Where to Start

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Where To Start.

New to novel writing? Or maybe you’ve tried it, and found writing… difficult. So why don’t we boil the process down to the bare bones—not of writing, but of starting. For the moment forget style, forget nuance, forget about winning that Pulitzer. Let’s talk about a before-we-even-sharpen-our-pencils kind of basic. Ask yourself this: What’s my story about?

If you don’t fully comprehend that tickle lurking inside your mind, it’s time to find out. It’s that eyeball-to-eyeball moment in the mirror. Answer that question—else your story may bump and thrash about like some gigantic, magnificent creature without a backbone. It might roar and scream and seem very impressive… but it ain’t going nowhere

Prove to yourself that you know your novel. Define your story in a page or two or three. Sit down and create a short synopsis or plot summery. Introduce yourself to this astounding—yet desperately needy!—lover who’ll soon capture your heart, but in return will demand a great deal of your attention and affection. (And kiss more than a few weekends goodbye!)

If that request seems overwhelming (and it may) take a deep breath and try this: What’s your favorite novel? Write a synopsis. For example:

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Amidst the rumble of an approaching Civil War, we find Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, teen-aged daughter of a wealthy Atlanta plantation owner, caught in her own giddy social bubble. Scarlett is clueless about the meaning of life, or the value of honor—although as the war rages, she discovers newfound courage and an inkling of character. Briefly married, she is quickly widowed by the calamity of war. Shortly thereafter, Scarlett’s beloved plantation, Tara, falls victim to the advancing Union army, and she must decide between her love of the land and her dedication to friends and family. She falls under the spell of a rebel blockade runner named Rhett Butler. The two are unsuited, but soon after the war’s end, she weds Rhett not for love but rather for his brash charisma and wealth—his ability to save Tara from the ravages of a lost war. However, their happiness quickly spirals into bitterness and remorse—and Scarlett ultimately decides that saving her home, Tara, is more important than saving her marriage. Still, she gathers the strength to hope for a brighter future.

It’s a sketchy synopsis, it’s incomplete (for instance, no mention of Ashley, of Melanie, or of Scarlett’s children), but it carries forth the deep core of the plot. Now, what about your story? What is its heart and soul? Discovering the essence of your unwritten novel is essential. So crucial that it’s Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. Find your core elements. Because the more you know now, the fewer pages you’ll trash later.

A typical progression of a new idea—getting it out your head and onto the page and ultimately into a book shop—will look something like this:

A brief synopsis. (Short and sweet. See above.) Oh, and don’t delete it after you finish a draft or two. Agents and editors and publishers will ask for it. (At least I will.)

(Optional) An expanded synopsis. It’s okay to add a little padding, either before you begin to write or as you begin your first draft. Give yourself another 5 or 10 or 20 pages to explore your ideas. Make mistakes. Think new thoughts. Re-evaluate. Leave blanks. Every time I finish a synopsis, even a first draft, I find myself with a few dozen gaps where I’ve typed [IDEA TO COME]—and yes, in bright, bold red—before moving along to those ideas that are freely flowing. Trust that every idea you need will arrive—and in its own damn time. Writing a novel is funny that way. PS: If you’re one of those people loathe to leave a blank space, who must write every word precisely in chronological order, who must pen every thought with unwavering exactitude, striving for immediate perfection, my advice is this: Get over yourself. In fact, it’s even a rule. Rule #100: Get over yourself.* Because there’s no such animal as perfect writing. There’s no single solution—no perfect sentence or perfect page or perfect chapter in a perfect book. Perfection is an illusion—a Siren singing sweetly on the rocks of self-importance and ultimate disillusion. We do the best we can, and we also finish the book.

The outline. This process is little more than bullet-pointing the story, scene-by-scene. It’s the literary equivalent of story-boarding a movie. You’re puzzle-piecing a plot into place, with methodical, mechanical deliberation. No fluff, no poetic license. And it’s OK if the finished book bares little resemblance. The outline is strictly a tool to use, change, update and tweak as you so choose.

