Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Put Some Style in Your Writing Voice

Style, voice, tone. These three elements of writing are all involved and interconnected in making your writing effective and stamping it as uniquely yours. No two people can write the same way – although many have tried to mimic famous authors’ styles. In fact, there’s a funny contest set up to emulate William Faulkner’s writing style. See this link for an excerpt of a winning entry in that contest...


There are about as many different definitions for style, voice, and tone as there are places where they are defined. Rather than get into a lengthy discussion of the nuances of all these variations in definition, I’m going to just cut to the chase and make up my own versions in an attempt to help you see how you can use these elements to improve your writing.

STYLE. Style results from specific choices in writing techniques that include diction (word choices), mood and setting choices, characterization choices, and so forth. Like painting styles (impressionistic as opposed to modernistic), writing styles in fiction can vary depending on the needs of the story. Style includes all the tricks and techniques you employ to get your writing to say just what you want it to, in just the way you want to it to.

In the same way Faulkner employed stream-of-consciousness writing techniques, convoluted run-on sentences, and specific punctuation or lack thereof to create a style that was uniquely his, Hemingway created a style all his own that was vastly different. Literary styles can range from picturesque eloquence to choppy one-sentence paragraphs. What style you choose to use should be a good match for your writing skill, the way you naturally express yourself, and the type of story you intend to write. If you prefer a style that employs big passages of scenic description replete with long luxurious sentences and ten-dollar words, maybe you’ll choose not to employ that particular style in everything you write.

Of course, if your writing tends to sound like everyone else’s, then maybe you don’t have a style developed yet. And if you don’t, you have a great opportunity to experiment with characterization, diction, punctuation, and all kinds of different writing elements – each of which, employed in a specific manner in a unique combination with other elements – can create a distinctive style for you.
Here are two writing samples of the same subject with different stylistic treatments, just to demonstrate how word choices, diction, and even punctuation can help establish a unique style that fits your storyline and also fits your natural writing inclinations...

Blatt slumped his bony shoulders and rubbed his stubbly chin for a moment, then yelled,“Pa says we don’t need no permission to come onto this here property.” He lifted his skinny elbows high into the air and planted his fists on nonexistent hips. “You hear me?”

Blatt scrubs his fingers over the scruff of his chinny-chin-chin and thinks about it for a second or two afore hollering in his tinny little squeak of a voice, “Pa says we don’t need no permishun to come onto this here property.” His elbows fly up in the air like a rooster fixin’ to flap his wings, and he jams his knuckles on his skinny ol’ hips like he’s gonna strut around just like that dad-blame rooster. “Ya hear me?”

A couple variances in techniques and writing elements – verb tense choice and more defined use of colloquialisms and diction/slang – make these two versions of the same excerpt vastly different in style. You can apply the same kinds of choices to craft a writing style that is luxurious or austere or any variation in between, so that it becomes a style of your very own, suited to the specific needs of the piece you’re writing.

VOICE. Author voice (as opposed to verb voice – passive/active) is a little harder to explain. It is a lot like style, in that it is uniquely yours by the choices you make in wording and sentence structure, but it also has a bit more of you in it – your feelings and attitudes – rather than simply a result of chosen writing techniques.

The voice of a writer should be evident in whatever writing style is adopted. For instance, in the two examples above, the first is more straightforward in telling the ‘facts’ of the story, while the second employs more ‘attitude’ by describing the character with more flair and bordering on making fun of him by describing him as skinny and scruffy and comparing him to a rooster flapping his wings and strutting around. So the author of the second example doesn’t appear to have a particularly high regard for his character, and uses him as an excuse to present a humorous and even ridiculous visual image to his readers. He ‘sacrifices’ his characters to entertain his readers, and may choose to apply that approach in all his writing. His voice says that the storytelling is a performance for him that can take precedence over the mechanics or content of the story. So while one author may focus on the actual telling of a story in the most straightforward method possible, an author whose attitude and personality shine through will show his ‘voice’ in whatever he writes. Tied in with a favored style, that voice may lean toward humor or pathos, depending on the author and the story.

A good example to demonstrate voice unique to the writer comes from Wheaton College’s web site (www.wheaton.edu). Note that the same basic idea is expressed by each of two quotes...

“Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.” –Miles Davis

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.” –Artur Schnabel (1882–1951), German-born U.S. pianist

Basically both musicians are saying that the secret to great music lies in what’s between the notes, what the musician himself brings to the music. The way each of them makes this point is vastly different. Their voice is different – a combination of style, attitude, and tone.

TONE. Tone, like voice, is a bit difficult to explain, because in truth it is very similar to voice, but more attuned to the ... well ... tone of voice used. For instance, a treatise on political misbehavior could come across as very stern. Or an instructional message could come off as didactic, or a moral could end up sounding preachy. The author’s attitude toward the audience and purpose in writing comes into play in establishing the tone of a particular piece.
Here are two more examples to consider. Note how the author treats each character in the way he is described...

Philip had penned his notes for his public address neatly on lined white index cards. Numbered in order, precisely arranged, they laid out his simple plan to convince the townspeople that taxation was not something to be avoided, but to be accepted and embraced as part of the democratic way of life. He mumbled a practice run of his closing argument, allowing his words to ring in his head with glorious pitch to the standing ovation he imagined would be his once he concluded his speech. “I beseech you, fellow taxpayers, to vote ‘yes’ on this county tax referendum, for surely there can be no other logical choice. Your tax dollars are sorely needed to maintain our glorious country where democracy is prized but does not come without a price. That price is support – support in the form of financial offering. A ‘no’ vote is just saying ‘no’ to freedom. Remember, dear citizens, nothing in life is free – not even freedom. So vote ‘yes’ today and proudly support the dearly beloved freedoms in our democratic country.”

Ryan scowled, thinking of the cutbacks at work and the lost wages due to disappearing overtime. He needed that overtime to make the bills every month. And this stupid county tax increase would be just one more demand on his finances that he couldn’t afford. “The burden of taxation falls to the middle class,” he whispered, practicing his speech as he sat waiting for his turn at the podium. “The median-income wage earners, the families with a couple kids, a couple cars, a mortgage, and most likely both parents working full-time to support that suburban lifestyle, are the ones who will be hit hardest by this new tax referendum. The affluent, the wealthy, the privileged – on the basis of statistics alone – pay less tax per capita dollar earned than do the working middle class. Perhaps it’s a matter of being able to pay for better tax-preparation help. Who knows? But the bottom line is, the more that’s earned, the more likely the taxes paid on those earnings will be lower for the wealthy and higher for the middle class who are already struggling to make ends meet.” He sighed and twisted the pages of his speech in his sweaty hands as the last line rang in his head... “Vote ‘no’ on this referendum and let our government know they can’t take any more from you, because you can’t take it anymore!”

The author treats the first character in the example above like a fruitcake. His missive is colorful and flowery, harking back to the days of ‘My fellow countrymen, lend me your ear...’ The character in the second example is more down to earth with real details backing up his financial dilemma. It’s subtle but clear that the author sympathizes with the second character more, and thus, subconsciously, the reader will too – mostly because of the way the author’s tone colors the attitude of each piece. This attitude is what the author expects the reader to accept.

So, tone leans toward attitude – your attitude toward the subject you are writing about, as well as your attitude toward your audience. For instance, you may favor a specific subject and employ a variety of techniques to subtly steer your readers toward accepting your argument in support of this subject. Or, if you are against it, you may write about it in a derisive or disdainful manner, also subtly coloring your audience’s attitude about the subject. Of course, depending on the preferences of particular readers, you may end up alienating some readers rather than convincing them to adopt your attitude.

In the examples above, the tone of the first example is somewhat flippant and sarcastic, lingering high in the clouds of impractical ideology. The tone of the second is more respectful and better grounded in reality with details that point to actual reasons why the man doesn’t want to allow a higher tax burden to be heaped on everyone. His message has the definite slant that taxation laws are not fair across the board. He comes off as righteously angry. The author’s tone in the second example is more respectful of the character and thus more persuasive for the reader.

Coupled with the author’s voice and style, the tone drives home the point that the author wants the reader to empathize with the second man more than the first. This subtle difference of making a character reasonable and grounded in reality as opposed to too ideological to be a trustworthy source for the reader to empathize with sets the tone of how the author wants the reader to view and assess the characters and the issues they are dealing with.

Hopefully this demonstrates how style, voice, and tone can all be used to color your writing and enrich your characters while subtly bending your reader to your viewpoints.

