The one where Charlie realizes they have no idea wtf they’re doing.
Something I really wish I could do is skip forward to the point where I know what I’m doing at this job. Then I would have the answer for at least a few of these questions as it pertains to my style and process:
Is this bit of preparation something that will actually help make my book better? Will I have enough skill to make sure that this minor character’s story arc and psychological growth will appear to those who read this story without it being a moralistic spoonfeeding session? Is this a story I should even bother finishing or just count as a loss and move on to more exciting projects?
Then of course, the big question: is this story ever going to be any good?
I’ll never have the answers to these questions until it’s done. That’s the painful part of writing, I guess. It’s a lot of work to get your story planned, your characters breathing, your plot rolling along, and then you have to keep hammering away until it resembles something remotely okay. The whole time you just trust that eventually someone might want to read the nonsense you’ve been butchering.
This isn’t a new revelation: writers have been complaining about this part for ages. I’m only now getting to this point because I rarely get past a first draft, or I’ll write short stories which are easier to not think as hard about.
First drafts are all the good feelings: “oh boy, this is amazing! There’s no way this could be flawed!” and then you can just put it away, whistling innocently. The subsequent drafts are you on your knees scrubbing, praying the bloodstains come out of the carpet.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that no matter how cocky you are right now (like I was before this), you will come to this point, too. The experts say don’t quit here, so I’m not going to, but dear god is it tempting. It hurts to finally open your eyes to the faults in your story. To see the supporting characters as flat or to realize a bit of world building you thought was compelling and unique doesn’t actually make any sense.
But I’m trying to remember that every first draft has massive problems, and I can see mine because I have been paying attention. I have studied stories from the greats, I have picked apart trash, and I can see where my work falls short precisely because I’m not a lost cause. What I can see, I can fix. What I can’t see, I hope my beta readers will point out to me, and then I can fix those problems, too. Which will be another painful process in itself, but let’s take this one gut-punch at a time, yeah?
Another update on the current novel. Sometimes you gotta raze your work to the ground to build something better.
Life the past year has been…let’s just say “complicated.” For anyone out there who feels like they’ve been failing themselves, join the club. We’ve all struggled to do what we’ve wanted or needed to do consistently while the world has been, y’know, ending. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. It just means we should be easy on ourselves when we fail.
The good news is, I have gotten my first dose of the vaccine, and I have finally entered the next phase of this book.
As I said in a previous post, I started this beast November 2009. It’s been extremely slow-going, but it has been going (sometimes), and that’s the important part. So what’s this new phase?
REWRITING. I am officially to the point where I have a true beginning, middle, and end planned (adding in the new second half of the book since I decided not to make it the duology I thought it was going to be). Everything is set up and organized to make the next iteration of this story a little deeper and better overall. Now it’s time to put fingers to keyboard!
In starting this next phase, I am slowly starting to realize just how little I planned when I started writing approximately one million years ago. I am still on the very first chapter and I keep having to go back to worldbuilding and character decisions I made forever ago, and undo what I had.
This isn’t a problem necessarily – I get a massive dopamine rush when I smooth out wrinkles – but it is wearing a little on my patience. I feel like I need to already have everything figured out and ready to go so that I can just sit in one spot and write for hours on end, but I keep finding problems or “that’s not quite right”s that I need to fix. But that’s what rewriting is for, isn’t it?
Plot holes are being plugged, character arcs and motivations are being better mapped out, and the weird ideas I had and never questioned are being removed. Or enhanced. Gotta have some weird, am I right?
What am I doing now?
I’m actually taking a look at what it will be like if I start from scratch entirely. Keep the basic plot points/beats of the main story, but start over with character creation, the way the story is told, the overall feel of the book. I just feel like something is missing from the originally ideas and I’m not 100% sure I can salvage what I have by just shuffling things around.
Basically this would be returning to the “ooh, I have an idea for a book!” phase of it all. I was afraid when I first thought about doing this because I thought that maybe I was just finding a loophole so that I could feel like I’m writing something new, but talking with my other writer friends, this isn’t something that’s entirely uncommon. Sometimes you just gotta raze your shit to the ground to build something better.
But what are you doing writing this post, Charlie?
Jeez, way to call me out, y’all.
Right now I’m trying to build momentum. I haven’t been writing very much the past, well…way too long and now I’m having trouble getting back into the swing of things. So now I’m writing this post to both update you all on how it’s going since I haven’t said much, and to stretch my fingers out a bit.
I’m hoping I can get my brain to focus on work in general and then I can focus more on this novel specifically. Hopefully. Pomos are helping too, but everything is incremental progress.
And that’s okay. Sometimes your progress will be agonizingly slow and take days or weeks to even make a dent, but just keep at it and eventually you will get there. Each step gets you closer, whether you’re walking or running.
