Avoiding Writers’ Block

Today, we’re going to discuss some tips and tricks for ensuring that you always know what comes next when you sit down to write.

I don’t love the term “writers’ block”, partly because it sounds insurmountable. Like so many things, being “stuck” can be overcome with a little preparation and several little steps. You could think of these as good practices.

• Review what you wrote the day before
This is a tried and true strategy used by many writers I know. Job one of any new day of writing is to edit what was written the day before. This is a neat trick because you polish your work so that it’s clean behind you, and it also fills your mind with the story again. You might even see details or directions to explore which you missed the first time around.

• Leave a hook for the next scene
When you stop for the day, choose a deliberate point for stopping. I find that if I write everything I know about the story, the next day I might come up dry. I also find that I see two scenes very clearly and often a third one a bit less so. So, I write those two scenes, then hold back on the third. I’ll write the first sentence of that scene, to pull me back into the moment, but then let that scene stew in the back of my mind for the remainder of the day. Combined with the review suggested above, this is a surefire way to get me writing again each day.

• Retrace your steps
Most authors write a story in a linear sequence. This means that if the next scene isn’t clear to you, you’re stuck, as if you encountered a closed road on your map to the big finish. For me, this often indicates that I’ve taken a wrong turn or painted myself into a corner. The first thing I do in this situation is delete the hook on the end of the last scene I wrote. I then go make a fresh pot of tea, thinking about what else that hook could be. Often that sets me straight on the path again.

• Write out of sequence
Sometimes another scene than the one I know comes next is clear in my thoughts when I sit down to write. This might be the ending, which is a useful thing to write in advance of getting to the end of the book. Many authors find that writing the ending gives them a more clear sense of their destination and the feel of the end of the book, and that helps with the pages in between. You might feel compelled to write the big finish, or the dark moment, or a comparatively minor scene between secondary characters. As a general rule of thumb, if something is burning in your thoughts, write it down, whether it comes next in the story or not.

• Write a synopsis
The most obvious way to ensure that you know where the story is doing (and how it’s going to get there) is to write a synopsis. I’ve yet to meet a writer who loved creating a synopsis. It can be a painful process. But the fact is that once you have one, you have a map of your book. It’s very easy to put your finger on your location in the synopsis then read on to see where the story needs to go next.

• Stock your well
Julia Cameron talks about this in The Artist’s Way. It’s a strategy for ensuring that you always have new images and ideas to draw upon, so that your work continues to evolve and stay fresh. For me, this kind of creative thinking is completely opposite to the kind of planning I do as a publisher. Stocking my well is dreamy and irrational, meandering, and often seems like daydreaming or “wasting” time. The less free time I have, the more critical I am of the kind of play that stocks the well—but if I don’t do it, I get stuck.

I suspect that part of the reason I’ve been less productive creatively this year isn’t just a lack of time to write; it’s a failure to leave time to play and dream. I play with textiles and color to let my imagination wander off and explore the next part of the story I’m writing. I knit and quilt and bead and garden and cook, and this review has reminded me that I need to defend the time to do that, as well as the time to write.

So, the final tweak that comes out of this entire review is to protect the time I spend mucking about with creative endeavors. When I protect my writing time and my source of ideas, the routine of publishing must be pushed out to occur last in the day instead of first.

This is an intriguing idea and one I’ve already started to put into action. I’ve already seen an improvement in my productivity: in October, I wrote 54,000 words, which blasts me past my high count in May of 43,000. Now I just need to make these changes into habits. I’m curious to see if my word count increases in the next six months – I’m curious to see if it will help me succeed in NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words this month would be a victory!

Do you have any tips or practices that help you avoid writers’ block?

NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo logoIt’s that time again. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) launches tomorrow. Participants aim to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Participation is free.

As usual, I’m participating, and (as usual!) I have more than one project to get done this month. If you want a writing buddy, you can friend me at NaNo right here.

If you want to learn more about NaNoWriMo, check out their website.

Writer Resources

Once upon a time, I wrote a lot of blog posts about writing and publishing. When I went indie in 2012, though, I wasn’t sure how applicable those posts would be to our new world (which felt a little wild for a few years there.) This past weekend at my local writers’ group, though, we started talking about resources and I realized that a great deal of that information would still be useful to writers.

I’m sifting through it in my spare time (ha) and making it live again.

I will also be doing more teaching next year, and have started to muster my support materials. I use Excel spreadsheets a lot to track results, and I don’t want to spend workshop time walking through the set-up of each one. So, I’m creating some tutorials here on the site. These aren’t the only way to do things: they’re just my way, and might be useful to other writers.

All of this lives under a new tab called Author Resources, which you can find on the menu bar. You can also search in the blog for posts in the categories Wild West Thursday, Indie Publishing, Publishing, and Writing. There is also an archive here of the blog posts I did for the writer-in-residence program at the Toronto Public Library in 2012. You can find those in the Writer-in-Residence category.

ORWA Workshop in 2019

Update – this workshop has been cancelled.

