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Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby glorybee » Sat Aug 08, 2015 8:43 am

I used the following definition in last week’s introductory lesson on voice:

A writer’s voice is a combination of attributes that make her writing distinctive and recognizable. These may include her use of punctuation, favored sentence formations and syntax, word choice and vocabulary, and use of figurative language. Voice may also include, to some extent, common themes in a writer’s works, and mood (somber, brash, or light, for example).There are other items that make up a writer’s voice, but the end result is, ideally, something that communicates the story (or the content) in a way that is both effective and unique.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to go into each of the attributes listed above in more detail, with the goal of helping you to both recognize distinctive writers’ voices and to develop your own voice.

The first attribute I mentioned in the definition was punctuation. You may be thinking, Hey, punctuation is one of those absolutes—it’s either correct or it isn’t. How can someone use punctuation to develop their own unique voice?

Well, despite what Mrs. Kellerman may have told you in 10th grade English, punctuation really isn’t absolute. Writers should definitely know the rules of comma and semicolon use, and where to put periods when you’re also using quotation marks (for example)—but there’s certainly enough wiggle room in the punctuation rules to allow for individualism. Take the following passage, written two different ways:

I’ve always aspired to be like my mother. She seems meek and humble but she’s as strong as iron. My brother was born with disabilities 53 years ago. Doctors back then were somewhat uninformed. Her doctor recommended that she put my brother in an institution. His disabilities (both physical and mental) were considerable. But my mother took my brother home and just loved him.

I’ve always aspired to be like my mother; she seems meek and humble, but she’s as strong as iron. My brother was born with disabilities 53 years ago. Doctors back then were somewhat uninformed, and her doctor recommended that she put my brother in an institution. His disabilities—both physical and mental—were considerable, but my mother took my brother home and just loved him.


I won’t point out every difference in punctuation above, but I hope you can see that the second one tends to join shorter sentences, which makes the voice of the paragraph read like that of a somewhat more mature person. (Of course, this overlaps a bit with sentence structure, next week's lesson.)

That’s just one of any number of examples of how punctuation could be one way to define your voice. Here are a few more:

I mentioned in a previous lesson how my new favorite writer, Kent Haruf, writes unpunctuated dialog. Here’s another excerpt, this one from “Eventide.”

To the east when they crossed the railroad tracks the whitewashed concrete cylinders of the grain elevator rose up massively out of the ground, shadowy and silent. They drove on north.
Here, the boy said. This is where you turn.
They came into the quiet street and he pointed out the little house.
Is this where you live?
Yes, ma’am.
Really? I used to live near here. Before I had Katie. This was my old neighborhood. Do you like it here?
He looked at her. It’s just where I live, he said. He opened the door and started to get out.


When I posted the earlier Haruf passage, most people said that the unpunctuated dialog bothered them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I believe that good writing should put the reader slightly on edge. Nevertheless, obviously this isn’t something for everyone—after all, if we all started writing unpunctuated dialog, it wouldn’t be unusual anymore, and civilization as we know it might fall apart.

But you could do something with ellipses if it fit with the pace of your writing. Perhaps your piece is a first-person story with a stream of consciousness feel. You might write something like this:

I set down my book…wandered to the kitchen…nothing in the fridge. Phooey. Maybe…I checked the pantry. Nothing there. Just Ben’s health food…dried banana chips…prune juice…tofu…disgusting.
And here’s the same piece with more conventional punctuation:

I set down my book and wandered to the kitchen. Nothing in the fridge—phooey. Maybe…I checked the pantry. Nothing there, just Ben’s health food—dried banana chips, prune juice, tofu. Disgusting.


I’m not going to get into fragments (until next week), but you can see that despite having (almost) identical words, the punctuation changes the way you read the sentences. The pace is different, and I think the speaker is even perceived differently. The first one is spacier, more absent-minded, and you can almost see her pushing aside each item, only to discover another, even worse one. The second voice, however, seems more purposeful and more intelligent. Perhaps you interpret them differently—that’s okay, too.

I think what I’m trying to get at here is that in conjunction with other things (the things I’ll get to in later lessons), punctuation can contribute to your voice. So I’d like you to think about this—

How could I use the following punctuation marks to establish a voice and to work with the story I’m telling?

