Friday, August 12, 2022

How to Discover and Develop Your Own Writing Voice--Your Uniqueness Manifest on the Page

I've been writing and publishing for decades, and for just as long, I've been considering, thinking about, and searching for my own unique voice as a writer. I have my characters' voices nailed down--usually. Although that can take multiple drafts. But if someone were to ask me, What is your voice, how is it different from everyone else's? I have to really think about it.

Funny thing is: I teach writing classes on voice. I can recognize in other writers, no problem. But to define or describe my own? Challenging, most of the time.

Instructors--people who read my work and are not in my head--give me clues. One of my first MFA advisers said my voice was lyrical. I looked that up and it meant I used a lot of imagery and description. That made sense--I'm also a landscape painter so setting is primary and my visual sense is keen. Another instructor, a minimalist who didn't care for much description, tried to edit that out of me. I suffered--and I refused, eventually. Which told me that yes, this is one aspect of my writing voice.

I can often notice voice in other writers. Those I admire often have a strong writing voice. In other words, that elusive uniqueness that comes out in writing over time, the signature of the individual wordsmith, that keeps me from mistaking a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The elusive hunt for voice is much discussed in writing books, classes, MFA programs. It's one of
the gateway questions that maturing writers face because publication is more likely if you have a distinctive voice. Publishers often feel that voice is one of the elements that most easily reaches readers, inspiring and entertaining and changing lives. I remember working for a year or so with Christine Kane, the singer/songwriter turned business coach. I found her teaching style direct, compassionate, and no BS. Her book, The Soul-Sourced Entrepreneur, turned out to have that same voice. Congruence of self and writing.

This was Christine's first book, and usually writing voice only comes with maturity. But she'd been coaching for years and developed that signature way of stating her truths. Sometimes it's easiest to find your writing voice if you look carefully at your life--how you are, your values, your way of presenting your truth to the world off the page. That's why my lyricism made sense to me; I lived it in my writing and in my painting.

By cultivating whatever qualities you discover are core for you, letting them arise in your writing, and putting in your time to hone them, you grow your writing voice. It is a somewhat mysterious process, at least for me. It can't be rushed, no more than any other growth and change that works from the inside out.

Writers often ask me for steps, something concrete they can do to develop writing voice. I answer with these suggestions. They are as amorphous as the earlier step of studying your life for the qualities that mean the most to you--your core values.

1. Read up. Like learning any skill, it's best to study those who are better writers than you, who strong voice in their work. One of my students was learning voice and asked where to begin reading. I told him to start with the prize-winners: Pulitzer, Man Booker, Orange, and other prizes are often worth looking at. He went to the Pulitzer website and began working his way through the list. His writing voice improved dramatically within a year, just from immersing himself in those great voices. It was rather astonishing to see such progress in such a tricky area, but he was determined and it worked.

2. Model. In art classes, we paint the masters. We sit in front of their paintings--Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne--and paint copies. Traditional way of creating cellular memory, eye-hand coordination, painters have done it for centuries. Writers are scared to do this--"What if I forget it's not mine and use it by mistake later?" I never met a painter who worried about this. Keep clean, and model carefully, and make sure your work is yours, and you'll be OK.

Modeling is a great technique for learning rhythm and voice. Why is a certain word used, why a paragraph break just there? Find a passage in a work you love and type it out (labeling it as the author's, not yours). See what your hand and eye and brain learn.

3. Study structure. Most writers hate structure, the antithesis of the free-flow creativity that's writing is supposed to be all about. Do you really think the great writers don't pay attention to structure? Voice and most writing skills are built on solid understanding of structure, how a piece is built from the ground up. By the time it's published, it comes across to the reader as natural, free flowing. But there are months or years of sweat and construction behind every piece of good writing.

Some writers print out their pages and lay them on a table, squinting at them to notice the rhythm of text and white space. Others read them aloud. Others ask friends to read them aloud and the writer listens. This teaches about voice, when it's present--clear uniqueness and surprise--and when it's not.

Voice is consciousness. Not being asleep. Whatever you can do to wake yourself up, is how you develop voice. Structure is one of the first ways.

4. Put in your 10,000 hours. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously said that mastering a skill takes about 10,000 hours. In our instant gratification world, we somehow believe voice should come naturally or not at all. Have you put in your time? Writing every day. Studying the great writers. Taking classes. Exchanging work and learning how to give feedback so you can begin to see where your own writing needs it. Learning basic grammar, sentence structure, even spelling.

I believe each of us has a unique writing voice, dormant inside. It's been smothered and silenced by schooling and years of criticism and self-doubt. Rare is the family and society and school that fosters uniqueness; most ask children and young adults and adult writers to conform and not stand out. We're easier to deal with, that way.

But if you believe you have a voice, waiting to come forth, and you are willing to put in your time to uncover it and develop it, you'll win. It takes work to coax it out of hiding and refine it for the page.

Friday, August 5, 2022

The Famous "Fifty Moves"--The Blunt Instrument's Invaluable Resource for Fiction Writers

I first came across the Fifty Moves list in an online class I attended for writers of flash fiction. It's a resource created by Elissa Gabbert and Mike Young, and it's proved invaluable for my own writing when I get stuck or can't remember the point of my story. I've mostly used it for fiction, novels and short stories, but I think many of the tips would be great for writing memoir too.

This week set aside some time to check it out. The link is here, but you can also visit and search for 50 moves to find it. Many good resources on that site as well, but this is my favorite.

Try one to three tips this week and watch as they spark up your writing life!