Ottawa Romance Writers AssociationI’ll be teaching a workshop at the Ottawa Romance Writers Association in Nepean, Ontario on May 5, 2019.

Switching to Glide:
Join Deborah Cooke for a workshop on targeting opportunity, managing back list, and ensuring your own productivity to create a steady revenue stream from your writing. Whether you’re indie, hybrid, traditionally published or an aspiring writer, you can use these techniques to plan for success.

This is exciting, since I haven’t taught for a while. It’ll be a totally new workshop.

Visit their website for more details about this group and their meetings.

NaNoWriMo 2017

National Novel Writing MonthI often participate in NaNoWriMo (which is National Novel Writing Month) and this year is no exception.

The fact is that every month of my life is NaNo, since the goal of NaNo is to write 50K words in a month. That’s not a novel in my corner of the fiction market, but it’s about half of one. Most months, I write new content at this rate, so November isn’t anything special. I’m using working on multiple projects at a time, as well, although I only list one on the NaNo website.

Doing NaNoWriMo is a good way to cross check my productivity, though. I tend to keep track of my page count on Post-It notes on my desk, and I do update my wall calendar each week with my progress—right alongside my goals for the week. Keeping track on the NaNo site makes me feel more accountable, and it also makes me more aware of what else is placing demands on my time. What’s interfering with writing? What am I doing instead? NaNo provides a little productivity cross-check for me each year, and helps me to refine my process.

In the Midnight Hour, book #3 of the Flatiron Five series of contemporary romances by Deborah CookeThis year, for example, I’ve written 13,000 words through Saturday. (Still taking Sundays off.) That’s not bad, but it’s less than I’d hoped to achieve in four days. I aim for 3K to 5K per day of new word count. The fact is that there was been a LOT of publishing stuff happening behind the scenes last week, so I wasn’t even starting to write until after 2PM. The problem is that mornings are my most productive time.

This week, I’m not going to check my email until lunch.

One of the speakers at NINC made an interesting comment that has stuck with me, that email is a means for other people to offload jobs to you. His strategy was to do what was important to him first, then see what other people wanted to hand off to him. It’s good advice. I just have to break my habit of checking email while I have my second cup of coffee. 🙂

You can find me on NaNo here.

NaNoWriMo 2016

For the past couple of years, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. Participants cheer each other on to write 50,000 words on their book manuscript during the month of November. It’s a fun event and a great way to connect with other writers. Some people find it motivating and get more work done, but for me, it’s a typical month. I usually write at least 50K words in a month. I join for the fun and the chatter.

Wyvern's Warrior, #3 of the Dragons of Incendium series of paranormal romances by Deborah CookeI’m all set up for this year again. My project of choice is Wyvern’s Warrior, book #3 in the Dragons of Incendium series of paranormal romances – due for publication on December 27.

If you’re participating, feel free to claim me as a writing buddy. You’ll find me on NaNoWriMo as DeborahCooke. (Big surprise, isn’t it?)

It’s November 1 and we’re off! Happy writing!

My New Planner

As I’ve mentioned to you before, I took it as a challenge earlier this year to find better ways to  manage my time. By last spring, it seemed as if I was working all the time and that my work was running my life, instead of the other way around. Part of this is certainly due to my decision to indie-publish my work. There are a lot more tasks that are my responsibility, since I’m both author and publisher. Not only have I had to learn how to do them or find subcontractors to do them, but I’ve had to fit them (or their delegation and management) into my schedule. A couple of weeks ago, I completely forgot one of them. Fortunately, the portal in question sent me a reminder and everything was done on time, but it was a good warning that I need to be even MORE organized.

I belong to several writers’ groups and in one such group, there’s been a lot of discussion about planners and organizing tools. Many of these aids are printed books or sheets, and while I like the tactile experience of organizing on paper, I wanted a more fluid tool. I also want to be able to easily move a missed task from one day to the next. I was officially on the hunt for a digital planning solution. That way, when something goes wrong or unexpected obstacles appear, I’ll be able to re-adjust the schedule more readily.

The first thing I did was start a spreadsheet of what had to be done, and when. I listed all my upcoming projects, from those that are already scheduled and available for pre-order to those I’m dreaming about. I listed the projected length of the finished project (long book of 100K words, short book of 75k words, long novella 50K, novella 25K, short story 10K). I then set up a formula in the next column to calculate the number of working days it would require to complete this project. I took a low estimate of my daily word count to allow a little bit of wiggle room. Presto- each project had a precise number of days required to write it to completion.

Mr. Math pointed out to me that Excel has a multi-page calendar template. How wonderful! I created a calendar for 2016 and one for 2017. You choose the year, and it automatically populates the calendar so that the right date is on the right day of the week. Here’s what the page for January looks like, after I changed the template colour. (The other months are on separate tabs.)

Calendar Template from ExcelThis looked like a good solution.

