Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN 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--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by glorybee » Sun Jul 12, 2015 6:28 pm

I read two books not long ago that got me thinking about a previous lesson, this one on “telling, not showing.”

I won’t repeat the whole lesson; I hope you’ll give it a second look. In a nutshell, it’s this: “show, don’t tell” is a very good piece of writing advice, particularly for the beginning and intermediate writer. If “show, don’t tell” isn’t a concept that you’re familiar with, I definitely recommend that you study it and put it into practice. In fact, it’s also a good writing practice for advanced and even expert writers, and many, many gifted writers do far more showing than telling.

HOWEVER…

For some writers—particularly those who might be interested in writing contemporary, non-genre fiction—telling, not showing is one possible way to go. It’s not a style for everybody, but it’s something you might want to experiment with. When it’s done well, it can create a unique writer’s voice, and it can accomplish something very special in mood and atmosphere.

The two books I read were both by a writer named Kent Haruf. One is Plainsong, and the other is Our Souls at Night. I’ll say that these are secular fiction, not Christian, but there is very little objectionable content—perhaps they’d be rated PG-13 if they were movies.

Haruf has a spare, lovely, simple writing style, in which almost every sentence is telling; nevertheless, the reader gets a complete picture of his wonderful characters and the place and time they inhabit. Here’s a small excerpt from Plainsong:

***
Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate. He looked up again. But Dad, he said.

What.

Isn’t Mother coming down today either?

I don’t know, Guthrie said. I can’t say what she’ll do. But you shouldn’t worry. Try not to. It’ll be alright. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.

He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating altogether and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses were.

You better go on, he said. By the time you get done with your papers you’ll be late for school.
He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of the closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside.

***

You’ll notice, also, that Haruf doesn’t punctuate dialogue, and he uses very few commas. The overall mood of a whole book like this is both quiet and deep. I don’t really know how to explain it—you’d have to read for yourself—but this book (and the other one I read) felt as if I were viewing it both through a soft, soft filter—but strangely as if I were examining these characters’ lives very intimately. It was totally lovely.

I’m certainly not advocating that you should try to imitate Haruf’s style. What I am saying to you advanced and expert writers is that you might want to think of ways in which you can make your writer’s voice entirely your own. Haruf does it with unpunctuated speech, with simple sentences, and with telling, not showing (among other things). How can you make your voice unique?

HOMEWORK:

This is not really an assignment, but I'd love some back and forth about what I've said here. Some things to consider:

1. What writers have you read with such a distinctive voice that you'd recognize it after just a chapter or two? What does that writer do to create her own voice?

2. How would you react to reading a book with Haruf-like unpunctuated dialogue and pervasive "telling?"

3. Have you done any work on your own voice? What can you tell us about that process? What has been successful or not successful?

I'd love, love, love some ideas for future lessons.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by itsjoanne » Mon Jul 13, 2015 11:21 am

Okay, Jan, maybe it is just because I read only an excerpt, but I am pretty sure an entire book like that would drive me BAZONKERS. Maybe it's the editor/proofreader in me - I dunno. But the lack of punctuation especially was extremely distracting. Perhaps I would get used to it. The telling too.

Hemingway is the first author that popped into my mind with a distinctive voice - his "reporter sentences" are pretty noticeable, among other things. There are probably others, but they aren't coming to mind at the moment.

Great thoughts! (And I am glad YOU enjoyed those books! LOL!)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by Laurie » Tue Jul 14, 2015 9:10 pm

I realize my opinion doesn't hold any weight here because I don't write fiction. But one reason I don't like to read fiction is because of all the descriptions. I don't have patience for it. Just get on with it and tell me what happens next. ;)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by Francie » Thu Jul 16, 2015 8:55 pm

This style of writing to me is like a dream come true. Proper punctuation has always been one of my greatest challenges in anything I write. So, no commas? Sounds fine to me. And lets add semi-colons to the list as well. I also like how the author intermingles dialogue without setting it apart with quotation marks. It seems more natural and isn't difficult to understand what is being said or who is saying it. This is simply writing, clearly communicating. I love it. Thanks for sharing it with us.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by glorybee » Thu Jul 16, 2015 9:04 pm