Semicolons
Parenthesis
Exclamation points
Commas
Dashes
Hyphens

Could you use more of them than the average writer? Could you intentionally choose not to use them at all? Could you use them in a way that’s different from their usual use, to convey meaning in a different way? (For example, I read a story once in which speech by God was indicated with a hyphen at the beginning). I can’t stress this enough, though—[i]don’t just pepper your writing, say, with lots and lots of dashes, thinking that now you have a unique voice. When you’re experimenting with punctuation or with any other writing ‘trick,’ do it with intention, always keeping in mind how what you’ve done will enhance your communication with the reader.[/i]

I encourage you to experiment with punctuation (and with the other aspects of voice in the definition) in your Writing Challenge entries or in your current project. If you experiment for the Writing Challenge, be aware that someone may comment that you have used punctuation incorrectly or that your use of unconventional punctuation was distracting. This shouldn’t bother you—at least it was noticed, and you can then decide if it was effective. That’s the purpose of experimentation, and there’s no safer place than the Writing Challenge to stretch yourself.

1. Do you have any comments about what I’ve said here on the use of punctuation? On voice?
2. Do you have any questions?

(My granddaughter is next to me, and she wants me to add an emoji. So this is from Piper:)

:tongue
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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby zacdfox » Sun Aug 09, 2015 2:04 am

In this lesson you, again, posted an excerpt of Kent Haruf's writing, and again, I found it intriguing.

I remember in your first lesson on vioce (or perhaps it was the preamble to your first lesson) you cautioned against ditching punctuation, and said Haruf would have concrete reasons for the punctuation he chose and the places he omitted it (I'm paraphrasing here...).

How does one begin doing this in a calculated manner? Why does Haruf write the way he does? I guess I mean, is there a logic behind his unique 'vioce' or is it just for the sake of 'vioce'?

I hope this makes sense.

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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 10, 2015 10:08 am

zacdfox wrote:In this lesson you, again, posted an excerpt of Kent Haruf's writing, and again, I found it intriguing.

I remember in your first lesson on vioce (or perhaps it was the preamble to your first lesson) you cautioned against ditching punctuation, and said Haruf would have concrete reasons for the punctuation he chose and the places he omitted it (I'm paraphrasing here...).

How does one begin doing this in a calculated manner? Why does Haruf write the way he does? I guess I mean, is there a logic behind his unique 'vioce' or is it just for the sake of 'vioce'?

I hope this makes sense.


I can't speak for Haruf, but I can speculate. The setting and mood and atmosphere of his books is quiet and subdued. Leaving out those quotation marks effectively "muffles" the dialogue--as if the reader is listening from the next room. (At least, that's how it works for me).

Haruf was a master writer, and I doubt that he did anything just for the sake of voice; that would come across as gimmicky. Writing that calls attention to itself is NEVER the goal.

I'm reminded of an anecdote about a famous actor who, when he was just starting out, was auditioning for a small part as a busboy. He didn't get the part, and the director offered him some advice. "When you're trying out for this part, I want to be able to say, 'Now THAT'S an actor!'"

"That's funny," he replied. "I thought the idea was to make you say, 'Now THAT'S a busboy!'"

Same thing applies here--the idea isn't to get the reader to say, "Now THAT'S good writing." The idea is to immerse the reader in the world of your story, and to make the writing disappear.

But of course, the irony is that only the very BEST writing can truly disappear, and a moment's thought will confirm that--have you ever read truly horrible writing, or even writing that's just kind of bad? You're constantly being brought out of the scene by the distraction of the actual writing.

I may have veered off course here, but it brings me to your other question: How does one begin doing this in a calculated manner?

I don't have an easy answer for this, other than the same suggestions I've given in this lesson and a few others:

1. Read, read, read, read. Read with a discerning eye, and read lots of different types of books. All genres, contemporary and not-so-contemporary.
2. I kind of hate to say this, but...since it's so easy to be published (or to self-publish) these days, there's lots and lots of bad writing out there. So read stuff that has been reviewed and found worthy by the media, by professional reviewers, by other well-known writers.
3. Experiment. You may fail miserably, but at least you know what doesn't work. Edison failed to invent a light bulb hundreds of times, but he learned, each time, how NOT to make a light bulb. As I've said, FaithWriters is a safe place to experiment. I'd far rather have a FaithWriter tell me that they didn't understand why I put an apostrophe in every other word (I'm obviously being silly) than to publish an apostrophe-riddled novel and be blasted by the entire reading public.
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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby KatKane » Tue Aug 11, 2015 3:29 am