Before I filled in the jobs for this year and next, I made some basic rules:
– no more working on Sundays
– I’ll work only every second Saturday
– there are other days like family birthdays and holidays that I won’t work
– I’ll take one day to clear my mind between writing projects
– each day that I write, I’ll write in the morning and do other tasks in the afternoon
– I’ll aim to have two tasks per day, a writing goal for the morning and an admin or publishing task for the afternoon.

Next, I marked out my travel days for next year. Even though I always have good intentions of working on airplanes or in hotels, I never do it. I blocked off the dates for the conferences I’ll be attending, added a travel day on each end and an organization day right after I get home. If there are booksignings associated with those events, I added a note to order books 60 days before the event, and another to post a pre-order form 150 days in advance.

Then I began to fill the calendar. The first tasks I had to fill in were the projects that were already listed for pre-order which aren’t done yet. I had to count back from the publication date to ensure that there’d be enough time for editing and formatting. I had to make some choices in November to fit them in, but nothing too drastic.

For new projects, I scheduled the writing first. Because I’ve worked with my editor for a while, I have a good idea of how long it will take her to turn a project around and send it back to me. I also know how many days I’ll need to do the edits and revisions. I counted out from these dates to establish publication dates. When I added in the second project, I had to skip the days when I’d be writing and editing the first project. I wiggled things around a bit to ensure that the publication schedule for each series was reasonable. I have some backlist titles to republish. Checking the files and packaging the books again will take some time (but not as much as writing a new book). I thought about release strategies and added those books to my schedule. I also intend to commission new covers for some books, which means that there are some admin tasks associated with updating them. I looked for gaps in my schedule and strategically placed those rebranding projects.

Then I put the production dates in. There are a lot of guidelines and hard dates. For example, the final file for any book has to be delivered to Amazon 10 days before the book goes on sale. A pre-order can only be set up at Amazon 90 days before the publication date. Kobo and Apple allow for pre-orders to be longer, so I marked them on my schedule for 180 days before publication. That means the digital cover needs to be done 180 days before publication, which means I need to contract a cover artist or contact an existing one 210 days before publication. Many of you like the free downloadable samples of my books, and I can upload them to Apple, so they should be done when the 180 day pre-orders are loaded. I’ll need the first chapter of the book done in order to create that sample. I set up the print edition of the book after the edits are final and the digital edition has gone to formatting. Once I have the final page count, I order the print book cover from the artist, upload it and proof it. I moved back and forth through my schedule, filling in these tasks for each book.

When the writing and the production were covered, I began to think about promotion. I usually send out my newsletter on the date of a new release. I can look at each month and choose a date for my newsletter. I can also see what other items to feature in that month’s newsletter. I often put the first book in a series on sale when the third or fourth book in that series is either on sale or available for pre-order. Those sales take about 30 days advance notice to set up. I looked through the calendar and noted when I should be setting up a sale and for which title. Right now, I keep Post-it notes reminding me when to return a sale book to its regular price. I added those dates to my schedule instead.

I was walking the dog when I realized I could add even more things to my schedule! There are still a few of my books under publisher control that will be eligible for reversion requests in the next year or two. I added those dates so I don’t forget them. I could add notations for payments or for sales reports, but Mr. Math tracks a lot of that for me. He can keep it on his schedule. 🙂

I’ve been using my new planner all week, and it works well. Looking at the tasks for the day first thing in the morning gives me focus, and that seems to ensure that I get them done. I also realized the spreadsheet opens to the month I last looked at—so, if I update  the spreadsheet at the end of the day to mark what’s done and save it, tomorrow, it’ll open right where I left off. There isn’t a checklist for completed tasks, but I’m just typing DONE or moving what’s undone to the next day. It’s already proven useful for working with subcontractors—both my editor and formatter asked for estimated dates for upcoming projects and I just looked them up on my planner. Perfect!

I still have a few stray Post-It notes on my desk and some details to corral, but by the end of November, I’ll be completely reliant on the planner. I’ll also have my pre-orders up for 2017 in good time, with complete confidence that the delivery dates will be met.

How do you stay organized? Are you a planner or a listmaker?

On Resonance

Spellbound, a Regency romance anthology by Claire Delacroix, Jane Charles and Claudia DainHave you ever struck a crystal glass and heard it chime? That resonance lets you know that the glass was well-made. A book has a resonance, too, if it’s well-crafted. Over the years, I’ve developed an inner ear for my own books and their resonance. I don’t always know what’s missing from a work-in-progress, but when it’s right, I have no doubt of it. I can hear its resonance and know the book is done. Once upon a time, I never delivered a book to an editor until it had that resonance—now, I don’t publish one without it.

