A Visit with Maralee Lowder
I don't recall hearing anything about an author's own, special, voice until I'd joined the worldwide writers' organization, Romance Writers of America (WRA). That's when I really began to learn all the intricacies of the writing business.
When I first heard someone mention a particular author's voice, I thought they were talking about how the writer dealt with how her particular characters spoke. Of course, that in itself is an important topic, and we'll be working on it soon, but that was not what they were referring to. What they were talking about was what made one author's works"sound" different from other authors' books.
Frankly, this is one of the most mysterious, yet important, subjects when discussing writing. I doubt that you can name one famous writer who has not developed his or her own voice. The questions you might ask is, what makes one author's voice stand out from all of the others. And how can I create my own voice .
At the time I was involved with RWA I was writing entirely romance, although I did write in several of romance sub-genres.When you write romance like in many genres, it is very easy to find yourself unconsciously mimicking other favorite authors. It's only natural - you write what your read. Oh, I'm not talking about plagiarism. I'm referring to writing styles. In Romance, it is especially easy to fall into this trap, when you realize how, although the New York publishers insist they want "fresh, unique" stories, they still seem more comfortable buying the more familiar themes. So, if you write what is selling, the voice you may be writing is not your own. .
I remember talking about this problem with some of my fellow RWA members and discovering that they were having as much trouble figuring out how to create their own voices as I was. Discovering your own voice can be a very, very, difficult technique.
The best thing I can suggest is to write, write, and, oh yeah, write some more. Then listen to your writing. Read your stories out loud when you're alone. Listen to the cadence of your words. Are you writing the way you would speak? Does the rhythm of your words sound similar from one of your books to another?
One more thing you should do is to read all sorts of different writers, in various genres. Listen to how their words sound, both inside your head and when you read aloud. Take note of how one writer differs from another.
Creating your own voice is not usually something that comes quickly, nor easily. But it is well worth the effort to master the craft. Take your time. Write story after story. Don't drive yourself nuts worrying about it, but just let it rest in the back of your mind whenever you write. Find who you are, and then be true to yourself.
So I was reading this contemporary romance novel which was placed in Galveston, Texas. It wasn’t the best book I’d ever read, but still I was enjoying it because Galveston is one of my very favorite cities. That is, I was enjoying it until I came to the place where the romance reaches the place where the hero, with the purpose of impressing the heck out of the lady, takes her out to dinner at a restaurant on The Strand.
The Strand is a street in Galveston that during the Civil War was the hub of the city’s harbor. It’s a really neat place and you should go there if you’re ever in Galveston. It is located on the opposite side of the island from where the beaches are located. In fact, I’d say it’s at least a mile away from Stewart Beach, the island’s most popular beach.
The evening was supposed to be the scene where the romance really gets going. The heroine, sensing what’s on the guy’s mind, dressed to the hilt…gorgeous dress and four inch high heel shoes, the whole deal. They have a delicious meal and then walk in the moonlight to Stewart’s Beach, where they proceed to walk along the shore.
Rather than being caught up in the romance of it all, what I was thinking was, “I bet she wishes she’d worn her tennis shoes.” I was taken completely out of the story and never got back into it. Clearly, the author did not research the city of Galveston. If she had, she would have had the guy slip the girl of his dreams into his BMW convertible and driven her to the beach.
It may seem like a small mistake, but it really wasn’t. What it did was show me, the reader, that the author did not think I deserved her very best work. How much time would it have taken the author to get herself a map of the city? And then look at it?
DON’T BE THAT AUTHOR! Buy the map…call the Chamber of Commerce for local information…go to the setting of the story if at all possible. Take notes and actually refer back to them. Don’t be a lazy writer. If your reader is taken out of the story once, you may never get her back.
I decided that I wanted to be more organized in this little classroom of ours, so I made it a point to sit down and write notes about what I would say on this topic. Then, yesterday, I started writing. I worked in Word, since it's easier to save my precious words. I spent quite a bit of time on it, then had to spend a little quality time with my sweetheart, so I saved what I had written. Well, actually, I thought I'd saved all of my wonderful, no make that, perfect, words.
Apparently I didn't. Sooooo, here I am, winging it. Oh, yeah, I also seem to have misplaced all of my notes. But, enough about me. Let's get started, shall we?
Today I'm going to give you a few tips on how to, and how not to, name your characters. These will be listed in no particular order of importance. I'm just going to write them as they come to me.
1. Don't make the names so complicated your readers will find themselves stopping to figure out how to pronounce the name each time they see it. Each time they stop they are leaving your story, which is something you do not want to do.
2. Hopefully, you won't have a cast of thousands. I don't know about most readers, but I know that if I have to keep track of too many characters, I get frustrated. (Okay, I have to admit here - my attention span may be a bit shorter than most people. Still....)
3. Make sure your names are distinctive for each particular character. It drives me nuts when I read a book with names that get confusing.
Examples: Tim/Jim - Larry/Gary - Mary/Marie/Maryanne/Marion
There are a whole lot of names out there, folks I know that if you really try, you can come up some really great names that don't look or sound similar.
4. If you're character is from one culture, but the story will take him into another culture, make sure to give him a name that defines his own culture.
5. Consider the time era of your story. Personally, I wouldn't name a modern day, hip character something like Maud, or Hortense. To me, anyway, those names sound old fashioned.
6. My two favorite resources for finding good names are the telephone book (which is great for discovering new surnames) and a book I bought from The Writer's Digest, Character Naming Sourcebook, written by Sherilyn Kenyon. I bought it quite a few years ago, but it's such a useful tool that I would be surprised if they don't still offer it.