First Draft. Now you’re ready to fill in the outline with crucial basic information. You’re adding the essentials; setting scenes and introducing characters, keeping in mind how you foresee each character arc—that is, how you believe each character may grow during the tale. Now’s the time to point a direction for your plot—what’s necessary, what’s not—with an understanding that so many facets of your story may change over the duration of this journey. (Some writers have an iron-clad plot already in mind and, if you do, congrats! I usually have a hazy whisper of where my plot may go, although my characters are fairly well developed before I begin writing.) Dialog is important—but worry less about polished dialog and more about the basic necessity of keeping your characters and plot on a forward trajectory. (And much more about dialog as this blog develops.) You should see a basic writing style begin to emerge—but sometimes finding your voice takes a bit of “warming up”…so don’t panic if you find your first few pages raw or clunky. Relatively few writers manage to pretty much finish their book in a single pass. If you’re one of those skillful few… by all means, go for it. However, most of us need room to maneuver and an eraser (metaphorically speaking) the size of Philadelphia.

Second Draft. You’re adding additional depth and nuance to your characters and story line. Adding color and sounds and smells. Augment your dialog—revealing character traits and subtle innuendo. You’ve already built a creature of bare bones, now you’re adding frizzy blonde hair and freckles and one unlaced hi-topped Keds. You’re “putting the red on the apple” as they say. (By the way, the “Second Draft” phase encompasses all other—third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc.) drafts… until you feel the story you’re telling feels complete.

The Stick-it-in-a-Drawer Phase. Seriously. Put it away for a week or a month. Try to forget that you’ve ever written it.

Polishing. Read your story again with fresh brain cells. Tweak and polish and cut every uncertain or unnecessary word that doesn’t want to fit, un-garble every phrase that feels plodding or slow. Fill in the blanks. Trim threads from the tapestry. Be sure every aspect belongs. Speed up the action or, when it doubt, truncate or eliminate the morass. If you feel something reads slow, don’t assume it isn’t. If you think it is, your readers will think so too. Definitely find ways to truncate or tweak the slow spots. Oh, and kill your darlings.

And there’s your finished novel. Piece of cake, right?

 


* RE: Rule #100. Unless, of course, this particular procedure works for you. Some writers (I believe Arthur C. Clarke was one, although I may be mistaken) would write a single perfectly structured thought (whether it was a paragraph or a page) before moving on. A single draft, thoroughly polished, chronologically stable, even stunning, from beginning to end. If it works for you, awesome! Ignore this rule! However, if you find yourself hovering maniacally over an incomplete thought for a week, a month, or a year, unable to push forward even a line or two—yeah, learn to love the blank space. Jump ahead and return when the mind is ripe. (And pity the poor wordsmith who lived before cut&paste!) But trust yourself. Trust the future. All good thoughts will come in time.
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Active Composition

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 3): Active Composition (Plotting)

To recap: I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

The late, great Elmore Leonard addressed this dilemma very well: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Simply put: Tell an exciting, engaging story. A writer divulges the highlights and skips the low points. Determining those potential chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and words to exclude is no less important than what is written. Active composition is knowing the difference.

My advice (to reiterate from Simple, but Exciting): include only those ingredients that 1) build or strengthen plot development; 2) build or strengthen character development, or; 3) set the scene for the reader (where, who, when… perhaps why and how).

I shall chatter many times in this blog about the necessity of plotting… but it’s best to begin at the beginning. How does one go about preparing a good plot? It’s good to think ahead.

The most important preparation of Active Composition is this: Before you begin to write (or certainly before you write too much… as some writers approach a blank page, a fresh idea, a new novel, with blissful ignorance) is know where you’re going. Certainly before you finish your first chapter, I recommend knowing—at least intuiting—where your story will end.

Rule #14: Before you wander along too far, develop your story from A-to-Z. Meaning, formulate a solid game plan ASAP. Be sure you have both your plot and your characters fairly well determined—with no insurmountable obstacles—from page 1 to THE END.

A hypothetical. Let’s say I want to write a novel about Lisa, a young, adopted woman with a prosthetic leg, who decides to walk from Miami to Seattle—a 3300 mile trek—to meet her birth mother for the first time.

