Writing Tips

Exercise for Finding Your Voice

Photo: My kitty, Zoey, ponders voice.

Last time we talked about voice = word choice and angle of vision. This time, we’ll apply those ideas in writing. Grab the nearest piece of paper or open a “note” on your screen of choice!

  • Step 1: Describe the night sky in the voice of a child.child looking up
    Get into child mind here. The word choices for children will include balls and snow cones and made up words like “splooshy.” Children don’t compare a star to a diode, but a piece of glitter. Angle of vision for a child includes his/her inexperience and limited knowledge, priorities such as safety or fun, and attitudes such as wonderment, confusion, or fear. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
    Ready, set, go!


  • Step 2: Describe the night sky in the voice of a cowboy, scientist, or artist.
    Your choice! Again, use vocabulary specific to that identity, word choices appropriate to the personality. Take the attitude and angle of vision of this person. Is she nostalgic? Analytical? Dreamy? Make each sentence convey the individuality of the speaker. GIVE YOURSELF ANOTHER FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
    Ready, set, go!
  • Step 3: Notice that you started building a character in your paragraphs. You already have a sense of the person’s values, wishes, loves, and fears. You could list traits of this person, describing him as generous or stingy, contented or dissatisfied, etc. How do you know this about him? Because you created a definite voice.

For fiction, screenwriting, or persona poems, the writer gives each character a distinct voice of the kind we just practiced. Distinct voices keep readers from confusing Tia Rosa with Abuela Christina. But what is your author voice? You may try on different hats as you write your characters, but you still have a narrator’s voice that is your own. This brings us to . . .

  • Step 4: Make a list of words that describes the YOU on the page.
    More specifically:blank-photo
    a) Write a short sentence that states two of your priorities or values, such as “Follow your heart and always wear clean underwear.”
    b) List a trait that you want your writing to have, such as liveliness.
    c) Write down three roles that you play in this world, such as brother, pianist, and basketball fan.
    d) Write down two traits of yours that stand out to those who know you.
    Now you’re ready for the final challenge!
  • Step 5: Describe a night sky in your own voice.
    TIPS: Bring to life the person you said you are in step four. Give yourself free reign to be unique. As author Cynthia Heimel says,

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.”

Write in a way that shows your angle of vision and uses your unique word choices. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE. Go!

How does it feel? Are you brilliant yet?

Here’s a last bit of inspiration: It turns out that the word grammar derives from an Old Scottish word for sorcery. In fact a grammary is a book of spells in Old French. So when you arrange words on the page, you’re making a kind of magic. You’re conjuring a fictional spell. The reader longs to be under that spell from first page to last. Your pen is your wand. And as Olivander says to Harry Potter,

“The wand chooses the wizard.”

The pen chooses you. Channel your magic. Channel your voice!

girl reading magic book

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Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Finding Your Voice

A glance at agent websites shows that they are looking for “strong voices,” “novels with a distinct voice,” and “writers with a unique voice.” What is voice and how will you find yours?

You are the treasure you seek. I mean this seriously. As author Heather Sellers says in her book The Practice of Creative Writing,

“It’s your specific repertoire of emotions and details that make good writing.”

This means that we writers can develop our voices by conveying our genuine selves. We need to include our idiosyncratic observations and revise our words until they contain our personal flavor.20130203_inq_soza03z-m_600x450

Dancer Martha Graham knew how to infuse her motions with individuality. She said,

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one you in all time; this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost.”

Practically speaking, then:

  • Use strong verbs. We hear this all the time, but it is powerful and true. “The car went” is bland compared to “zoomed.”
  • Cut pre-packaged phrases out of your writing. Heather Sellers gives these examples:  “gaping hole,” “awkward moment,” and “red rose.” Instead, she suggests fresh combinations such as gaping moment, awkward rose. (The Practice of Creative Writing)
  • Stop trying to sound fancy or high-falutin’ just because you are writing a book. Bring your diction down to the level of real people, specifically your characters. If your piece includes a teen or Marine, don’t write “That’s terrible.” More realistic is “That sucks.”
  • Don’t always use the body language short-hand of rolling eyes, shrugging shoulders, and a tapping foot to indicate emotions. Visualize your character’s unique body language.
  • Use apt, interesting metaphors. Recall Tom Robbins’s famous line, “The moon looked like a clown’s head dipped in honey.”

In fact, Tom Robbins spoke to this point of voice-y writing in an interview on reality sandwich.com. He said,

“Bland writing — timid, antiseptic, vanilla writing — is nearly as unhealthy as the brutal and dark. Instead of sipping, say, elixir, nectar, tequila, or champagne, the reader is invited to slurp lumpy milk or choke on the author’s dust bunnies.”

Here’s another taste of Tom’s writing:
“She lunched on papaya poo poo or mango mu mu or some other fruity foo foo bursting with overripe tropical vowels.”

SO, voice is partly word choice. What else is it? Angle of vision.

Your way of viewing this world is unique. I like this poem for its unusual way of looking at death. It’s not the lament one might expect.

by Linda Pastan

She wore
her coming death
as if it were a coat
she’d learned to sew.
When it grew cold enough
she’d simply button it
and go.

I like a lot about this poem, but the idea that preparing for death is somehow like a warm, comforting coat — that’s a new one for me! The poem’s title character will be ready for departure, even if the speaker (who will miss her) is not. Notice that Pastan’s words are fairly ordinary. The perspective, the angle of vision — that’s the startling part. The reader says, “I never thought of it that way.”

Is there more to voice than word choices and angle of vision? I might add tone and attitude, but when I open books by favorite authors, I’m mostly thinking, “I can’t wait to see their take on this topic! I can’t wait to see how they phrase things!” I can’t wait to encounter VOICE on the page.

How about practicing voice? I’ll give an exercise to do exactly that in my next post!

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