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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Another Study in Voice

Scroll Down for Parts II, III, and IV
My apologies for the lateness of part IV, Blogger had technical issues, and I couldn't save anything new to the blog. Luckily, the problems appear to be resolved. 
Thank you for your patience.

This month we'll explore Voice. 
What it is - how to find it - what makes yours unique.

Every writer has a voice. We are told this at every writers conference, every workshop. Every agent is looking for it, every editor knows it when they see it. So how do you find yours?

A Study In Voice

This writer is Los Angeles. Perched precariously on uncertain ground, uneasy between mountains and sea. Hawks make lazy circles over fire-tindered hillsides, eyes sharp for prey. Darting, falling, striking, ripping and tearing into soft flesh, feeding a hunger, which never goes away.

The views from the highest peaks encompass valleys of concrete and steel. Ten thousand fires with ten thousand stories entwined between freeways and canyons. Which tale to tell? Which dynamic to explore? And what spark might burn the whole place to the ground?

Where do you find your voice?

What geography speaks to you? What geography do you write? The lush, humid fecundity of the South. The primeval, forrested mystery of the Pacific Northwest. The broad stroked, open space of the Midwest... The centuries old, worn smooth stones of European architecture? The blazing sun of the Masai Mara?

Writing is active. Take the time this month to play along at home.

Exercise One: Write one sentence. This can be a line of dialogue or a description, it doesn't matter, but write one sentence to describe a person coming home to their spouse. Gender and orientation are up to you.

Next week, I'll post my sentence and Exercise Two.

Part II


Reminder, Exercise One: Write one sentence. This can be a line of dialogue or a description, it doesn't matter, but write one sentence to describe a person coming home to their spouse. Gender and orientation are up to you.

My sentence:

"I've missed you," he said, as he came through the door and walked over to touch the urn holding his wife's ashes.

Many things make up a writer's voice. I like to think of "voice" as similar to a visual artist's style. A painter controls three basic elements, composition, color, and brush stroke. These three elements make that artist's style unique. Writing is much the same. Think of composition as content, color as word choice, and brush stroke as style.

For example, in the above exercise my content includes a man who's wife has died. Other writers, thinking about a spouse coming home might have created a character that was angry or excited or bored by the thought of coming home. Each of these choices determine the kind of story that's going to be told, the composition if you will.

Word Choice

For word choice, I didn't use any fancy or  poetic language, it's pretty straightforward. I didn't describe the urn or even the man. I deliberately chose to keep it simple. I could have used ossuary or vessel instead of urn. I also chose "touch," instead of caress or tap or placed his hand upon. Or, for the word's he speaks to the urn, I could have chosen "Hello, love," or "I'm home" or "Miss me?" each of which would tell us something different about the character, I've chosen "I've missed you."

For style, writers can be poetic or concise, witty or suspenseful, make short staccato sentences, or long flowing passages. Writer's might mix things up, with short sentences for dialogue and longer, more complex sentences for description. Obviously their style might vary from work to work, but finding consistency in a single work is important, it helps the reader know what pace to expect and what kind of piece it is. No one wants to get halfway through a funny, sharp-witted, tongue-in-cheek novel, only to have it come to a crashing halt so the author can begin to write in flowery prose. By the same token, if a reader is enjoying a languid, slow-moving, luxurious exploration of language, they don't want to turn the page and suddenly find themselves in a rat-a-tat-tat barrage of short words and fast moving scenes. As readers, sometimes we take long baths and sometimes we take quick showers. Both are useful and enjoyable in their own way, but we make the decision about how we want to spend our time by the books we choose at any given time.

Exercise Two: Write the second sentence in your paragraph. Your first sentence helped determine the content, for this second sentence, think about word choice. You might rewrite this second sentence several times. Write it first, quickly, just to see what happens next, then think about each word. Is there another word that is more exact for what you want to say? Look up synonyms, look up definitions, do you have the exact words you want? Check back next week, I'll post my example, and then give you Exercise Three.

My two sentences: "I've missed you," he said, as he came through the door and walked over to touch the urn holding his wife's ashes. He'd become so accustomed to the ritual, he was no longer aware of doing it, and would often stop, later, over some mundane task, and ask himself, "did I greet her tonight when I came home? Or just remember doing it before?"

