Jan 20, 2011

Just Write

There is a huge difference between spoken and written language but a good writer is expected to bridge the gap as seamlessly as possible. Spoken voice consists of tone, inflection, emotion, body language, and words. Writing is words alone, and we have to express all of the spoken aspects of language by our choice of written words.

Those words convey the message we want to carry to reader, whether it’s anger, happiness, warning, or sarcasm.

So how do we do that? Through tone, for one thing.

What tone does your voice set on the page? Is it upbeat? Casual? Quirky?

RaeAnne Thayne’s The Valentine Two-Step is a great example of voice done right. Not only can you hear RaeAnne in the book, but her characters’ voices never waver. Her hero’s narrative is written in the same patterns and inflections, dips and swells, as his speaking voice. The same thing is true for the heroine.

When a piece of writing sounds cardboard, static and like something that anyone who can form a complete sentence could string together, you can be sure that your voice is absent.

Why does this happen? There are three basic reasons:

1) Your heart isn’t involved in the subject.

If you don’t care about what you’re writing, that will become painfully obvious to anyone who tries to read it.

Time after time, editors refer to that “spark” they’re looking for when they pick up a manuscript. That spark comes from you, from your unique outlook on life, from what you believe, what you find important, what you think is funny.

Think of some of your favorite authors. Think about what they bring to the book that keeps you coming back again and again. It’s more than plot. It’s more than character. It’s more than motivation, goal, and conflict.

What keeps you going back to an author time and again is that something in the author’s style appeals to you. You like the way her mind works, you share her sense of humor, and as you read, you feel almost as if the two of you have a special connection.

I don’t know exactly how to describe the authors whose works appeal to me most, but I do know the feeling I get when I start a book that has whatever the elusive quality is. It’s a sense of shared intimacy that I think can only come when the walls are stripped away and the pretense is gone.

I pick up the book, and I can almost hear the author say, “Let me tell you how it was,” and I say, “Yes, yes! Tell me!” And she has me, right there in the palm of her hand, as long as she remains honest.

Once she closes the door on the honesty, she’ll lose me. If she puts on airs, becomes pretentious, crosses the lines of (to me) acceptable behavior, or suddenly starts trying to instruct me, I’m gone.

Likewise, if she repeatedly insults my intelligence, I’m outta there. She has to respect me enough to tell me the truth -- all of it. Even the truth that hurts.

2) Your knowledge of your subject is too shallow and scattered to come across clearly and engagingly.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, your references will become vague and shadowy. When that happens, your clear author’s voice is gone.

Of course, there will be some things you can write around, some details you can wait to look up. But if you don’t know, for example, where your story is set you’re going to run into trouble because you can’t be clear about the setting.

Don’t use this as an excuse to stop writing while you research! Use some discretion. But also don’t try to write about things you just don’t understand.

3) You’re trying to write the “right” way so you're bogged down in rules.

The trouble with voice is that it’s impossible to show in a few simple examples. Voice doesn’t become apparent quickly, and it’s not gained easily.

Voice is identified by an author’s entire body of work. Voice is something that becomes stronger with time, and the chances that anyone has a really clear, strong voice in their first book are relatively slim.

Most likely, an editor will find a hint of Strong-Voice-To-Come in your early efforts and will be willing to take a chance on your ability to develop that hint into something more substantial. But in order to do that, you must be honest about how you view the world, what you think is important.

The real story is not in statistics or facts, it’s in the people involved. Peter Jacobi (The Magazine Article: Think It, Plan It, Write It, Writer's Digest Books, 1991) describes it as: "sifting facts through personality, the personality of the people involved in the topic you're covering and your own personality as a writer."

How do you Develop Voice?

Try writing with your eyes closed so you can’t see and edit what you’ve written. (This works better with a keyboard than a pen and paper, and, of course, you want to be sure your fingers are in the right place before you start!) If you can't actually write with your eyes closed, try spending a few minutes with them closed before you write. Closing your eyes helps you focus inward where the story is being created, and what you hear in there is the closest thing to your true voice.

Learn to let the story tell itself and avoid the urge to get your fingers in the pie (at least until the editing and revising stages.)

Be direct and clear. Don’t try to sound like a writer. Don’t try to get fancy with your phrasing, just say what you mean.

Don’t belittle or demean yourself. Allow for the chance that maybe your voice is exactly as it’s meant to be so you can reach the people out there who will respond to your unique voice. Remind yourself every day when you sit down to write that your voice is no accident.

Work with your critique group and ask them to help you know where your voice is shining through and where it disappears and becomes safe or generic.

Don't listen to your critique group if they're trying to rewrite your stuff and force their voices onto your work.

If you just can’t relax when you’re writing something “real” spend time journaling or writing something that “doesn’t matter.” The more time you spend with your real voice, the more comfortable you’ll become with it.

Don McKinney (Writing Magazine Articles That Sell, Writer's Digest Books, 1994) writes:

"The simple, uncomplicated approach to a dramatic situation will have more impact than the kind of souped-up prose that too many writers feel is necessary.

“Your best/first move might be to forget everything you ever learned about the ‘craft of writing’ and get back to the basic approach, the direct, immediate, uncluttered way of telling a story you used when you were a child.

“To put it even more simply: Don't write like a writer--just write.”

When it comes down to it, that’s the only advice anyone can give about voice. Don’t write like a writer, just write.

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photo credit: Oh Winter, let's get married via photopin (license)

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