This may be off topic, but reading this I thought of a skit I wrote a few months back. Here it is: http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=50416

Punctuation was one of the ways I used to create differences between the voices of the two characters. Ron's lines are quite short are choppy. I was trying to create a brusque bully - the sort of character who wants to have their way and gets it by browbeating everyone else into submission. Gertie's lines are punctuated very differently, and the kind of language they use is similar, but different. Gertie is equally unpleasant - she's the type who tends to get what she wants by being divisive, gossip campaigns, undermining people or persuading Ron that he needs to get involved.
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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby Milly Born » Tue Aug 11, 2015 6:44 am

Yesterday I helped my daughter to learn a song from Emeli Sande ("River"...beautiful). I noticed she tried to copy Emeli' s voice--with disastrous effects. "Honey, sing it in your own voice," I urged her.

"I don't know my own voice," she grumbled.

"It's the one that comes naturally."

It seemed a logical reply. Then I remembered that I did a similar statement on this forum not so long ago, about the struggle to find my own voice--my writing voice.

Before joining FaithWriters, I wrote a book. Undoubtedly, I used my natural voice, because I didn't know any other. But it was an untrained voice. Helpful fellow FaithWriters helped me to master many "tricks of the trade." Yet in the training process, as I discovered and applied new ways, always changing, improving, tweaking, I got disconnected from that voice that comes naturally. My own style. Like a singer, or a tennis player if you want, who learns new skills; first the skills need to be mastered separately, then assimilated in her natural way of singing or playing.

Jan, does this make sense? :? And am I right to trust that if I just keep writing--practising--my natural style will eventually re-emerge through my new skill set?
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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby glorybee » Tue Aug 11, 2015 10:20 am

KatKane wrote:This may be off topic, but reading this I thought of a skit I wrote a few months back. Here it is: http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=50416

Punctuation was one of the ways I used to create differences between the voices of the two characters. Ron's lines are quite short are choppy. I was trying to create a brusque bully - the sort of character who wants to have their way and gets it by browbeating everyone else into submission. Gertie's lines are punctuated very differently, and the kind of language they use is similar, but different. Gertie is equally unpleasant - she's the type who tends to get what she wants by being divisive, gossip campaigns, undermining people or persuading Ron that he needs to get involved.


Thanks for sharing this, Kat! And you may want to re-visit it again after my next lesson, which will deal with sentence structures as they relate to voice.
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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby glorybee » Tue Aug 11, 2015 10:22 am

Milly Born wrote:Yesterday I helped my daughter to learn a song from Emeli Sande ("River"...beautiful). I noticed she tried to copy Emeli' s voice--with disastrous effects. "Honey, sing it in your own voice," I urged her.

"I don't know my own voice," she grumbled.

"It's the one that comes naturally."

It seemed a logical reply. Then I remembered that I did a similar statement on this forum not so long ago, about the struggle to find my own voice--my writing voice.

Before joining FaithWriters, I wrote a book. Undoubtedly, I used my natural voice, because I didn't know any other. But it was an untrained voice. Helpful fellow FaithWriters helped me to master many "tricks of the trade." Yet in the training process, as I discovered and applied new ways, always changing, improving, tweaking, I got disconnected from that voice that comes naturally. My own style. Like a singer, or a tennis player if you want, who learns new skills; first the skills need to be mastered separately, then assimilated in her natural way of singing or playing.

Jan, does this make sense? :? And am I right to trust that if I just keep writing--practising--my natural style will eventually re-emerge through my new skill set?


Yes, this makes a great deal of sense. Hopefully, the voice that emerges as a writer trains herself will be her own, true voice--just one that has been improved by lessons, examples, techniques and the like.
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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby zacdfox » Wed Aug 12, 2015 3:08 pm

Jan,

Is there an assignment we could do for voice? If not after this each lesson then after your final lesson on voice?

-zac

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Re: Be A Better Writer--MORE ABOUT VOICE

Postby glorybee » Wed Aug 12, 2015 3:14 pm

zacdfox wrote:Jan,

Is there an assignment we could do for voice? If not after this each lesson then after your final lesson on voice?

-zac


I haven't thought of one yet, other than the suggestion to experiment in the Weekly Challenge.

I'll try to do a small "homework" assignment in this coming lesson. Thanks for the suggestion.
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