The Writers Circle: Finding Your Voice

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Each of us has a unique style in our writing, a personal method of telling our story. Often, we may find that readers as, “why don’t you write more like…” (insert a famous author’s name here) or “you write to similarly to…” (insert author’s name).  With the real or implied pressure to write like others but not too much like them, how have you been able to make your writing familiar enough that people can draw comparisons, but unique enough to be completely you?

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.


Our Forum is Better Than Your Forum

As a member of another writing forum (that belongs to a top 5 publisher) believe me when I tell you the capabilities of this forum are far superior. We’ve been waiting more than nine months into a site “revamp” to be able to do some of the things the Today’s Author Forum can do on day one.

With the click of a button, you can include the quote of the post you’re replying to. You can alter your font style, size and color. You can post a link, photo or video without having to learn computer bracket code. You can even post a photo with a link in it. You can create a specific sign off to appear at the bottom of all your posts. You can subscribe to threads you’re interested in following.

I’m sure there are more, but those are my favorites. Now we just need more forum members to get those conversations going. Writing can be an isolated enterprise. It helps to link up with other writers and trade ideas. That’s what this whole site is about; the forum is just the next level.

Today we’re kicking off a new forum feature: the mini critique.  This is a space to post a short excerpt of your writing and get a reader response. The goal is to remind you to get to work- not be a distraction. That’s why we keep excerpts short. Post the scene you’ve just written. It can be rough and raw. Offer other writers general impressions and encouragement. People who don’t comment on other writing tend to get fewer comments on theirs, promoting participation.

Go ahead. Join us here.

The Ideal Reader(s)

It’s been said that every writer needs his/her ideal reader. Not the reader or readers who will eventually enjoy the book, poem, short story, essay in its final form, but the reader before those readers, the reader who the writer trusts to be kind, constructive, complimentary, but also brutal, if need be.

I have been searching for my reader since I started writing, hoping to find all those elements in one human, only to be too complimented by one, or too criticized by another. I started to think that the ideal reader is a bit like “the one” concept for love: there is only one person for us, and if we don’t somehow find that person, we might as well pack it in. Over time, I shifted my thinking a bit to acknowledge that maybe there was more than one reader for me, just as I came to acknowledge after my first heartbreak that there is more than one “the one” for me.

What I need from a reader varies, depending on what I’m writing. For poetry, I need a reader who knows something about poetry. It’s all well and good to give a prose writer one of my poems and ask for critique, but odds are, I’m not going to get the kind of line by line, genre analysis I’m looking for. So, if it’s poetry, I send my work to a dear friend of mine who has wrestled with this genre himself—he’s insightful, witty, and brutal, in the best sense of that word. It’s because of him that I renamed a poetry chapbook I’ve been working on for ages—to paraphrase, he told me the title was crap. It’s also because of his critique that I buried that same chapbook for nearly a year, because I couldn’t bear the thought of renaming it. I exhumed it recently, told myself to get over my title-related strop, and re-title it. And I did, and it’s way better than it was.

I also need a reader who will catch my grammar and punctuation errors, and give me a more bird’s eye view of my work—someone who enjoys reading and knows good writing versus bad. This position is shared by my parents, but depending on if I need a soft touch or a brutal one, I go for one or the other. I’ll take the 5th on identifying which parent fills which role.

And lastly, I need a reader who can just tell me that everything I write is awesome, it’s the greatest thing ever created, it rivals Shakespeare, Hardy, King, Atwood, and Oates, and every single letter should win a Pulitzer. That role goes to my husband. He’s the ego boost that I need, as a writer.

Each of these readers fulfills a necessary role for me; sometimes all four of these people see my work, and other times, only one or two. Often, my husband sees my work right away, because it’s important for me to receive that initial thumbs up to push forward into more rigorous editing. He puts an extra glow on my work, before I allow it be eviscerated, if need be, by my other readers.

Have you found your reader or readers? What qualities do you look for? Someone who will praise you ‘til the cows come home, or someone who’s got the red pen ready?

Gifts for the young reader (and writer!)

Do you have a young person on your Christmas list, but don’t really have a clue what to get them? Or perhaps you know someone who is an avid reader of any age, but you’re not sure what they’d like?

I happen to have just the thing. As the community moderator for the Young Writer’s Program, I know what’s got the kids excited about reading these days. The roleplays they create, the fandoms they write, the things they’re going gaga for. These are the stories they’re talking about non-stop amongst themselves.  You may have even noticed some have been made into movies!

Here’s your perfect list, just in time for the holiday.

Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth

Warriors Series by by Erin Hunter

The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare

Maximum Ride by James Patterson  (Yes, that James Patterson.)

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherine M. Valente

Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie

If there’s a budding writer, then a great choice are totable notebooks. Moleskines are my drug of choice, but I’ve also found Picadilly journals to be an adequate and much less expensive alternative. Great pens are never a bad thing for any writer. Even if they’re digital writers, at some point you’ve gotta break out the red ink. My personal favorites are of course the ever trustworthy Pilot Precise V5s, and they come in colors!