In one sentence, I’ve outlined a credible protagonist, her intent, and the probable (or at least possible) conclusion of her ordeal. I can now intuit a host of conflicts and stimulating engagements along the way, an opportunity for personal growth (did I mention that Lisa’s afraid of the dark?), the chance of encountering many delightful or mischievous characters and, of course, the obligatory dramatic conclusion.

While I probably won’t know (not yet, not exactly) all of Lisa’s trials and tribulations along the way, I intuit my story will indeed end in Seattle, with an encounter between Lisa and her mother. Will the woman be receptive? Will she be dismissive? Perhaps that element remains hazy. However, as a developing plot, I’ve mapped myself much or most of an A-to-Z game plan—a beginning to an end. I trust that I know enough about my character, and about myself as a writer, to begin my story.

Remember, it’s okay that neither my protagonist nor I know what’s lurking around every corner. I may not know what specific event will transpire on page 25, or on page 250. Maybe Lisa finds true love along the way—but where? Walking through Georgia? Through Kansas? Through Oregon? Those specifics may still be whirling around in my head. We need not know every detail before we embark. And even if we think we know, much will likely change as we continue the journey.

As I begin to compose the basic plot points of my novel, my principle job is to highlight only those areas of Lisa’s marathon walkabout that matter to a reader. It’s important to write only what matters to your story. (Or, conversely, leave out the boring parts.) That’s Rule #12, by the way. I need not depict every one of the 6,508,014 steps that Lisa will endure to complete the trip—but I definitely want to mention the 2am tornado she encounters in Nebraska, the kind stranger in Tennessee, the motorcycle gang in Missouri and the moment she finds true love in Montana.

Active composition is writing only the essential elements of her story, while eliminating or ignoring those parts that don’t move the plot forward. If Lisa picks up a discarded gum-wrapper on Interstate 40, outside of Rapid City—big deal. Doesn’t interest me in the least. However, if Lisa finds a gum wrapper in Gainesville and vows to pick up every piece of rubbish she discovers along the way—that development becomes an important character trait and a plot point! As an author, I need not document every piece of trash she picks up, either. Show me a few unique examples… oh, and include the discarded Lottery ticket she plucks from the roadside in Buzzard Springs—a $180 million winner. That’s probably worth a mention.

So, yeah, Rule #12: Leave out the boring parts. (Write only what matters to your story.)
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Active Language

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 2): Active Language (Grammar, sentence structure, linguistics)

To recap: I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

I’ll keep this simple for both our sakes. If you need a grammar lesson, we’re both in the wrong place.

But, in the English language (as compared to, say, Kayabi, and whatever Yoda spoke), the simplest way to invoke energy and emotion into sentence structure is typically: Subject (S) + Verb (V) + Object (O). Thus: John (S) kissed (V) Mary (O). Or: Laura (S) + killed (V) + the snake (O).

As opposed to Mary was kissed by John. Or; The snake was killed by Laura. Or even more passive: It was the snake that was killed by Laura.

By rearranging the sentence structure to the less energetic Object + Verb + Subject (OVS), the writer’s placing the action’s instigator at the end of the sentence and slightly altering the emphasis. And in longer, more complex sentences, both nuance and structure can become uncomfortably apparent. You’re also clogging your story with extremely passive verbs; “was” and “were;” unnecessary prepositions, pronouns, articles and the so-called “little” phrases (e.g.; it would, that were, of the, by which). Such utterly unexciting placeholders act as a buffer between words and action.

For instance, a subtle but distinct difference exists between: Prince Clarion crushed the giant orc’s head and The head of the giant orc was crushed by Prince Clarion. While both structural formats can and will ultimately co-exist in your novel, play with the most active structure first. This is especially important in scenes of passion, action, high tension or terror.

Rule #6: The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice). I learned this tenet once upon a time in Eng. Lit. 101. These words have kept Prince Clarion blissfully crushing orcs’ heads ever since:

ActiveThe cow jumped over the moon.
PassiveThe moon was jumped over by the cow.
Bad passiveIt was the moon that was jumped over by the cow.*

* Exceptions always exist. You’ll eventually find this particular phraseology a perfect fit for your needs and, by all means, use it. However, if you find yourself using this grammatical gremlin as a basic structural pattern—then no, you’re not infusing sufficient excitement into your writing. You’re using passive language way too often. And no, Muse Harbor will probably not publish you.

