Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Voice, Part II—Or, One Path To Finding Yours!

My original notion on this topic, it turns out, is correct. Everyone wants to have a unique writer’s voice, but no one is quite sure just how to go about getting one. So how do you know what your particular “voice” is? How do you identify it? How do you know it when you hear it? And can it change? Last question first, because this particular question seems to be a biggie. Short answer? Yes…to a point. I wouldn’t have said this a few years ago. I would have said, “No. The way you write is the way you write, you’ve got one voice, and no matter how you try, you aren’t going to sound dramatically different.” Then, just for a lark, I tried a chapter of a light, frothy “chick lit” type book just to see if I could carry off zany, comedic and a little edgy. And the feedback? “Wow! What a great chick lit voice you have! You’ve really found your niche.” There’s only one trouble with that assessment. I heard exactly the same thing when I wrote a traditional romance with a cute/funny meet…and a romantic suspense with more than a touch of the ghostly. I heard like feedback on the depth of emotion I brought to a “death” scene…and the pure sweetness of a happy ending (at last). I’ve written romantic suspense, I’ve written traditional romance, I’ve written inspirational fiction, I’ve written nonfiction, and I’ve dabbled in aforementioned chick lit stuff. And no matter what I do, someone will say to me, “Oh, now, this…this is your voice. You need to just concentrate on this.” I’m a veteran writer. I’ve been at this game for a long, long time. You’d think I’d know what I’m doing. You’d think I’d really know my strengths by now. But the fact is, if I turn my hand to something, I often can “fake my way” through it, pretty convincingly, if the feedback is to be believed. Probably we all can. So is it any wonder that we’re all so flummoxed? The unfortunate (and confusing) fact is, “who we are” as writers sometimes will change. Anyone who’s ever taken a Myers-Briggs or other personality test knows that your results can differ dramatically depending on the mood you’re in, whether you’ve had enough sleep, the atmosphere in which you’re taking the test, and such things. (I personally have tested ENTJ, but some of the “results” are so close that if you tip it one way or the other, I’ll end up ISTP or even ISFJ—although I can’t quite imagine myself throwing over that logical “T” for an “F”, somehow.) If something as basic as personality can reflect in different ways depending on external factors, then it stands to reason that an author’s voice may in fact show itself as two or three startlingly different “voices.” So how do you distill down to one? Or should you? Once again, the short answer, yes—find the one place where you’re always “singing” in words, and stay in that spot long enough to distill it…if at all possible. I say that because you may not be at the point yet where you know which “voice” is truly yours. You may just not have written enough yet. Or tried enough different things yet. Or totally enthralled or disgusted yourself enough yet to know what, for sure, you at least don’t want to sound like! But you will. One day, you’ll be writing something, and the sparks will fly out of your fingers, and a shiver will go up your spine, and you’ll know you’re Onto Something. That “something” will be the action of telling your own stories, in your unique author voice. And there ain’t nothing like the real thing. Notice I don’t say you’ll be writing in your unique “style.” An author can write different styles of work, yet still have the same voice. I think regular readers of this blog could probably find familiar “resonances” with it in anything I wrote. Heck, I can find resonances between this and most letters and e-mails I write. That proves I’ve written enough millions of words that certain ones just pop out of my fingers more readily than others, in certain orders, with a certain rhythm and pace. All of that is style, which is one component of voice…but voice is something even deeper, even more distilled than style. It’s an essence. And you can get at it, if you’re willing to be fearless and play a little. So fasten your seat belts, because this is where it gets fun. My favorite, all-time, number one way to do any kind of serious writer exploration is by talking things out. I do this at a couple of points in the work. The first point is during the writing itself, or even prewriting. The best venue to do this talking, for me, is in the car. I take a long drive alone, and after I’m on the road perking along, I pose whatever my story question of the minute is, and then think about it out loud. I think in character sometimes; I think as narrator at others. I’ve talked out dialogue, plot knots, conflict, motivations…any number of things for my stories and characters, basically by having a conversation with myself. (This is why driving in the city, for these purposes, is perfect. Unless your windows are wide open and you’re in stop and go traffic, you can expound away quite freely and people just think you’re singing with your radio.) (Which I also do!) Some people do this with a tape recorder, but I don’t. Not only do I freeze up if there’s a machine going, but I don’t need to record it—after I’ve rehearsed it out loud enough times, I’ve got it imprinted in my brain somewhere, and I can literally come home and write it pretty much word for word. In my life here, out of city traffic, I don’t take long rides in the car as often as I used to. So sometimes to accomplish this talking-thinking-out-loud, I have to wait until the house is empty, sequester myself in my office and chatter away in much the same fashion. It’s slightly less effective that way, but in a pinch…it’ll work. The second form of “talking out” takes place once there’s something on the page. In this second form, you take a portion of the WIP and read it out loud, by yourself, to yourself. With expression, animation, and whatever you want to put into the danged stuff. Because I guarantee that when you do this, two things will happen: —you’ll enjoy some parts of the writing way more than others, and —you’ll stumble over some parts of the writing way more than others. They will literally be hard to read. Your tongue will get tangled, or you won’t like the sound of something, or you’ll keep hesitating before you say a certain sentence or phrase. Your job then? To go back and fix those places until they roll nicely off the tongue. It’s both as simple, and as complex, as that. Simple because sometimes all you need to do is change one word, and the sentence or scene works. Complex because in the process of figuring out what makes you stumble physically over a passage, you’re also discovering places where you’re not truly “in good voice.” Something in the work doesn’t resonate with you, so you have trouble getting through it. But when you go back and fix it so it flows…? This exercise ends up building your voice two different ways. First, it gets you accustomed to how your writer’s voice sounds, reads, and flows. Second, it helps you improve your writing craft—the actual craft—without your having to come within five miles of a potentially devastating, confusing, or nonsensical critique from someone else. Anyone else. As big a fan as I am of critiques, “voice” is one area they can really mess with…so it’s best at these times to Fix Things Yourself. (If you’re perplexed how to fix concrete, nuts-and-bolts stuff, of course, get some help if you want it. On the other hand, after enough of these sessions, you may find you don’t need nuts-and-bolts help so much anymore, either.) In a nutshell, that’s my voice-finding method in its clearest, most straightforward form. Sounds almost too easy, doesn’t it? Trust me on this. After years of writing just this way, I can vouch for the fact that this is simple, not easy. You may find it frustrating, almost impossible, at first. You may think, “I’m not an aural learner. I’m visual.” (Visual is OK. Use your flow charts, your highlighters, your index cards. Those are nuts and bolts. This is different.) Or, “I don’t read well out loud. Won’t I just do more harm than good?” (Answer? No. Because part of what penetrates the layers of writer-speak to the point where you’re using your writer’s voice, and you know it, will be the gradual release of inhibitions toward the spoken/read word that many of us have, especially our own spoken/read words. That’s why this is as much a challenge to play as to work.) Yeah, it’ll be fun. Yeah, you’ll work hard. Yeah, I want to know what you think of this…after you’ve tried it. You might surprise the both of us. More to come! Janny

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