Tag Archives: write

Using Voice to Set Yourself Apart

As my fellow Fictorians are showing you so far this month, there are many ways to set yourself apart as a writer. In my mind, the most memorable way to set yourself apart is voice, to the surprise of no one. In past posts, I’ve highlighted how you might create tension with narrative voice, and used well-known authors with distinct voices as examples. In this post, I’d like to dive into what voice is, the many ways one can use it, and highlight some examples that will hopefully give you plenty of ideas.

First, what is voice? Voice goes by many names. Style. Point of View. Vernacular. Narrative voice. Language. It is all of these things. For the sake of clarity, I defer to my friend Mignon, whom many of you may know as Grammar Girl. Julie Wildhaber writes on the Grammar Girl website:

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. (read more here)

It’s the thing that makes a reader say, “Ah. I can tell Kristin wrote this, because there are many f-bombs, and she ends every chapter on a cliffhanger,” for example.

If Socrates fermented goods, this would be his beer label.

Letting your voice shine is all about one important rule: “Know thyself.” This is not only my own personal credo for just about everything, it’s an important practice that will inform you of your strengths.

Are you funny, or at least have great confidence that you are? Can you translate or work on translating that humor into written form?

Are you good at calculating out the worst case scenario? When friends tell you their darkest fears and worries, are you able to take it another shade darker? Do you have no problem screwing with your characters and making their lives miserable?

Is your writing structure unique? Are you aware of grammatical rules and structures, but can’t help but twist and/or ignore them?

Here are some examples of authors using those very strengths and turning them into voice.

Maria Semple is one funny lady. She wrote for the television show Arrested Development, which banked on candid, awkward family dynamics to amuse their viewers. When it comes to her writing, Maria translates the same odd, character-driven situational humor into fiction. Her second novel, Where’d You go, Bernadette? may be a shade more sophisticated than Arrested Development, but you can expect the same wit and brand of humor that her television writing is known for.

Robert Kirkman doesn’t mind making a character suffer. He doesn’t mind making all of his characters suffer. As Robert has his hand in more and more projects, the common thread between all of them is his signature move: make the character(s) suffer. While reading The Walking Dead,  one panel completely floored me. It was too dark, in fact, to be translated to the television version (though I dreaded I’d see it when the time came). If you’d like to read the comic books, skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who’ve read a good chunk of the comic books, you may already guess which part I’m talking about. It’s the Red Wedding of The Walking Dead. Instead of just Laurie taking a bullet, the bullet travels through her baby girl in her arms as well. The worst case scenario, one darker than I would ever dare to think up, becomes a reality in the blink of an eye. When I read it, I thought for sure I felt my heart drop.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an author I’ve mentioned many times in my Fictorians posts who is, in my mind, the king of grammatical voicing: James Frey.  If you’re currently in the beginning stages of your career and trying to get published and you’ve read James’ work, he might make you a little crazy. And it’s not because he isn’t good – oh he’s good. It’s because you’ll wonder how he was able to get away with his style and still get published. An example, from the first page I opened up to just now from A Million Little Pieces:

I stare at him.
Trying can’t hurt, Kid.
There is truth in his eyes. Truth is all that matters.
And trying’s nothing to be scared of.
Just try.

Where are the quotation marks? Dialogue tags? Adjectives? And yet, from this short section, we can tell this is a conversation, or at least one person talking to another person. We can make very good guesses as to who is whom (given more context). This is James’ style. While different at first, it grows on you very quickly, and your eyes ease from one word to the next until, before you know it, you’re flipping the last page of the book. His style was unlike anything I’d ever seen before (Hemingway would be jealous of his brevity), and I immediately adored the rock-solid voicing.

The bottomline is this: you don’t have to be the next Maria Semple, Robert Kirkman, or James Frey. You just gotta be you! It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

First: know thyself. Next: write.

