Deep Prose and Clear Voice

(pulled from a note to a CP)

My main focus for vocal depth is finding places that need a boost to elevate the prose from (blocking and action) to “literature.”

Not just facts, but poetry.

The first layer is “What’s a cooler/more interesting way to X…?”

Second layer is “What’s a way to tie this description/phrase to the story theme/aesthetic/tone/plot?”

Third layer, and the only one that gets approval** for my own work into final drafts, is “How/what does X (description/phrase) mean to my narrator/speaker, and how would They frame X?”

**because no matter how awesome a phrase might be, if it doesn’t sound like it comes from my narrator’s voice, then it could throw the reader off at worst, but will weaken a reader’s connection to the narrator at best.

Page by page, I seek out a wide-angle thematic balance, and–when possible– book-wide character themes. Like, say romantic interest has a hard personality but a vulnerable ego, then I might craft their descriptions to relay that directly or indirectly by which devices I choose (maybe they’re compared to melons or maybe I just keep adjectives about their physical actions “crisp and brittle” while keeping descriptions of their voice “soft”).

I tend to go broad with these when it comes to characterization or repeat settings, sticking with things like seasons or basic elements (water, fire, +), so it doesn’t feel forced or too obvious.Also, the broader the theme, the greater span of sensory experiences and vocabulary range to use in expanding the character’s visceral reactions and word choice.

Random thing, but it’s best, for most readers apparently, to save the most intense descriptive language for moments when the narrator is first describing something (unless that scene is very active), or when it’s an emotional moment that the language can help bolster with “this is important” energy.

Hot tip: use your narrator’s zoom lens to spot concrete details, flaws, or specificity, rather than trying to describe everything anew or “completely.” Better to describe a character’s lone mismatched button than their entire outfit. Even when the narrative point is “excess,” attention can get lost easily in lists of facts, so the zoom is a writer’s best friend in that regard.


Character Connection Tools & Exercises

(that I depend on)

These tools work anywhere in a story, but I find they’re especially useful in early pages in forming a strong link between the MC and the reader, so that, by page 5+, the MC could just about do anything, and the reader will be like, “Of course they did that; that’s why I love them.”

Start the character with a clear goal and complication. I’m not talking about “Big Story Goal,” ie. Main Story Mission, I’m talking about a small scene goal that demonstrates who the character is and what they care about.

The bigger the conflict in the opening scenes,

the more personal that goal should be to balance it.

A quiet opening scene might get away with, “I just want to read this article and finish my coffee in peace without distractions.” A more active scene, with fighting, fleeing, and high stakes stuff, will need something much more personal to establish the reader’s link, like, “I can’t get caught/die NOW, just when I’m finally on the verge of X/personal goal.”

Some of the most common writing advice will seem to contradict this, things like “start in action” and “show don’t tell.”

But “start in action” actually means “start with conflict/tension” rather than, necessarily, high-stakes action. Without making us care about the character first, all that energy and action is likely to go right past the reader, who’s still trying to figure out why should keep reading *this* character’s story. Starting action-heavy makes that extra difficult for the reader to see, because we’ve got the “what” without a “who” or “why,” so leave readers as many clues as the prose can hold.

And “show don’t tell” is a racist construct for one, but it’s also totally unhelpful unless the character is fully established already and their motivations already made abundantly clear.

quick and dirty trick is

REGULARLY pair a show with a tell

to clue the reader into why and what XYZ means.

This is REALLY helpful if you’re ND like me, and your/your characters’ reasons for doing things aren’t the same as neurotypical people/characters expect.

When the narrator notices someone else gesturing a certain way, don’t just show the gesture, allow the narrator to interpret it for the reader. When the narrator makes a decision or reacts to something, tell why and what’s going through their head. It feels clunky at first, extra. But with practice, it can open up new avenues to connect with your characters and readers.

This especially matters when it comes to big character decisions; keep the reader close by making sure they know the narrator’s reasoning/logic train and sense the emotional complications that coincide.

For first chapters, and particularly first pages, no matter WHAT’S happening, keep the narrator in focus, front and center, because they’re the one responsible for ushering the reader into the world, situation, setting, scene, everything…

Start with them, even if it’s just a single line to establish POV and ensure that the MC is the reader’s first view of the story, and their narrative voice is the first heard.


  • If the character doesn’t have a natural goal in the opening scene, invent one. Or three. Play.
  • Write a bunch of sentences from the MC’s POV and voice, having them say who they are, what they want, and what they’re doing. I mean, a BUNCH. Push yourself outside the character’s comfort zone and experiment, in their voice, and play with how they’d explain their situation based on different moods. (My favorites– silly, regretful, angry, annoyed, sleepy, sad.)
  • Test it out.
  • Copy the first chapter into a new file and get to highlighting. Mark EVERY TIME the character makes a choice or reacts involuntarily. If the reason for the choice or reaction is undeniably clear, unmark it (ie. Character’s falling and they move somehow to protect themself).
  • If the reason ISN’T in the text, hit enter, and leave some spaces on the page to play with the question WHY? (The spaces actually help to carve out a breath for you as the writer.)
  • Insert an explanation. Doesn’t have to be perfect, just clear and in character.

Doing this sort of craft play often leads writers to identifying moments they rushed through, but remember you have complete control over the timing. A split second can equal a chapter’s worth of words as much as a short line can.