As you’ve probably noticed from my fluctuation between complaining and a lack of posts, I have had some issues writing after quitting my “day job.” I thought at first I just didn’t have the right story idea. Maybe the plot I had in mind (or the characters, or the setting, or the everything altogether) was bad and I wasn’t going to get it to work, so I abandoned the idea. This happened twice in a row. Then I thought that I was pushing myself to work too much or too often. So I took a break.
After my break, I felt much better – for about a day. Then I went straight back into feeling like shit and static filling my head. Maybe I was overwhelming myself with the steps to write something to completion. So I built a system to keep myself focused. This worked for about two weeks and then I fell right back into the pit.
Maybe I was depressed again. So I decided to narrow down what I was doing, lighten my workload. But I still suffered this…blockage of sorts. What the hell was going on?
Finally I realized I felt the worst when something external reminded me about writing. Someone would ask how my book was coming along. Or they’d make a snarky comment about how I wasn’t working on a Saturday. Just taking a peek at Medium I’d get bombarded with all kinds of writing advice articles.
The articles were, interestingly enough, the worst. Individually they aren’t bad, but I’d sit down and read a bunch in a row. Every single one of them basically saying the same thing: I should be writing content every single day.
And the problem isn’t that producing content is bad. I’m writing content right now. The problem starts when you let this outside world into your private routine. When you allow others to tell you how to write or what to write or when to write. And this happens very easily when you feel that your process or your job isn’t valid.
So what changed?
I can’t say for sure exactly where I unfucked myself. Most likely, it was a culmination of a few things.
First, I stopped trying to make myself an “authority” on anything. I stopped writing the how-to posts here. This eased my impostor syndrome quite a bit, and being honest about it felt great, but had the unintended side effect of a minor, uh, existential crisis.
What should I write now? What do I even have to say? Do I have something to say? Should I just stfu and shut down the blog?
The adage is to write what you know, but what did I really know? Well…I knew a lot about my own experiences with depression and anxiety. So I drafted up a few Medium articles on that. And never posted them.
I’m still learning how to be more honest with myself about my emotions – broadcasting heavy thoughts like that with my name out there for everyone to see felt…wrong. I just couldn’t make myself do it. What I wrote was “authentic” I guess, but publishing it just didn’t feel like me. I kept asking myself, “if not that, then what?” I agonized over this for way too long until I finally asked myself the real questions:
What drew me to writing in the first place? What is it that I like to read?
I love books that are filled with characters who struggle. I love stepping into worlds that are rich and vibrant. Adventures that make me feel alive. Relationships that feel authentic and sweet, even if they start off a bit rocky. I want to open a book and see a massive universe I can set out and explore. Especially if it goes beyond what the author has written.
Stories like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, The Witcher, The Dark Tower series. Any world that allows you to imagine yourself living there is like catnip to me. I use literature to escape and I’d love to write the same for others.
I have ideas for short stories, too. I’ve written several, and in the spirit of the year of finishing things, I will still try to finish the majority of ones I abandoned. But publishing shorts is not my calling. Worldbuilding is.
This conclusion made me realize I’m incapable of following the route the internet has drawn up for writers. Though there’s more money to be had in publishing an article every day on Medium and in writing and submitting shorts (assuming they get accepted). Guest posts, cross posts, affiliate links, Pinterest infographics, Twitter quotes/screenshots…all of these things and more are great ways to monetize your writing and to gain an audience. I’ll have to do some of them eventually, too. None of this is bad. It’s just not what I should be doing right now.
I should be writing. I should be living in the worlds I’m crafting so that when I’m done, you can live there, too.
Because of this realization, I was able to shed the imagined expectations weighing me down. I don’t need to write 40 hours a week. Sometimes writing means getting thoughts down on paper (or pixels) whether or not they are coherent. I am writing every day, and a lot of it is unusable crap. If I need to stop mid workday and play Bugsnax or (god help me) Detroit: Become Human in order to relax, I should. If I need to take a whole day or week off in order to “refill my creative bottle” (Thanks for the metaphor, Arbor!), then I absolutely do. If my workday consists of me walking around my office in circles, mumbling new storylines or dialogue to myself, then so be it!
Stephen King says to write with the door closed, edit with the door open. He’s referring to writing a story exactly how you want to tell it, and then editing it so that it can appeal to other people as well. I feel like it should extend to your routine, too. Don’t let other people dictate how you work, just make sure you eventually do get to work.
These steps together eventually got me back on track, and I really hope outlining them will help anyone else suffering from a constant burnt-out, static-brained, panic-stricken blockage of words. Basically I think it all boiled down to getting back to why I started writing in the first place.
