Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tone: You Know It When You See It

Scott D. Parker

Like Russel yesterday, when tone came down as the subject of the week, I groaned inwardly. How the heck do you talk about tone? Remember that saying a congressman or judge once said about porn: that he'd know porn when he saw it but couldn't quite put forward a definition? That's how I see tone.

Tone is also a bit like your life's journey: you can only see the signposts from the perspective of age and wisdom. When you break-up with your first love, at the time, it's like the world is crashing down and everything else is meaningless. With time, you can see that the new trajectory your life took was infinitely better.

The same goes with tone. Like Jay and Russel wrote, one of the mechanical things you can do to evoke a particular tone is choosing certain words to fill your sentences and paragraphs. Certain authors have a particular tone. You can read one paragraph of Charles Dickens and you know the author's tone. The same is true for Chandler, Hammett, Burroughs, Chabon, or dozens of other writers. Some authors can even mimic a certain tone. In the afterward to his new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz mentioned that he kept a list of certain words that he used over and over again. He did such a good job with capturing the tone and feel of Doyle's language that I sometimes forgot that Doyle wasn't the author.

Yes, you can set out to create a certain tone and wordsmith your way to that desired end. Take, for example, most network TV crime dramas. Because of the structure and the language choice, many have a similar tone. Does that make them bad? No, but if you don't like that particular tone, you probably won't like the shows.

Word choice alone is only a means to an end. In some ways, it's something that' too mechanical. An author's tone emerges over time, over the thousands of words written. Tone might be the thing only readers can discover. Yes, it's true that tone can materialize in prose, but if you want to get a good sense of your own, personal tone, read your own non-fiction, including blogs entries and emails. I have speech-to-text software on my computers and one of the things the program does during setup is to analyze your writing. If only there was an option for tone I'd have the answer to what mine is.

I'll admit that I'm not too seasoned a writer of prose to know if I have a prose tone or not, but I can easily recognize my tone in emails, especially professional ones.

Can you recognize your own tone in your prose or non-fiction?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tones of Fun*

By Russel D McLean

I’m not sure how happy I am talking about this weeks subject.


I really don’t know what to say about it. I don’t have much in the way of practical advice and in a sense, I think tone is often a matter of instinct and something you can only see as part of a far larger picture.

Tone is a funny thing. It’s one of those almost instinctual tools in a writer’s box. But despite it seemed like a vague, woolly-thinking kind of idea, its an essential thing to have.

Without having control of your tone, you’re screwed.

But what is tone?

And how can your control it?

Tone is what conveys the mood of your work. Tone is omnipresent in your writing. Tone comes from your word choice, your sentence structure, your point of view. It is the result of all those tiny little choices you make by writing.

Put one thing wrong and tone can go out of the window.

Tone is of course the great problem of the internet generation. We communicate by text almost all the time these days. I have friends whom I know more by their tone in emails than I do by their tone in conversations** And it’s amazing how many times tone can be misinterpreted. Sometimes you just accept that a person has a certain tone, but if you don’t know them then you cannot forgive them seeming rude because you don’t know that they aren’t. It’s the frightening thing about reading a text – all we have to go on are the words in front of us. And if they are mis-used, then often the tone can be misinterpreted and the intent of a communication ruined.

Tone is reliant on being in control of everything else you are doing in a piece of work. Tone comes at the end. tone is the result of all your hard work. My fellow DSDers have said that tone is attitude, that tone is atmosphere, that tone is voice and so much more. It is indeed all of these. And more.

If your tone is wrong, you fix it by working at the meta-level, by fixing some smaller, more intricate process such as your word choice, your structure, your point of view, whatever. All of these other things working in unison are what produce tone. Inconsistencies in tone come from elements of your work not working in harmony, like gears of the wrong size grinding together. On their own these elements may be brilliant, but together they produce something atonal and unsettling.

In the end, what I’m saying is that tone is not something you look at initially. Tone is something you allow to emerge from your work. Writing is like putting together a jigsaw in some ways. You are working with all these disparate and apparently unconnected pieces but when you find the right way to put them together, you can produce something quite unexpected and often entirely beautiful.

*You may groan, but I worked for ages to find a pun title for this entry…
**Not because we’re shut ins but often because we live in different countries. As Tony Hancock said when he took up the Ham Radio, “I’ve got friends all over the world. All over the world! None in this country, but all over the world…”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tone Deaf

By Jay Stringer

After the news cycle we've had in the writing community of the past few weeks, writing about tone seems to fit. Tone and voice are two of the hardest things to quantify. You know it when you see it, but getting it right? Therein lies the trick.

