Voice is Everything

Before writing this piece, I dug through my bookshelves and checked the Internet for definitions of voice in fiction writing. I discovered that most writers needed anywhere from a paragraph to an entire book to define that one simple word. They talked about voice as the author’s style, personality, character, attitude or even point of view.

You don’t say I like the voice, you say I like the book.

Defining voice is difficult because it’s an abstract term.  When I’m reading a novel, if it grabs my attention, I don’t stop to analyze how the writer is handling voice. I am instantly lost in the story. If the writer’s voice is stilted, boring or derivative, I close the book.

Learning about voice through my critique group

I belong to a mystery writers’ critique group that includes traditional, fantasy, romance, police procedural, noir, thriller, suspense and more.

Until I started working with my group I had never analyzed voice other than to read about it in books and articles and wonder if my writing had it. We read five pages of each other’s work in progress and get together to talk in detail about what we like, how we feel about the characters, sequence of events or direction and what stands out as a red flag, not believable or out of context within those five pages. We ask lots of questions.

It’s valuable feedback for us to receive multiple perspectives at once. And here’s the surprise: I don’t even have to know who the writer is because I recognize the voice.

What I’ve learned is that a writer’s voice shows itself in different ways. One of the writers in my group writes wry, humorous noir stories in a sly and mischievous voice. Another writes fantasy in such a matter of fact way, the reader instantly loses any skepticism about the subject matter because the voice is so true and believes itself.

One writer knows her setting so well the reader automatically accepts it as a story you can trust, and another’s voice is defined by her extensive poetry background.

Having said all that, it’s still easier to hear another writer’s voice than my own, but one thing I have learned is that voice is everything and if it is distinctive and true, you keep reading.

Anniversary

One year ago this month I stepped into a room to begin my first writing group experience. I’m taking a moment to reflect on some of the positive changes that have taken place in my writing and in my life since that first Friday evening.

More Confidence

As an introvert, my weekly Amherst Writers & Artists writing group has given me more confidence in my writing, and more confidence in speaking in front of a group. We read our work aloud and offer feedback and our group can be as small as six or twice that. Learning to be comfortable in a changing setting has been another benefit. Writers from other AWA groups frequently drop in and interested writers are encouraged to join.

More Curiosity

It renewed my interest in poetry, both reading and writing it and learning about new poets. My writing group has generated a willingness to experiment and put myself out there with new and different writing forms.

More Writing

I’d gotten into a rut with my writing after working solely on a mystery novel for an extended period of time. Now, my mind has opened to new writing experiences and my writing group work enhances all my efforts: short stories, mystery novel, postcard fiction, poetic fiction, flash fiction and this blog.

More Publishing

It’s opened my mind to submitting my short pieces even while working on a long project. I’d thought I needed to pay attention to one thing at a time until completion, when in fact, working on many projects has made me more prolific. I’ve recently submitted seven short pieces to an online fiction contest and received an honorable mention and one story was a finalist. I didn’t win but I felt like a winner every time I submitted.

More Giving

Best of all, through my writing group, I’ve been introduced to a wonderful group of writers who are giving back to the community in so many ways and that’s encouraged me to want to do the same. One example is 916 Ink. It helps Sacramento youth improve their literacy skills by providing free creative workshops that end in a beautiful publication. Check it out!

Even a small step like joining a group can feel like a big challenge to an introvert. I’m hoping my enthusiasm will encourage others, particularly introverts like me to take one small risk and find out how much more your life can hold.

Inspired at Squaw Valley Writers Event

I attended a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Summer Literary Event this week. The hundred or so attendees at the Olympic Village Lodge sat at tables and chairs facing the raised stage and podium. Large windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling overlooked aspens and pines and beautiful sunny skies. With notebook open and pen ready, I eagerly anticipated the event.

The day-long panels and presentations left me with a full notebook and a drained brain. The first two presentations on memoir and short story were inspiring, but the last panels on West Coast literary magazines and epublishing felt like taking medicine. I knew it would help me, but it tasted bitter.

Hard to Swallow

The literary magazines represented in the panel receive hundreds of submissions for each issue. They always want to showcase name writers for added cache and in some cases publish short stories, essays, poetry, photography and art all in one issue. The editors want relevant subject matter that fits their taste and pieces they choose must complement the others, similar to the way an art gallery mounts a show. There’s usually a theme. And the online journals are great, but some publish only once a year. The key is to be very good and to have the good luck to be writing about a timely subject that also connects with the editor’s interest. Simple, right?

The epublishing panel was made up of publishers and agents who offered practical information to help writers make informed decisions about whether they want to let Amazon give away books for 99 cents that they’ve worked on, sometimes for years. They talked about the poor editing and low quality of books glutting the marketplace. The panelists suggested several must-read articles. For example, Letter from Scott Turow: Grim News. Also, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

Hardly the stuff of inspiration, but when I penetrate that magic door of being published, I’ll be happy to have the knowledge shared at Squaw rather than popping my bewildered head out of the sand when it’s too late.

On the Page

Listening to writers talk about what happens on the page was much more interesting to me. The first speaker, John Daniel, talked about truth in writing memoir. His advice is something any writer would be wise to employ in nearly anything they produce.

  • “Write for yourself. Write because there is an area of your life you are not clear about. Write to see it in fuller light. You are at odds with yourself and you write your way to some understanding.”
  • “It’s not about what you’ve done but what you do with what you’ve done—on the page.”
  • “Honesty is the only policy in writing a memoir worth reading.”

I’d like to take that one step further and say that honesty in writing anything is key. The kind of honesty that comes from knowing what your own motivations are and if you don’t know, to keep searching.

Even if some of the sessions were reminders that the publishing world is shifting under our feet and no one really knows what to expect, I’m glad I attended. And I was inspired by the setting and the presentations.

By the way, if you want to read or write some fun Flash Fiction, check out the Writer Unboxed contest. I’ve posted my second one this week. If you like it, or any of the others, click Like!

Inspiration Comes in Three’s

The first inspirational boost I received this week was a blog by Kristine Kathryn Rusch sent to me by a friend who knew I was struggling with making changes to my mystery after it was critiqued by an editor. If any of you are now or expect to go through the critique process, Rusch’s blog will set you free, especially if you are unpublished and vulnerable and hell-bent on perfection. By the time I finished reading Rusch’s blog, I was ready to let go of some of my anxiety. In fact, I immediately wrote a flash fiction story for Writer Unboxed. I wrote it, quickly edited and sent it—a big deal for a person who has been working on the same two short stories for several years trying to get them just right.

The second nudge

I read a piece by Andrew Porter in Glimmertrain, a literary magazine that’s been publishing short stories since 1990. Porter wrote about how writers have a tendency to discount their early work and then told about how a story he’d written years earlier, once unearthed, went on to win awards and became his most successful piece to date. His article reminded me that I have a box of old stories I haven’t looked at in years because I assumed they couldn’t possibly be relevant now. His article inspired me to take a look at those early efforts. I hope you’ll read Porter’s article and revisit any work you might have stuck away in a drawer. Who knows? Maybe a gem is hidden there.

Rooting through my memory archives 

After reading the Rusch and Porter articles, I recalled a Joan Didion interview discussing her famous book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, gathered from articles she’d published in a number of other places. She said they were never intended to be compiled into one piece and she did not consider it her best work. They were articles written for money usually on deadline and not labors of love.

The combination of those three articles reinforced my belief that as in most things in life, all we can do is our best and then let go of the outcome. Whether what you’ve written is different than the current trend in publishing, or because you wrote it years ago, or have never thought of compiling previously published freelance articles, I sincerely hope this blog post may help inspire you today.