There are a lot of variables that influence the resonance of a book. The characters need to be fully dimensional and the story has to have a crisp pace. It goes deeper than that, though. Since I write romance, each book has two protagonists—each one has to have inner and outer conflicts, and best of all, each one has to help the other along his or her character arc. They have to become partners and be good for each other in order for their romance to be compelling, in my opinion. All the loose ends have to be resolved, and the bad guys have to get their due. When all of this is done and I review the story and its telling, I can ‘hear’ its resonance. *ping*

Wyvern's Prince, #2 in the Dragons of Incendium series of paranormal romances by Deborah CookeThere are also factors that challenge resonance. A book that contains too many elements can be difficult to build into coherence, let alone resonance. A book that is a step onto a new path for the author can fight its resonance. For me, though, the biggest factor influencing resonance is my own health and welfare. If I’m sick with a cold, I don’t write well. If you took Psych 101, you’ll remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (You can read the Wiki on it right here.) According to this theory by Abraham Maslow, human capabilities are made possible in a hierarchy by the satisfaction of needs. For example, the base of his pyramid of needs is Physiological—if you’re hungry, cold, and/or naked in the dark, you’ll be focused on solving those issues to the exclusion of all others. Once your basic survival is assured, you begin to concern yourself with Safety. After you’re safe and fed and sheltered, you become concerned with love and social connections, and so the pyramid builds higher. Creative processes are in the very top bit of the pyramid, as part of Self-Actualization. Essentially, artists function best when all other needs are covered. Maybe that makes creativity a luxury in this theory. We could debate that, but I’d agree that if any of those lower levels of the pyramid are in jeopardy, then creativity is challenged. Resonance, at least for me, becomes harder to achieve.

The Crusader's Handfast, #5 in the Champions of Saint Euphemia series of medieval romances by Claire DelacroixA good example of this is that I’m seldom very creative in the summer. This used to frustrate some of my New York editions, but it’s a matter of physiology. When it becomes very hot in my little corner of the world, it also becomes humid and there’s an increased chance of thunderstorms. Thunderstorms cause changes in barometric pressure and I—like many hundreds of thousands of other people—get migraines from shifts in barometric pressure. I can tell Mr. Math when it’s going to rain, no matter what the weather forecasters say, if the storm is going to be violent. Nothing helps my migraines much, except the ultimate leveling out of the barometric pressure. These kinds of pressure changes are more frequent in the summer, and I build more time into my seasonal schedule to allow for the downtime.

Arista's Legacy, #2.5 in the Dragons of Incendium series of paranormal romances by Deborah CookeThis year, we had heat for almost three months instead of a couple of weeks here and a couple of weeks there. We had a lot of shifts in barometric pressure, but not very many thunderstorms resulted. Resonance in my writing proved to be a little more elusive as a result. (I’m including all of the covers in this post of the books I did write this summer which found resonance!) I wrote Something Wicked four times before I was happy with it, and the story changed radically from the outset. I just made deadline on that one. Wyvern’s Prince had something keeping it from resonance until what seemed like the very last minute—then I figured out what it was, and made the change in time for the pre-order deadline. Phew! Arista’s Legacy is in final edits, so it’ll be good to go for November. I’ve finished the edits for The Crusader’s Handfast, which was a great review of the Champions series to date, so it’s all set up for October.

The Crusader's Vow by Claire Delacroix, book #4 in the Champions of Saint Euphemia series of medieval romances.The issue is that I’m not happy with this current telling of The Crusader’s Vow. It’s written but not resonant. I need to take the story apart and re-envision it—I have a list of new avenues to explore and research to do—because Leila’s story currently isn’t adding enough to the book. Trust me. 🙂 I want the story to be resonant, and that can’t be rushed. I also don’t want to have the various portals pinging me with reminders of the final book file being due.

So, as you might have guessed, I’ve moved the publication date on The Crusader’s Vow out to March. That leaves lots of time to make sure the book is resonant and that you love Fergus (and his HEA) as much as I do. Currently, there are only pre-orders available at Kobo and iBooks—the others will go live when the book is done and off to be formatted. I’m hoping that giving the story some space will ensure that it’s ready for publication earlier than that.

Thanks for your patience and understanding! Next year, I’ll be sure to cut my summer writing schedule back even more. I should be able to take care of things like website maintenance instead.

New Release Alert

I’ve been thinking (too much) about newsletters lately. As I get busier, I tend to prefer newsletters that get right to the point. Although I already have a monthly newsletter, which always ends up full of content and longer than I anticipated it would be, it seemed possible that some of you might like something shorter and sweeter.

So, today, I’ve set up a new Yahoo group called Deborah’s New Releases. If you subscribe to this Yahoo list, you’ll get an email on the on-sale date of any new book. It’ll include the cover, the description, the series information and the buy links, and you’ll only get it the once.

You can subscribe to either the monthly newsletter list or the new release alert, or you can subscribe to both of them.

The sign-up for my monthly newsletter sign-up is here.

The sign-up for my new release alert is here.

RTC Workshop – Point of View and Voice

Today, I’m teaching a workshop for writers at Romancing the Capital on Point of View and Voice. It’s a jam-packed little session, as these are both huge topics, so I’m posting the workshop here as well to be sure no one misses any of it.