Tone isn't something that you can get from cobbling together other people's words. It also changes with the times, so it's not really something you're going to be able to lift out of a 1950's novel and pull off perfectly as a modern book.

Tone and voice go hand in hand in my mind. The way a book sounds, its rhythm and vibe as the reader turns the pages and reads each sentence. A great voice is smooth like jazz, pushing the reader ahead more than even the action.

Now, let's go with the normal idea that "tone" in writing is about attitude. In a Parker novel, you're going to get some fisticuffs and some heist plans and guys with broken noses as dames with backstories.

"When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed."

That's the first line Richard Stark's THE OUTFIT, a serious, no nonsense, masterpiece of crime fiction.
So the writing that follows the woman screaming in bed and the guy waking up and falling to the floor would be different than they would in many other novels. A woman screaming in bed? The guy asleep when she starts? You could go for the cheap, sexxxy slapstick pretty easily with that -- depending on the tone of your book.

Tone, as I mentioned, is all about attitude -- the writer's attitude to the book and to the audience. Heck, it's also about the audience's attitude to the story.

And, just like voice, just like attitude, it has to be your own. Sure when you first start writing, you're cribbing a lot of voice from your favourite writers. When you first start writings songs, really all you're doing is finding the simplest songs in the back catalogue of your idol, and reshuffling the deck a little.

I've written two full novels, and a couple of half finished ones, and I'm probably still trying to out walk the shadow that White Jazz cast on my impressionable little brain. It takes time.

But whereas voice is something that carries over from book to book, something that keeps drawing a reader to a particular writer, tone is specific to that story. One of the best examples of both tone and voice is When The Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block. I swear, every time I pick that book up to idly scan the first page, I then go ahead and read the first dozen chapters. There's something specific in those first two chapters that draws you in. Two things, actually. Tone and Voice.

Those first two chapters are filled with things that we're told not to do as received wisdom. It's a murder mystery that doesn't drop a body straight away. The first chapter is filled with some fairly unsympathetic characters, and the narrator himself is a drunk, which makes us question how reliable he is. The second chapter is one long example of info dump. It's page after page of back story, set up and context. And yet, because Block is in total control of his words, it all works.

The information we're being given isn't all needed for the plot. A lot of it may have been cut by an editor working on a first time author. But it's setting the tone. It's an album track. In this instance, it's filling us with a doomed form of nostalgia, one that knows the past wasn't a better place, but makes us yearn for it anyway. It talks of people and relationships long gone, and failures long buried. And, on it's way, it sets up the whole book.

Tone and voice are the things that can hold together a story. See in Elmore Leonard's rules of writing? See hoe he keeps pointing out that the rules can be broken? It's having control over those two elements that lets you break the rules.

Now I wouldn't necessarily agree that tone needs to be consistent throughout the book. I'd say what it needs to be is effective. It needs to hold you. A great writer, once again, can break the rules and mess around with tone. It can be consistent as long as it matches the story at each emotional beat, and those inconsistencies can be used to pack a real punch, like the flip your stomach does as you go over the tip of a roller-coaster.

But if, like me, you're still finding your voice, and still learning to control tone, I'd say it's safer to make it consistent. Learn what you're doing before you start showing off. I don't really have practical tips on this one as I had in previous weeks, because it's something I'm still working on. But maybe try creating a soundtrack album to your story, thinking which songs would play in each chapter if this were a film, and then write with that soundtrack in mind.

Bit above all, always make it your own.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tone: All About Attitude

By Steve Weddle

"When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed."

That's the first line Richard Stark's THE OUTFIT, a serious, no nonsense,  masterpiece of crime fiction.

Now, let's go with the normal idea that "tone" in writing is about attitude. In a Parker novel, you're going to get some fisticuffs and some heist plans and guys with broken noses as dames with backstories.

So the writing that follows the woman screaming in bed and the guy waking up and falling to the floor would be different than they would in many other novels.

A woman screaming in bed? The guy asleep when she starts? You could go for the cheap, sexxxy slapstick pretty easily with that -- depending on the tone of your book.

Tone, as I mentioned, is all about attitude -- the writer's attitude to the book and to the audience. Heck, it's also about the audience's attitude to the story.

The first novel I wrote, LOST AND FOUND, had some tone trouble in an early draft. I pulled this out as an example of how things can go horribly wrong.

Ryan, Amy, and the narrator are on the run. There's been some violence. Some deaths at a distance. The narrator and Amy just finished talking to John David Curtis and found out that stuff you find out just before the TV show goes to commercial. That twisty thing. This Twisty Thing let them know they should probably hop in the van and proceed with the hauling of the ass toot frackin sweet.

