Voice – The Topic that Terrifies Writers

We aren’t talking about the reality singing show when we say The Voice, we’re talking about that thing that seems so hard to describe that is a vital element of a successful story.

We can look to a singing icon, though, to better understand Voice. Reba McEntire gave an interview about her early days learning to sing. She learned by doing covers of other people’s songs and sounded just like them. Her comment was insightful, “I had to learn to sing like everybody else so I could eventually sing like myself.”

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Just part your lips and speak… (is that how that goes?)

That’s an excellent description of narrative voice. Voice isn’t something you put on, it’s something you discover. It consists of your cadence, your word choice, your sentence structure, your way of describing, YOU.

When we talk to a friend, we hopefully are relaxed and natural. It’s when we try to pretend to be someone beyond, above, below, or what we think people want to hear that we get tripped up.

Think about an actor’s version of voice. I’ve been enjoying Chris Evans’ filmography, from the independent movies, Fantastic Four movies (he was the only good part), Captain America movies, and other studio movies. Evans has a range of expressions and movements. His body language changes from role to role, but he pulls from a stock of movements that are uniquely Chris Evans.

Impersonators cherry-pick such movements and mannerisms to convey the celebrity of choice. Then they grab their cadence and word choice, their manner of speaking, and away they go.

Once you’ve mastered writing so that it’s effortless, your voice will ring out. Sure, you can put on a persona when you write, but your best stories are the ones you are true to with your own voice. In other words, don’t worry about it. When you’re ready, when you’ve written like other people, you will eventually sound like yourself. That’s Voice.

Put the “u” in Author

I love to laugh (Ha-Ha-Ha!) when I read a story. I’m fairly certain I am incapable of writing a story without humor. Even if I were to write a serious genre, some of my characters would be witty, or employ dark humor.

But that’s just me.

And that’s the crux of it, right? You are the author of your story and you should not have to include something that’s not “of you” if you don’t want to. You may not want to write a comedy, though, if you’re humorless… just sayin’.

Which Story is Yours?

There is a school of thought that suggests authors and especially new authors should chase trends. If vampires are in, write vampire stories. That’s a bad idea. If you write a trendy story that isn’t “you” it will almost always be shoddy, not to mention trends are fleeting and by the time you write your trendy story, it probably won’t be trendy still. Never write someone else’s story (unless you’re a ghostwriter), always write your story.

This requires a degree of self-awareness.

Think of a story as your friend; write the ones you want to spend time with, because you’re going to spend a lot of time with it!

Back in the day, my stories trended toward dark tales. As I changed, so did my stories. I have no interest in writing horror, though I know how, and I’m playing with a story that has a serial killer, which I would normally shy away from, but I’ve got an idea that takes the character to a different level, so I may get away with it.

While every writer is special and unique, there are hundreds of thousands of people who would eat your kind of special with a spoon.

In a sense, we’re talking about Voice, but not exactly (that’s next week). Rather, we’re talking about writing stories where your voice would be authentic. Know your genres. Don’t be concerned if the genre isn’t the hot ticket right now. There are books I’ve only be able to get through a couple of paragraphs… that doesn’t mean the book is bad, it’s just not my kind of story. That’s OK. It’s also why publishers have several readers who weigh in on taking a story. What is awful to me may make someone else’s day.

Having said all that, don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. Know your genre’s, but know the neighboring, stretch genres, too.  

Adult Coloring Books

It’s funny, every time I say or write that, I want to eschew concise language and phrase it “Coloring Books for Adults.”

Recently a man who may be a friend and may not be, who actually likes fig newtons, frosted pop-tarts, and everything else wrong, poked fun at “adult coloring books,” knowing full-well that they aren’t about naked people.

All those fig newtons must have addled his brains, because he was seeing questionable adults with crayons in hand and tongue lodged between their teeth as they scrub the page trying to stay within the lines.

I have no such misapprehensions.

While I prefer the term “All-Ages Coloring Books” because, you know, the kids can got at it with crayons, but really, the beautiful line art is for complex coloring using colored pencils, paint pens, or watercolor, employing such techniques as shading, hueing, color blocking, and other terms that are beyond me.

That’s why Prevail Press has published Dawn Davidson’s Faces & Fantasy, a collection of 30 amazing drawings begging to brought to living color. But don’t take my word for it, check out Dawn’s example of what Adult Coloring is (and she does it with her clothes on. At least I think so, you only see her hands. Be nice in your imagination).

Not too long ago, I was at the beach, and several people were adult coloring. It’s catching on. Maybe you should give it a try. Faces & Fantasy, available at Amazon.

Exposition Wears Concrete Shoes

We’ve all read the books that are so exposition-heavy that you feel exhausted getting to the end of the chapter… if your read that long.

Yet exposition is necessary. Sometimes you need to know what came before, why a setting is significant, or just explaining how something works or the story doesn’t make sense.

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Ned would read every word of a Tom Clancy novel.

Exposition differs from description in that it’s required information that is apart from the story, but needs to be understood for the sake of the story.

There are several ways to handle exposition, and a few “rules.”

Rule 1: Give it to the reader when they need it and not before.

Rule 2: Give them only what they need to know (be strategic and be concise).

Rule 3: Make sure it IS needed. If Tesla’s intimate love a pigeon isn’t required knowledge to his invention of cell-phone technology, don’t include it in exposition (it may be included at some point for other reasons).

Rule 4: Do NOT include it in dialog unless it’s necessary. Remember, effective dialog between people includes not saying what the other person knows. “As you know, Kit, Shakespeare was a frustrated actor who had a lisp and a hunched back.” If Kit already knows it, the speaker would not be informing him of it. If Kit doesn’t know it, only include it in dialog only if Kit must know it (see below).

Rule 5: Hide it if you can.

The ways to handle exposition:

  • With a spoonful of sugar. Or saccharine. In this method, you break the exposition up into chunks, adorned with comedy or conflict. For example: You have to explain the process of mixing an explosive. Rather than just tell us in a block, your lab assistant assures you (the main character) that he knows how to do this. Problem is, he doesn’t, much to your horror and anger, you must walk him through the process. This can be funny or serious. The attention is on the characters and the process is explained almost by accident.
  • With concrete shoes. Tom Clancy is the master of this. Want to know how to build an atomic bomb? He sets aside characters and just lays it out. Most of us skip over it, engineers eat it with a spoon.
  • With a spoonful of concrete. This is a mixture of the first two. Your main character remembers/reviews/discovers the exposition. Kirk recalled the first time he’d been to this planet and suppressed a roguish grin. Risa was a pleasure planet, and they knew their business. Rita, the famed astrophysicist was a guest… I mistook her for a working girl. Rita had discovered the transwarp signature of the Curator’s race, the ancient beings who had….
    You get the idea.

You need to decide how to handle it by analyzing the pace of your story. Can it handle a block of exposition without grinding the pace to a halt? Can it be embedded and parsed slowly?

How do you handle exposition?