The Character Naming Sourcebook lists names by their ethnicity.. It deals most thoroughly with given names, but does cover some surnames as well. And, of course, they give the meaning of the names they list. For the most part I don't really care what the meanings are, but it can come in handy occasionally I suppose.
I hope these tips will be of use to you in your writing. There are probably more things I should mention, but my mind tells me it's time to quit. Usually that means that if I keep on going I'll become either boring or repetitious - or both.
Once again, please feel free to write your questions or comments on this or any of my other blogs. You can comment here, or email me at:
All my best, my friends!
Maralee Lowder (aka, Marty Wofford)
I would love to be able to tell you that I have a neat formula for creating your characters like the one I gave you for plotting. Unfortunately that would be too easy. However, I do have a whole bunch of tips that I’ll be happy to share with you. In fact, I have so many tips I’ll most likely not be able to give them all to you in one blog. Like with plotting, more ideas will probably keep coming to me long after I’ve posted this. If, (no, I mean when) that happens, I will give them to you in a separate posting.
That having been said, let’s get going creating your wonderful characters. I’ll try to keep this concise, yet still give you all the information I can think of. But, please, feel free to ask me about anything that confuses you. Like always, please feel free to contact me with your questions or suggestions about what subject you would like me to cover in later postings.
As you have probably already figured out, you will have several levels of players in your story. To describe these levels, I ask you to mentally draw a picture a circle, within a solid circle in the center. In other words, I’m asking you to draw a large circular target.
The very center of your target represents one of your main characters (or, protagonist’s). In romance this will be the lovers. On the outside of target write “Main Character”, then draw an arrow pointing to the inside circle. This will be one of the people who are at the heart of your story. Each main character needs his/her own target.
The next circle will represent the people who support that character. Write “Supporters” with an arrow pointing to that circle. Next, write “Lesser Characters” and draw an arrow pointing to the outside circle. These people are what in the theater are called supporting actors. You may even go one circle further, with it representing Minor Characters.
This is how I see every one of us. We are all the center of our target. And we all have people in our lives who fit into the outer circles of our lives. Our characters are just like us. None of them will stand alone. But the people in their lives will have varying degrees of influence on their lives.
The center characters, or Main Characters, will, naturally get the full descriptive treatment. The next circle will be important to your story, but will be playing smaller roles. They will need to be described well, yet not as completely as your Main Characters.
The next circle will need even less of a description. The last circle, very little.
What I’m trying to illustrate here is that not every person in your story will even need a name. The very smallest player, such as the night clerk at the hotel, who may be described only as the “the old baldheaded hotel clerk” or whatever is appropriate. Or you might not even go that far. A waitress may just be “the waitress.” You don’t want to clutter your story up with more information than is necessary to the story. If a character is only mentioned once in the story, don’t give him/her too much description…it will just muddy up your story.
For the next circle of players, give just enough description to help the reader remember who they are when they turn up later in your story. Only use a name if there is a reason why your protagonist(s) would have a reason to know it. Otherwise, don’t bother.
As you go closer and closer to the center of your circle you will also be going deeper and deeper in the characters. Until you reach the center, where you will want to do a detailed workup of the character. One good way to keep track of the characteristics of your subjects is to use one of either two forms I use. One form covers the bare essentials of your players. You can put several of the lesser players on one form sheet, whereas your more complex characters will require their own form.
The short form may consist of: the character’s name (if you give them one), and anything else that describes them. One of your characters might be described as: the lady at the bus stop, old, gray hair, wearing a black overcoat, etc. I think you get the idea.
The more descriptive form will consist of all of the visual descriptions, but also include what you know about the character. Age, ethnicity, education, family background, their dreams, their nightmares. In other words, any and everything you can think of that will make your character come to life. It is quite possible that you will not mention all of the items you put down in your book, but knowing them will make them real to you, which will make them real to your readers.
Another way to do this is to interview your character. This is one of my favorite ways to learn all I can about my story players. I’ll ask the character a few questions, and then just let them “talk”, writing down everything they tell me.
I know, all of this takes a lot of time. And you want to get down to writing! If you’re only going to write a short story you may get away with skipping all of this. But if you’re going to write a novel (yeah, okay, it’s going to be the Great American Novel) you will be glad you took the time to do your ground work first.
This, my friends, is just the beginning of what it takes to create real (and consistent) characters. I will be blogging next about observing and naming your characters. Until then, write!
And don’t forget, you can contact me either by making a comment here. Or, if you prefer, email me at
When I first heard about the W plot, only one W was used. It sort of encompassed the whole story, rather than all of the W's I described in my last blog. I remember thinking, "What a good idea!", but not wondering if there might be more to it.
The W plot does make sense when you think about it. If you consider every single fictional film you've seen, or story you might have read, you will be able to pick out the various plot points that I showed you on the W.
However, there is so much more than just one plot going on at any given time. Each character in your book will have his/her own plot, as will the genre and the story itself. When you do the W plot as I described it, you will find that all of these various plots meld together, making your story richer than it would have been if you had only looked at it from one point of view.
Your book will begin at various times in each character's personal story. It will begin at the middle of some of their stories, at the beginning for others. If you do it right, it will become a beautiful blending of stories, rather like a symphony is stories, blended together to become one beautifully complex novel.
I hope this clears up some of the questions you might have about the W plot. I hope I haven't confused you more!
All my best for now,
And keep writing!