And, no, simply because Hemingway frequently used passive voice, you may not. And, no, because David Foster Wallace did so in present tense—”I am this” and “I am that”—you may not. “It was…” is glaringly overused in modern fictive writing. More often than not, excessive passive voice is a sign of tired writing. Meaning your brain’s full. Put down your pencil. Take a walk. Take a nap. Clean the house. Because most “it” usage can transmogrify into far more descriptive prose. Occasionally, it fits such sentence structure may suffice your needs, but most often, it does not your words can be easily rearranged with far more passion and creativity.

While I doubt any author can (or should) write an entire novel strictly using SVO sentence structure, I suggest keeping this grammatical sequence as a staple tool for active writing. The volcano belched a cascade of hot lava. Rather than: Hot lava was belching from the volcano. Realize that by simply altering your subject (from OVS), you can maintain the SVO principle but also shift your reader’s attention, such as: Hot lava poured from the mountain’s ruptured peak. With nary a “was” or “were” in sight.

A good many novice writers (and even published pro’s) can occasionally slip into a steady flow of passivity. Be on the constant lookout for:

It was a dark and stormy night. Linda was sleeping. There was a noise that awakened her with a start. What was that? she wondered. Was somebody standing outside her door. Was it her husband, Teddy? It was because she didn’t know that she tiptoed to the door. There was only silence beyond the door. Linda was scared and we, dear reader, are ready to close this book forever.

So look closely for any steady stream of passive sentence structure beginning with tired phraseology: It was, They were, There was—and the dreaded It was because…. Each of these sentences can be actively rearranged (and the more you begin to do so, the easier such restructuring becomes).

I’ve occasionally come upon an interesting side-effect of passive language. If a writer twists and contorts various, meaningless phrases long and hard enough, the words sometimes almost sound correct. In fact, a writer may even convince himself that such lavish flow of language sounds positively Shakespearean. But this style of writing is roughly akin to spritzing a pig in expensive French perfume. He may smell nice for awhile, but you still won’t want to kiss him.

For example, this sentence still smells like a pig: “Of that substance to which Richard was most disinclined ever to confront, he promised himself never again to touch it to his lips.”

Keep your message simple. What’s the idea you’re trying to impart here? It’s: Richard hated chocolate, right?

So how might one say that creatively? How about: Richard couldn’t understand the world’s love affair with chocolate. On his tongue, the candy oozed like motor oil, and tasted, to his best perception, like dirty butter.

A simple thought, distinctly perceived, clearly transmitted. Active, not passive.
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Active Voice

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice

When I’m editing a work of fiction, I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

Active writing… the antithesis of passive writing. Friends who write and creative writing teachers, editors and agents, publishers and critics and helpful relatives at Thanksgiving dinner—they’re always imploring us to “Write active, not passive.” So what part of the creative writing process—voice, style or composition—should continually sparkle with activity?

The answer is:Yes, yes and yes. All of the above.

Remember Rule #8Keep your characters moving. Inhale or Exhale. A fiction writer constantly, continually pushes a character toward conflict, or pulls her away again. Active Writing breathes passionate resonance into your storytelling (and style, and voice) at the appropriate times. Anybody who’s ever read a great work of fiction can pretty much intuit an inhale from an exhale. (If you can’t, you’re probably in the wrong business. No offense.)

However, breathing life into a novel isn’t a singularity. It happens (subliminally or not) on multiple levels during the creation of a novel. I look for the life of a novel on three distinct levels: Voice, Language and Plot. But let’s look at voice, first.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Show, don’t tell. (And a bit more about the specifics here, but keep reading…!)

Show, don’t tell. Meaning… show the reader the gleam of the diamond, the glint of hard steel, the fragrance of new blossoms in the spring—and not simply tell the reader, it’s a rock, it’s a sword, it was warm.

