Finding Your Distinctive Voice


Finding Your Distinctive Voice

In the previous post, What is a Writer’s Voice, I listed some characteristics of a writer’s voice. Your voice is you on the page and can be comprised of what you like to write about, type of characters you favor, style of writing, settings you use, etc. Every writer needs his or her distinctive voice. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country, that there are only a few basic stories in literature which keep being repeated (boy meets girl, etc.). It is the distinctive spin you put on that retelling which makes the narrative worth reading.

How do I develop a voice?

Not by sitting down and deciding what it is. Right, I’ll just fill in the categories or I will write about high powered people in urban settings. A voice developed this way would be as mechanical as the method used to generate it. It is not an analytic or reductive exercise. Voice, once developed, is as distinctive as it is hard to describe. You can’t point a finger to where it resides in a work, yet it infuses everything.

The way to develop your voice is to write. Write and write and write. Launch many expendable pieces, as urged by William Stafford. You of course don’t have to stick with one setting, one type of character, one type of plot—in fact, you shouldn’t. Experiment with different settings, structures, characters, persons (first, third, etc.). You try writing about your old home town, or your grandfather’s day, or the latest intrigue at the office, or a fantasy of what you would like life to be. Each story helps you to both get more comfortable with the craft of writing but also helps you to define you as a writer, to allow you to sink into that space which is the magic of writing. Take the time and space to find out what is unique about your writing.

Getting feedback

The type of feedback you get and from whom is always important but it is especially critical as you are finding your voice. When you are in the midst of experimenting, you don’t need someone harping on your overuse of similes. Because a lot of similes may be part of your voice. That kind of criticism early on might make you think you should cut back when your voice may not be stable enough to know for sure.

Seeking feedback which is highly technical or specific may not be right for you as you are starting out. Instead, you are looking for readers who can tell you what they like best about what you have written.

Do I need to put everything on hold until I have a distinctive voice?

Of course not. It’s an organic thing and will develop as you do as a writer. In fact, your voice may shift somewhat over your writing career. And that’s fine. It’s not a stable state any more than it is fully definable.

The key as always, is to write, write, write. Magic, magic, magic.

What is a Writer’s Voice?


What is a Writer’s Voice?

I was always confused when critics talk about a writer’s voice. What exactly was that? And frankly, even though I think I have a better idea of what that means now, it’s still a bit vague. I think a writer’s voice can consist of:

  • Settings he typically prefers. Cormac McCarthy picks settings I hate—cowboys, post-apocalyptic world—but I love his writing.
  • Types of characters often used. Do they tend to have an active inner life or is everything revealed in what they do?
  • Language or diction. Is it fairly formal or informal (like this blog)?
  • Imagery and description. Does the author tend to fully situate the reader in the setting through description or does she tend to allow the reader to imagine what things look like? Are the metaphors and similes to die for, poetry in disguise, or are they more functional?
  • Type of plot. Psychological drama or action thriller? Romantic or pragmatic?

There are many other possible components of a writer’s voice but I don’t think we need to beat a dead horse. Suffice it to say that voice is what makes you uniquely you as a writer. Let’s take Jane Austen as an example.

  • Settings she prefers. Middle class semi-rural England.
  • Types of characters often used. Women protagonists, usually with an active inner life, often a little bit outside the norm of that period (poor, orphaned, etc. Okay, Emma the exception that proves the rule).
  • Language or diction. Formal language but with both a wicked and elegant turn of phrase
  • Imagery and description. I would say the Austen tends to let you imagine what things look like unless you need to have the detail. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, she describes Rosings, Lady Catherine de Burg’s residence because the reader needs to know how imposing it is. But otherwise, she tends to leave it to the reader’s imagination. And her writing, while elegant and witty, is not poetry lyrical.
  • Type of plot. Romantic novels of manners, and the small things in life which are big.

Whether or not you concur with my analysis, I think you would agree that Jane Austen would not have written a novel about prize fighters, or the slums of London. She would not take on the big social issues of her day as Dickens did in his but instead focused on the individual trying to make her way in the world.

Similarly, Mark Twain tended to semi-rural, small town America. His characters often spoke in a colloquial way and the writing was frequently humorous as well as biting. It’s not that he stuck with this always—much of his writing does not fit this description, but he developed a style of writing—funny, satirical, unadorned, straight—which is characteristic of him.

So, there you are—voice. Next post: Finding Your Distinctive Voice.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

Dealing with Writer’s Block

First rule: Relax. Everybody goes through this. Although everybody thinks they know what writer’s block is, it might be helpful to review its pernicious forms.

Forms of writer’s block

Can’t put anything on the page. This is the classic one. You sit down at the laptop and all you’ve got, or are getting, is a blank screen.

Everything you write is junk. In this case, you can write but you are convinced not a single word is worth the bytes needed to create it. It is DELETE FILE territory (by the way, don’t do that—at least until you’ve read the rest of the post).

You know you are unfitted by talent, temperament, or inclination to write. This is the worst because, if you reach this point, it doesn’t even feel like writer’s block—it just feels like a self-evident principle of the world.

But honestly, they are all forms of writer’s block.

But what if it’s true that I can’t write?

I think most people can write creatively at some level if they put the energy into it. Will they be world-famous novelists? Don’t know.

However, writing creatively is, of course, partly about imagination, but also about observation and mastery of the craft. I don’t know whether it is possible to train up creativity, but I know that it’s not only possible to hone observation and craft skills, but necessary to create a good piece of writing.

