Sensitive Content, Voicey-ness, Epistolary Passages, and Updates!

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It’s been quite a while since I posted something other than a book review to my blog, so I thought I’d catch up by doing a wee wrap-up of some content I’ve covered in my podcast in the last few episodes. This summer has been especially crazy with some unexpected changes, and as much as I hate to say goodbye to another lovely hot season, I’m ready to get back in the saddle with all things writing, editing, podcasting, querying, MoodPitch, and more! (Plus it’s about to turn Pumpkin Spice, sweaters, vests, and boots here, with crisp, blue sky days and leaves the colour of fire, so I’m ready! 😍)

In June, I accepted the role of Primary Co-chair of the board for my local branch (twig) of Editors Canada, and I’m excited to finally have time to get that going. It allows me to work with and help my fellow member editors as we expand our editing careers, and we’ll be holding events, seminars, meet-ups, etc. I was also voted in as International Rep on the Crime Writers of Canada board of directors this past spring, and there’s a lot to be done in that role as well. I’m responsible for all our international members and getting involved with one or two international writing conferences. I’ve never had the opportunity to sit on a board of directors before, so I’m really looking forward to all this next chapter will bring!

In terms of writing, I put it on hold over the summer so I could spend time with my kids and friends and family. I’d expected to be back at it this month, but getting Covid meant a huge change in plans, delays, flight hassles, etc. I can’t wait to finally wrap this #wip up that I’ve been working on (off and on) over the past 12 months so I can get it out to agents! This will be completed manuscript number three for me, so I’m hoping this is the one that will land me an agent!

The second MoodPitch is coming up in just over two months, and we’re so excited to get that under way! I’ll be giving pitch critiques on my podcast (#badasswriters) coming up soon to help ya’ll get your pitches ready for MoodPitch and any other Twitter pitch events. We also host daily acitivities in the six days leading up to the event (which is on Thursday, Nov 3), and that was a hit in April! More info on MoodPitch can be found here.

What have you been working on over the summer months (or winter, depending on where in the world you are)? What are you looking forward to this fall?

First, let’s cover some stuff about sensitive content. You can hear this episode here (S3E8 with Arnie Bernstein).

When it comes to writing a story, there’s very likely going to be some research involved. There are always subjects we don’t know enough about to write on. Even when it’s something little to help set the scene or show knowledge in a character, we’ll inevitably be looking up some information.

When it comes to non-fiction or even creative non-fiction, this is especially true. Every bit of writing in a non-fiction book must be true and able to be proven because the integrity and credibility rely on it.

But when it comes to difficult subject matter, sometimes it can get really heavy—not just for the reader, but for the writer, too. Readers can get content warnings, but writers often don’t. When you decide to write about a specific subject, you have to mentally prepare yourself for the content you’ll find and then have to write about. Often, it’s about pressing on through the hard stuff to bring it to light for others so that truths can be heard. If the writer believes strongly in the topic, it will be written. And if the topic matters that much to the writer, it will show in the writing, and readers will see it. They’ll feel it. If your goal is to persuade or inform, then you’ll have an easier time reaching that goal if the subject matter is something truly important to you.

Taking breaks often during the research and writing phases is necessary. You need to give your mind a chance to breathe and process.

Showing empathy is extremely important. Not only will it help readers connect to the characters or information in the story, but it shows the writer’s stance and emotions on the subject.

Don’t worry about doing justice to the topic while you’re writing. Just write. When emotions are present in the writing, it will naturally help do it justice.

You can draw on your own emotional experiences to help even when a particular subject isn’t something you’ve personally experienced. Feelings of sadness or overwhelm, of joy or fear, can be just as relevant in one area as they are in another. Don’t be afraid to tap into those experiences to help write your story.

Embrace the emotions that come up as you’re writing. Embrace the emotions of those who have been through what you’re writing about. If it’s appropriate, ask for help. Is there anyone you can talk to who doesn’t mind sharing their experiences to help you better navigate the subject in your manuscript? If you’re writing non-fiction, are there personal accounts that you can gather and refer to or write about? You need to make it as authentic as possible in order to connect with the reader and make them care about the subject matter as much as you do. The depth of those emotions needs to be felt by the reader.

If it’s something that’s particularly difficult for you due to personal experience with the subject matter, when you’re gathering your research, try separating each individual topic or sub-topic into categories. You can then mentally prepare yourself for each topic or sub-topic before you dig into the heavy research. Don’t be afraid to tackle topics that may be difficult for you. Chances are, it’s difficult for others, too. Having the courage to write about it can give others hope and a sense of solidarity. It could lighten the load. And processing those emotions surrounding the difficult subject can be healing for the writer just as much as the reader.

