[Greatest Hits] On Writing #3: The Myth of “Finding Your Voice” and How to Develop One (or Two or Three) of Your Own

Well, since I’m actually in the middle of a writing project and I haven’t had time to fully develop this week’s post, I thought I’d offer up one of my most popular articles, a kind of re-run or greatest-hits, if you will.

So: Without any more ado, probably the best article so far on the blog: “On Writing #3: The Myth of ‘Finding Your Voice’ and How to Develop One (or Two or Three) of Your Own”

One thing I’ve seen endless posts on is “Finding Your Voice”, as if there is a magical voice that is yours — and one day you’ll just run into your voice and BOOM you’ll be a real writer with a real style.

First I need to be clear here. I’m not sure if this is a revolutionary view, but it is certainly MY view and I haven’t seen it anywhere else:

I do NOT believe that if you keep writing you’ll just accidentally run into “Your Voice” and then you’re done and the quest is over. In fact, I don’t believe that a writer has a single voice at all. No, indeed, I believe a writer has as many voices as he/she decides to DEVELOP, and each of those voices will be unique to the writer.

You see, VOICE is a TOOL. Each voice is slightly different, sure, and each one has different strengths. That’s why having multiple voices at hand is extremely useful — each voice can be employed in a different story or even in a different chapter in the same novel in order to heighten certain effects.

Voices can be short. Brutal. Rhythmic. Human skin stretched tight on drums.

Other voices twist and writhe about and keep diving into different holes until you can’t see where they’re going in the dark tunnels of mind and then in one heartbeat they leap out at you and grab you like you’re a rabbit and shake you once, twice, thrice and leave you bleeding and twitching in the mud.

They can be anything you want. Quick, sassy, velvety, violent, whatever.

But all voices have two elements in common:
1) They are composed of words
2) In order to use one, you have to DEVELOP it first

There’s that word again. Develop. Why do I keep saying “develop” when everyone else says “find”? Well, first let’s discuss how most writers develop a voice.

How most writers develop a voice
We are all, to some extent, built in with a certain voice and a certain style. It is an amalgam of what we have read and enjoyed, mashed together with whatever you remember from English classes, plastered over with yours or someone else’s opinions on Grammar (Strunk and White, anyone?). The problem is this style we start out with (usually anyway) just isn’t good. Go back and look at your last failed short story, or — if you’re established now and none of your stories fail — go back and look at one of your early short stories from high school or junior high. See those stilted lines. Why are they stilted? What’s going on? Why does that high-school/college/whatever prose seem impossible to disentangle even though you’ve rewritten entire BOOKs now?

Why? Because the style/voice in that piece is in conflict with itself. It wants to be the way you talk and think. It wants to be the way Hemingway talks and thinks. And don’t forget your Composition teacher or your favorite SF writer or Strunk and White either. It’s a vast CACOPHANY of OTHER voices, all struggling to be heard. All drowning each other out.

Why does it take people 1, 3, 10, or even 15 trunk novels to finally find a winning voice? Because it’s a lot of work to overcome those voices, especially when you don’t know that you’re trying to write like other people and follow all these built-in rules. Struggling blindly like this, it’s amazing anyone develops one voice much less two or three or more. No wonder it feels more like you “find” your vioce than a conscious decision to “develop one”.

Sure this process works. Eventually. If you don’t give up. Plenty of writers have gone through the process and ended up writing well or even dazzlingly. The problem is, this is the hard way of doing it. “Writing Like Other People” is exactly the process of DEVELOPING voice, yes, but you can speed the process up.

Let me show you how.

A repeatable process to develop voice and style FASTER.
Say you really like Cormac McCarthy. You’d like to write a bit more like him, adopt a few of his flourishes. Good on you, he’s a great writer. A Pulitzer and a National Book Award are hard to argue with.

But how do you do it?

Step 1) This is the obvious step. You’ll need to READ him.

Sadly, this is where most writers’ plans on developing a voice END. You read “The Road”, “Blood Meridian”, and “All the Pretty Horses”, and think “Well, I hope that rubbed off.” But strangely, it doesn’t seem to work. So maybe you read again and again (pleasant but not strictly necessary). This is similar to brute-forcing your way into a password-protected computer. Hard, brutal, and it may eventually work, but it will take time.

Step 2) Define WHAT YOU LIKE about him.

In this step you are defining to yourself EXACTLY what you like about the author. This equates almost precisely with WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN from the author.

Me, I like the lack of commas and apostrophes and quotation marks. To me, the streamlined prose falls straight into my brain faster and with less effort without all the noise. You may HATE this, though. If you do, don’t put it on your list. Me, I also like his use of “and” to connect long lists of very simple sentences in All the Pretty Horse. I love his vast vistas that yank directly at your soul in Blood Meridian. I like his short, terse, chopped up prose in The Road. I like his images that burn like fire in your mind.

Your list might be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than mine. That’s okay. We might like him for different reasons, but that’s why you do this:

So you can figure out what you need to focus on.

Step 3) Figure out HOW your author does the things you like.

