Wordsmith Wednesday–Voice


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A number of years ago I participated in a writing conference in which one of the speakers–a well-known author and writing guru–tossed out a piece of advice that I never followed. He claimed that budding authors, in order to improve their writing style, should sit down with a favorite book by a writer that they admire and copy the text, word-for-word, page-by-page. I just couldn’t buy into this suggestion.

I was already facing a glaring weakness in my own first novel. At the time I had been reading a lot of mystery novels by Robert Parker and had, unconsciously, imitated his short, clipped sentences. They worked for Parker who used them to propel his readers through quick, suspenseful reads tinged with a sense of humor–the kind of books that benefited my lifestyle at the time, that of a working professional. But I was writing literary fiction and dealing with issues of life and death that demanded a bit more ponderous tone.

Voice refers to the way an author uses words, style and syntax to create a story. Each of us has a message to deliver and, for the most part, we have a specific audience hovering somewhere below the surface of our consciousness. I think it is important to ask ourselves a few questions that will help to evaluate our own voice:

Who am I? Is my narrative true to my unique personality? If I read it aloud, is it congruent with how I envision life? Example: for me to undertake writing that is full of expletives, violence or lewdness is out of character. That does not mean I will not pen occasional scenes or characters that are edgy.

Do my characters all sound alike? Have I entered into their minds enough to differentiate one from another? Does a uneducated protagonist sound like a PhD? Does a physician sound like a teenager? Take the time to learn the “language” of your characters by visiting, eaves-dropping or interviewing persons of various backgrounds if you need to. Write dialect only if you are comfortable with it and can make it sound natural. This takes considerable skill and talent. Mark Twain succeeded in writing from the point of view of Huck Finn. Not many are able to pull that off.

Who is my intended audience? A while back I worked at a University editing patient education material for a nutrition department. The original work had been written by people educated at the Master’s or Doctoral level. The intended audience was for socio-economically deprived persons. It was my job to communicate the information in such a way that it would be meaningful to those who would use it.

As a writing exercise, I’m going to suggest the opposite of what the afore-mentioned speaker advised. Take a few paragraphs of an author you admire and rewrite them…in YOUR voice.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Where to Start?

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If you’re a writer, I know you’re a reader. Or you better be. Think back on a recent trip to the bookstore or library or, perhaps, your initial foray into the sample you downloaded onto your Kindle. How do you choose a novel you want to buy?

One thing I look at, of course, is the cover. The art, the design, the overall attractiveness of the book’s presentation is a temptation that draws me to pull it off the shelf. Then I read the back cover and inside flaps. If it’s an author I know and already appreciate, that may be all it takes–but more often than not I turn to the opening chapter. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what is going to draw me, as a  reader into the story.

When I think back on the (literally) hundreds of rewrites I did on “Winter is Past,” 80% of them focused on the first fifty pages. I’m not talking edits here. I’m referring to total destruction of narrative already written. I’m alluding to using those little scissors on the tool bar of my computer or wadding up pages of manuscript and slam-dunking them into the wastebasket.

If a book doesn’t tantalize me in the opening chapters, I decide it’s not worth the however many years I have left from the perspective of the 60+ spectrum of my life span.

So what are some of the things that urge me to keep on turning pages?

  • I want to know who my protagonist is, what’s going on in his or her head, what kind of challenges is she going to allow me to share with her on her journey. I’m not talking about her blue eyes and blond hair. You can give me a physical description later on if you like, or you can allow me to conjure up my own image.
  • I’m looking for voice. What point of view has the author espoused? Is his character gentle, abrupt, victimized, crazy? Is she going to tell me about her or drag me into her psyche? Are there other POV characters I’ll get to meet?
  • Now, what about action? Are the opening pages wearisome with long paragraphs of description that don’t seem to lead me anywhere? How long do I have to wait for something to happen? Where’s the conflict? Even in character-driven novels, the conflict better come on pretty quickly or I’ll close the book, fall asleep and leave it unread.
  • And is the author going to just tell me what’s going on or is he going to allow me to immerse myself in the narrative by evoking my senses–smell, taste, touch, vision and hearing? Will I be able to suspend disbelief and identify with the protagonist? Please, please let me be a part of the story.

What other characteristics can you share that compel you to read on, to allow an author’s written word to become a part of your experience? What values do you expect to reap when you assent to spending your precious time with a book?