So tell me, fine readers, what are your go-to gifts for the readers and writers during the holidays? What do YOU hope Santa brings for Christmas?

Dot to Dot

In autumn 1991 I was an observer but not yet a writer. I drove my eleven-year-old son and his friend up Interstate 5 where it traversed the Tejon Ranch approaching Bakersfield. The mountains rose like brown whales from an arid sea of olive chaparral. We weren’t there to view California in its austere native splendor. We’d gone to see the Umbrellas.

Environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had installed almost 1800 twenty-six-foot-tall yellow umbrellas flanking the hillsides along the highway. They popped open, polypropylene mushrooms blooming overnight in fairy rings and staggered parades. Up close an umbrella’s oversized ribs and golden sails loomed large enough to shelter our entire family. At a distance they tumbled across the landscape like lemon gumdrops.

We drove from site to site along the main route spotting umbrella clusters on the highway shoulders. A loopy side road took us to a solitary umbrella wading in a pond, its reflection making two.  Hundreds more scattered on the ruffled hem of the foothills. Dozens trooped like scouts up a far ridgeline, growing a spiky mane for the mountain. One perched inaccessibly on a craggy rock between the divided highway. Everywhere they posed on the terrain, hundreds of people traipsed to peer and touch the umbrellas.

I became more and more irritated by the crowds. Who were these people in their cars and trucks, picnicking by the roadside, hauling cameras as big as jackhammers, mucking up my sightlines? The boys jumped from rock to rut, ran around the steel masts of nearby umbrellas, and popped up and down like groundhogs in February. If the significance of the exhibit was lost on them, they exploited the carnival-like opportunities of the moment and had fun. But I wanted the full sensory experience, to see the umbrellas singular against the modern world. I wanted to guzzle the essence of the event, filling myself with Art.

At our last stop the wind picked up in staggering gusts. Fat raindrops suggested I must soon begin the two hour trek home. Glancing up to spot folks wandering around a cluster of umbrellas, I finally got it. People—moving, bending, pointing—filled in the negative spaces between umbrellas, adding a kinetic element to still giants. Tourists, art critics, and serendipitous travelers were as essential as the square platforms that secured the flaring umbrellas. They were art. My son and his friend were art. I was art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude planned their project, publicized it, and convinced landowners to allow them to mount their work. They didn’t tell us, the viewers, the whole truth. We weren’t union members collecting our per diem and threatening to strike if the conditions got bad, but we were a crucial part of the art. Without us wandering among the golden forest, the umbrellas would have been just an outcropping of gigantic manufactured fungi, as misplaced as whales in the desert.

I grinned driving home through the rain, tired boys sleeping in the back seat. How brilliant were the two artists. If they’d proposed their project along traditional access lines, they would still be mired in legalities, trying to close contracts and avoid suits, sign here and you can officially be artwork. Instead, they’d simply opened umbrellas where people could not only view them but walk close enough to touch. I hadn’t just gotten to see Christo’s Umbrellas. I’d gotten to be the exhibit. Yellow dot to yellow dot, I connected and completed the spectacle.

It has been decades. The umbrellas are gone, the boys grown, I am a writer. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I begin my work in isolation, researching and outlining, revising and deleting, dreaming story. When ready for presentation I invite friends and critiquers to read. If I am half as smart as the artists, I’ve left space for readers to take shelter in my words. Like the viewers along Interstate 5, my readers connect the dots. As the artists trusted me, I trust those who become immersed in my writing to fill in the blanks. They inhabit my protagonist’s life, walk my story arc, and contribute their interpretation to my work. A volume of dried ink becomes a living entity we share.

Competent writers know to excise bathroom trips, grocery shopping, toenail clipping, and meaningless dialogue. Writing every possible activity a character might engage in squeezes the reader out of the book. Worse, a pedantic pace dumps the story into a well of boredom, leaving no place for a reader to lodge. My partner closes the book. How to create that living space for readers is as much a part of my writing process as vocabulary choice, character development, plot sequence, and crisis resolution.

I am an observer and I write about everything. I often struggle to recognize when the carefully crafted passage is dispensable. Weeks of creating the perfect scene, hours of evaluating content, only to realize it doesn’t contribute to my story. Unessential, contrived, a distraction without purpose, I discard the chaff. Better to leave the space open and trust my reader to fill in the blanks. Christo and Jeanne-Claude taught me through engagement with their art how to write enough for the reader leap from dot to dot but not to run all the bases. Leave vital space. Readers are more engaged when they sense their presence within my story. Readers become the story.

Once, I got to see the Umbrellas. Years later I apply the lesson of vital space to my writing. What life experience has influenced your writing?

Be well, friend.