How To Write Now

Character: Myself
Goal: To finish my damned book
Motivation: The story needs to be told
Present circumstances: Mundane life
Back story: Wrote some nonfiction. Thought I’d try my hand at fiction.

Will gangsters kill me if I don’t finish my first draft? No.
Will the balance of political power be affected if I don’t finish my book? No.
Will the world as we know it be forever changed if I don’t finish the book? Probably not.

I keep falling off the wagon.

This is because of an insidious form of procrastination – reading how-to-write books.

When I first took up fiction a few years ago it seemed like the thing to do. “What can you recommend on how-to-write books?”

But now it’s become a full blown vice.

More than one how-to-write book has told me I need to write at least a page a day. They say I’ll have a book at the end of a year.

Some of these same books have said I need to read a hundred books in my genre before I’m qualified to write in it. I don’t know how many I’ve read, and that nagging insecurity I feel must mean I should read some more.

But maybe I can make up the difference by reading “how-to” books.

Sometimes the only down time I have is commuting. So I try to tell myself that learning a bit more about craft and structure is a productive use of time, and my Kindle tells me how to develop deep, sympathetic characters that we care about – in its endearing robotic female text-to-speech voice.

I want to write! I’ve tried all the advice about carrying a mini-recorder and putting my notes in it! But I never get around to transcribing them, they are full of hems and haws and I only really get work done when I sit down at the keyboard.

I created a separate account on my computer so I can log out of my “work” self and have an an e-mail free environment where I only write. Kind of like how you have to move the boa from one aquarium to another before you feed it, so it doesn’t think the main cage is for food.

But there’s still a web browser. No writing gets done. I bite my hand anyway.

By now, what do I need to learn? I know I need a strong narrative drive! I know that my characters need a back story but that I shouldn’t include it! I know that the three act structure is both outdated and irrelevant yet critical for a book!

I know too well that I have to create strong sympathetic characters, and if they’re morally ambiguous, a great way to do this is to give them a dog or a wife or something that makes us care.

Heck, by now doesn’t everyone know that events in the story should flow organically from the motivations our characters have? Isn’t it obvious that characters become two dimensional when they are slaves to plot?

Of course dialogue is supposed to be a compressed form of high-quality speech, what that character’s best self could say. I wish I actually had enough dialog written so that I could read it out loud to myself and see if it flows!

I have many examples of the genre beats that my story might want to hit.

Don’t even get me started on the 10-plus hours of lectures that I have been listening to and re-listening to from a recent writing conference. I’m thankful I didn’t get all three days of lectures and only took home what I could capture with my two mini recorders.

I don’t want to hear another word about 1st 2nd and 3rd person, and the different ways writers try to explain the intimate and remote 3rd person. I am fed up with admonitions not to try 1st person contrasted with encouragements to do it. I don’t care if I don’t have a good reason to use 1st person! How about “I’m writing a book” – is that good enough?

I even know that all the rules don’t matter if you’re skilled enough, and that rules were meant to be broken.

(That said, I swear by all that is holy that the choice for me is adverb-free.)

What they’re all saying, the only advice I can’t seem to take, is to finish that first draft!

I guess better writers than I can revise yesterday’s notes to get in the groove for today. But for me, that’s two steps back with no steps forward.

I know how my story ends in great detail. I’ve already started it and written most of the first act. Really, the only thing sagging about my middle act is my persistence in writing it!

It’s pretty easy, really, right? Scenes are just vignettes of conflict. And my characters have goals they’d practically die for. They have such deep motivations! I mean, how else could it be? And all I have to do is write out a bunch of scenes and I have a book, right?

I’m going to try today, to turn over a new leaf, get back on the wagon, and get through this book.

Ok I have to generate the motivation myself. Somehow.

I’m imagining the situation. I have to write the book. There’s a loaded shotgun over the mantle. Did I put it there?

My future self is furious that we’re out of money and that I’m going to die penniless and obscure, because I never finished the book.

My future self takes Chekov’s gun and aims it at my head and says,

“Write. Now.”