Tag Archives: how to find your writing voice

Heartsong

This morning, as I lay approximately one-eighth awake wishing I didn’t have to get up and face a cold, dark day, I found myself thinking about a picture book idea. It involved a witch with an itch and a crooked wand, and it was (at least, to me) very funny. I created the story as I went, imagining the illustrations and enjoying how my witchy character grew more and more exasperated as things went on – and it was huge fun, even if I had to get up before I finished it.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

I’m not a person who wants to write picture books, particularly. Besides the classics, I haven’t even read very many picture books, and it’s something I keep meaning to remedy (the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen, in case you’re interested, is Journey by Aaron Becker, which should be checked out immediately by everyone). I think a good picture book is a thing so difficult to pull off that it’s practically impossible, and I feel it’s beyond the scope of my skills – but my mind still decided to explore an idea for one while in a hypnopompic state.

The reason for this? I love stories for children. I love them so much that I think about them even when, all told, my brain would rather be unconscious. I think about them even when I’m supposed to be grown-up and thinking about other things like bills and taxes and the economy and politics and other stuff I know nothing about. Yesterday, I was unwell – sore throat, fuzzy head, sniffles, and a serious case of the ‘OhPoorMes’ – and as well as taking plenty of fluids and as much rest as I’d let myself away with, I self-medicated with stories. I read Howl’s Moving Castle, just because there’s a scene in it where Howl the wizard has a cold and makes everyone suffer because he’s a crybaby. I feel better today, and I’m sure the paracetamol in the medicine I took made a big difference to the state of my health, but I know that reading did the rest.

Once, I met a lady who had written a book for children. She wasn’t sure what age range, particularly; she thought perhaps children from twelve and up, because there were things like war and slavery and family breakdown in her story (it was historical fiction). However, its word count was way too low for this age range, being more suited to children between five and eight. She was shocked to learn that twenty thousand words wouldn’t create a book long enough for her target audience, and even more shocked when I asked her what her favourite children’s book was. ‘I don’t read children’s books’, she told me, half-laughing at the very idea. ‘I’m more of a romance fan, myself.’ She paused, frowning slightly as she thought about it. ‘In fact, I really wanted to write this story as a romance about one of the older characters, and I’m not really sure why I wrote it this way,’ she said, looking confused.

And I thought: Why don’t you write romances, then? If that’s your heartsong, why aren’t you singing it?

I wouldn’t tackle a picture book not because I don’t enjoy them, but because I’m not immersed in that world. I’m not obsessed with picture books, with the making and creating of them; I’m not expert in the field (and if you think there’s ‘nothing to making a picture book’, then I invite you to try to make one). I love books for older children – they are what I read, what I love, what I admire. I haven’t read everything, because there is only so much money and time in the world, but I’d like to think I have a fairly broad exposure. Stories about adventure, and friendship, and challenging the odds, and fighting evil, and finding parents, and learning to live without parents, and learning what it is to be an individual, and how to trust yourself, are what my heart sings. That’s why those are the stories I write, too.

Writing involves a lot of different skills, all interconnected, but one of the most important is this: knowing what your heartsong is. Knowing how to be still and listen to yourself, and hear the whisper of the story that lies curled up inside you waiting to unfurl. It doesn’t sing with a very loud voice, sometimes, particularly if you’ve never tried to listen to it before, but it is there. If you can gently encourage it – and not drown it with thoughts like ‘I can’t write a story like this, it’s stupid/silly/inappropriate/unreadable/wrong‘ – perhaps you’ll be lucky and it will grow stronger, and clearer. Let it grow whatever way it wants – don’t try to force it to go one way, or another. Give it space and time and freedom, and allow yourself to astound yourself.

Read widely – particularly within the genre in which you’re writing, but not exclusively. Learn how stories work by reading how other people do them. Don’t write something in a particular way because you feel you ‘should’; write it whatever way it wants to be written. Become a reader before you become a writer. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t write to markets. Learn to listen carefully, particularly to yourself.

Write what you love.

Love what you write.

And let your heartsong burst forth, loud and clear.

 

 

 

Self-Criticism: The Good, and the Bad

Inspired by this blog post from the ever-lovely Kate Curtis, this morning I would like to muse, briefly, on the challenge of keeping a muzzle on the mouth of your inner critic.

Image: thefailedstate.blogspot.com

Image: thefailedstate.blogspot.com

Writing is tough – there’s no doubt about that. Writing is even tougher when you can’t stop telling yourself to put your pen down and step away from the words. ‘Give it up while you still can.’ ‘Quit while you’re ahead!’ ‘What a pile of rubbish – as if anyone would want to read this drivel.’ ‘Do you really think this is the best you can do?’

It’s vital to have a quality control process, of course. Just as you can’t win NaNoWriMo by bashing out the word ‘the’ fifty thousand times, it’s important always to do your best when you sit down to write. You should bring your strongest self and your most alert brain and your most alive imaginings. You should do yourself, and your urge to write, justice.