I see a lot of questions in the writing community about content warnings. Whenever there is anything remotely triggering for people, it’s a good idea to include a content warning. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that doesn’t bother you as the writer—it’s about what could bother a reader. Sometimes, I’ve seen people say things like, “Well, they shouldn’t be reading this genre if they’re not prepared to read about xyz” and personally, I think that’s a very poor position to take. It’s dismissive of your readers and their experiences. Someone might enjoy reading thrillers, for example, but the way a character’s friend or loved one dies might be similar to what they experienced, and the reader has no idea it’ll be like that until they read it. Or here’s something I see often—people not liking having to read when a pet dies. It can be gutting to read that in a book, especially if they’ve just lost a pet. That can happen in any genre. The point is you never know what someone else has been through. It costs nothing to put a content warning in a manuscript, published book, or query letter. It’s common courtesy. It’s thinking about others. When you know you’re dealing with something very heavy, put a content warning in. When there’s even just a few words that describe something that happened to someone, put a content warning in. If there’s any doubt in your mind about whether or not a content warning is needed, that means it’s needed. If you have that inkling that something in your story might be triggering to others, warn them about it. I’ve said this before—it’s not a deterrent, it’s just a warning so that the reader can mentally or emotionally prepare for what’s to come in the pages.

I don’t like reading about certain subjects, but if I am given a warning, I will be able to prepare myself for it, so it doesn’t hit me unexpectedly. That’s what it’s about—setting expectations for your reader. Don’t catch them off guard with a subject that could be triggering for them—because that could potentially leave a bad taste in their mouth, and they may put your book down and never pick it back up. Even worse—they may have such a bad taste that they’ll recommend others don’t read it. It could also lead to a bad public review. Even if the story itself is great, a simple trigger can set a whole line of dominos crashing down. You, as the writer, choose to write the subject matter and then publish it, knowing it’s a tough topic. Without giving a content warning, the reader doesn’t have that choice or that mental preparation. Once you read something, you can never un-read it, which means you can never un-feel the emotions associated with the words on the page. If it’s not obvious from the title, logline, or back cover copy, in my opinion, a content warning should be the norm.

Because giving a warning is never a bad idea.

Next is voicey-ness: what it is, and how to achieve it. This is from S3E7 with Aleksandra Trynieka, which you can listen to here. So, first of all, let’s take a look at what voice is. There are two different things that I’ll cover here. One is character voice, and the other is authorial voice.

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The voice of a character isn’t just what they say in dialogue. It’s the kind of stuff that we see when we get their inner thoughts and opinions about things; how they see the world, what matters to them, what things they feel strongly about or believe in, how they treat people, how they react to things and people. It’s their little quirks and habits that show in the writing. It’s their personality, it’s how they behave in whatever circumstances they’re thrown into. Their characteristics—the things they say and do that make them them.

When you hear someone refer to authorial voice, it’s referring to the kinds of things that are recognizable in an author’s writing. It’s in the way the narrative is written. It’s throwing in little bits of humour here and there, or sarcasm, or the way they write their romance scenes. It’s how an author can distinguish themselves from everyone else out there who writes in their genre. It’s that special spark they have, a certain writing style where you can tell it’s their writing. Something they’re noted for. The way they put their mark in the world.

So, how do we achieve these things?

Character voice can really flow in the pages when you truly know your character. I’ve talked before about character development and how important it is to get to know them and treat them like a real person. The deeper you go into their psyche, even though it’s imagined, the more authentic they’ll be on the page, and the voicier they’ll be. When in dialogue with another character, the voicey-ness shows not because they’re saying certain things—it’s the whys behind their words. And much of that comes from off-page backstory. What I mean by that is all the things you know about your character that don’t necessarily make it onto the page. You can refer to something in a character’s past without having to go into full detail about it or dedicate an entire scene or flashback just to show us why a character is doing or saying a particular thing. A lot of a character’s backstory is just what you, the author, know about them. And sometimes, it’s what’s not said that can be even more important than what’s said. You really have to know when to trust your reader to fill in the blanks, make inferences, make assumptions. You want your reader to make assumptions—it doesn’t matter if they’re right or not. The point is, you want the reader to actively engage with the story, and sometimes by leaving certain things out, you can make that happen. If you tell the reader everything and every reason instead of maybe just hinting at something, it’ll get boring because their brain doesn’t get to do any of the work—it’s all laid out for them.

So, getting back on track here—knowing as much as you possibly can about your character and their life and things that happened to them will inform the whys behind their behaviours, reactions, words, etc. And this is an important way to define your character’s voice.

Something you also must be consciously thinking about is differentiating between your characters when it comes to voice. If they all sound the same, your story will end up being bland, monotone. Each character has a different backstory, different reasons for being the way they are, and that’s how their voice will be different on the page. Know your characters well; know the reasons behind their actions and words.

Something that also comes into play here is the quality of the line-level writing. Those books you read with sentences that just float into the air, the ones that resonate deeply with you twist your heart into knots and make you stop and think, that have such a feel to them you can almost reach out and grab them—that’s the kind of line level writing that will help you establish both character and authorial voice. Your choice in verbiage must be very intentional and capture the reader’s heart and mind.

