Monday, July 4, 2011

Finding Your Wild and Precious Voice

Right about now is normally the time we here at SVP take a summer hiatus. I have a big fat book due in a few months and am determined to have a complete first draft by the end of the summer, and thinking about marketing and promotion is SO antithetical to getting a first draft down. Plus, the kids are home from school, vacations are taken, and publishing practically shuts down for July and August.* Clearly life moves at a slower pace in summer. 
However this year, instead of going all radio silent on you, I thought I'd share some posts on craft. I can talk about writing craft and processes without yanking myself out of the first draft mindset. Plus, not only is writing craft directly tied into our Favorite Piece of Marketing Advice, quite a number of you expressed interest in talking about craft, so we're going to give it a try. 
(For those of you who aren't excited about that prospect, I DO have a couple of guest posts coming up, an interview with an industry insider about marketing and promotion and an interview with a very cool author. Coming soon!)

The truth is, I am a sucker for voice. That is the one thing that can pull me into a book faster than anything. It’s nice to have character development and narrative drive show up at some point, but honestly? If the voice is strong enough, I’ll read just about anything. If a book has all of those? I’m in love.

And I’m not the only one. At conferences and in interviews, time and again I’ve heard editors say they are looking for a great voice. The thing is, everything else—plotting and characterization tools—can be taught. Voice must ooze up from the very core of the author herself and because of that, takes time to develop.

The problem is, voice is difficult to define. It’s one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it kinds of things. It can also, like a favorite fragrance we’ve worn for years, be impossible for us to detect in ourselves. How then do we recognize it? Work on it? Strengthen it?

Some people claim you don’t have to find your voice because it hasn't gone anywhere; since it's part of you, it’s always there. That may well be true for some people. However, I also think we can lose our voice or become disconnected from it, either through misuse or because we’ve had it workshopped right out of us, or the (false!) belief that our true voice isn’t valid or unique enough. Also, I think a number of writer's are drawn to writing precisely because they haven't been able to find a voice in real life, so they turn to writing to say what needs to be said and learning to do that can take time. So some writers do need to go in search of their true voice; others may only need to excavate or re-discover theirs. I suspect this may be especially true when writing stories for kids—we have to be able to reconnect with our child’s voice.

Of course, that brings us to the question of what exactly is voice?

For me, voice encompasses not only the words a writer chooses and how they string their sentences together, but also the very subjects they choose to write about, how they view those subjects, and in fact, their entire world view: hopeful or edgy, tragic or matter of fact.

Voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom combined with their use of language.

And when writing for children or YA, it is critical that we try to reconnect with what our emotional truths were at that younger age.

One of the things that made voice so hard for me to grasp was that my voice changes pretty drastically (I think) from story to story. So how then, does an author’s voice and story voice fit together? Not to mention the shifting voices of our main characters?

A very brilliant writer and teacher, Barbara Samuel, gave me this extremely helpful analogy.

Think of your author voice as a potato. Your story voice, then, is whether you are serving that voice baked, French fried, scalloped, boiled, or mashed.

To stretch this poor metaphor even further (and this is me mangling it, not Barbara) then character voice is whether it’s plain mashed potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes; scalloped potatoes or au gratin, chili cheese fries or shoe string fries. (Lord, is anyone else getting hungry besides me??)

Your author voice encompasses your core stories, those thematic issues that you are drawn to time and time again. Perhaps it is finding a place to belong, or coping with great loss, being free of the past, or issues of trust. I know for me, finding one’s personal power shows up over and over again in my work and issues of power are very much a part of my core themes. I so remember being powerless as a kid—and that amazing feeling when I first learned I did have some power. In fact, I think that’s why I write fantasy—fantastical powers create such a great subtext for personal power.

I am also (clearly) drawn to historical settings, although I am unsure why that is. Maybe it’s a distance thing—maybe I need the distance of time to explore issues that would feel too painfully raw if I dealt with them in a contemporary setting? Or maybe that’s simply where I feel fantasy and reality meet in the most convincing way?