Patricia Morrison
Penumbra Publishing

Monday, May 21, 2012

New Book Releases

by Walter Night

Things just keep getting loonier on planet New Colorado, where a new officer, Lieutenant Chris Columbus, claims he’s the original Christopher Columbus credited with discovering America back on Old Earth in 1492. He also claims Major Lopez went back in time as General Lopez and recruited him to the Legion. Czerinski’s not buying the whole time-travel thing, but that doesn’t stop the Arthropodan spider commander from suspecting there’s something to it. And if that wasn’t weird enough, another lieutenant from the past makes an appearance, as well as the Legion’s most hated traitor, claiming he’s being chased by vampire commandos. Welcome back to Camp Crazy with this next installment of the whacky military space opera.

And yet another installment is on the horizon. If you haven’t been reading this series, try the first one and see how it all started – just 99 cents in Kindle ebook! (Note this book is available only at Amazon)

by Rita Plush

Empty nest and retired husband … after thirty years of cooking and cleaning, Lily Gold wants more out of life, something she can do just for her. A job seems like a great idea, but re-entering the work force is harder than she thinks. Just when she finds the perfect situation in an antique store, with the opportunity to start her own business, husband Leon finds he doesn’t like not having her at his beck and call and pulls the plug on the finances. HIS needs – what about HERS? Lily’s had enough! But how far will she go to assert her independence and prove she has what it takes to be her own person? Does doing what you love mean you have to leave behind those you love? Lily’s about to find out…

“Endearing, funny, suspenseful, and heart-rending. Lily Gold’s story is every middle-aged married woman’s story, every empty-nest homemaker’s life. You go, girl! I absolutely loved this book!” – advance-reader and author Willa Kaye Danes.

“Charming and carefully observed, LILY STEPS OUT is a First Wives Club for the new millennium. LILY will win your heart as she ‘comes of age.’ A great read!” – Kevin Misher, producer of Public Enemies.

“…engagingly written. The voice is shrewd, sharp, funny, and yet tender.” – Joyce Carol Oates.

Patricia Morrison
Penumbra Publishing

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Boycotting versus Marketing

Boycott – to combine in abstaining from, or preventing dealings with, as a means of intimidation or coercion: to boycott a store ... to abstain from buying or using: to boycott foreign products.

The practice of boycotting has become a method for consumers to join together and fight back against ‘big, bad corporations’ like Walmart and Proctor & Gamble. For authors the ‘big, bad corporation’ (besides the ‘Big Six’ publishers – Hatchette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster) is Amazon. Like consumers who have a general distrust of the secret behind-the-scenes goings-on of large corporations, authors harbor animosity against any publishing giant that ignores their work and seems to stand in the way of their work being published or of selling well after it is published by whatever means.

From trailblazing profiteer to publishing pirateer. It should be noted that the Big Six publishers are often at odds with Amazon, as is Apple, a retail competitor of Amazon. In fact, it seems that almost everyone at some time or another is at odds with Amazon. And sometimes with good reason. Amazon has set itself up as a publisher competitor, having lured away some better-selling authors from the Big Six to create its own stable of authors for its own publishing venture. In a clever and insidious retail ploy to undercut other booksellers, Amazon instituted deep book pricing discounts to lure customers to buy online. Amazon further strong-armed the Big Six into paying to sell their books on Amazon and then took away those publishers’ right to set their own retail price for their books by threatening to stop selling their books if they didn’t agree to whatever terms Amazon wanted to impose. The publishers were then left with profit loss on books that Amazon sold below their overhead-heavy wholesale threshold. Amazon did all this with a multi-faceted market-domination campaign.

But when the Big Six got together with a retail competitor to put a stop to Amazon’s price-bullying, the Department of Justice slapped a suit against them. Looking back on the way Amazon did things, it is easy to label this company as a ‘big, bad corporation’ reminiscent of the robber-barons of the industrial railroad age. It is Amazon-amazing how the DoJ turned a blind eye to Amazon’s underhanded market tactics. Or maybe it was naivety on the part of the Big Six in handing over all the retail work to Amazon, then crying foul when Amazon decided it didn’t need the Big Six to do anything, that it could get the unhappy authors, hire the displaced editors, and start its own publishing arm.