Usually these exercises open up a shitton of craft realizations, but YMMV.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that a story is never just about “what happened,” but “to whom it happened.” Readers care because they become invested in that Who, and character connection flows directly from your Who’s goal and what it means to them.

The Time It Takes

I’m talking about the time it takes to read and write. (Hahaha, you thought this was going to be about queries and subs, but no. I mean, not exactly, but also yes? Agents and editors are human beings, too, remember.)
Reading and writing, though… I keep dancing around posting something about this, because I think it’s a huge part of book-life we often breeze past, both in reading And writing.
Just because a book can be slurped down in one sitting doesn’t make that the measure of “best.” Yes, a book is a product, and making more product is how things get done, but there are factors here that are, for me, too important to overlook.
I’m hyperlexic, and I read faster than I can think, and I type faster than most people can talk. So why do my books take a year to draft, and why doesn’t my Goodreads challenge reflect my awesome speed?
BECAUSE I HAVE FEELINGS, Y’ALL. (Also a life, but mostly Feelings!!!!!)
We deal in emotions. Some emotions take time away from the page to let the words seep in. This isn’t just about triggers (though they are certainly a factor in my own mental preparations for reading), but about ALL emotional processing.
I spent 8 months reading SPACE OPERA. This is the longest it’s ever taken me to read a single book (note: I was listening to an audiobook, which is totally reading).
Rushing felt wrong. I wanted each delicious sentence to linger and gel in my head before moving on, because it was so rich. There was so much there to sit with and experience, and I had to pause and replay often because my laughter or surprise would make me miss the next lines (cue more laughter and surprise). I also read 40 other books during this time, all while continuing with SPACE OPERA. Sometimes a line or passage would spur me to write or make some other art, or even just squeeze my children and marvel at their singular wonderfulness that is both part of me and incredibly Not-Me.
And, like, hell yes, I wanted to, and could have, gulped THUG (THE HATE U GIVE) in one day, but OMG. I had to sit in some serious feelings awhile, and let the words seep in and do their work on my heart and my thoughts. There was a lot of work to do!!
The heavier and more intense the content is, the more I may need to step away. I may need to think and stew, or heal and cry and dream and read something else before coming back. 
Similarly, I read the whole Broken Earth trilogy in under a week (because N.K. Jemisin is a goddess AND a wizard, who dictated my thoughts for me onto the page and held my attention so thoroughly there was no time to look away), but I’ve reread each book thrice over, each reading going slower than the last, just to soak up all that goodness.
And if I LOVE a book, really, truly LOVE it, I might reread the same page or chapter 3 or 4 times before moving on, because the work is breathtaking and touches me on some level I won’t be able to revisit the same way again once the page turns.
This is not a flaw of story telling; this is its magic.
Some books take me foooooreeeeeveeer to read because I don’t want to fly through and miss nuance. OR THE HEALING. Healing isn’t streamlined and fast forwarded; it’s bumpy and scattered, and there’s a lot of looking backward to gain balance and clarity for the present. 
Books are the one medium that give me this power to truly pause and reflect, to become a new me by The End. I can’t be alone in this. I imagine people, like editors and agents, who’ve made books their business, came to this industry because of that same power. Product, yes and good, but still: POWER.
My irl bestie is still reading the project I’m querying, Moon Dust In My Hairnet. No lie, I was annoyed and hurt at first; I wanted feedback fast, to know if she “liked” it and if it resonated. Two months later, I’m still waiting for her to finish.
But, look, she’s STILL reading. Because it’s so personal and cathartic for her, she has to take time to approach the pages and let them Work, so she reads in sips. I’ve learned to take that as a compliment, now that I understand. (Just like it took time from me, sitting with my own feelings and working on how to share them in a way to help the story do exactly that for people with her experiences.) See, she lost her big sister at a critical age, so that’s a major personal issue she’s processing THROUGH my story. That’s colossal to me.
She says, “It’s changing my life,” and I can witness that happening for her. And I think, “This. This is why I write!”
But if she slurped this story of mine in one sitting, it could catapult her into feelings she can’t process that fast. Feelings that could set off her emotional balance in destructive ways. I GET IT. I didn’t write this story to do harm, but to help heal, and I’m not in charge of the dosage on the way; I simply deliver medicine.
So, to people who draft a story in a few weeks, good on you! I’m not in your race.
To those who pump out 10+ books a year, holy crap, you’re incredible! That could literally kill me.
And to those who read 100+ books a year, I’m in awe of you. Still not racing.
Books are my lifeline, my passion, and my heart’s food, but each takes the time it takes.
If I don’t finish your book in a day or even a week, this is not an insult to you or your craft but a testament to my appreciation. And if you’re writing about difficult emotional and social issues, please know I am ready for the whole ride you’re bringing me on, no matter how long that takes me, because I want that change to happen inside me en route. I need it like air, and I’ll love you forever unconditionally for providing it.
The point of all this is: let’s dowse the judgment from these conversations and from our expectations. It’s curiosity and our story addiction that drive the one-sitting read of any book. While that’s a marvelous, thrilling experience, it is not, by far, the only worthwhile reading experience to value or chase.
Books are magic, and writers are wizards, and some spells do their work over time and space and inside readers’ beings, and none of this is easily or tritely quantifiable.
I’d love to hear about your favorite books to reread! Please tell me in the comments?