again, he says to “allow yourself to space out at work. Allow yourself to toss and turn in the middle of the night. Allow yourself to become selfish with your mental obsessions. Forty-minute showers as you walk through imaginary towns in the year 2050? Yes. Forgetting to respond when somebody asks you a question because you’re unsure if your lead character’s mother actually dies when she falls off her horse? Bingo. Allow yourself to think like your characters. To talk like them. To imagine them riding shotgun in your Civic while they pick the dirt from underneath their nails. Just don’t fight the natural result of intense immersion into your writing world.

But mostly to get a novel written, you need to plant your butt in a chair and write.

(This article also posted at )

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Writing Intentionally: "Revise Without Compromise"

by Deren Hansen

Jael McHenry, writing on Writer Unboxed, address the question of whether revisions requested by agents and editors make the books more or less yours. She points out the difference between the two senses of the world, "compromise:" 1) to work together, and 2) to weaken the integrity of, and argues that working through revisions with agents and editors is all about compromise in the first sense and should never be about compromise in the second. It's a beautiful observation, marred only by my jealousy for not thinking of it first.

There's an important difference between trying to please people and finding ways to say what you're trying to say so that it's accessible to more people.

Some people think that as the source of expression, the artist is the sole guardian of the vision and any request for changes from another party will compromise that vision. Those people forget that writing for readers is a classic example of the old cliché about taking two to tango: you don't have "writing" unless the reader gets something they value out of your words.

But the notion of author as the source of pure expression is more deeply flawed. The words on the page are a lossy encoding of the author's ideas, so there's no such thing as a pure expression. Put in more contemporary terms, a writer is actually coding software that will run on non-deterministic wetware (i.e., brains). Real software developers have no qualms about debugging their code until it runs correctly. Why should authors complain when revision is essentially the same process.

Notice the key qualifier in the statement about debugging? Software developers strive to produce code that runs correctly. Revisions that clear away confusion and help the reader to better understand and appreciate the story are equivalent to debugging the code.

But here's where you, the author, need editorial help: because you know what you meant when you wrote it, it's hard to see where others might misinterpret what you wrote. That's why revisions are all about compromise, in the first sense. You want to work together to make it better.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Monday, July 15, 2013

An Imagination Running Wild

Ideas for stories come from the craziest places sometimes.... 

I was laying on my bed, reading a book about a guy's conversion from the Mafia to Christianity. All of the sudden, a packet of papers falls out onto my chest-- a ticket to a concert,  a promotional photo, an airplane boarding pass, and a post-it note with my name and phone number on it. 


The information did not belong to me, nor did I recognize the name. But I did quickly figure that my contact information had been written by someone at the library because it included my library card number. 

curiouser & curiouser, thought Alice. 

That made my imagination go crazy! Wouldn't that be a great story? A book about the Mafia or something containing secret documents just for you that lure you into a complex world? 

I remember a book about writing called "Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink" about how to find inspiration in the world around you. Sometimes all it takes is a wild imagination to see the possibilities for stories are endless. 

What things are you inspire your imagination? 

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Several writers and illustrators met last evening in Salt Lake’s Liberty Park. It is a pleasure being a part of the local writing community.

Local is a relative term. The Utah portion of the SCBWI regional chapter planned the thing. Some came from Utah County, others Davis or Salt Lake. Two of us came down from Cache. I live near the park so it was a short drive for me. I could have walked.

A lot of illustrators were there last night. A PB person came up to me hoping there were others like her; there were. We had YA and MG and people writing blogs, magazine articles, or for adults. Some faces were familiar and I met new people.

It was refreshing to socialize with other like-minded people. Writing is a solo business (though we had some partner writers in attendance, too). It is self-absorbed thing we participate in. There are always other obligations and sometimes it is hard to steal away. But when we do escape, we leave real people behind and hang with imaginary ones. When you pull out, family and life are still there and wants your time. It’s hard to find more time, but spending an evening with fellow writers and illustrators is a nice thing to do.

Kudos to Elissa Cruz, the local SCBWI official, for organizing the potluck dinner. Elissa heads up things for Utah writers while Neysa Jensen holds up the Southern Idaho end of our region. Elissa is trying to plan something bi-monthly. She plans them to be in Utah and Salt Lake counties and the Ogden area as well, making the various functions close to all sometime throughout the year. We miss the southern Utah folks, but in such a large geographic area, that is understandable.

The topic for the evening was social networking and how to get your name out there. Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter came up. There were ideas for blogging and some shared the printing of business cards or postcards to have something physical to share.

All children’s book writers and illustrators should jump in and join one of these sessions periodically. We are a community.

(This article double-posted at and