This is the hard part. Sometimes you have to call in friends or relatives or even other writers to look at a passage and help you noodle HOW or WHY this unexpected sentence works or how he crafts this particular list of images. Where are the roots of them? How does he marry the words syntactically?

Like I said, this can be pretty hard, but all you need is one to three bullet points to keep in mind about any stylistic element.

Step 4) Write an inspired piece. Preferably three. And then try it on a novel or a novella to let it really sink in. (This is, like step 1, is something that many writers do, but without steps 2 and 3 it usually falls apart or reverts to your previous voice.)

Sounds simple, right? I’ve been reading McCarthy, so I should write a Western. Actually — no. I don’t recommend that at all. I actually recommend taking elements from TWO DIFFERENT WRITERS and doing your best to mash them up. That way you don’t get too trapped in one author’s vein. That way YOU can take the elements and make them YOURS.

An example, my short story “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” ( http://www.chizine.com/teddy.htm ) was my second attempt at mixing McCarthy’s style from The Road with Paul Jessup’s blend of surrealism and postmodernism. It sold to ChiZine. I did three stories in this vein, each in a different setting and working on different elements of voice and theme, and of them #1 sucks and is trunked and #3 is still making the rounds and seems to get me more personalized rejections and “please-submit-again”s than any other story. Still, it may never get published. But that’s okay. All three of these were experiments, and I learned staggering amounts from each of them.

Step 5) Do it again if you want to. There is always something to learn out there. Melville’s ability to send shuddering meaning into even the whizz and smoke of a rope. Chabon’s ability to express the entire history of a tenement building that has nothing to do with the plot and still keep you hooked.

After all, these are your saws and your lathes. Keep them sharp!

On Writing #10: Beating Writer’s Block

(A blog-note first: I will now be posting something new every Sunday! Check back every week for a new article!)

Writer’s block is something I’ve been having extensive experience with recently, since the birth of my daughter interrupted every routine, from writing to Martial Arts. Until about June, I was on a daily grind of at least 500, usually 800-1000 words. And they were good words.

Now I’ve “fallen off the wagon”, and for a good long while. I have new rhythms in life, new responsibilities at work and at home that threaten to eat every second of time I had.

How you overcome writer’s block is a two-step process:
1) Fill up your soul with images and emotion.
2) Put your Butt In Chair (BIC) and write (preferably on a scheduled basis.)

Let’s start with an explanation of Step #2:

BIC. This is what I’ve been avoiding. The alone-lonliness of writing. The fear of having no words, no mind, no beauty left in my soul to share. I just haven’t had any ideas, and when I tried to write anyway, everything was dead and lifeless.

Still, I will be trying to schedule time at lunch every day to write. At least 30 mins, with a goal of 100 words. This WILL work if I do it — and it will work for you too — the problem is DOING IT. It’s not fun to sit there with no ideas and write crap until the ideas come.

Now lets move onto Step #1:

This has been a long dry spell for me, with many false starts on projects, but at least one very successful story. But as I’ve told others in their dry spells, the secret to writing READING, and more than that — reading INSPIRING WORK. Read something that will inform your stories — style or substance or content/facts or even just something AMAZING.

Listen to high-quality audio books during lunch or morning commute. Carry an old 120-page paperback in your back pocket to read at spare moments during the day. Read another book before bed and jot down ideas and lines you like.

From good writing comes good ideas. These are sulfur and mercury of our alchemy — the Red King and White Queen, male-female in union that gives birth to the philosopher’s stone we are seeking. Throw yourself from the lip of your alembic and dive in.

On Writing #9: On Cipher Characters, Why They Can Be Flat, and How to Fix Them

Yes! A new “On Writing” post, and hopefully a good one.

This time we tackle characters that are ciphers for the author, and why they typically are flat, and some techniques to fix them.

A Definition

What do I mean by “characters that are ciphers for the author”? I mean, characters that are very similar to the author in many ways — attitudes, traumas, even life events. In fan fiction these are often called “Mary-Sue” characters, where Mary Sue has Teen Hunk Idol #3 fall in love with her and they live happily ever after (though Mary-Sue’s actually have a distinct advantage over some author-ciphers.)

The “Art is Emotion” Theory, the Basics

First of all, for the rest of this to make sense, I’ need to express my theory (and I’m sure other people have expressed this theory before, though I haven’t seen it) that art — all art — is primarily about conveying emotions to person watching/listening/smelling/tasting/feeling it.

Art is emotion. (Yes, I realize this is not a theory unique to me, but it took me a while to reinvent the wheel.)

An abstract painting, music, a short story, a novel, a poem, an award-winning movie, a beautiful chair — the reason these things touch us is that they work within our socio-cognitive framework to take the viewer/reader/audience on a journey through an emotional landscape.

The emotional landscape in most of adventure novels is tension — primarily fear/excitement/anger-based — but a novel could theoretically be built off joy, profundity (done well by Milan Kundera, actually), or any other intense emotion. But the goal is not just to convey a single emotion: a novel must take a reader through an emotional “journey”, moving one emotion — or mood — to the next in a subtle and convincing way. (But how to do that is another story, and most likely another “On Writing”.)