So how do we find or reconnect with our author voice? Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? Unfortunately, it isn't quite as simple as filling out a worksheet or answering a quiz. However, there are a number of things we can do to explore, identify, and strengthen our voice. 

1) Embrace your inner odd duck.

This is the dedication in the second Theodosia book, and something I talk to kids about all the time. Our unique, crazy self is our secret weapon—especially when we’re engaged in creative pursuits. It’s our strange, uniquely individual perspective, emotional truth, and acquired wisdom that makes our work stand out from others’. If you’re a smart ass, or have way too vivid an imagination, or are too sensitive, or have attitude to spare, or have a wicked temper, or always look on the bleak side, whatever it is; embrace that part of yourself and incorporate it into your work. The longer I’ve been writing the more I think that drilling down to this unique core view of the world we each possess is key.

2) Ask by what emotional authority you are telling this story.

And no, I don’t mean the church lady type moral authority. What I mean is, what authentic emotional route do you have into this story? You know that saying, Write what you know? It’s talking about the emotional truth of what you know, not whether or not you’ve ever been a fireman or in love with a vampire. But perhaps you have risked all for something you believed in, or have fallen in love with someone deeply unsuitable.
So what is your personal emotional connection to this story? Why are you the one compelled to tell it? What piece of you, what experience of yours, is your route into the story or the characters?

3) What is the favorite thing you’ve ever written?

Do you have one piece of writing, an essay, a novel, even just a paragraph, that you love so much you can’t even believe you wrote it? If not, do you have something that simply stands out from other pieces of writing in such a way that makes you sit up and take notice? What sets it apart from your other writing? Can you identify what makes it sing for you?

4) Try to get a sense of what sort of stories really call to you.

Make a list of your fifteen favorite books of all time, then your fifteen favorite movies of all time. What commonality emerges? Mine were from a wide variety of genres and tones and it took a while before I recognized that one factor was a strong voice (yes, even in movies). Another was that the stories I loved the most took the hero to the mat emotionally, the protagonist was truly reborn by the experience of the story. Big sweeping, redraw your entire emotional landscape, type stories.

5) Looking back in time, what were some of the most pivotal moments in your life? Your childhood? How did that betrayal, salvation, glimmer of kindness, moment of despair, shape you? Pick a couple of these moments and do a quick, five or ten minute timed writing. Timed writing means stream of consciousness, only you will see it, no editing, kind of writing. You’ll be surprised how much truth gets on the page.

Don't be afraid to experiment, look deeply (no, even deeper than that!) play, get angry, get sad, shout, scream, yell, laugh. Try each of those out and see how it feels on the page.  Remember risk is a necessary part of creating, and let yourself take some risks. All in the privacy of your own writing, of course. :-)

*That is not actually true, just a perception people have.


Andrea Mack said...

An interesting take on this challenging issue. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Constance Van Hoven said...

What a great post! I'm printing it out and taking it with me on vacation to ponder. While I reconnect with nature, I'll reconnect with my voice...

Irene Latham said...

Love your practical research-based approach to finding voice, particularly the one about looking for commonalities in favorite books. FANTASTIC advice! Keep going with that first draft. xo

Tena Russ said...

Thank you for breaking radio silence to give us this terrific post.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Thank you for this!

none said...

I lost my voice after my second book. It was after I went on a reading binge of every how-to book I could get my hands on. It's one of the dangers of being a newbie writer and trying to follow every single rule out there. It took me writing a book in first person to get it back. For some reason, it made me fearless and I had fun with it. Now I try to approach every project that way.

Great post. Thanks.

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

GREAT post! So many wonderful ideas on how to find and explore and write in your own personal, powerful voice. Which everybody has, but can be hard to harness and recognize. Thank you!

I also highly recommend the book "Finding Your Voice" by Les Edgerton.

storyqueen said...

Very helpful right now!

(And you are right about July and August...that is when my book sold last year!)

Love SVP!


Sarah Stevenson said...