Here we go:

When Eve gave me this topic for my workshop today, I did a little double-take. Point of view and voice are two different tools for storytelling, and if used skillfully, they work together to heighten the reader’s experience of the story. The trick is that I could teach about either for at least a half a day—to cover both in an hour means that we’ll just visit the essentials.

We’ll start with point of view. Point of view involves two different structural choices. Most of the references I found explained one or the other, but bonus today, we’ll talk about both.

First is the choice of how to structure the book. How many of you learned French or another language in school? Then you remember conjugating verbs. There are traditionally six forms that you learn in conjugating verbs:

– first person singular—I am, I saw, I went
– second person singular—you are, you saw, you went
– third person singular—he or she is, he or she saw, he or she went
– first person plural—we are, we saw, we went
– second person plural—you (all) are, you (all) saw, you (all) went
– third personal plural—they are, they saw, they went

In French, you might remember the subjects from those conjugation charts as je, tu, il or elle, nous, vous, ils or elles. In English, second person singular and plural are the same (unless you’re from the American south).

Theoretically, you could write a book using any of these points of view. In reality, the most common choices are first person singular and third person singular, which are usually called first person and third person. I’ve only ever encountered one book written in second person—it was a Tom Robbins novel—and the structure was as awkward as you might anticipate.

Many new writers just let the story come, and don’t think too much about structure. I think that POV should be a deliberate choice, so let’s talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each option. We’ll also touch on the variables to consider in both the choice of a POV structure, and the choice of a POV character.

The Rogue, book #1 of the Rogues of Ravensmuir trilogy of Scottish medieval romances by Claire DelacroixThe first person narrative reads like a confession. ‘The first time I saw him, I knew…’ It’s an intimate format, that can create a strong emotional bond between the reader and the writer. First person can be used to advantage in a coming-of-age story, which is why it’s so popular a choice in the young adult genre. I used it in my Dragon Diaries trilogy, which tells about Zoë turning sixteen and coming into her powers as the Wyvern of my dragon shifters, the Pyr. It’s also a popular choice in Gothic romance or mysteries, particularly when the protagonist is emotionally at risk, solving the mystery for personal reasons or becomes a potential victim. I used first person in my historical romance, The Rogue, which is a gothic medieval romance, because I felt that Ysabella’s uncertainties about trusting Merlyn were made more clear that way. I like to use first person for characters who are secretive or disinclined to confide in other people. The second book in that same series, The Scoundrel, features Merlyn’s brother, Gawain. He’s the villain in The Rogue and a whole lot of trouble. I knew that we wouldn’t be able to believe that he was truly in love with Evangeline—and thus be able to trust in their HEA—unless we were in his point of view when he realized the truth. Of course, he thought it was terribly inconvenient, and that scene remains one of my favorites of my own books. I also used first person in my contemporary romance, Double Trouble, specifically because Maralys has both a strong voice and a secret. Writing that story in first person allowed me to hint at her secret before she finally admitted it, much less told James about it. That book is free at most online portals right now.

The downside of first person point of view is that quite often the protagonist is the narrator for the entire book. So we have the upside of the narrowed view of the world, and the downside of a narrowed view of the world. We go through life only being able to hear the thoughts and feel the reactions for one person—our own—but in fiction, particularly in romance, there are readers who want to hear the thoughts and feel the reactions of the other protagonist. You don’t have to change POV to reveal this, though. How many of you have partners? If you suggest something to your partner—and this could be anything. A potential vacation, a new sex position, something different for dinner—how many of you know exactly what your partner is thinking of that suggestion the vast majority of the time? You might even know before your partner says a word. As social animals, we are keenly aware of physical clues which reveal or hint at the thoughts and feelings of other people. There’s no reason why your protagonist can’t notice those same things and make conclusions about the other protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. If done well, the reader will have no doubt of what is really going on, even in the minds and hearts of non-POV characters.

Third Time Lucky, book #1 of the Coxwell series of contemporary romances by Deborah Cooke (writing as Claire Cross)But that said, some authors like to switch out the point of view character. I did that in The Scoundrel—the book is written in first person but divided into quarters, the first section being from Gawain’s POV, the second from Evangeline’s, the third from Gawain’s and the fourth from Evangeline’s. The choice of order is not an accident, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s common when you do this to label each section or chapter with the name of the POV character to orient the reader. The majority of my contemporary romance Third Time Lucky is written in first person from the heroine’s POV, and the scenes from the hero’s POV are in third person. There are very few of them comparatively and they appeared in the original book in a different font. Others use this structure of switching between first and third, too, but I think it’s less elegant.

Third person POV is probably more prevalent overall in the world of fiction—although it might be uncommon in your sub-genre of choice. In a way, it’s more familiar. It also offers the option of including multiple POV’s in a book, beyond even that of the protagonist. In mystery, it’s common to have the occasional scene from the POV of the villain, for example, which is specifically done to build the tension. Third person POV is a more elegant choice for changing POV between scenes, although you should ensure that the first line of each scene orients the reader as to who the POV character is. That will ensure a smooth reading experience. If the reader has to wonder, he of she will be dropped out of the story, which is never a good thing.