But – as Kate herself asks in her original post – how do you keep going? How do you nurture your ideas? How do you stop yourself, and your inner critic, savaging your work so badly as you go that you never manage to bring anything to completion?

Image: ci.desoto.tx.us

Image: ci.desoto.tx.us

Editing, for me, is something I like to do mainly when I’ve finished a long piece. I like to read something in its entirety before I tackle it for a second draft – it’s hard to edit effectively if you’re only working with a percentage of the full picture, I think. Sometimes, however, I find myself re-reading the previous day’s work and picking out little bits here and little bits there, seeing errors and mistakes and typos and plot holes and all the rest of it, and I understand how easy it is to allow yourself to slide down into the pit of Neverending Edits, from which it can be very hard to return. It is really easy to convince yourself that you’ve made so many mistakes in just one day’s worth of writing that how on earth you think you’re going to produce a story or – don’t make me laugh! – a novel, well – you may as well give up now. Go on, give up before you put too much time and effort into it. In case anyone finds out about it and laughs at you. Just put it away and forget about it, and that’ll be that. (Sound familiar?)

So how do you get that voice – the bad inner critic, the one who isn’t interested in helping you to improve your work – to shut up? Well, I think the first thing you need to do is work out whether you’re listening to your ‘good’ inner critic, or your ‘bad’ one.

A good inner critic will look at your work. A good inner critic sounds like: ‘Oh, okay, so you’ve made a bit of a plot blooper there, but that’s no problem. We can fix that. You’ve made a spelling error in the fourth paragraph, but that’s no problem. We can fix that. Lucky we caught all these things before we moved forward too much, right? It would be so much harder to deal with all this further down the line!’ A bad inner critic looks at you. A bad inner critic sounds like: ‘Who do you think you are, trying to write a novel? What sort of fool sets out on a task like this anyway, without any of the necessary qualifications or whatever it is you need? Look at all these errors – you’re useless! There are far too many to fix. Come on now, just leave it. You’re not able for this.’

How many great ideas, and how many wonderful writers, have fallen at this hurdle?

Everyone needs a critic, just like everyone needs an editor. No writer is good enough to do without feedback, and nobody’s first draft – I firmly believe! – is good enough to be their final draft. However, it’s really important to know when your inner voice is criticising you, or your work; whether it’s attempting to sabotage you completing a piece of writing because, if you do, you’ll prove it wrong; whether your inner critic is tearing apart what you’ve written because it’s terrified that you’ll succeed, and not because your work is no good. If your inner critical voice is making you feel like a failure before you’ve even begun, then it’s time to take action against it.

Starting out small by entering competitions, putting some of your work into the public domain and allowing other eyes to see it, is a great way of doing two things simultaneously: bringing on a panic attack, and shutting up your bad inner critic. Once you get through the panic, the benefits are more than worth it. If other people read your work and like it, even a little, it’s a vindication for your good inner critic. If other people ‘get’ what you’re trying to say, it’s a score for your good inner critic. Your bad inner critic has no response to other people’s approval besides to try to convince you: ‘they’re only saying those nice things to be kind! They don’t really believe all that about you!’ That, however, is rubbish. If other people read your work and give you ideas on how to improve it, that’s one in the eye for your bad inner critic. If someone cares enough about your work to try to help you with it, then – logically – your work has value.

So. Letting other eyes in, and letting other minds digest what you’ve written, is step one in taking control of your inner critic. Step two: write, without reviewing, until you’re done – jotting down a summary of your work as you go, to which you can refer as you sit down to start a new day’s writing, can help with this. Step three: leave your work aside and let it mature. Step four: read and review your own work as though it wasn’t ‘yours’ (time away from it helps with this.) Step five: seek more feedback, and take it in the spirit in which it’s given – which is, more often than not, a spirit of helpfulness. Over all these things, though, one golden rule remains: Continue writing for as long as you want to write, and let no voice tell you to stop.

It also helps to have a support team, whether it’s virtual or real, to pick you up whenever the bad inner critic goes off on a rant. Having an inner critic is an inescapable part of doing anything which involves creativity and vulnerability – the key is to make sure whether your inner critic is, at its heart, for you or against you. The good thing is: a bad inner critic can be silenced, and a good one can be nurtured.

Now: write!

Image: crafting.squidoo.com

Image: crafting.squidoo.com

 

Finding Your Voice

Every new Monday is like a new year, for me. I make resolutions to be focused, professional and productive; I make out my targets for the week ahead; I try to hit the ground running. I have great visions for what the next five days will bring, and I hope to make the most out of every single second of writing time that I can squeeze out of it.

That doesn’t mean I actually achieve any of it, of course. But I try.