Francie wrote:This style of writing to me is like a dream come true. Proper punctuation has always been one of my greatest challenges in anything I write. So, no commas? Sounds fine to me. And lets add semi-colons to the list as well. I also like how the author intermingles dialogue without setting it apart with quotation marks. It seems more natural and isn't difficult to understand what is being said or who is saying it. This is simply writing, clearly communicating. I love it. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Francie
Francie, I'd like to caution you on this, though. Kent Haruf is a splendidly gifted writer who has "earned the right" to forego traditional writing conventions. I have no doubt whatsoever that every omitted comma is a deliberate choice for him, and that if he were forced to put the punctuation where it "belongs," he'd know where every comma, semicolon, and quotation mark "should be." You've got to be extraordinarily good, and very sure of your mastery of language, to get away with this.

Learn commas and semicolons well--master beautiful writing--then you can fiddle around with leaving them out (or with breaking any other rules that you think will help you to establish your own voice).

I agree with you about the simplicity here. It's really beautiful, isn't it?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by Sibermom65 » Thu Jul 16, 2015 10:07 pm

I think "finding your own voice" is one of the most difficult aspects of writing for me. I honestly don't now where - or how - to begin. I'm not sure I can even recognize "my voice" as opposed to any other voice I might write with.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by glorybee » Thu Jul 16, 2015 10:11 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I think "finding your own voice" is one of the most difficult aspects of writing for me. I honestly don't now where - or how - to begin. I'm not sure I can even recognize "my voice" as opposed to any other voice I might write with.
When I take up this class again in August, I may do a series on this. I'll be giving it some thought in the next few weeks.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by Milly Born » Sun Jul 19, 2015 3:41 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I think "finding your own voice" is one of the most difficult aspects of writing for me. I honestly don't now where - or how - to begin. I'm not sure I can even recognize "my voice" as opposed to any other voice I might write with.
I totally agree and am looking forward to your next lesson, Jan!

With regards to the excerpt you shared, I admire the direct writing style, but I agree with Joanne that the absence of punctuation bothers me. And I don't like the repeating "he/she said." Matter of taste.

A subject that fits into showing/telling might be whether or not to use filter words.

Blessings from a far too hot Italy.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by HISsparrow » Mon Jul 20, 2015 5:39 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I think "finding your own voice" is one of the most difficult aspects of writing for me. I honestly don't now where - or how - to begin. I'm not sure I can even recognize "my voice" as opposed to any other voice I might write with.
This, this, this.

And I definitely agree with the others who said that the lack of punctuation in a piece/book is bothersome. For me, it distracts from what is being said - from which character is speaking to what the author is saying as a whole. I don't think writing should do that. Punctuation should help the reader to understand.

God bless!

Ashley

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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by zacdfox » Tue Jul 21, 2015 4:43 pm

Jan,

I found the excerpt strange and frustrating at first, but I came around to find it unrestrictive and evocative. Perhaps, in preaching the merit of a thing we overlook its weaknesses, or at the very least, the effectiveness of something else.

Still, I'll echo the others in saying the lack of punctuation was hard for me. I'm whimsical enough, thank you. I need a little structure:)

As for my voice, I don't know if I've been writing in ernest long enough to own one; at least not a fully formed one. I can say this though; people tend to comment on my voice when I fully understand my MC, and have an appreciation for the topic I'm exploring. In short, the more intimate I am with a piece, the more my voice shines through. Interestingly enough, those tend to be somber tales inspired by fact.

Perhaps I should take my cue from you and Deb and enjoy a lighthearted and relaxing vacation:)

Oh, and as far as an author with a distinct voice; Ted Dekker. In just a few lines you feel the mystery. I always feel a compelling need to unravel what happened and/or what will happen.