Fallen, an urban fantasy romance by Claire DelacroixThe downside of third person is only that it’s less intimate that first person POV. That’s mitigated by the increased flexibility of the structure, which can be used to increase the reader’s connection to both protagonists. Your skill as a writer will make a big difference heere. Sometimes you don’t know what to choose, or you make the wrong choice at the outset. For example, I originally wrote my urban fantasy romance Fallen in first person POV from the heroine’s perspective, because the heroine Lilia had a lot of attitude. I found her prickly and she sounded bitchy in third person, but in first person, I could understand her better and even sympathize with her. Her husband has been murdered, she wants to uncover the truth, even though they’ve been estranged for a long time. Everyone is lying to her, including the cop who seems determined to be obstructionist. The worst part is that she thinks he’s hot, which provokes her reaction to him and her guilt about her failed marriage. When that book was placed with a publisher, the editor suggested some revisions, one of which was that the book be revised to be in third person. I had very mixed feelings about this at the time, but gave it a try. The thing was that the exercise of having written Lilia in first person gave me the insight to write her in third person in a more compelling way. Plus I really liked the added scenes from the hero’s POV. The hero Montgomery had been quite enigmatic in the earlier version. He’s a fallen angel who voluntarily shed his wings as part of a quest to save humanity, and who is now a cop. The series is future-set and apocalyptic. One of the great benefits of revising this book to be in third person POV was the addition of Montgomery’s experience of sacrificing his wings, which is the opening scene of the book. It’s his first taste of pain, and I love that scene. It would never have existed if I’d left the book as it was originally.

Another consideration when you decide what POV to use is the current fashion. There are trends in the structure of stories, just like everything else, and popular fiction shows more of them than literary fiction. Let’s focus for a moment on the change in the romance genre. The kind of story that is most popular may shape the ways in which books are structured. The romances of the forties through the early eighties were mostly about women’s journeys, so they focussed on the heroine. They were written in third person POV from the heroine’s perspective, or in the case of Gothics, in first person POV from the heroine’s perspective. If you go back and look at many of these books, you’ll see that the heroes tend to be shadowy figures. They’re rich, they’re handsome, they’re domineering, and perhaps because they’re taciturn, we don’t get a great deal of insight into their characters. Each is the handsome prince come to sweep the heroine away, the inevitable result of her goodness and innocence. The spine of these stories is Cinderella. Through the eighties, though, romance became more complicated, both in reality and within the genre mirroring popular culture, and heroes became more dimensional. They might be scarred or wounded. The heroine might not be innocent. The core story changed to Beauty and the Beast, which has the distinction of being the oldest fairy tale with an active female protagonist. The heroine and hero began to heal each other, and the books portrayed a much more active negotiation of an enduring relationship. Along with this change came the increasing prevalence in romance novels of the hero’s POV. It’s now pretty common in our genre to have POV alternate, scene by scene through the book, with one scene from the hero’s POV, then one from the heroine’s, then one from the hero, etc.

This isn’t just a mechanical trick, because here’s the complication—POV in any scene should be given to the character who has the most at risk. The character with the most to win or lose “owns” the scene and should be the POV character. We’re not going to talk about writing a synopsis today, because that’s another long workshop, but learning this is one of the merits of writing a synopsis. A successful romance in our current market has two entwined character arcs and two journeys. It should be both the hero and the heroine’s story, and each should propel the other along the path of their journey. There’s a chemistry between them and each reacts to the other’s choices, prompting another choice, and another step closer to the resolution of one of the conflicts. When I teach about writing synopses, I talk about the hot potato. What does he do and what reaction does that provoke in her? What is his reaction to her choice? A synopsis is a useful tool, even though all authors hate writing them, because a good synopsis shows the path of the hot potato, as the pair challenge each other’s assumptions and provoke each other’s reactions. It also marks the turning points—when does each realize it’s love, when does each say it’s love—as well as the connection between realization and reaction.

The Scoundrel, book #2 in the Rogues of Ravensmuir trilogy of Scottish medieval romances by Claire DelacroixSo, in any given scene, the POV should be assigned to the character with the most at risk. Gawain in The Scoundrel is a whole lot of trouble and he’s determined to have no feelings for anyone at all. He’s a thief and a mercenary. So, the moment he realizes that he’s in love has to be in his POV. That’s the only way we’re going to believe him. I chose to write the book in first person to heighten the connection with the reader in that one scene. That scene had to come before he tells Evangeline about his feelings, so we share her skepticism but know better—we’re kind of on the inside—and it also is punctuated by a change in his choices. It’s not enough to love her and to know it. He has to act upon that knowledge to prove it to us. What he does is return to a keep to rescue her, knowing that at best, only one of them will survive.

And now onto our quick overview of voice.

Voice is a distinctive tone to a work. This is both simple and complicated. Think of the way you recognize the voice or the laughter of a friend—you can often do this on the telephone in a word or two. It’s not just accent or pitch that makes a voice distinct. It can be a typical choice of words, or a characteristic way of describing things. Just as it’s hard to pinpoint the exact combination of elements that let you recognize someone’s voice, it’s difficult to precisely define the elements of a writer’s voice.