Bookstore owners and ‘box retailers’ like Borders and Best Buy have found themselves at a loss to survive this insidious shift in retail consumer buying habits. In a death-gasp, booksellers have called on their remaining loyal customers to boycott Amazon, and many authors have joined in, rallying for ‘buying local’ instead of feeding the profit-hungry monster they picture Amazon to be – a monster that will stop at nothing, even cutting off its own nose to spite its face just to build and maintain a market advantage. And maybe they are exactly right in this perception. But what does it mean to the individual author who refuses to sell his or her books on Amazon?

Opening the gates to the masses. The Big Six publishers still carry on the practice of accepting only agent-screened book submissions for consideration, and agents only take on books by authors they think they can sell to Big Six or second-tier publishers. Publishers base their acceptance policy on the bottom line – how much profit they can make from sales of each book they accept. Agents make their money by taking 15 percent off the top of royalties paid to authors they represent. (Amazingly, many agents have jumped ship and cut out the publisher by starting their own publishing firms after doing all the author screening and developing ... figuring why did they need the publishers in the first place. But that is for another blog topic.) This means that – until just a few years ago – the majority of authors whose books were not considered viably marketable were left unpublished, with only expensive vanity publishing or subsidy publishing as a self-publishing alternative.

Amazon, in the beginning, based its model of online book sales on charging everyone for the privilege of listing their books on its site. However, Amazon quickly saw the folly in the Big Six publishing model of ‘gate-keeping’ based on sales profit and gradually dispensed with the practice of charging ‘admission’ for the privilege to sell books on its site. At the same time, Amazon developed an automated machine of self-service book uploading and made it available to everyone for free, or for a very affordable nominal cost. That meant that self-publishing and selling books online suddenly became availabe to every author who was formerly shut out of the publishing arena by the Big Six or by the sheer cost of for-profit self-publishing services.

Amazon saw the profit value in a ‘pay when you sell’ model, and the sheer mass of books flooding in for sale would mean profit would come from anything that sold, no matter how good or bad it was. In Amazon’s model, there was no need to pretend that gate-keeping was a method of quality assurance for customers, because the customers would be the quality assessors – but would have to buy the products in order to assess them. So it was a win-win situation for Amazon, and the gates were swung wide open, allowing any author to try his luck at publishing, promoting, and selling his work. The ‘pay when you sell’ model of taking 30 to 65 percent of every book's retail sale has apparently worked very well for Amazon, but the corporation has not stopped there.

Shutting out the competition. Amazon has come up with a new clever ‘exclusive representation’ ploy disguised as a new marketing opportunity for sales-hungry authors. This plan requires authors who sign up for the free Kindle Select program to stop selling titles enrolled in this program on any other retailer’s site. The lure is the ability to give their titles away for free for five days during every 90-day enrollment period in the program. There is also the opportunity to lend the book and get paid for it, even though Amazon would not charge the Amazon Prime customer for borrowing of a title (presumably because the customer has already paid for it up front in the $75 program fee to join the Amazon Prime ‘favored customer’ program). And the book would remain for sale to ‘regular’ customers at the regular price. Authors have jumped at the chance to give their books away while making absolutely no sales, all for the chance to lure readers into looking at their books.

With this three-tier ploy to create a monopoly, Amazon first lured authors to give their stuff away for free in an attempt to attract new customers. While authors were doing that, these new customers were becoming Amazon’s customers. The exclusivity of content and the lure of free content ensured these customers would not be going to any retail competitors for books, thus shutting out all competitors during prime Christmas shopping season. This resulted in authors taking down hundreds of thousands of book titles from other retailer sites, drying up the pool of products available for those retailers to sell. With the sudden disappearance of retail content from Apple’s iBooks site, Barnes & Noble’s online retail site, Googlebooks, Smashwords, Diesel, Kobo, and so on, and Amazon scooping up all these titles and making them available only through the Kindle Select program, Amazon was able to effectively shut out its competition and damage their prime retail selling prospects during the holiday season and after. Already having instituted a Kindle-device-specific format for ebooks, Amazon further controlled the competitive sale of alternate reading devices like the Barnes & Noble Nook.