So why don’t you give yourself the benefit of the doubt and work on your craft and observation abilities? Somewhere along the line, the ideas will come.

Ways to deal with writer’s block

Put the piece away for a while. Sometimes, you need to just walk away for a bit. Literally take a walk or do something else which occupies you in a different way. You might need to stow it for a couple of days or even weeks. But don’t let it be too long—otherwise, your writer’s block is running the show.

Write drivel. There is a school of thought which suggests that you just put your fingers on the keyboard and type anything. And it does work. It can often kickstart you back to your piece.

Of course, there is a danger. I discovered a clever way (well, I thought it was clever) to still avoid writing. This the drivel I’ve been talking about—basically writing about writing to avoid writing. Example: I love the way that the novel I just read unfolded. It was a total surprise at the end. See what I mean—you’re writing but not anything related to your project.

Start your engines, please, gentlemen. When I am stuck, I literally write this, followed by It’s 10:17. I will write for 30 minutes. No stopping, no games until 10:47. Doesn’t have to be 30 minutes, can be five. The point is that you spend the allotted time making progress on your idea. Can’t stop and can’t wander off during that time.

Last rule: Relax. Really, don’t get tied into knots about this. It is the ebb and flow of a writer’s life. Sometimes, it will come flowing through you and sometimes you are Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill forever.

Just keep writing.

The Muse and the Piano Tuner


The Muse and the Piano Tuner

I learned a lot about the writing muse from a piano tuner.

After half an hour of plucking strings, the piano tuner called to me. “Okay, I’m done.” He rippled through some swing tune, no sheet music of course.

“Wow, you’re good! Do you play professionally?”

He shrugged. “I’m in a band.” As he stuck his tools into his satchel, “You a writer?”

I raised my eyebrows. “How did you know?”

He pointed to the book face down on the piano. “This is you, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Crummy picture.”

“So, you write full time?”

“Not full-time. As much as I can.”

He asked, almost shyly, as if it might be too personal. “Do you have to wait until you’re in the mood to write?”

I shrugged. “Well, no. If I waited, I don’t think I’d ever do it.”

Suddenly, his face cleared. “Oh, yeah, I get it. It’s like when you have a gig. Doesn’t matter whether you want to play or not. You just show up and play.”

Show up and play and the Muse might too

Show up and play. I know there’s a lot of stuff writers believe about waiting for the Muse to strike. Or I suppose ‘visit’ would be a better word for such a sought-after commodity.

With hand to head, they vow they can’t write a word unless inspired by some external force. And thus have a perfect reason not to, because that Muse, she’s not much into house calls.

However, many famous authors didn’t seem to wait. Tolstoy said, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” Victor Hugo wrote from dawn to 11:00 every day. Agatha Christie saw writing as a job.

They discovered what all writers, I believe, need to understand. The Muse isn’t going to show up until you do. It’s like Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. As a friend much more learned than me pointed out, the real learning from that story is that Moses and the Israelites had to start wading into the Red Sea before God parted it. That is, they had to show their commitment and faith before God would step in.

As the piano tuner said, you need to show up and play. It is when you are actively engaged in writing that the Muse or whatever the magic consists of, can show up. So, don’t wait for It to strike. Invite It in.

Feedback Defensiveness



Feedback Defensiveness

You have asked a good friend, Marina, to read your manuscript. Here’s how defensiveness can steer a feedback session wrong:

Sorry to take so long to get back to you. It’s been crazy at work and I wanted to do your novel justice.
That’s okay. Thanks for taking the time.
I liked the premise a lot—a young woman who inherits a company and has to learn how to run it.
Yeah, I thought it introduces a young character into an interesting situation.
[Marina will likely tell you other things that she liked. But eventually, she will move on.]
There were just a couple of things—I mean, they’re just my opinion.
I’d be interested in hearing them.
Your main character—I started disliking her—she was so ruthless.
But she had to be in the situation.
Yeah, but that dirty trick on her old boss—that seemed pretty mean.
No, you read that wrong—it wasn’t dirty; it was justice.
Well, that’s not the way I saw it.
I don’t think you got the intent. She has to take every opportunity to succeed.
Maybe, but it’s how it struck me.
[Marina makes other suggestions but YOU don’t find merit in any of them.]
Well, thanks for reading it.
I guess I wasn’t much help.
Of course you were but I think I’ll ask Bernice to read it, too.


Conversation aftermath

You end the conversation dissatisfied. Marina just didn’t get it. It was a waste of time. But in fact, the problem wasn’t with Marina but with your defensiveness. Here’s how:

  • You commented on the good feedback. Yes, you need to acknowledge the positives but not give the impression that she got the correct answer as you sort of did.
  • You justified your view of the character. You discarded the feedback even though it’s important information about how some readers see the character. Might not be everyone but she might represent enough of a minority to worry about. But you were justifying more than listening.
  • You decided her opinion was incorrect. In fiction, it’s hard for anybody’s opinion of a character to be wrong. You may not feel the same way and that’s okay, but she’s still entitled to her opinion.
  • You decided she didn’t get your intent. Doesn’t matter what you intended—what’s on the page is the only thing Marina has access to. If she didn’t get it, you need to pay attention.
  • You probably burned a friend who was willing to give you feedback. By dismissing everything Marina said, you signal that you didn’t value the time and effort she put in. You don’t have to agree with the feedback but you need to make it clear you value her contribution if only so that sh will be willing to do it for the next manuscript.

So, how do you avoid defensiveness in feedback sessions and still keep your vision, whether it be fiction or memoir? In the next post, let’s discuss that.