But we’ll try anyway.

Here are several typical components of voice, from broadest overview to narrowest scope:

a/ the overall tone of the author’s work. This might vary from work to work, but there will be common elements throughout all of the author’s work. An author’s tone might be whimsical or hard-edged, sarcastic or funny.

b/ the theme(s) that the author favors. Again, there may be variations, but a thorough study will show patterns. I think that “love conquers all” is part of my voice. That theme is part of my work, even when I don’t write romance.

c/ the types of stories that author prefers to tell. To some extent, this is linked with favored themes.

d/ the kinds of characters that author chooses. Does he or she write strong but vulnerable heroines? Scarred heroes? Unlikely heroes? Again, a lot of these components are entangled with each other. The kind of protagonists favored by an author might be tied to tone, theme or genre—or all three.

e/ the specific way the author uses language to express him or herself. This can include whether the prose is lush or spare. Regional expressions can be part of voice. The amount of description, the amount of dialogue, and the balance between the two can be part of voice. Also, the author’s vocabulary, or the choice of common vs. unusual words. Some authors like sentence fragments, some write sentences so long that they defy belief. This is all part of the author’s voice, of what makes his or her work distinctive from everyone else’s work.

If this is all feeling a bit slippery, don’t worry. Those are all vague qualities and I’m going to complicate the formula a bit more. Some authors have strong voices, some don’t. It’s more typical of literary fiction authors to exhibit clear voice. This is simply the realities of their market—literary fiction is in many ways about language and the author’s dexterity with language. It makes sense that voice would play a big role in making a literary fiction author publishable.

In fact, in single title works in all genres—as compared to series titles—authors tend to have more distinctive voices. This is because the publisher wants to be able to build a “brand” in the marketplace. If the author has a strong voice, the theory is that not only is there something to brand, but that readers will continue to buy works by the author because they like the voice. We, as readers, respond to a writer’s voice in the same way that we respond to individuals. How many of you have said “I don’t like her work. It’s too…(whatever)”? And then we assume that our response to the author’s voice will be the same as our response to the author herself.

Double Trouble, book #2 in the Coxwell Series of contemporary romances, by Deborah CookeAnother reason that voice may be more clear in some genres than others is that voice appears to be stronger in passages that don’t have a lot of dialogue. This makes sense, when you think about it, because in descriptive passages, the author’s voice isn’t competing with the voices of the characters. You can still discern the author’s voice in dialogue, but it’s tougher and you have to read more of his or her work for the voice to be clear. The characters’ voices will dominate in dialogue, and in a work written in first person POV, the protagonist’s voice might completely overwhelm the author’s voice. Maralys did that to me in Double Trouble. In any given work, there can be a number of competing voices: there will be the author’s voice, the voice of the narrator or pov character, and the voices of the other characters. At any given point in that work, one of those voices may dominate the others, or they may all sing in harmony.

One interesting thing about voice is how it becomes entwined with the author brand. When we as readers say we like this author or that one, we’re often referring to the author’s voice rather than the individual books. The voice is the basis of the connection and its continuity between works builds our loyalty as readers. We respond to the way that author tells stories, and the stories he or she chooses to tell. Given that, it makes sense that the author’s voice becomes mingled with the author’s brand. Voice might even be the author’s brand—count on Author A for this kind of story. The tricky bit is that because voice is difficult to define, individual readers may perceive elements in the author’s voice that others don’t. That will impact the building of the author brand.

Another interesting thing about voice is that it shouldn’t be as distinctive and clear throughout the book. If you think about actors, they don’t summon all their creative energy for the scene in which their character has nothing particular to contribute. They don’t ‘steal the scene’ from the character with the most at risk. They bring the fullness of their skills to scenes that are pivotal for their character, or are turning points. They use their abilities for emphasis. And writers should do this as well. You can use your voice for emphasis.

I have two excerpts to read to you here, and I want you to listen for the change in each one. In both excerpts, the author is using voice as a tool.

The first is an excerpt from an Anne Rice book, Exit to Eden:

“We stopped on the way back for some wine and a load of delicacies — caviar and crackers, apples, sour cream, smoked oysters. I bought some cinnamon and butter and bread, lots of French yogurt, a cold bottle of Dom Perignon (the best they had, $50) and a package of liquor store wine glasses.

When we got to the room, I ordered an ice bucket, turned off the air conditioner again, and latched the shutters the way I had the first time.

It was just getting dusk, vivid, sweet New Orleans dusk with the sky blood red and the pink oleander glowing in the tangle of the garden. The heat lingered in the air the way it never does on the coast. There was a velvety feel to the warmth and the room was full of dusty shadows.”

Did you hear the change? What was happening there? We had a shopping list, a bunch of details that the reader apparently needs to know but that aren’t the main point of the scene. The seduction is what’s important, so once they back to the room, the author’s voice takes over. She’s saying “listen up! here comes the good stuff.”