What does this mean for authors? In looking at the history of Amazon’s behavior in the marketplace, two things become obvious. Amazon recognizes that any group can be utilized as a means to an end. Publishers were lured to the online retail platform and then bullied with it once Amazon had them locked in as the only game in town for ebook sales. When online competition from other retailers began to build, Amazon used its superior marketplace advantage to bully publishers into its profit-loss campaign to undersell and undercut and weaken all competition, including online retailers and physical bookstores, in an attempt to maintain its own market dominance. At the same time, Amazon enlisted the help of hungry and neglected authors to flood the marketplace with alternate content to weaken the publishers’ position as the only provider of content for retail sale. Then Amazon stepped in as an alternate provider of ‘curated’ retail content to offset the flood of uncurated content from self-published authors whose work was not properly prepared for consumer consumption with editing and artistic standards the Big Six publishers had tried to maintain.

So, yes, overall ... Amazon does look like an evil giant corporate monster poised to take over the world. And in giving all authors – ready or not – the opportunity to publish their work, Amazon may appear to have been a benefactor of the literary arts. But the truth is, the deliberate offer of alternate cheap self-publishing opportunities was not an altruistic act, it was just part of a larger profiteering ploy that included killing the competition and weakening the exclusive source of content so Amazon itself could wrangle control of every aspect of the book production chain. Now Amazon stands poised to maintain control over pricing and royalty percentages so that eventually there will be no place else to go. In any market environment, an exclusive monopoly is a bad thing.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. So, should you, the author, sign up for Amazon’s market exclusive Kindle Select program and pull your books from all other retails for the ‘privilege’ of giving your books away on Amazon?

It’s true that Amazon has built market visibility online that dwarfs every other retailer. It’s true that Amazon has used some underhanded tactics to build that market visibility – often at the expense of content providers. But the old adage about all your eggs has never been truer. You should spread your product far and wide. Use multiple retailers to sell your content. The more places for your books to be seen, the more chances someone new will see it. But also take a lesson from Amazon. Don’t ignore any reasonable opportunity. Even if Amazon sales of your books are higher than anyone else’s, don’t take your books off other retail sites just because the sales revenue is smaller than on Amazon. And just because you don’t like Amazon’s market tactics, don’t pull your books from their site. They are a retailer like anyone else. If they start dictating unreasonable terms, then pull out. But don’t ignore them as a sales opportunity on principle alone. You’ll just be shutting off another source of potential sales of your book. And what’s smart about that? Nothing ... nothing at all.

It’s a business, after all. Your responsibility to yourself and your books is to treat your writing/publishing endeavor as a business. Make business decisions about marketing and selling your books based on what credible information you have available.

If you have multiple books for sale, you can choose one or maybe two books to offer on the Kindle Select program for a trial 90-day period. It’s best not to split up a series and leave part of it on other retail sites, because making only part of a series available to readers that visit those sites will discourage sales if some of the books in the series are not available. If you have only a single series to work with, you’re going to have to decide how important it is for you to try the Kindle Select program. Maybe you’ll decide to remove all the books and put them in the program, or maybe none of them. You have to judge how detrimental it will be to your sales on other retail sites to temporarily remove your books from those sites. If the majority of your sales come from sites other than Amazon, then experimenting with Amazon’s exclusive marketing scheme could actually kill all your sales.

When you sign up for Kindle Select and enroll a title, don’t leave the default set at ‘auto-renew.’ Use your five-day-free promo one day at a time or all at once, whatever seems like the best ploy for you. Broadcast it everywhere – Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc.

Recognize that for every book you give away, most people won’t ever get around to reading it because there will be a download frenzy that will make it physically impossible for everyone to read in the next five years every free download they make. Take minimal pleasure in your ‘apparent’ sales spike for those free-download days, because as soon as the free days are over, so is your sales spike. Take solace in believing that at least a few people will read your book, and others may buy it in response to that temporary sales spike or based on some nice reviews you may, by chance, get from some thoughtful readers. Check your follow-up sales and see if that freebie promo did any real good. If all you get is a bunch of free books given away, and no follow-up sales, then at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it a shot. And then put your trial books back up on the other retail sites where you took them down, and move on.

You can try another book or two in the Kindle Select program, to see if you can break in with a fluke, but don’t expect much lasting sales improvement from this ploy. Always be ready to put your books back on other retail sites when your market experiment concludes – because your main objective is to give all your books the best visibility you can, to get the most sales you can. That’s why you’re in business – to sell your books, not to show some misguided sense of loyalty to one retailer who could turn around tomorrow and eat you for a snack and then move on to the next victim without even a backward glance. That is the nature of the beast, and you must never forget it.