Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Got Voice?

Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." And I couldn't agree more. But what Mr. Twain failed to say-at least out loud-is that what makes the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug is your voice. And that without one, you'd be like a sailboat without wind-capable of sailing, but simply drifting about slowly in the vast ocean of slushpiles.

For awhile now, I'd forgotten that about writing. You see, lately, I've been so worried about what others would think about my comma placements and my descriptions, that I'd actually forgotten how to write like ME. In a way, I had writer's laryngitis. My words were there, but they were garbled. And they didn't really represent the passion and zest that I had when I actually spoke. And believe me peeps, I'm a pistol.

Part of the reason I'd lost my voice was because I wanted so badly to follow a magic formula (it doesn't exist) and get my works published. And the other reason was because I was so afraid of how far to take my opinions and jokes. I mean 'Could I really say what I wanted?' I am a teacher, after all. And at the end of the day, that's the job that pays the bills, not my passion for the written word. Fear can be a paralyzing thing, people.

But in the end, I had to realize that if I didn't learn to use my voice, that no one would ever truly LOVE my writing. Sure. They might like it. Heck, they may even dig it. But they'd never really love my writing the way that I love Kathryn Stockett's. Now, that girl has voice. She has big time voice.

So it got me thinking 'How can I make my writing voice stand out? And what can I do to strengthen my 'voice' muscles?' And below is what I came up with.

1. Write like no one's watching. If you write a story thinking that 'everybody and their grandma' is going to be critiquing your writing,you'll never write a story with great voice. One of the things that stifles a writer's voice the most is the worry of failure. And if you give up that worry and write for yourself, you're giving yourself permission to write like no one's watching.

Last week, I wrote a story with the intent of it never seeing the light of day. And frankly, it was the most liberating experience that I've ever had. I was able to throw caution to the wind and let all my emotions hang out, so to speak. And as a result, I churned out one of the best stories that I'd ever written. Well, at least, as far as my voice was concerned, anyway.

2. Do your research. If you're writing a story about an African American woman during the time of integration, then by golly, you'd better do your research. Again, I refer to Kathryn Stockett. After reading her book The Help, I would've guessed that she was an elderly, southern African American. Imagine my surprise to find that she was a middle aged, caucasian. Now, in her particular case-from what I've read, anyway-Stockett herself was raised (by help standards) by an African American woman, a decade after the events transpiring in her book. So, in a way, she was doing the ultimate research for her book as she grew up. But even being raised by someone who had lived during that time period wouldn't have yieled a story as awesome as The Help. I mean I was raised by a WW2 veteran, and I couldn't write a story about that time period to save my life.

So until Kathryn Stocket tells me that she didn't do any research on that book, I'm going to assume that she researched until her eyes bled. Because man, that girl wrote The Help as if she lived during that time period. And I bought it. Hook. Line. And sinker.

3. Become your character. The person you are today is not the person you were yesterday. Every day holds a new experience and feeling. So what was it like when you were a child? How did you feel when your father walked out on your mother? Channel one of your former selves, and you'll be able to harness the voice of today's character. Everyone has been scorned by a lover, or has watched someone being scorned. Everyone knows what it's like on that first day of school, with a ball of nerves churning in the pit of your stomach like a volcano nearing eruption. Use that knowledge to create your character's voice. Become a medium, and channel them.

4. Read until your eyes bleed. Or at least until you need a pair of reading glasses because you've read so much that your eyes are strained. Learn from the masters. Heck, copy them if you have to. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. At least, that's what I've heard. So fake it til' you make it. (But obviously, only during a writing exercise. You obviously don't want to steal another writer's thang'. That, my friends, is a big no-no.)

So in conclusion( my teacher speak), if you don't have voice, you will never reach the highest level of your writing. And in the end, I think that's something that all writers strive for.

So what do you do to strengthen your voice muscles? Is there a writing excercise that you've discovered in a book, class, or critique group that has really helped you out? Is there something that you thought of on your own? Do share. Please. I'd love to hear your ideas.

* Kathryn Stocket bio link


  1. This is very good! I don't know what you're talking about (twitter conversation). See, this is why I didn't go into what voice was or how to go about developing it (I'm not good at that). You hit it right on the nail.

    I hear voices inside my head. All the time. I write those voices down the way I hear them. The way I would speak--fragment, starting a sentence with an AND, things like that.

    My agent says she loves my voice. I have beta readers who love my voice. BUT when an editor (someone who is like worth 100 beta reader's opinions, says they find your voice "simple" and "unable to connect with" it hurts. Stings.

    You have great advice here. You really do.

    I like it. Thanks for sharing.

    I'm gonna follow you and see what other awesome things you have to say.

  2. Thanks for the follow, Angela! And thanks for the compliment! But now I have all this pressure to say something wise in my next post. Yikes! I hope I can do it. LOL:)I think I can! I think I can!(Little Engine That Could reference. I hope you've read that. Otherwise, I come off as a nut!)