This is the part where I reiterate that I am so, so privileged. I get a small retirement payment every month, so I can feel like I contribute a little to my household. Beyond that, everything gets covered by my husband. We saved for a long time, we finagled our finances, and eventually got to the point where me not having any other income was doable. I can rest easy while I make-believe and do other weird writer shit. My circumstances are not normal.
If you want to only write novels, then do it! But keep a day job. Don’t force the pressure of finishing a novel on yourself – you will fail, and it will suck the whole way down. Establish a writing routine around your work. If your job leaves you exhausted at the end of the day, write at the beginning of your day. If you can’t concentrate on work when you write beforehand and it’s threatening your job, find a different job (while still working at your current one).
If you want to write articles every single day and you think you know your niche, then try it while you still have a job. With either of these options, you want to be able to support yourself (or nearly be able to support yourself) on the money you’re making from your efforts working around your dictated schedule. If you find yourself making excuses, procrastinating, getting easily discouraged, doing or being or feeling anything that keeps you from producing regularly, do not quit your job.
Anyway, the point is…
…enjoy the go! Oh wait, no, that’s something else.
But seriously, have fun while you work. If you can’t figure out how to enjoy it, it’ll be more difficult. And if you’re anything like me, the pressure to work while miserable will make you crumble. Sure, I can bust my ass to meet the occasional deadline, but I would die as a journalist. Knowing your work style, your limits, and being honest about and honoringthem both will make all the difference if you’re having issues writing like I did.
And I almost guarantee I will forget this by the time NaNoWriMo rolls around again…
Almost all of the posts on this blog so far have been carefully constructed: I figured out what to write, wrote a first draft – possibly from an outline – and then I edited it. I knew what I was going to say beforehand or at least knew what I wanted to say from the beginning.
Today I wanted to try something a little different. I’m still trying to figure out what I want out of this blog beyond the clearly stated mission already posted. Do I want this to continue being very orderly and neat and planned and polished? Is that even a realistic expectation as I go forward with my plan to finish as many stories I’ve started over the years as possible this year? I don’t really think it is. And that’s okay.
I don’t really want to stop posting here. That wouldn’t be true to the point of the whole thing. But I also need to let go of this fantasy of the truly polished blog. Of perfect entries that are instantly shareable with infographics and research. I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself to produce work in a way that is just so and it has started to eat me alive.
My time away from this blog and writing in general made me feel really fucking dumb writing all these “how to” articles when I still hadn’t published anything, and so I had decided not to do that anymore. But then I found a new problem: what the hell am I going to write instead?
Obviously I’m going to be writing fiction. I want to be a fiction author. I didn’t set out to be a blogger, not in the beginning. That wasn’t the thing I thought of when I considered my dreams. There’s nothing wrong with being that style of writing, either, but my point is that when I wanted to be a writer, “blogging” hadn’t been invented yet. I had never even heard of the internet at all before. I’m not here to write a textbook or whatever, so there’s not really a point to me trying to write a bunch of polished posts like I am.
So where does that leave me? With my original mission: I’m here to report on what this life is like for those who wanna know the more complete story. I think might end up sharing fiction I write here, but that’s for another day.
Either way, that’s where I’m at right now. I may or may not stick to a posting schedule. I think I will try, just so it’s both better for you to know when to come back and also better for SEO reasons (*~algorithms~*) but I might throw in the occasional random post depending on what’s going on.
It’s the day after typing this up – casual or not, I gotta edit – and I’m feeling much better about this. I’m going to work up to “diversifying my portfolio” and “income streams” or whatever, but I’m okay with keeping it simple for now. I’m still really new at this. I’m still learning. That’s okay.
It has been a little under a month since I started to write full time. Or, more accurately, have attempted to write full time. Writing is a very thought-intensive job and after spending what felt like a lifetime of my brain slowly turning into mush, going back to a job where I had enough knowledge to sit down in the morning and keep working until I died has been a difficult adjustment.
I don’t say this to whine. I only want to represent this transition accurately. After all, that was the whole point of this blog.
Other things I’ve noticed are feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing, feeling like I’m not getting anything done, and the overwhelming feeling of calm when I remember what life used to be like.
No idea what I’m doing
I chose an awkward time to quit my day job. Just a week and three days before NaNoWriMo started gave me enough time to sit down, start to plan, and then realize that my next month was already spoken for: write 50,000 words for a novel. You can see this in my retrospective, too. The goal is to write the words. That’s it.
But for that first week, I tried to come up with a schedule for my day. These hours I would write my novel. Those hours I would write blog posts or short stories or edit one or the other. I tried to slip in an hour or two of interaction with the community or time to get my marketing strategy together. It felt official, but honestly none of it really sat right. I tried to put this schedule into practice, but it fell apart in about two hours.
