Tag Archives: voice

How I write (part two)

Picking up where I left off, I’m clean, exercised, and I have an unedited draft of a novel. By novel, I mean a document somewhere between 100,000 to 124,000 words (yes, one was that long), made of mostly connected story. Next comes the the process called either revision or unbearable suffering, depending on how I’m feeling about my writing.

That piece right there, the bit about how I’m feeling, that is the crux of things for me. The truth is that I enjoying revising, or drafting, or most any other part of writing, as long as I’ve got my head in the right place. There other truths too, though, things like the fact that it’s easier to keep the Infernal Editor at bay when I’m in the flow of drafting, and that when I start to think critically the head games begin.

Who is the Infernal Editor? She’s the one that tells you that you’ve failed in some catastrophic way, the bit of your mind that tries to shred your writing to bits. I suspect that most writers have vulnerable points, places that despair can seep in all too easily. For me, it’s while revising.

What do I do? I hang on to my support people with both hands. When it starts to feel like it’s just me and a giant pile of words that looks suspiciously like…debris, I go looking for help. Have you ever watched a horse race? More specifically, have you ever watched the horses going out to the starting gate? They’re ponied along by a rider on another horse, a calm horse that doesn’t freak out at the antics of their highstrung companion. Support people can be that for a writer, the steady presence that gets them to the starting gate to do their thing.

Okay, I prepare my support, and I sit down and read. I read the whole story, often in hard copy, though I have no printer currently, so Wren is stuck in pixels. I cross out lots of things, and I write little questions, and I make lots of faces at really bad prose. I get a sense of the overall shape, and how things move along. Sometimes I discover things I like more than I thought I would. Other times I feel like it’s all a irredeemable mess, and I cry on people’s shoulders.

Then, I go through chapter by chapter. I cut and reword and buff things up. I take out really boring bits of action that are more or less stage directions inserted to remind me what’s happening, and I replace them with somewhat less boring bits. Sometimes it goes quickly. Sometimes I spend a day or so stuck on one line. I try to think of it as working on a puzzle, and that helps. When I finish a chapter, I read it aloud to myself. If it seems to work, I pass it on to my first reader.

And so it goes. At some point I reach the end, and I read it again, and I have other people read it, and then I read it one more time, also aloud. With each pass, I change less and less. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I make huge changes, but as I’ve gotten more adept at figuring out what I’m doing, those huge changes tend to come earlier in the process.

The most important piece to these final passes is to not overdo things. I find it far too easy to edit the voice out of a piece if I spend too much time on it. That’s been one of the best lessons writing short stories has taught me, and I’m working on carrying it over to the novels. At some point I’ll write more about short stories, but this is long enough for now.

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Play me a song

I have a very low threshold for stimulation when I’m working, which includes music, particularly with lyrics. It’s amazing to me that other people can listen to words (yes, words being sung, but words nonetheless) while they write. It feels too potent to me, too easy to start weaving someone else’s story into whatever I’m writing.

But I find music incredibly helpful in other ways. There’s an Ani Difranco song, for example, that I use as a reminder of the value of a few carefully chosen details. I love to think about lyrics, about why a good song works. Detail, suggestion, just enough of a framework to make me want to fill in the rest on my own.

Over the holidays I watched a few rockumentaries for fun. There was another lesson there, in watching archival footage of fledgling musicians. One word, easy to remember. Confidence

I’m not talking about arrogance, or pretension, or perfection. I’m talking about someone picking up a guitar, someone who’s too shy to even look up at an audience, and playing what’s in them–strong, loud, clear. Saying, hey, listen to me, I have something to say, even if I haven’t totally figured out how to say it. A certain internal confidence, very different from the ability to be the life of the party.

It’s the same in writing. You have to own the page. Beyond all the rest, all the details of craft, there exists that individual spark that is voice. Finding it is not about learning to sound like anyone else, even those writers you love, the ones who will always leave a faint impression in your voice because they are part of the world of words for you.

It’s about stepping onto the stage and saying, listen up, my knees may be shaking, my hands may be sweaty, I may be rethinking doing this, but you’re here and I am and I have this piece inside of me that needs to be heard, and I’m going to share it in the truest way I know how. Listen.