What I do when something smells just a bit presumptuous.
Yes, I know, this is primarily a writer’s blog, though I have been known to go off the rails topically now and again. I’ve seen a lot of other writer’s blogs and there are more than a few that seemed geared at telling you, the reader, how to write. Since very few of these blogs, including the one you’re currently reading, are authored by anyone you’ve ever heard of, that has always smelled just a bit presumptuous to me.
Anyone who has read my blog at all will know that even when I am talking about writing, I generally just focus on my experiences in the craft, things I’ve done or thought about doing or wish I could do, (like sell a damn copy or two of my novels!) and much less on preaching to you, the reader, (yes I’m going to keep doing that all the way through), how I think you should go about writing your novel, short story, memoir, cook book, etc.
Today, at first glance, it may seem like I doing that. Because today I want to offer a teeny-tiny nugget of advice. Ok, it may continue to seem that way at second glance as well. Ok, all the glances.
This is me.
I’m not doing it because I think I’m “up here” and you, the reader, are “down there.” I’m doing it because I think it may be important and helpful.
Again, this is based on my experience and not some random, hair-brained theory that I dreamed up while mowing the lawn or something. (I live in a wonderful apartment complex and get my lawn mowed professionally, so that whole field of philosophical pondering is closed to me.) Because dig this, (as we used to say back when I started writing): I’ve been doing this for most of my life, and I’m starting to collect some significant years now. I’m not an NYT best selling author, but I know what I know, based on close to fifty years of putting words on paper. So now I’m letting you into the super-secret VIP lounge that is my mind. Don’t trip over the broken floorboards.
In all of that time, I’ve learned many lessons pertaining to this craft, but there are two that rise high above all the others.
- Stay true to the story
- Find your voice
I’ll talk briefly about the first, then drone on and on for hours about the second, (that’s a Monty Python reference… I’m not really going to do that to you, the reader.)
Stay True to the Story
Staying true to the story, as I define it, means worry a whole hell of a lot less about what other people, including you, the reader or in this case the writer, think should happen. Yes, I include the writer in the list of people to ignore. A story is a road map from point “A” to point “Z”, with many stops along the way, and anyone, to some extent, can write one. But a good story, while still satisfying the “A” to “Z” criteria, will have a life of its own, and it may not give a damn about your road map. If you’re writing along, whistling like Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie,” and you suddenly encounter something in your story that you did not anticipate, there’s a very good chance that it’s exactly what was missing. And you, the writer, did not even realize it. Someone may look at it and wonder what you were thinking and advise to you take it out, but if it makes the story work, if it fits in with the organism, if not the road map, then tell them to shove off and leave it in. See where it takes you.
Being true to the story also gives you the ability to flex your writer’s muscles a little. It may require things of you that you, the writer, did not even know you were capable of doing, and that, my friends, is an awesome feeling. My wife will tell you that there have been times when she’s been in our living room, watching something educational and edifying on the television device, (because that’s all that’s on TV, right?) and she will suddenly hear a war-whoopish sound emanate from my writing box, (or “office” as some people call it). That sound was made by me after I’ve written something so much better than I thought I could ever write, and the adrenaline rush that it gives me manifests itself in an ear-splitting vocalization.
But now onto the main thing I wanted to talk about. (“Damn this guy takes a long time to get to the point,” said you, the reader).
Finding Your Voice
You can bet she’s found her voice!
Finding your voice is something that only time and honesty can make happen for you. The writer. (Ha! You thought I wasn’t going to do it that time, didn’t you?)
I have had the opportunity to work with some wonderful, amazing high school-aged writers in the past couple of years, and I am constantly blown away by the quality of work they are producing at an age when I aspired to be a writer, but in looking back at my journals from the time period, I realize that “aspiring” was about all I was doing. Their skill at writing dialog, at crafting rich, easy to visualize settings, and their ability to create memorable characters is miles beyond what I was doing at age 16-18.
But what is very obvious to me, as I listen to them read their work at our Tuesday night writer’s group, is that they haven’t totally found their voice. Not yet. It’s almost as if they are writing in a manner that they think they must if they’re to be able to call themselves writers. Does that make sense? What I’m saying is they seem to have a preconceived notion of how a writer must say and do things, and they don’t necessarily come across as someone who is comfortable in what they’re saying and doing. They are chasing a standard, rather than looking for a way to tell the story in their own voice.
The same is true of some of the adult authors in our group. While I believe that finding one’s voice as a writer requires time, the passage of time doesn’t guarantee that the skill will be developed. That’s where the second element comes in: honesty.
Finding your voice is as much about learning how not to say something as it is learning how to do so. And that’s where the honesty comes in. One of the things that hindered me in my early writing was that I rarely read anything I’d written after it was done, and I never revised. My oeuvre from the 1970’s to mid-1980’s is just one continual first draft. When, years later, I did start reading that stuff, I saw, every now and again, a nugget of something worthwhile, buried in a huge mound of manure. I realized that in those immature writings I was not the least bit honest with myself about what I was doing. I assumed that because I’d written something down on paper, it must be good. I was a good writer after all. Everybody told me so.
But the vast majority of it was filled with words that I shouldn’t have used and phrases that I shouldn’t have put together. I was doing what I thought I a writer was supposed to do, not what I was supposed to do.
This is a point overlooked by almost as many adult writers as young writers. We’re still not saying things the way we want to say them, we’re saying them the way we think we should be saying them. That makes for dishonest writing, done in someone else’s voice, not your own.