Friday, July 29, 2022

Writing Out the Sadness and Anger--How to Get Strong Emotions on the Page Authentically

Sometimes I come to my writing with a lot of emotion--from my reactions to life events, the world, my own self. Maybe you've experienced this, especially lately. Do you find, like I have, that it is tricky to translate strong emotions into story, in a way that a reader who is living a completely different reality can enter?

It takes a certain writing skill, certainly. But I also find it takes some personal processing time, either on the page or otherwise, to gain the objectivity that makes an emotion universal.

In my early writing days, I didn't understand this. I "journaled" my own emotions into my characters. Basically, this is told emotion--we tell ourselves the feelings and thoughts when we journal. Not a bad thing at all, very needed when we are trying to make sense of our lives. But these emotions are often one step removed from the reader--they are too personal to our lives.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Creating Your Life So You Can Create Better Writing

From coaching hundreds of writers over the years, I've learned that writing isn't an easy gift to an overcrowded life. Sure, writing can help us heal, can give us needed fresh air inside, can help us communicate our deepest thoughts to the world in the hope of making a difference. But it will never happen unless the life you lead supports it.

So this week's post asks a hard question: How closely do your writing and life intersect?

When my writing isn't happening, or feels stuck, it often comes from a kind of disconnect between my life and the writing life I'm envisioning.

Here's an example, in another art arena.

Friday, July 15, 2022

John Truby and the British Baking Show: Why Images Are More Powerful Than Words

Cleaning out my writing bookshelves this week, I found an ancient set of cassette tapes recorded by Hollywood script doctor John Truby. Cassette players are a thing of my past as well, so the set will probably go into recycling. But the book insert is still valuable, as are Truby's take-away from these lectures.

Bottom line: successful movies are written with images first, words second. I remember contemplating that idea for months after I heard him say it.

My chiropractor's office has a TV broadcasting the British baking show. I go there twice a week. So far I've learned about sticky toffee cakes, tuiles (wafer-thin cookies), and many more drool-worthy treats. The characters, with their Brit accents on low volume in a noisy waiting room area are nearly impossible to understand. But the images are easy. They speak of no-holds-barred extravagance of taste and texture and aroma. I used to be a professional cook; those images carry me right back.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Expansion/Contraction--Test the Pacing Strength of Your Writing

Pacing—a delicate affair in writing a book—depends on a balance of expanded and contracted moments. I think of it like breathing. Good pacing creates a rhythm between inhale and exhale, between how much we take in and how it is absorbed.

It's hard to learn. The fastest, most effective way is by reading good writing, of course. When I read a well-paced memoir or novel, I feel the author has kept my interest and delivered just the right amount of material in each chapter. There isn't any rush, but there's no lagging either.

I recently read The Farm by Joanne Ramos, published in 2019. About a community in rural New York where surrogates are paid to bear the children of the uber-wealthy, this is not an easy read. But the pacing was masterful. I read it in two days; I couldn't put it down. Similarly, I just finished The Guide, a new thriller by Peter Heller. Another challenging subject, but wonderfully written and paced. When I finished, I actually started reading it a second time, just to catch what I might have missed. A third, equally provocative book I enjoyed this month, this one a memoir, was Heating and Cooling, a series of 52 micro-stories by Beth Ann Fennelly. Two days for that one, as well.

Friday, July 1, 2022

One of My Favorite Writing Exercises--and a Few Reasons to Try It This Week

I'm a sucker for great writing exercises. Many years ago I came across What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. I gave myself a summer task to work through the book, trying each exercise--more than once if I wanted. I dated the page I tried it and gave my thumbs up or down.

Most of the exercises worked well. What I mean: they gave me new insights into characters, ideas for plot, more concrete images for setting, a flavor of backstory that was needed. They did their job at illuminating my writing process and improving what I had on the page.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Researching Your Characters--Why It's Important to Know as Much as You Can about Them

I've been revising my second novel, A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue, in preparation for handing over to my editor and publication team in a month or so. This book has lived with me--its characters, as well--for many years. I'm excited to see them step on to a bigger stage with more readers. But before they do, I want to make sure they are fully realized on the page, as rich and vivid as they can be.

A few months ago, to finish my final tweaks on the cast in my novel, I took an online class on character interiority. The purpose of each week's lesson--there were four--was to help writers go from what they knew about the characters externally to what the characters could reveal about their inner lives.

I'd already spent many years on this, as I said, but the class drew even more out of me about these people I've lived with for so long.

If I were to pinpoint the most important take-away, it would be backstory.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Reading Voraciously--Why It Matters to Writers

I met one of my best friends--whom I later married much to my delight--over books. Early in our friendship, I asked what to offer as a gift for birthday and Christmas. The answer: "Books. Send me a box of used books, a collection of the best ones you've read."

I remember going to my favorite used bookstore to shop that November. I took a little hand-written list, titles I had on hand in my home library, but when I began browsing the bookstore shelves, I was astonished at how many books I knew--and loved.

I think I bought 30 books that day. Everything from children's books (The Dark Is Rising series) to young adult to adult fiction. Fiction was the only requirement--something to get completely lost in.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Using the Short Form to Get to the Long Form--Powerful Exercises to Boost Your Creativity This Week

A good writing friend once shared this piece of wisdom: Sometimes we have to get small to get big, with our books. Book projects span a lot of time and space. It's too easy to get lost in such an expanse, overwhelmed with all the details.

In my writing classes, I used two fun exercises to help writers manage the immensity. One exercise is a poem, the other is an exploration of one of your main characters, your narrator, or your potential reader, by putting them in a five-page short story.

These two exercises are such fun, they can feel like a sidetrack away from the "real" writing. But they give a serious boost to creativity.