Why Cipher Characters Are Flat and How to Wring Emotions Out of Them

The problem with characters that are ciphers for the author (or very close to being so) is that most authors don’t know themselves very well. I know I don’t. I’m sure there are exceptions, but for the large part we are too close to ourselves to understand our motivations and actions and reactions clearly — and thus we are also too close to cipher characters. We cannot see the details of our bodies to convey the emotions easily, and we feel the emotions so naturally that we forget even to describe them.

So you get phrases like “Gerald was excited” instead of “Gerald fought back the glee that shook him from gut to fingertips.” Obviously, “Gerald was excited” doesn’t convey much actual emotion to the reader. It doesn’t make the reader feel the excitement.

This is bad because ART IS EMOTION, as stated above. Without emotion, there is no art.

It is very hard (for me, at least, and I theorize for many others) to describe our own personal emotional journeys. Memoirs, for instance, can be notoriously difficult unless they are written many years later, with great hindsight, and personal emotions are just as are to write in fiction if your character is yourself. (A notable to exception — many Mary-Sue stories are quite successful, but I think that is because of the novelty and intensity of infatuation — the very rareness of the emotion makes it easier to describe).

At this time, I know only three ways to wring emotion out of a cipher:

1) Increase the Character’s Emotional Intensity – Focus on unusual and intense emotions (such as falling intensely in lust with a Scottish woman, going to your child’s funeral)

2) Put the Character in a Challenging Situation
– Focus on unusual and intense situations that cause unusual and intense emotions (such as being in a world full of Vampire Teddy Bears, racing toward a cliff in a car with no brakes)

3) Increase the Character’s Emotional Distance From Yourself –
Make the character that is ciphering you much more distant. The two primary ways I do this are:

  • Give them traits that are not mine (ie, change the character’s gender, make them of a different political persuasion)
  • Take traits that I share with them and blow them out of proportion so that the character’s personality changes (ie, focus on the character’s grief and sense of estrangement/alienation))

Basically, this is a cheap and easy way of turning a cipher character into a REAL character that stands apart from you.

A Fourth? Solution: Creating a Lens for the Audience to See the Character Through

The “audience” — readers — need to see this character moving, acting, need to see the emotions on his face like in any Oscar winning picture or at least like in any Blade movie.

With a story, the camera can be positioned in the character’s emotions and thoughts or it can float externally, or it can be any combination of the two. Much like a camera in film, if you move the character in and out you can get different effects, highlight different elements. Even get close-ups.

A primarily thoughts/emotions camera can be a little slow, boring, and unsubtle for some readers, and also leads to “Gerald was excited” without any detail added in. But the external camera — where most of your story takes place — runs the danger of not conveying emotion at all unless the writer is very clever with word choice and the rhythm of the words themselves. Both cameras have their strengths and weaknesses, and using a camera built somewhere in between will have a mix of strengths and weaknesses from both.

This is not a unique concept; it is often discussed as the “emotional distance” from the character.

Figuring out emotional distance is not enough, though.

In order to show the audience the character’s emotions, you need to develop a framework — a specific technique or “style” to describing them. Here are a few questions to answer to develop a framework: Is Gerald a stranger to his emotions, or is he familiar with them? Will you use similes to describe his emotions or what he sees? How about metaphors? Are you looking for a particular mood for the character? Are there any key words or images to emphasize (such as: do you always describe him like a rainstorm)?

Since the lens is the portal through which the movie is put on film, I like to think of any combination of “emotional distance” (camera position) and “framework for showing emotion” (style) as a “LENS” — it is the portal through which the movie is made and where the focus is controlled:

Say you go for a lens where Gerald is tightly controlled and internalizes most emotions (Lens A):
Gerald stared at his wife wondering why her makeup was so perfect. So fresh. He squeezed down a sudden rush emotions in his belly, not understanding or even knowing what they were. All he knew for sure was he felt she was lying.

What if you prefer a slightly more externalized reaction from Gerald, but you still want him to remain a stranger to his own emotions (Lens B):
Gerald’s hear fluttered and squeezed and threatened to stop and he wasn’t sure why. It was just a button on his wife’s blouse. Just a stupid button buttoned through the wrong hole. He tried to turn back around and type the last words of the screenplay, but his fingers shuddered. Gibberish shot across the screen like curse words in a comic book. Her shirt had been perfect before she left. Why had she taken her shirt off? Was she cheating on him?

There are, of course, infinite levels to this.

You can zoom in and zoom out, but switching between lenses requires care. Perhaps I can write more on that later, but let me focus on this for now:

The nice thing about having a lens (or two or three), is that it is a re-usable tool. As long as you understand what you’ve designed and you at least think about it, you’re likely to get the character’s emotions across to the readers without saying, “Gerald was excited.”

No, Not a Fourth Solution

So I said there were 3 solutions and this a fourth solution? Can I not count?

Actually, this isn’t a separate solution. The lens will help you, sure, but if you don’t do the work and find a personality trait to focus on, or get the intense locations or emotions going, this may not save you alone. To me, this augments the other solutions.

With a lens one or more of the other tricks, you should be able to solve any problems you might have with a character that is a cipher of yourself.