That doesn’t mean you have to write only about what you know experientially. I write about wizards and dragons in a world that doesn’t really exist. This does not draw from my personal experience, (although back in my more chemically liberated days I may have thought I’d actually seen these things).
The trick is that I write about these fantastical things by filtering them through my experience. Thus when I want to write dialogue between two bumbling, not-too-bright sailors who are piloting the single-masted sloop which is bringing a stow-away from his home to a new life and a grand adventure he’d never even dreamed of, I do it in a way that sounds true to me. Here. I’ll give you a taste:
“I’m tellin’ ya, I heard someone talkin’ in this hold! Singin’ even!” came the now familiar voice of the sailor he called “Crane-man.”
“And I’m tellin’ ya, yer nuts! We loaded in this cargo ourselves! Do ya recall loadin’ in any people? Cuz I sure don’t!” shouted the second, who Ban had named “Big-words,” because the other had teased him about that back on the dock in Tarteel.
“Well o’ course we loaded it ourselves. We’re all there is!”
Even in his impaired state, Ban realized this was good news. If the small ship’s crew indeed consisted solely of these two half-wits he had a better chance of getting through the voyage alive. But first he had to get them to reseal the hatch.
“And regardless, I heard someone singin’,” Crane-man continued. “Now are ya gonna hold the lamp and go down with me to check it out?”
“Listen, if ya want to poke around in that stinky hold, then be my guest. I ain’t climbin’ down,” said Big-words.
“Yer useless. Why yer mother didn’t just drown ya at birth I’ll never know! At least hand me over the lantern.”
“Here take it. I’ll even lower the ladder for ya.”
Ban could see the lantern’s light playing off the ceiling of the hold as Crane-man reached it down through the hatch, and he heard the rope ladder unroll and hit the deck below the opening. A moment later he heard another sound: that of Crane-man cursing as he lost his grip on the ladder and fell eight feet to the hold’s deck, followed by the sound of the lantern shattering.
“Perfect, ya damn fool!” shouted Big-words from above. “Now ya set the cargo on fire. I hope ya burn right along with it!”
“Shut up and fill a bucket, ya wizzle-worm!” Crane man screamed back. “My breeches are burnin’.”
I can’t tell you how much fun I had writing the entire story of Ban Alawar’s sea voyage, or how much my spell checker hated it. The particular dialect of the sailors was based solely on how I imagined a pair of ignorant bumblers would sound. It would have never worked if I’d tried to write how I supposed someone else would expect them to sound.
Even more challenging, though equally fun, was imagining how Ban, who is twelve-years-old, would think and speak if he was drunk, which he was in this scene. [Ed. note – in no way does the author support or condone underage drinking.] Ok, I’ll give you one more sample, but that’s it. If you want any more, go buy the damn book!
The experience was not unpleasant, he’d decided. He felt jolly and at ease. It made him feel like singing, which he knew better than to do, or perhaps like dancing, which he didn’t have room to do. So instead he just lay in the small space that existed between his home among the wicker baskets and the other stacks of goods nearby. He lay there and thought about profound things.
Girls smell so much better than we boys do, he thought. I know some, who can afford it, put perfume on themselves. But even girls without perfume smell nice. I like girls. Girls are wonderful. And they smell nice. Did I say that already? So do those pink flowers that mother loves so much. I remember when I was young I used to pick them for her, before I found out how much easier it was just to steal her a bouquet. She never scolded me when I brought them to her, even after I started lifting them.
“Do you know what else?” he said aloud, not realizing he’d begun to do so. “Dragons smell pretty nice too. I didn’t expect them to. Most of the animals I’ve been around stink to the Next Plane. But that wizard who told me I couldn’t join the army had his dragon standing nearby and when I walked by it, it smelled really nice. Like spices or something.”
This was the extent of young Ban’s profundity. Girls smell nice. And so do dragons. The subtle trick of going from thinking to speaking out loud, and eventually to singing at the top of his lungs (nope… you gotta buy the book if you want to hear Ban sing), was I device of which I am quite proud, because that, in my voice, is how it would happen. It’s believable. It’s honest.
I can’t really give you a set of steps to take or tools to use to enable you to find your voice as a writer, aside from the two I’ve already given. Keep writing, and thereby gaining experience at doing so, and at every step of the way be honest with yourself. Keep asking yourself, “Is this how I really want to say this? Is this how I would say it, if I were speaking to someone about this situation?”
Over time, if you continually do this, you will find a couple of things have happened:
- You will begin to be really happy with your writing. It will sound right to you, and it will spur you on to even better work as you go.
- You will begin to notice that your writing doesn’t really sound like anyone else’s writing. This is a great moment. When you come to recognize your voice in writing and know that no one else in the entire world sounds quite like you, you may find yourself letting out a war-whoop or two. Just see if you don’t.
This is also me
OK. I’m done being the boring prophet from The Life of Brian now. (“…Obadiah, his servants. There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi– with the sort of raffia work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock. Yea, it is written in the book of Cyril that, in that time, shall the third one…”) That’s two Monty Python references in a single blog post. You’re welcome.
It’s time for me to crawl into my writer’s box and get some work done. And since today my writer’s box is actually a study room at the public library, I’m going to need to curb the war-whooping. Although the door is shut. Maybe I’ll get away with it without being tossed. We’ll see.