Part III


The first two sentences determined content and you thought about word choice. With your next two sentences, you've got enough material to start thinking about style. If you think that's not enough material to demonstrate voice, take three books from three of your favorite authors down off the shelf. Read just the first paragraph of each book, I'll bet you find they have very distinctive voices. Ask yourself what makes each of the three opening paragraphs unique?

Let's look at three famous opening lines.

"Call me Ishmael."

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."

Each of these lines is distinct. Through content, word choice, and style, each of these opening lines demonstrates a clear and beautiful voice. 

Melville's famous opening for Moby Dick, tells us the story is about Ishmael, and that he will act as narrator. Charles Dicken's opening for the Tale of Two Cities sets the cultural times for the story. Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, starts out with a description of the universal longing we have for other places, people, and things on the far horizon, a metaphor for the characters' attempts to create better lives for themselves and the next generation.

That's a lot of work in just one sentence, think what you can do with a whole paragraph!

Exercise Three: Write two final sentences. These two sentences should make the paragraph feel "complete." Write them quickly, to see what you instinctively put down. Then, go back and hone the entire paragraph for style. What kind of "story" are you writing here? Is it literary fiction? so you find more poetic language for the whole paragraph? Are you writing a genre piece? Romance? Mystery? Western? If so, what do you need to do to set up your reader for what to expect from the total work? Keep in mind agents and editors often decide whether to keep reading your work because of the quality of your first paragraph, or even your first sentence. This is where you must start showing off your voice. This may seem like a very small, short exercise, but it might be the difference between an agent reading your first chapter or not. It won't matter how good your second chapter is, if no one reads the first.

Check back next week for a wrap up, final exercise, and my first paragraph.

Wrap Up
Now you have four sentences to make up an opening paragraph. You've had time to think about what kind of story you're writing. You probably have a sense of the genre, at least one character, setting, and era. You can learn an amazing amount in just that opening paragraph. You can see why it's so important and how an agent or editor can know whether they want to read more! This is the most important paragraph to get "right." 

Exercise Four: Take your paragraph and rewrite it. Do it more than once. Really think about the changes you make. Read it out loud. How does it sound? Do you stumble over something? if so, why? Is it awkward language? Bad word choice? How can you make it better? Rewrite it until you think it's perfect. Then, leave it for a day or two, come back and read it again. Is it still the best it can be? Where is it sending you? How does this story unfold? For your final exercise write what you think is the last paragraph. It doesn't matter if this is a short story, a novella or a novel. Write the last paragraph. Where is your story heading? It doesn't matter if you ever actually use the last paragraph you write now. Maybe it's actually the middle of your story, or maybe it doesn't fit at all, but it should start you thinking about where the story goes. One issue writer's often have when the story goes well for several pages, then stalls, is not knowing where the story ends. 

Even those of us who write organically, without an outline, have an idea how the story ends. I almost always write the first scene and the last scene before I write the middle. Don't worry about whether or not this story is something you want to actually write. It's okay if it's just an exercise. Exercises is how we get better. No matter where you are in your writing career, exercises, practice, rough drafts, material you later cut, all these things make you better at your craft. I think it can be helpful to keep in mind, not everything we do needs to be "perfect" a lot of what we do is play with words on the page, until we hone in on exactly the ones we want. Stay in the process, don't worry about the product. Take care of the first part and the later part will come.

My paragraph: "I've missed you," he said, as he came through the door and walked over to touch the urn holding his wife's ashes. He'd become so accustomed to the ritual, he was no longer aware of doing it, and would often stop, later, over some mundane task, and ask himself, "Did I greet her tonight when I came home? Or just remember doing it before?" He’d pause, the laundry slipping unfolded to the floor, as his mind returned to their last moment together, and he’d see again the knife blade quivering in her chest. He had to kill her, of that, he was certain, but that didn’t mean he didn’t feel bad about it.

My rewrite:
He arrived home at his usual hour and went through his daily routine. Walking through the house towards the kitchen, he paused to touched the urn on the coffee table, where his wife’s ashes resided, a constant reminder of her absence.
         “I’ve missed you,” he said.
         Later, as he sorted and folded the laundry, which he’d run earlier that morning and had lain, all day, tumbled together in the dryer, his shirts wrapped intimately around the pieces of his wife’s clothing he washed, over and over as if it might change her death, his mind returned to their final moment together, and he could see again the knife blade quivering in her chest.
         “I had to kill you,” he said, caressing her blouse, the bloodstains faded to a faint rust color, the tear in the garment ripping further with every wash cycle. “But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.”

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