Back to Main Page

Monday, September 17, 2012

Learning to Speak

            You see the term everywhere. Creative writing classes, “What I’m looking for” sections on agent’s and publisher’s submission pages, book reviews and writing groups. I love this author’s voice. Learn to find your voice! Looking for distinctive and fresh voices. I think the author’s voice is weak in this passage and it pulled me out of the story. Be true to your voice.
            What does voice have to do with writing? Your voice is the sound produced in your larynx and uttered through your mouth as speech or song. Those who read your works have no idea what your voice sounds like. If you called them on the phone, they wouldn’t know who you were. If they heard you singing, there would be no mental connection between that song and the printed words they’ve read. Where and what is your writing voice?
            And most importantly, how do you find it?
            This question has stressed out beginning authors from the moment they start their first story. They worry and then make the mistake of trying too hard, and the moment you try to have a voice you lose yours. But fear not, my fellow writers and friends; the answer to the question is difficult to articulate but simple to do. Because you already have your voice. You just need to learn to speak.
            When you were a child you learned to talk first by mimicking. Your parents would lean down  to you and say, “Mama,” and “Dada” and point to themselves. These early sounds weren’t perfect words, but they were sounds you could reproduce and when you said “mama” and “dada” they were happy. Learning to write well has much the same beginning. You mimic those far beyond you in prowess by reading their works, books that you love and want to read over and over, and then trying to write in their voice. It’s okay, it isn’t plagiarism, because these exercises are not for profit. They are for learning.
            Then once you’ve read and practiced one writer’s style, pick a different one. Try one that’s vastly different- if you were reading Nicholas Sparks type romances, try a John Grisham thriller. Epic fantasy? Try historical fiction. Or even biographies. Go somewhere in the library that you’ve never been before, and grab a book that you’ve researched on Goodreads. Then read it, and write a page or two trying to emulate that author’s voice.
            It won’t sound just like them. Anyone reading a passage from their book and then what you’ve written will be able to tell the difference. That’s great! It means that your voice is different than theirs, and you are refining that by testing out different styles. And of course this mimicking of others isn’t the only writing you should be doing- you should be writing your own story during this time also.
            Do this three or four times, different authors in a variety of genres, and watch how your own story changes. You are broadening your vocabulary with every new book and every new author. This is the easy part. This is where you get to stand on the shoulders of giants and look out past the horizon.
            Enjoy the moment, because the next part in finding your voice gets harder. You have to decide what you want to say. George Orwell said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as if it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” Again here many writers give into fear and pull back, put the breaks on their story because they don’t believe (as I didn’t believe) they have anything worth saying. We want to be thought braver, smarter, wiser than we are. So we couch our writing with intelligent phrases and high ideals, and we lose ourselves in our writing by pretending we are better people than we are. We want credibility.
            That’s what Orwell meant by our real aims versus our declared aims. Our declared aims are the high and lofty, the change the world by waking mankind to their greater potential goals in writing. Our real aims are to tell the story in our heads and hearts and hope that someone in that dark void out there will hear us.
            Drop the pretense. Forget now trying to sound like anybody else. You’ve read and practiced and heard other’s voices and now you need to trust that you know the language. Every author’s voice is an amalgamation of their experiences and beliefs squashed together with every book they’ve ever read. The more you’ve read the more you have to draw on. Now write, and be honest. Be honest in every word you write about whatever fictional imaginary setting and characters who’ve waltzed into your brain and taken up residence. Expose every zit and imperfection. This is what makes a character real, because this is what readers can relate to. We cannot grasp a perfect world and so writers who try to write them get left behind for vampire romance, which is anything but perfect.
            I remember being in the 6th grade and my writing teacher talking to me about one of our writing assignments. It was two or three pages long, single spaced, and he told me that it was pretty good, but there was only one line in it that was great. He pointed to it. “This is the kind of honesty we want in writing,” he said. The line he’d pointed to was a short sentence near the beginning of a story I no longer remember. The sentence was “Old people make me uncomfortable.”
            Awkward? Definitely. And it isn’t true anymore, but it sure was then. When we talk about honesty in writing we don’t mean nonfiction. An undead half vampire half werewolf who was hatched from the egg of a dragon can still say, “I don’t like to fall asleep on my own. In the dark, it always feels like something is watching me but I can’t ever make out who.” We all know what being afraid feels like. The character is 100% fiction but the emotion is 100% fact.
That’s the honesty in writing. That is your voice. Create any character in any setting that you can imagine, fill the background with fantastic and impossible, but be honest and direct with emotions and motivations. You are a person. You have feelings. You don’t know what it’s like to be pushed off a train, but you know what fear feels like. You’ve never lived on another planet and met an alien species, but at some point in your life you’ve been the new kid. Writing is uncomfortable because being honest requires us to face every imperfection we think we have and vomit them all over the page for the whole world to look at.
And it’s wonderful. You get to dump every fear, every insecurity, every moment of love and joy onto characters you create and get to watch them grow from the experience. Like you did. Like we still are. Your voice comes from your experiences and so will be unique and fresh automatically because you are unique. Finding your voice is speaking and living the truth. When you find it, your story will be told and you will be heard. The best way to find your voice is the same as the best way to get better at any part of being a writer. Read, then write. Then do it again.
And your voice will sing from the page so that the next book review on Goodreads might be yours. “This author has a voice I really connected with.” Don’t apologize, don’t equivocate, just write what you know, and you can put it anywhere you want.

1 comment:

  1. We did similar activities in my creative writing classes (Jr high all the way up through college)- I had one teacher who gave us 3 different short stories and we had to rewrite the stories with the exact same plot and characters and so on, but do it in "our style" (our voice). I also had one teacher who had us write the something of our own from 3 different people's points of view. I found my voice early on. I can't get away from it now. LOL. It's part of me and part of my writing, and no matter what I do, it's there. I'm proud of my voice. I've spent years and years exercising it.