Will your voice sink or swim?

OK, enough about me and my journey. Time to get back to what I love to write about. I love sharing my discoveries about writing with my readers.

I am excited because I just read an article in the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest that has been particularly insightful for me on the subject of voice. I hope it will help you as well.

The article is an excerpt from the book, Creative Nonfiction (1996), by Gerard Philip. In it Philip quotes Bob Reiss as saying our writing will sink or swim, based on our voice–a sobering thought.

So, as writers, you can see it is critical that we understand what is meant by voice.

According to Philip, voice is the cumulative effect of the following:

  • the words you choose
  • how you craft your sentences
  • the form in which you write
  • how you do your research, and even
  • the questions you ask in an interview.
    • An excerpt from Steven Harper’s book, Writing the Paranormal Novel (2011), printed in the March/April 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest, adds that voice is also about:

    • how your words sound on the page (rhythm)
    • the themes you explore, and
    • your emotional response.

      Philip says, “Voice is what the reader hears in his mind’s ear, the strong sense that the words of the story are coming from another living, human personality with a unique perspective on events.”

      I agree with Philip that you can’t fabricate or “overlay” voice on your work–“It is intrinsic in everything you do from the moment an idea occurs to you until you turn in the finished draft.”

      You bring your unique perspective and attitude to the story. Philip quotes Bob Reiss as saying voice is, “You’re kind of sensitivity. You’re kind of anger. You’re kind of whatever the dominant thing is in you.”

      In other words, it is everything that is you. Everything that distinguishes you from another person.

      To unravel or not to unravel

      My mother, who suffered a stroke a year ago, has recently taught herself to knit. I keep in touch with her by phone because we live a thousand miles apart.

      I admire her spirit. She is determined not to let her physical limitations get her down. I have learned so much from my mother. One thing she has taught me is that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

      The last time I spoke with her she told me that she had unravelled the scarf she was knitting because it was uneven, as you would expect from a beginner. Now she intends to do a job she will be proud of.

      Some of the things I have been taught by my mother I have had to unravel and re-do for myself because they were not quite right. The old adage about doing a job well, to me started to sound like, “do it over until it is perfect,” or, “if you can’t do it well, then it’s not worth doing at all.” No this is not the same thing, but I think you can see how the progression can happen.

      There are times when refusing the urge to perfect something can be a good thing. I have listened to writers who were so concerned about getting it right, that I seriously wondered if they would ever finish anything.

      In a writing workshop I spent hours creating what I thought was an outstanding short script. My instructor’s comment to me was, “Is that the way you talk? You are trying too hard.” He did not want me to work so hard at achieving perfection that I did not even sound like myself.

      Unravelling our writing can take a lot of time that might be better spent on a new project. I attended a watercolor class where the guest artist told us that he forces himself to throw away half of the paintings he produces. In my writing I also need to be willing to discard pieces.

      On the other hand, denying myself the urge to perfect my writing, and still sharing it, can teach me to live with my imperfection.

      My mother is now proudly wearing her knitted scarf. The call is yours–to unravel, or not to unravel. 

      Finding your voice

      I am sitting with my laptop at the dining table while my husband queries me from across the room about why I haven’t been editing my novel. Nearly a month has gone by since I asked for six months. Have I been working on it?

      I tell him no. To myself I think that I have been planning and trying to decide what approach to take. I’ve been allowing some thoughts to settle in my mind. And I know very well that it is over a month since I asked for extra time to edit my novel.

      My adult son is in the living area with my husband, listening to our conversation. He asks me, “Why do you think you need to edit it?” I tell him, for the second time, that I have had several authors look at portions of it and advise me to make changes.

      “Did they all say the same thing?”  he asks.

      His question catches me off guard. I know he’s getting at something. I am suddenly alert, searching my memory for evidence I have missed.

      I reply that two of the people said I should do less telling and more showing. He says, “But some people like more telling.”

      I keep on thinking about his question, and as he is leaving I acknowledge that one author loved my ending, while another thought I should change it.

      My son smiles and looks at me as if to say, I told you so. He remarks that so much of writing is subjective. Then he shares with me that when he was in high school he wrote a paper for which he received a C grade. Not satisfied, he took the paper to another teacher and asked him to grade it. He gave him an A+. He took the paper back and showed it to the first teacher.

      One person simply did not like his writing style, while the other obviously saw its merit.

      I conclude that my voice is the voice to which I must be true.