Oh, and John Steinbeck... his stuff stays with you. It's just haunting.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by HISsparrow » Wed Jul 22, 2015 2:31 pm

I realized I didn't say anything about voice in my earlier post - as far as another writer's distinctive voice.

I may be alone in my opinion, but I really like and admire Francine Rivers' voice. I think it is distinctive and noticeable immediately. It's been a while since I've gotten to read anything by her. What I remember, though, is how she uses different POVs to describe one thing - like a house. Through one character's eyes the house might be cozy and comfortable while another character sees it as dilapidated. She also explores real, hard issues from a faith standpoint and sees where God leads her.

I realized recently that everything I've written/posted so far is sad. I've been asking myself "Am I a Christian version of Nicholas Sparks?" I don't want to be. So ... I had about 100 words written for this week's challenge and yep...it's sad. A woman's house has burned to the ground. She and her daughter have lost everything but themselves. Oh, there's a message to be had. But, does everything I write have to be somber? What happens if you realize that your voice sucks? I scrapped that piece when I realized what I was doing. I came up with a new idea I'm working on. Maybe I'll finish in time. But in my percolating stage...I was going down that road again. Maybe I'm doomed.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by Dorciharris » Fri Jul 24, 2015 11:39 am

First, I'd like to say hi. I'm new to posting here, well, to anywhere actually, except the devotional section. Showing rather than telling has always been a bit fuzzy to me. I stumble onto it every once in a while but I'd be hard-pressed to implement it on the spot. It's something I would love to learn.

I have to say, I agree with HISsparrow, I love Francine Rivers, too. I enjoy fiction's lingering in the moment, giving color to the scene, and revealing the back story and thoughts of the characters.

As far as my own voice goes, I'm still working on it. Sometimes it just feels too stiff and stuffy, like I'm writing a college report. It's fear, I know. What's inside - the attitude, the mood at any given week, day, moment - will come through in my words. I guess I have that much down. Now I just need to let the fear go and write. I think prayer and my own personal growth are the only things that will help me climb out that hole.

Thanks for being here. :)

Dorci

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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by Shann » Sat Jul 25, 2015 7:59 pm

It definitely feels like I'm stepping into the MC or viewing the scene from a spot in the corner. Because I was more intent on trying to hear the voice, the lack of punctuation didn't bother me on the first read. But the second time around, I went looking for a red pen. :wink:

I think I disagree with you that this is more telling than showing (or I misunderstood you). I think it's full of showing from the picking of the eggs to using dialog. The picking and standing by the room listening creates a brilliant picture for me.

I agree with Laurie about unnecessary description. If the color of the sunset doesn't move the story along or give me insight into the character's state of mind or emotions, I don't care, even if it's full of every shade of purple ever named.

I think I have a slightly sarcastic voice when I write, or at least I hope it's coming off that way. I tend to see things differently than most and try to show that in my work. Although most of my stuff is for kids and I think that's more the norm in that genre.

I tend to have a dark side in my adults writings too, HisSparrow. I don't think it's a bad thing though because I need to have an outlet for that darkness or it tends to consume. The truth is a great deal of life is sad or dark; it's only through Jesus that the light shines through. Fiction needs to have a conflict and resolution, otherwise it's a how-to book, which there's nothing wrong with that genre, if that's what you're trying to write. :mrgreen:
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Re: Be a Better Writer--FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jul 25, 2015 9:21 pm

Shann wrote:
I think I disagree with you that this is more telling than showing (or I misunderstood you). I think it's full of showing from the picking of the eggs to using dialog. The picking and standing by the room listening creates a brilliant picture for me.
It's "telling" in that each sentence is a simple, declarative sentence that doesn't require much work on the part of the reader. The line between "showing" and "telling" is somewhat blurred; the best "telling," like that of the writer that I cited in the original post, lays out an unmistakable picture for the reader. But the reader isn't inferring--she's just seeing what has been laid out before her.

Again, it's a very advanced skill, and my purpose in using this excerpt wasn't to say that every writer should emulate Haruf's style, but that very good writers should have a distinctive voice. This was, I thought, an unmistakable example of voice.
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