You may write historicals, category, or single title romances, but have you ever considered penning a gritty murder mystery or a horror story? Author Lesann Berry talks about her approach to writing across genres.
Great to have you back, Lesann!
Ever read a line in a book that blew you right out of the story? Not long ago, I got tossed off the couch by a bit of dialogue. In this example, a live hand grenade landed in the tangle of boots belonging to three soldiers huddled in a drainage ditch. I expected strong language and the resulting “shucks” and “oh, darn” blasted me right back into the living room. In the words of my ninety-year-old grandmother, exploding objects make me curse a blue streak. I expect similar naughty words from soldiers in combat.
Writing with authority helps readers stay on the couch.
The lack of personal experience with events we routinely subject our characters to, requires close attention. When crawling inside a new headspace context offers up any number of challenges. This is where writing tools become critical. Another difficulty is the task of shedding ourselves. In fact, it’s harder to stop being me than it is to pretend to be someone else. Actors draw on their foibles and strengths to bolster their craft. Writers can too.
As we strive to craft a compelling story, what tools do you pull from your writer’s toolbox?
Writing with authority is a learned skill. You know what I mean by authority, right? Psychologists sound like they know what to do when your character flops
down for their thirty minute session. The athlete knows the inside vernacular every baseball fan has memorized. Soldiers don’t speak in Sunday school parlance when under live fire. The voice and tone need to match the character. Of course you can write an articulate and well-educated bad guy – we aren’t talking caricatures – but speaking with the right authority provides verisimilitude to our creations.
Most writers lug around a heavy toolbox. A lot of details churn in our heads but since the majority of us tend to write a specific type of story, one where the expectations of the reader are well-known, we select the tools we know have served us well in the past. But why stop there? You may be in a rut and not even realize the familiarity of the landscape. Consider a quick tango with another genre. Waltz with a different length of work. Practice a coy flirtation with a new type of authority.
Unfamiliar tropes offer excellent ways to discover unique tones of voice.
Shiny new tools are fun.
Finding the right tone is like playing with perspective. Change the point of view and discover how the story rolls out in unexpected directions. Buck the old system and cross a genre line – produce a style of work you’ve never tried. Be the villain. Save the victim. See the story unfold through the bystander’s eyes.
As a reader, I’m opportunistic. Sure, there are certain story types I prefer, but in truth, if I get engaged, the genre doesn’t matter. I’m not going to put down a book because oh, right, I don’t read women’s fiction. I consume the stories which capture me and abandon the ones that leave me sprawled on the floor.
Authority is what hooks me.
A writer/illustrator friend sardonically refers to my methods as the dilettante approach to fiction. While this may not be inaccurate, exploring different styles has taught me volumes about writing craft. I’m not suggesting anyone change their writing methods. Just push your comfort zones and see what happens. Think of this as peer pressure, a tender shove in the direction of literary experimentation. A new tool might serve as a gateway choice…
To use a polite euphemism, my first stories were homely. Picture a slope-shouldered freshman, the one with the pigtails, freckles, zits, floods, and buckteeth. Go all the way. I’m talking old-fashioned, head-gear-wearing, nose-snorting-laughter kind of half-developed manuscripts. Some of my first drafts still resemble that stage of adolescence but my process has refined as a result of establishing authority.
Breaking away from the formal writing I’d done for employment purposes over the years was a big challenge. My first fiction attempt was a novel. The story offered lots of authoritative content but not the kind to engage readers. After dismantling and reworking, I gave up and stuffed the pages under the bed. Then I wrote two more. Soon, they too went to live under the mattress. I had no idea what I was doing – so I started filling my toolbox.
A well-crafted compelling story requires a multifaceted approach.
Production matters but I’ve also learned to mix up what I’m trying to produce. Romance taught me to put intimacy on the page. Science fiction illustrated how to make readers see things I knew nothing about in reality. Thrillers instructed me about moving at a swift pace. Horror revolved around psychological trauma more than blood splatter on an internal visual screen. Each story produced new tools and methods for my toolbox.
But there’s more.
The proper authority convinces the reader a monster is burrowed under the guestroom bed, the meteor hurtling through space is going to crash into your favorite BBQ joint in Texas, or the body buried in the backyard is clawing his way to the surface.
Unconvinced readers stop reading. Bummer.
There’s also the problem of authority’s close cousin, authorial leak. I had no clue how much wrong authority seeped through crevices into my stories until I tried something new. Amid complaints of too much verbiage, highfalutin vocabulary, and the dreaded formal tone of voice, I decided to enter the world of chapter books and middle-grade novels.
Okay, part of this change resulted from reading bedtime stories to my son. He’s seven and the work marketed to his age group caused me whiplash as I flipped through the pages in a desperate search for plot, substance, or characters with purpose – heck, just a story that made sense – and please, no more dialogue tags.
In a fit of narcissism I thought, I’m a writer; I should write my own chapter book series.
*insert snort of laughter here*
Doubtful I could capture a believable kid voice, I surprised myself. Snarky thoughts spoken aloud, non-sequiturs sprouting in mid-dialogue, and sophomoric wit about basic body functions, not to mention the endless hours of exposure to Minecraft and Plants v. Zombies provide great fodder. That and the years I spent working in primary education, I guess.
The best result? Now I understand what people complain about when they say my work is too formal. In the head space of an adult, I can’t stop being one and too much authorial voice leaks into the narrative. In trying to recall the world as a kid, the adult-speak voiceover in my noggin is rejected by my eight and ten-year old characters. Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher? The more youthful members of the crowd can check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss2hULhXf04.
Establish your authority and curb authorial creep so readers stay on the couch. Simple enough achievements for some but for me they proved profound. In my growth as a writer, learning to not sound like me has been hard work.
Explore the scenery from the other side of the story. Change perspectives. Shop around a new point of view character. Hop the genre fence and try something different. Pull out an unused tool and whack your work-in-progress.
Why not clean up the clutter in your toolbox?
The worst thing that can happen is beta-readers will laugh at you. They’ll hand over pages so scribbled with red ink, you’ll wonder if a zombie died on top of your manuscript. With an apologetic smile and a polite snicker, they’ll suggest you hike back across the gorge to your old playground.
Or, you might just be surprised.
Have you discovered an unused tool that rattled the bones of your manuscript? Do share. We all want to try it too.
Hope to see you on Friday, May 16th, for author Vonda Sinclair’s lecture on How to Use the Five Senses to Create Sexual Tension.
A blurb on Lesann’s latest novel, THE TRADE.
Ex-soldier Savio Mendes departs for Mexico City to gather data on a drug network. When circumstances force him to locate a runaway family member for the head of the cartel, his clandestine cover is compromised. To complicate his situation, he discovers he’s undertaken a different job than the company authorized. Unsure who to trust, Savio questions if this life is the one he wants. In narcotics trafficking one small mistake and it’s game over.
Bio: Lesann Berry divides her time between anthropological interests and field research focused primarily on the American west. Crossing genre lines, she pens both contemporary and historical mysteries, romantic suspense, and even a little horror.