Now we join our story, already in progress:
Ryan turned on the radio, then found a local station.
“Look,” he said. “It’s noon. We calm down. Chill out. Listen to some tunes and relax.”
Whatever crappy music was finishing up. Strings. A violin or something. Applause. Then the bum-de-dum of station identification. Top of the hour. Whup-dee-doo.
I wasn’t paying attention until Amy said, “Turn it up. Listen.”
Something about their top story. Repeating the top story, which I thought was odd because it had just turned noon, so how they be repeating it. Anyway, the woman on the radio was talking about a brazen Sunday morning robbery at a convenience store. The clerk was shot and killed. The shooter is on the loose. Good, I thought. Look for him, not us. A customer at the store had been killed too, apparently trying to prevent the burglary, she said. I hated it when they got that wrong. Burglary is when someone breaks into your house and steals stuff. Robbery is when someone takes money from you. Idiots. “Breaking news,” the radio woman said, as if the robbery weren’t already breaking news. Though the family had not been notified and police were not releasing the identities of the dead clerk and the dead customer, she said, “the customer has been identified as former LSU football star and convicted felon John David Curtis.”
The three of us stopped breathing.

“Ryan, you got a phone in your bag?” Amy asked.
“Yeah, take a grey one,” he said, reaching into his duffle and tossing her a cell phone.
She dialed a seven-digit number, then hung up after the first ring. She waited a few seconds and did the same thing again.
“Where can we go?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t know. You guys live here,” I said.
“You can’t go home, again,” Amy said.
“Look homeward, angel. The hills beyond,” I said.
“Novels of Thomas Wolfe,” Ryan said, both of us falling back into our schtick of that pyramid game that was on television when we were kids.
Amy tightened her eyeballs our way. “Let’s focus on this. It’s serious.”

Well, it is serious, but I was letting my "look at how funny I am" nonsense get in the way. I was screwing up the tone something awful. I was going to the laugh instead of playing out the story. I was just reaching for whatever tool was the closest. (Haha. He said 'tool.')

Tone is also the attitude of the characters. Are they taking this seriously. Should the reader take it seriously? Tone is like mortar -- you don't pay that much attention to it when it's done well, but it's the thingy that holds the important thingies together.

When done well, of course, a change in tone can be instrumental in a successful scene. I wasn't doing it well. There's that line attributed to George Lucas about how easy it is to make the audience cry: First you show them a puppy. Then you kill the puppy.

Stephen King said something like that, too. First he makes you care about the characters. Then he sets loose the monsters.

That's the way tone can work.

I could have done something like that in the scene I mentioned. I could have had the group doing their game show schtick and everyone laughing and having a good time and then they get the news of their dead friend. The old "first you're laughing/then you're crying" idea.

Tone is so important, so instrumental, that just by varying it at the right places, you can provide an entire layer to your book, your story.

See, tone doesn't have to be consistent. It just has to be perfect.

And speaking of tone, here's a song about clowns to cheer you up (thanks @laurabenedict):

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tone Deaf

Tone and voice go hand in hand in my mind.

The way a book sounds, its rhythm and vibe as the reader turns the pages and reads each sentence. A great voice is smooth like jazz, pushing the reader ahead more than even the action.

Robert Parker is smooth jazz. He can say in 3 words what it might take someone else ten pages to say. He can zing you with a one liner, only to pull it back with a tight emotion in the span of two paragraphs.

Elmore Leonard is jazz as well. More rat-a-tat. Descriptions through dialogue, quick bursts of action, and a subtle characterization built with few powerful words.

I love voice. I love trying to make my work seem effortless and easy. Cutting, adding--a lot of that is plot stuff. But voice... voice has to be natural. You have to know the way you sound and keep it consistent. Whether it's funny, or hardboiled, or sappy... all of that is yours.

Be who you are.

Let your voice shine. The rest will follow.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A subtle but powerful spice

For me, music has always been closely connected to my moods. I grew up solidly on country music, and used to fall asleep to old-school country music. George Jones, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom T Hall, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. Songs not just about love and love lost, but about death. He Stopped Loving Her Today. Nothing like getting tucked into bed while you listen to a song about a guy's funeral and the love he lost.

A Boy Named Sue, or Folsom Prison Blues.

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

I was a somber kid. A deep thinker. I was also an insomniac as a child, and I attribute it, at least in part, to listening to songs about people dying in car crashes (Carroll County Accident) and ghosts haunting the living and depressing endings.