Excellent post! Voice is such an elusive creature. I hope you don't mind if I share a few of your insights with a writing workshop I'm supposed to give later this summer...I especially love the potato metaphor. :)

R.L. LaFevers said...

You’re so welcome, Andrea!

Constance, have a wonderful time reconnecting with both nature and your voice! I always have some of my best writing epiphanies on vacation!

Irene, it is very eye opening to look at all that and find the common threads! And thanks for the wish for luck on the 1st draft. Since officially declaring hiatus, I have doubled my daily output. ☺

You are so very welcome, Tena and Caroline!

L.E., yes! Exactly! It so necessary to do that, consume all that information, but then we need to take some time and process it and play with it and make it our own. And hurray for fearless and fun! I love when I can get to that place.

I have not heard of that book, Kimberly, but I am off to look it up right now!

Hi Shelley! So glad the timing of the post worked out so well! And belated congrats on last year’s sale!

Sarah, voice is SO elusive! And absolutely feel free to use what you need for your workshop! Just be sure to credit Barbara with the potato metaphor, because it was her brilliance, not mine. ☺

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Here's hoping we all find our inner potato! ;-D

Adele Richards said...

Inspiring as always - I've copied this into my Writing Tips file for further pondering.

How close, would you say, is our actual speaking voice and our written voice? I notice that when I am talking or writing to certain friends my 'voice' shifts up a gear and my vocab gets more fun and unusual. It's like they 'draw' a certain voice out of me.

In one experiment I wrote a chapter of a book to the friend who draws the most animated voice out of me in real life - to see if it would work on the page. Don't know if it was any good, but it did help me maintain the same style.

Anonymous said...

weirdness...I thought I posted a comment last night but now it's gone. Maybe I was tired and misspelled the goofy word below.

No biggie--just wanted to say thanks for another great post. I agree that voice is so important.

I'm getting ready to start on a second draft, and one of the things I've been thinking about is editing and "voice". I had an experience several years ago where I ended up somehow editing out too much of the "odd duck" quirkiness and ended up with a book missing much of the voice. I'd like to think that I'm better at writing and editing at this point, but that experience does stick with me. Any advice would be helpful!

Robin L said...

Adele, I think our speaking voice and written voice can vary by a lot or a little, depending on US and as you say, who we're talking to. That's hugely interesting that you have a friend that draws such a remarkable voice out of you, and brilliant to try and to her to capture that voice!

Melissa, that's such a good question! I can't tell you how many times I've heard an editor at a conference say she can tell when a book has gone through too many revisions or too much critiquing--the voice becomes flat and lifeless.

But how to avoid doing that is a good question. And it sounds like it was something you did yourself? Or was it due to incorporating too much feedback from others?

Because that would be one of my first suggestions--be very picky of who you show your work to. Have it be someone who gets what you want to accomplish with your story and someone who gets/likes your overall voice. Maybe pick three or four people max, to solicit input from. Because really, for everyone thing you change to please a specific person, you can almost always find someone else who liked it better the first way. :-)

Secondly, as for self-editing, I think it's important to ask yourself WHY you are changing something. By making this change, what am I gaining and what am I losing? Also, am I truly making it better, or just different?

And then lastly, one of the biggest revision mistakes can be to equate revising with line editing, and too much line editing will kill anyone's writing. Revision is big picture, plot, structure, consistent characterization, all the STORY stuff, whereas line editing has a lot more to do with language usage.

Susan Taylor Brown said...

Robin, I am speaking at the Nevada SCBWI conference in Sept on the topic of creating emotionally authentic characters. Could I have your permission to include this post and the follow-up post as handouts? Your name in giant caps for credit?

If you'd prefer to email me, you can at susantaylorbrown AT gmail DOT com

Robin L said...

Susan, how big would the caps be? :-)

Yes, you absolutely have my permission to include these posts! I hope they'll be helpful to your students!

Susan Taylor Brown said...

Thanks, Robin. BIG BIG caps. :)

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