Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

I’ve gone to the dogs. And what a cute, hopeful dog that is there, eh? A word about our words today…
Sometimes things we experiment with as writers just don’t work. We can do all the reading in the world about our craft, but certain things won’t ever work. For example, just as dogs aren’t meant to talk (or read for that matter) we aren’t meant to write in a voice that’s not our own.

Here are some other examples of things writers do that don’t work:
  • Forcing descriptions, long and lengthy ones that begin to bunch around each other like stockings around an old lady’s ankles.

  • Inserting flowery language. Playing dress up with words. This especially falls flat when we’re not even sure of the meaning of the word, but we use it anyway because it “sounds so nice.”

“Remember the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.” ~ Stephen King

  • Writing about something we know nothing about without conducting research.

  • Trying too hard to emulate a well-known author. I’ll stay and UBU sit on this one for a bit. The dog in the picture is studying the art of talking, clearly unable to read or talk. Can he give it his best bark? Sure. Will it ever sound like anything other than a dog’s bark? Not likely. So what does the dog need to do? The pup needs to bark like he’s never barked before. He needs to take ownership of his own vocal cords and give it his strongest bark.

We need to play with our own voice, bat it around a little, and risk things that don’t work in order to find pure sentences that shine. Our voice is one of the deciding factors whether someone will purchase our second, third and fourth book. As you can tell, I’m big on voice, but I’m particularly big on authors discovering and developing their own voice.

Hope you enjoyed the list. Can you think of other things writers do that essentially equates to barking up the wrong tree?

*photo by flickr


  1. "He needs to take ownership of his own vocal cords and give it his strongest bark."

    Excellent thought!

    I'm skeptical of the idea that one can write to the market. I believe our voice and our passion come from within, not without. Even if the market fails to embrace and purchase what we've written, I'd rather be faithful to the voice within. He is my audience of One.

  2. Hi, Wendy! That dog is so cute! I love it when my dog "reads" with me.

    How about writing in cliches, whether it's a phrase, a story, or a character?

  3. I think we can also add to much research to a story. We need to research subjects we don't know well, but then we must decide just how much of that research REALLY needs to make it into the story without information dumping.

    Good post, Wendy! I agree with you that voice has to be one of the most important elements to develop as a writer.

  4. Writing in a bubble, I'd say. We need critique groups and conference reviews and such to get that important feedback. It has and continues to be so helpful to me as a writer to : 1- hear what other people are writing and in a group learn what works and what doesn't and why

    and 2- put my writing through that same process

  5. Awesome. You could've totally put an "I'm looking directly at you, Beth Mann!" at the bottom of this post! :) I'm just realizing that emulation will get me nowhere fast. I like my voice - most of the time. Here's hoping others will too!

    I was reading Nathan Bransford's blog last night and in his comments section someone brought up the question of whether it is really necessary to be "well read" in order to be a writer. I thought that was a given! But maybe not? So for me, NOT READING would be a mistake as a writer!

  6. I think if a story calls for it, NOT researching is barking up the wrong tree. I've found that the right research helps set a parameter for our voice, a structure to help build, while also bringing a genuineness to the work.

  7. I would think when they stay with the same story...for 13 books. You know, when the characters have different names and the towns have a different location...but the same struggles and resolutions are presented. Gets old...quickly...and can cause the most faithful of fans to back off.

  8. Great post! I think emulating another author is the biggest mistake writers make. The voice isn't authentic then. And, maybe that dog can't read or talk, but he sure is cute! :)

  9. I like your list! Another one might be, using cliched plots or characters. Or plots that are too contrived.

  10. Cool post! I'm a little worried, actually, that my plot may be contrived or cliched. Jody hit that on the head.
    But also, sometimes I think a writer wants to write in a genre that doesn't fit her voice so well. I can think of several authors who were midlist in one genre, then when they switched to another, they became bestsellers.

  11. Good thoughts. I think another one is when writers try to force their emotions about something, and they could really care less. It shows, I believe.

    I'm still in process of trying to find my voice. (tho' my hubbie would argue that) :0

  12. This was a great post! Very great! I am so all about developing my own voice and sometimes I feel nervous that it will so different that people will not feel it to the fullest. I also don't want to sound like some one else. I just think that we are all given a gift and led down a path that only we can follow - thus making us unique. Does that make sense? I hope so! :o)

  13. Anne L.B., I'm in that exact same camp. Smores, anyone?

    Marybeth, thank you.

    Kristen, good one. Yes, when I read those it annoys me, although I'm sure I've been guilty.

    Heather, you bring up an interesting point. You want to have done enough research to be able to speak to the topic well, but not so much that you end up sounding like an instructor on the topic and you lose the flavor and voice of the character. I agree, knowing where and how to insert specific research is a learned thing.

    Tess, excellent. Feedback is valuable. It strengthens us and helps us to step back from the love affair with our characters to make sure we are doing the story justice.

    Beth, he ran more with that idea on his post today. Reading is one of the best ways I improve, so I'm with you. Besides, it excites me to read a well-executed sentence or a sharp tension-filled plot.

    Joanne, I agree. I think that was point three. I liked how you wrote that research helps set a parameter for our voice and a structure to help build.

    Bina, being unafraid to take risks, try new things, new topics, new characters...yes! YES!

    Lazy Writer, and isn't the dog sure trying hard, too? I give it credit.

    Jody, good point. Some of my favorite moments writing come when something unexpected happens. I have my outline, my characters diagnosed and all of a sudden wham...a new twist. Ah, that is thrilling!

    Jessica, interesting. I feel like my genre is just right for me, goldilocks stuff. I did write half of a non-fiction inspirational, but my characters tackled me to the ground and I quickly went back to women's fiction (should clarify, not romance as much as family saga.)

    Karen, cracking up about the hubby comment. I like your thoughts. Forcing emotions into a work. Good point and something that I'd not thought of for my barking up the wrong tree analogy. Nice.

    Girl, Oh, I know I'm different, but somewhere along the way I made my peace with that and besides I know my different makes God smile. You made perfect sense to me.

    I feel like my stomach is trying to tackle me to the ground right now, so I might be in a mad dash soon to another room. Glad I snuck some words in to you fine folks. I adore how you let my thoughts sneak out and slap down on the page like this. They must appreciate it, too.

    Sleep well. Don't let the stomach bugs bite.
    ~ Wendy

  14. What a great list. I enjoyed your blog.

  15. Wendy: Great list.
    I loved the sagging hose around ankles analogy! You are a great writer, my friend.
    My voice is fraught with fragments, which drives some people nuts, but it's me. Always has been. Will be forever. Works for me.


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