Image: educationelf.net

Image: educationelf.net

In the midst of all this businesslike focus, though, it can sometimes be tough to remember that the point of writing is to create something, and that it’s not akin to building an engine or entering data into a spreadsheet; it’s important to keep in mind that in writing, you can’t predict how the working week will go, and how you’re going to feel about your work from one second to the next. It’s also important to remember one other thing: your writing voice, and how it can suffer under pressure. Without your writing voice, of course, you’re in big trouble.

But what does it even mean?

Finding a ‘voice’ is one of these things that everyone agrees is vital for a writer. It’s supposed to be your calling card, your ‘fingerprint’, your unique hook, your selling point. But how do you find it? How do you develop and nourish it? How do you know it’s ‘right’?

Well, in my opinion, the short response is that nobody knows the definitive answer to these questions. Everyone agrees that a ‘voice’ is important – nay, vital – but there are so many differing opinions on how to go about finding it that it should give any sensible person pause. I’ve read some advice which states things like ‘if it feels like work when you’re writing it, then you should probably think about changing your voice’; I’m not sure I agree with that. I’ve come across advice which tells me to imagine my ‘ideal’ reader and write to them – again, that’s problematic. Some advice-givers tell us that a writer’s voice is always an artifice – a construction designed to showcase their brilliant word-choices and their flawless plotting. Once again, you might have guessed I have a problem with this definition. I’ve also seen articles which exhort me to believe that if a person can talk, they can also write – as in, a good oral storyteller will be a good storyteller on paper, too – but I’m pretty sure I don’t believe this, either. I write a lot more clearly and a lot more coherently than I speak, as anyone who’s listened to me ramble on for hours on end will, no doubt, attest.

The riveted audience at one of my famous 'How Interesting Were the Middle Ages?!?' lectures. Image: profalbrecht.wordpress.com

The riveted audience at one of my famous ‘How Interesting Were the Middle Ages?!?’ lectures.
Image: profalbrecht.wordpress.com

The only key to finding your voice, at least as far as I can see, is to write honestly. I’m talking here about creative writing, more than writing with another purpose such as journalism or non-fiction writing, purely because I have more experience with it – I’m sure honest writing makes for more solid copy in journalistic terms, too, though. In terms of fiction writing, including creative writing and blogs, the only things you need to find your voice, in my opinion, are time and courage. Time, of course, is obvious enough – practice as often as possible, write as regularly as possible and get as much feedback as possible over the course of the weeks or months or even years that it takes you to feel comfortable with what you’re producing, and don’t try to rush the process. There is no race to be run – it’s not like there’s a limited amount of voices on offer and the slowest writers are left with the dregs.

But what about courage?

I will find the words! Image: he-man.wikia.com

I will find the words!
Image: he-man.wikia.com

Writing, by itself, is not really a scary thing. The fear of the blank page is common enough, and the terror that comes to all of us who write when the words just dry up and refuse to make an appearance is also well known. The creation of a document – be it a book, an article, a poem, whatever – is (or perhaps should be) more about joy, fulfilment and a sense of rewarding hard work than about fear; to me, the brave bit is what comes after you’ve finished the writing. Firstly, you’ve got to be brave enough to let other people see what you’ve written. And, even more importantly, you’ve got to be brave enough to write what you want to write.

I’ve fallen into the trap myself, many times, of trying to write what I think an editor or a judge will want to read. I’ve tried to change my focus, write a story the likes of which I wouldn’t normally dream of writing, tried to develop a style which might be more in keeping with the sort of thing they normally enjoy – and do you want to know the truth of it? It has never worked. Not once. I’m not sure if it’s because the editor/judge in question has spotted that the work is not ‘authentic’, or because I’m just not very good at writing when it’s not coming from a place of honesty, but either way it just hasn’t been worth the effort of changing my voice to suit someone else. Being brave enough to write what you want to write can sometimes mean you still won’t win the competition you’ve entered or that you run the risk of not impressing the person to whom you’ve submitted your work; at least, though, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you wrote a ‘true’ piece, something that was meaningful to you. The work will be stronger for it, even if it’s not to the taste of the judge or editor who has the task of evaluating it. Writing is an extremely subjective business, too – so how are you to build up your own voice if you’re constantly changing it to suit the vagaries of editors and judges?

In my opinion, then, you shouldn’t listen to any advice you get on the internet (including this blog post) about how to find and cultivate your writing voice. My opinion is write what you want to write, polish it as hard as you can and be proud of every word, and submit it with courage until you find someone who responds to the notes of honesty and conviction in what you’ve written. However, of course, take that advice with a pinch of salt. Writing should be fun, but it is also hard work and a craft which needs honing and polishing; finding a voice is like learning how to use grammar and how to construct a sentence. It takes time, but it’s worth the journey. It’s not something which should be rushed, and it’s not worth trying to take shortcuts to achieve it. Just write with your soul in your fingertips, and be brave.

And, of course, patient.