When it comes to authorial voice, there’s a very fine line between that and your character’s voice. You want your own voice to shine through on the pages, but you must do it in a way that doesn’t overpower your character’s voice. The character is who is important here. It’s their story, so you must be careful to give them that story, give them their own voice, and not yours. The story happens to them (or sometimes they happen to the story!), so their voice must shine. Your authorial voice, however, must be present and noticeable, but I would say aim for subtlety. The way you string your words together, the themes you write about, the way you begin and end your stories—all these things can be trademarks of your writing style. Intentionality shows here, too. When you know what you want to say and how you want to say it, it shows. Your words are confident, even if the character is not confident, if that makes sense.

Something that’s talked about often in the writing community is that intentionality behind the writing. If you are writing with intention, this is going to help you establish the voice. Knowing exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it on every page. And again, that ties back into knowing your character well. If you understand their intentions, which often rises from their off-page backstory, you can write your story more intentionally, which means it’ll flow better and ultimately resonate deeper with your readers.

Did you know that even punctuation can make a difference in voicey-ness? It’s important to nail word choice, how you weave those words together, and how you tie it all in with punctuation. And I’m not talking about making your writing super flowery. In fact, flowery writing is often harder to read and understand. Writing sentences that punctuate the reader with emotions is the goal here, and you can achieve it by writing clear, concise sentences. Try to get your point across in the least amount of words but use powerful words. This is something that should be revised and polished to a shine in your rounds of edits.

If you’re querying agents, having voice stand out in the query and in your sample pages is so, so important. And I’m talking both character and authorial voice here. If it’s lacking in voice, I can guarantee the agent won’t request pages. So when you’re writing your query letter, you have to transfer that authorial voice over to it. Use strong descriptors and powerful verbs to show the main storyline and what the character is up against. The ins and outs of query letters are a whole other topic (which you can read more about here), but just know that voice is essential in it!

Remember that there is a difference between character voice and authorial voice, but both are equally important. Things like intentionality in your writing and knowing your characters inside and out are key to nailing voice, as is your line-level writing.

Lastly, a little bit about epistolary content. This is from my episode with Bianca Marais (S3E10), which you can listen to here. Bianca has been such a wonderful source of inspiration for me in terms of writing and podcasting. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am without the knowledge, insights, and encouragement that she graciously offers. She’s absolutely a pillar in the writing community and I know she’s helped so many of us on our journeys. The episode celebrates the release of her newest book, The Witches of Moonshyne Manor, which I posted a review on here.

I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask her, and for whatever reason, I completely forgot to ask this one to her during our interview. I emailed her about it instead and have her permission to share a summary of what she said. The question is concerning the recipes throughout her newest book, The Witches of Moonshyne Manor. If you’ve been lucky to read an advance reader’s copy, or if you’re about to embark on the journey with these magnificent witches now that it’s out, you’ll notice that there are several recipes for drinks and potions and lotions and all kinds of interesting things. They are cleverly placed, and most of them are voice-y in the directions, which I loved, and therefore I think they’re almost epistolary in style because each recipe is from one of the witches, and it tells a lot about their character based on what it’s for and the instructions on how to make it. It’s a unique addition to the book and I love everything that they do for the story and characters. I asked Bianca how she came up with the recipes and if she thinks or hopes anyone might use some of them—because there are some pretty interesting ones that look enticing! Bianca replied saying she did a ton of research with spell books, grimoires, etc. and talked to someone who provides aromatherapy and acupuncture and medicinal concoctions for people. There are some that are obviously not meant or able to be created, but for the drinks and some of the herbal remedies and such, she hopes people will try them! She wanted to add a witchy, grimoire-ish feel to the book, which I think she did marvellously.

My question for you, writers, is do you use epistolary passages in your writing? What’s the most interesting way you’ve seen it done? I think the more common ones are things like diary entries, letters, and in this day and age, voicemails, and text messages. The definition of “epistolary” is literary work in the form of letters, but people are getting more and more creative in pushing boundaries with it. It’s a literary device whereby the reader is given an intimate view of a character’s psyche. It’s almost like breaking the walls that an author might put up around a character and letting 100% of the character out.

Think about it: when you write letters or send someone a text or an email, or maybe sometimes it’s a voicemail, notes passed back and forth in class, or in the form of recipes that get passed down through generations. These written words come from the heart of the person writing them. There’s a piece of the real person behind the words. It’s more intimate, more authentic. They somehow allow us to cross the boundaries we set for ourselves, and our true thoughts come out. So when we get these deep inner thoughts from a character, it’s like letting the reader get a pure glimpse into their minds and hearts. Letters, text messages, and yes, even recipe directions can give us insight into a character’s thoughts and personality.

So, I’m curious. What other creative ways have you seen it done?

Thanks so much for reading! And if you haven’t checked out the #badasswriters podcast yet, please do! You can hear writing tips like this, listen to interviews with other writers/authors, hear about books, and catch Q&As with industry professionals, such as agents, editors, acquisitions editors, CEOs of publishing houses, and more!

Published by kathleenfoxx

Author of domestic thrillers and gothic horror.

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