This one is from an Alice Hoffman book, Practical Magic:

“The aunts don’t bother to answer; they have very little tolerance for dim-witted humor, and they’re not interested in making polite conversation. They stand on the corner near the bus station and whistle for a taxi; as soon as one pulls over, they tell the driver exactly where to go — along the Turnpike for seven miles, past the mall and the shopping centers, past the Chinese restaurant and the deli and the ice cream shop where Antonia has worked this summer. The aunts smell like lavender and sulfur, a disquieting mixture, and maybe that’s the reason the taxi driver holds the door open for them when they arrive at Sally’s house, even though they didn’t bother to tip him. The aunts don’t believe in tips, and they never have. They believe in earning your worth and doing the job right. And when you come right down to it, that’s what they’re here for.

Sally offered to pick them up at the bus station, but the aunts would have none of that. They can get around just fine on their own. They prefer to come to a place slowly, and that’s what they’re doing now. The lawns are wet, and the air is motionless and thick, the way it always is before a storm. A haze hangs over the houses and the chimney tops. The aunts stand in Sally’s driveway, between the Honda and Jimmy’s Oldsmobile, their black suitcases set down beside them. They close their eyes, to get a sense of this place. In the poplar trees, the sparrows watch with interest. The spiders stop spinning their webs. The rain will begin after midnight, on this the aunts agree. It will fall in sheets, like rivers of glass. It will fall until the whole world seems silver and turned upside down. You can feel such things when you have rheumatism, or when you’ve lived as long as the aunts have.”

In the first part of the excerpt, even though it’s not dialogue, the author lets the voice of the aunts dominate. (They really only have one voice, even though there are two of them.) “The aunts don’t believe in tips, and they never have.” The cadence is more clipped, you can hear an elderly person speaking exactly like this.

Then, as soon as the aunts arrive at Sally’s house, the voice changes. The author’s voice then dominates. “The lawns are wet, and the air is motionless and thick, the way it always is before a storm.” It’s slower, more leisurely, more evocative. The rhythm is different though the excerpt is all of a piece.

This is a perfect example of using voice for emphasis. The aunts have been summoned to solve a problem, essentially to resolve the plot. This is the big finish. While they are in transit, the author lets their voice claim the passage. This is a way of getting double work out of the travelling passage—it shows the character of the aunts right before they play a key role. Once they arrive, once the big moment is upon us, their voice is subverted to that of the author. This is a signal from the author to the reader that it’s time to sit up and pay attention. The dominance of the author’s voice emphasizes the passage from that point onward, because what happens is important.

Here’s a third excerpt to consider. This is Gawain’s moment of truth in my book The Scoundrel. There’s a religious relic in this book which is called the Titulus Croce, the sign of the cross. It’s believed to be a piece of the sign that was hung over Jesus when he was crucified which said Jesus, King of the Jews, and the hero and heroine steal it from each other repeatedly, each believing that they have the better claim.

“I awakened alone and devoid of the Titulus, yet again.

All that lingered of Evangeline was her sweet scent upon my chemise, the indent of her figure in the straw. I peered over the lip of the loft, not truly surprised to find my horse gone, as well.

Had I not warned her away from me? Had I not ensured that she was disgusted with my vulgarity? I know the look of a woman whose heart is softening to the point that she believes me capable of some misguided nobility—though I had never expected pragmatic Evangeline to regard me thus, she had done so after I pulled her from the lake. It was remarkable, for I could have spent a pleasant night betwixt the lady’s thighs, but had denied my own pleasure to protect her heart.

Chivalry, which I had long believed to be dead and gone from this world unlamented, had proven to be hidden in the most unlikely of places—it had been nestled in my very marrow, and had revealed itself at a most inconvenient time.

I saw now why I had always avoided noble deeds: this past night, I had slept alone, awakened alone, been relieved of my valuables, and all because of my own misguided urge to warn the lady away from me. Gallantry, in my opinion this morn, was of less merit than most men believed.

I had long suspected that scruples were troublesome and thus had always ensured that I not cultivate any. It was no consolation to find my suspicions correct.”

This is edited a bit but here’s the interesting thing—of all the excerpts, this was the easiest one for me to read aloud. Why? Because I wrote it. Passages in your voice will be easier for you to read out loud. You will instinctively know the rhythm of the work, and where the pauses are. Whenever you are uncertain about a passage and the strength of your voice in it, just read it aloud.

There’s a second thing to note about this passage—my voice is used here for emphasis, just as voice was used in the Anne Rice and Alice Hoffman excerpts. This scene is the strongest expression of my voice in this book. It’s also the lynchpin of the plot—this is the scene in which Gawain stops being a scoundrel and becomes a hero. If this short scene were taken out, the book would fall apart. It wouldn’t be a romance. And so because that scene is so very critical, it shows the strongest expression of my voice. Use your voice to emphasize the most important elements of your plot.