When you tell a story in passive voice, you’re providing a bare-bones, superficial glimpse through a dispassionate, authorial (a.k.a.: omniscient) voice. For example:

John hated Mary.

The statement may be clear and simple—and even somewhat effective—but it’s hardly exciting writing. When you allow us to glimpse morsels of your story by using active voice, you’re using interpretive sensory details far more illuminating, and pleasing—or horrifying, if that’s your intent—to the reader’s senses. You’re revealing hidden passions or characteristics or secrets that may not otherwise be revealed. You’re sifting through the layers of each character, seeking those few gleaming shards that best illustrates the fact that John does indeed hate Mary. You’re picking a single carrot out of the stew, and investigating that one morsel in breathtaking detail.

Mary recoiled at her husband’s touch. She found his breath cloying, his voice dripping with a sarcastic bitterness that betrayed his disgust with the woman who had once captured his soul.

Or ponder the efficient, yet detached: Joan loved Paul.

Now consider the alternate: She adored the way Paul reached for her hand when they walked together on the beach, or how he touched her face in the moonlight, and whispered her name.

Not once does a writer need to use the words “love” or “hate.” Instead, the reader intuits those vibes from the use of richer language. A single tear falling from an eye can be a far more poetic experience than Joan sobbed all day long.

So… Is  Showing, Not Telling a principle element of Simple, but Exciting? Or of Exciting, but Simple? It is, IMHO, the best of both worlds. Let’s backtrack a sec:

She adored the way Paul reached for her hand….

A pretty basic concept, no? A single, simple sentence evokes an emotion, a bond between Joan and Paul. A confident writer might intuit that no further character development is necessary yet, or else add a line or two more to impart other significant detail about their relationship at the moment. However, lavishing nuance after nuance into another dozen pages would, indeed, complicate the obvious. Once we intuit that Joan indeed loves Paul, it’s time to move on. Thus, a writer might begin to scene set, adding details about the endless, palm swept, black-sand beach. Or perhaps it’s time to infuse a plot element—introducing that unseen, 18-foot Great White swimming hungrily just beyond the breakers.

Rule #20: Don’t extend a scene past the “just enough” point. For instance, “too much” might look like:

She adored Paul because he’d once bought her flowers that had cost twenty dollars at the carnival in Rio, but back then Paul had a part-time job as an undertaker, so he didn’t mind spending so much, even though he could have bought roses cheaper down the road at a place called Pepe’s, where Paul had once dated a girl named Rita.

Unless any of the above rambling “summary” is later crucial to the plot (or a very specific style choice that’s leading somewhere), Paul’s former career, the existence of Pepe’s or Rita’s mention, that information does not belong in the book. And certainly none of it belongs on this beach. If any of the information is later crucial—introduce those elements at the appropriate time. In other words, if we don’t meet Rita again for 150 pages, don’t mention her in passing now. We certainly won’t recall her name! Nor should you expect a reader to carry that baggage for 150 pages. However, if Rita will develop later into a necessary character, give her ample stage-time (if only a few paragraphs), or some specific trait, sufficient for readers to remember her 150 pages hence.
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Exciting, But Simple

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Exciting, But Simple.

I’m not sure if there’s a sage in the world who can teach the secrets of exciting writing. If they can’t, I certainly can’t either.

I happen to believe that writers, like ball players, concert cellists and chess masters, are born into this world fully equipped with the ability to succeed. Some will never have the chance or the perseverance to fully explore or hone our true talents. Others will spill blood, sweat and tears, but never catch that lucky break. (Sorry, yeah, it’s about luck, too.) Sometimes, good writers simply encounter bad timing. Or the wrong agent, or editor, or the wrong publisher. And don’t think I haven’t lost a sleepless night or two fretting about that last quandary. I have.

And sometimes, the most diligent of souls, the sweetest of people, simply aren’t good enough. Almost, but not quite. The world is filled with manuscripts, piled high in milk crates crammed into back corners of countless closets. As my grandmother used to say, “You can’t make a Ferrari out of a Studebaker.”