As a writer, I think that the easiest illustration of tone is through music. Most people can understand how the music and lyrics work together to create an atmosphere and a feeling. Does anyone listen to Amarillo By Morning and feel cheerful? I doubt it.

When the music and lyrics blend perfectly, they elicit the desired response. Music alone can do this as well. TV shows and movies rely on the shortcut of music to indicate whether something good or bad will happen next, and viewers rely on the music to prepare them emotionally.

I actually think that tone is one of the things we don't talk about as much as writers, despite the fact that it can get us into a lot of trouble. Tone is what sets the reader up with expectations of what's to come. If a book is nothing but sweetness and light, with teddy bears and cupcakes and happy family moments and fifty pages in people start swearing like sailors and carving people up with machetes, there needs to be a solid set-up to prepare the reader for that kind of transition.

Just like with music. There are songs that start off somber, and the entire piece is downbeat. Songs that always make me feel like tearing up.

Songs that just depress the hell out of me.

Other songs boost your spirits and make you feel positive. This one's been on my aerobic mixes for years, just because it always makes me feel like dancing.

Other songs just make me angry.

There are times when the music and lyrics are in sharp contrast, intended to be ironic. All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down by The Mavericks always springs to mind as an example of that.

Whatever the intent, the artist needs to sell the audience, and the same is true for an author with their work. I think a lot of writers get into trouble without giving careful consideration to how they prepare readers for what's coming. I've heard stories from authors, about how their editor had them rework the opening of a book so that there wouldn't be any swear words on the first page, so that they wouldn't deter readers who didn't like swearing in their books. From page 2 through the end was one expletive after another, which was fine by the editor, as long as they could still try to mislead readers into giving the book a shot.

Can we really be surprised when the author is inundated with mail from readers who were offended?

The overall tone should be consistent, and it should convey the underlying atmosphere and disposition of the work. Yes, there may be times parts of the book appeal to different sentiments, but there is an overall tone that comes through. When I'd read the Rebus books, even when he had a long-term girlfriend, I always knew it was just a matter of time before he screwed that up. With some characters, we know they won't find peace, love and happiness in the final pages. It would be inconsistent with their character.

It's something writers have to give serious consideration to as they develop their work. I think most of the time, when we find something doesn't work for us because we feel it's inconsistent, it has to do with the events somehow contradicting that tone.

I actually think that the show Terra Nova has a bit of a tone problem. Some scenes are scary and intense and the suspense is developed well. Most of the storylines deal with some major drama... and then it's time to go home to the happy family where we can all enjoy the wonder of the universe through the eyes of a child and never really talk about the guy who's flirting with your wife all the time or the years you spent in prison, or the sense of loss that would come with leaving behind friends and family who you'd never see again. It's hard to buy into all the happy family moments because it seems like, after all the obstacles and issues and things endured, the family was fixed with the snap of their fingers. They've at least made the son be a bit of an ass with an attitude problem, but they have to lighten up on the sugary moments because it doesn't fit with the realities of the show, and when the tone doesn't work, it makes the characters come off as two dimensional, because their experiences aren't fully reflected in their emotions.

In the same way that a single spice can make or break an entire dish, tone plays an important part in the creation of a story, a part more writers should pay close attention to.


It took me 50 long years just to work out
That because I was angry didn't mean I was right...

I've been drinking deep from a jar of pain
- Jackie Leven

There was sad news last week, that Jackie Leven had passed away. The Scottish musician, a former member of Doll by Doll, had first come on my radar courtesy of Ian Rankin and his books featuring DI Rebus. I picked up a lot of great musical recommendations from the books over the years, and have several of Jackie's CDs. A great musician, a great poet, a great loss.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chose your own adventure

by: Joelle Charbonneau
Happy Thanksgiving week! (Okay, only those of us in the states really care about it, but hey, a girl has to work with what she's got.) This also happens to be the final theme week for us here at DSD. Because we are so thankful for all of you who read this blog, we want you to decide what theme you want us to blog about.
This is your chance. Would you like to hear about:
Point of View
Story structure
Working within genre constraints
Something else?
This is your turn to tell us what to talk about! What writing issue do you want seven different opinions on? What topic do you want to read about while you are eating your pumpkin pie and turkey leftovers? Let us know by 5:00 EST (because, well, we'd like to give Sandra some time to actually write her blog postnfor tomorrow). We'll then pick the most voted for topic and give it a whirl.
And on a more serious note - as an author I am incredibly grateful to every reader, writer and friend who has supported me during my writing journey. I would never have made it this far without all of you. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you no matter where you live!