She’s right. But the biggest tragedy is never knowing. Never trying. The world may indeed be overladen with Studebakers pretending to be Ferraris, but I suspect the world has its fair share of idling Ferraris, glumly assuming they’re Studebakers. These are the writers who’ll never allow themselves the chance to experience themselves flying balls out down that literary speedway of life. And that’s a shame.

As hopeful authors, most of us are capable of crafting and honing our mechanical abilities—we can read creative writing books, we can study language and craft and attend workshops—we’re able to eventually intuit a noun from a verb. Because a writer can learn the simple stuff. But you can’t learn what can’t be taught. You can’t learn writing excitement.

When I talk about excitement, I’m talking about a writer’s individual style, that unique blend of panache and enthusiasm and articulation. Style can’t be bought or taught or handed down, generation to generation. Nobody taught Picasso Cubism. Nobody taught Babe Ruth to hit homers. Nobody taught Einstein to think. They each had it in ’em, all along.

If you have it—and Tom Wolff would call it the right stuff—good for you. Aim for the center field bleachers. If you don’t have it, you’ll discover that soon enough and move on. Ninety-five percent of wannabe fiction writers move on, and often to even greater endeavors. Ain’t no shame in crossing off write a novel from your bucket list, before skiing the Alps or designing a home or discovering cold fusion.

So… do I have advice for those of you attempting to determine your own stylistic prowess? (Does a goose have paté?) I can offer a few suggestions to flint that spark, to perhaps ignite something inside that might never extinguish.

Suggestion #1. New to fiction writing? Overwhelmed by the concept of writing 350 pages end-to-end? Unsure of your own abilities or talent or stamina? Start with smaller bites. Write a short story. Write an idea. Write a slice of life—a simple scene, a simple page with no beginning or no end—with no other agenda than pure enjoyment. Write for yourself. Make yourself smile. If that works… write another page. If you find yourself pouring out your soul, or simply amusing yourself with your own creative genius, perhaps you’re onto something. But writing a novel is kinda like giving birth. Give it time. Give it room. If you start pushing too hard at three months you’ll only hurt yourself, and the kid’ll be thinking WTF, mom?

So…. Rule #3. Always write for yourself. If you find yourself writing for an audience, you’ll eventually lose yourself in the crowd. Even if you’re successful, sooner or later you’ll probably sell your soul. So write to please yourself, first and foremost.

Suggestion #2. Chances are, if you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. As a reader, what excites you? When I write, I keep a favorite novel on my desk and, most mornings before I begin working, I pick a random page and begin to read. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs, sometimes a few pages. I read until I’m filled with awe and appreciation and amazement that, yeah, that’s great stuff. And I can do it too.

By reading snippets, I’m not attempting emulate a writer’s style or content—I’m not plagiarizing substance or verbiage—I’m simply trying to jump start my own creative juices by absorbing another writer’s creative juices. It’s the literary equivalent of a Vulcan Mind-Meld.

Suggestion #3. Concentrate on dialogue. The eyes may be the portal to the soul (as the poets like to say), but in fiction, dialogue is the portal to a character’s soul. (See Dialogue.) I believe dialog to be the single most important asset to a unique voice. Try writing a few pages of dialog; two people simply talking to each other. No other modifiers (i.e.; he said sweetly, or she chuckled insanely.) Simply two voices. Don’t think about it—just begin a dialogue. You might be amazed at how spontaneous (again, as in don’t think about it) you’ll find a situation (no matter how irrelevant) developing:
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S’up?”
“Nada.”
“Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Been busy.”
“That your elephant?”
“Nah. My mom’s.”
“He gotta name?”
“Buster.”
“Buster?”
“He don’t come when you call him, though.”
“No, I don’t think he’d give a shit.”
“Unless maybe you have ice cream.”
“Peanut butter?”
“Strawberry.”
“Man, you’d think peanut butter, huh?”
“Seriously, yeah.

…or some sort of totally random, unrehearsed, out-of-nowhere stuff. Try to create characters by voice alone, and see where that leads you. Maybe nowhere. Maybe a character sketch. Maybe a story. Maybe a novel. (Stranger things have happened.) And much more about dialogue later…

Suggestion #4. Keep your voice active. Not passive.
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