It was the exhaustion mostly. But I also just didn’t really know exactly how I need to work yet. I based it off of what Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing and so it makes sense that it failed. It isn’t for me.
So I’ve been researching, trying to see what other writers do all day. I don’t think I’ll have the brain power to try most of the methods until NaNo is over, though.
Not getting anything done
Again the exhaustion has a big hand in this. I’ll sit down and write for about four hours (staring into space for about two or three of them) and then have to take a nap. Then I realize I’m hungry. Or I realize I hadn’t showered yet today (or for a few days). Then I go do all those things and realize it’s time to start on dinner.
For that first week before NaNo, I also took a look at all the other things I wanted to accomplish. The social media stuff I wanted to prepare, the educational content I wanted to watch or read, the contest I wanted to participate in, the personal essays I wanted to write for Medium, the business plan I wanted to write up for myself…the list goes on. There are so many tasks I want to do and it feels like there’s not enough time to do them.
However: I don’t despair. I plan.
Once NaNoWriMo is over, I will be crafting my future. Five years, one year, one quarter, one month, one week, and then keeping up with a daily plan. I already set goals for myself on a yearly/monthly/weekly/daily basis, but this will be a more structured way of looking at it, or a more detailed way to plan for a loose schedule – we’ll see. Either way, I will organize the fuck out of this problem, and hopefully that will work.
That overwhelming calm
I am one of those people who watch ASMR videos before I go to sleep at night. I had one that I absolutely loved, but she had a very distinct accent – one that matched my boss’s accent. It was fine for a little while, but eventually he started to pile more and more stress on me and it got to the point where just hearing his voice made me go into panic mode. This bled over into those ASMR videos, and I had to stop watching them. After I quit, I feel like those videos calmed me all the more. I would hear that accent, start to go into panic mode, and then remember that I will never have to answer to that man again.
Another interesting thing: everyone likes to say “never make a hobby your job because then you don’t have any hobbies,” but I have had a different experience so far. I felt a pressure every morning to get up before work and write. On the weekends, I needed to write. On the holidays, on my vacation time, on my sick days, I needed to write write write. Every spare moment I had, I needed to work toward my lifelong goal of being a writer. That meant I was working two jobs, essentially. When I took a day off I felt guilty, like I was throwing away a dream, so I could never truly relax. There was always something that I could be doing to get the fuck away from my office job.
But then I quit the office job. Writing is my full time gig now. I’m not making money yet, so there’s some pressure to produce something to get me there, but I also have 40 hours a week to do that in, instead of like 15 (if I wanted to retain my sanity). I can take real lunch breaks now. I can sleep in. That also means I can go on a weekend trip (whenever the world decides to stop ending) and not feel like I have to bring my work with me in order to squeeze a few more words out.
Yeah, I need to find another hobby, but I had like six of them lined up that I felt bad never pursuing anyway, so I can just go down the list.
I don’t have to choose between writing and bathing. Or writing and exercising. Or writing and taking the time to cook a healthy meal for me and my spouse. I can do all of these things and more now. I’m finally free.
There will come a time where I will have a LOT of work to do (hopefully), but for now it’s calm. And when I do get that work, it will be mine. I’ll get to choose what I do and who I do it for and how long I take to do it. That will be my prerogative, and I’m okay with that.
Your voice is an amalgamation of many different factors, and understanding each one will help to determine how you want your voice to sound if you are creating a new one. It will also assist in refining your natural voice once you’ve found it.
Faulkner once said of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” In response, Hemingway said, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
I’m not condemning big or little words here. Reading pieces that cause me to learn new words is challenging and satisfying. Reading pieces with simpler language is engaging and relaxing. These are simply two different ways of approaching your writing.
On top of if you use big words is also a question of how often you use them, too. While you can use them as often as you like, I would keep your audience in mind. If you are a walking thesaurus and your audience is second graders, you might lose your readers.
Formal vs. casual
An article from Masterclass.com talks about making the decision on how to fashion your sentences and choose your words. This blends in with the first point and the next point, but it’s worth having a mention in between. Are you going to write in a formal, rules-adhering style or in a casual, colloquial manner? Will you make sure to never have a preposition at the end of a sentence, no matter what? Are you going to pepper your writing with Southernisms or slang?
How long are your sentences going to be? Will you write long, descriptive, flowing prose designed to titillate the senses of the reader, or will you be concise? Are you going to stick to writing novels or flash fiction? Essays or dissertations? Or, alternatively, will you write everything in between?
How personal will you be?
Writing has many different purposes, but not all of them have to stay separate. You could write pieces that are specifically for expressing yourself and then other pieces specifically for informing your readers about something. You could only write one or the other, or more commonly, you could write both at the same time. Tell personal stories that relate back to the topic of the article. Express yourself and your thoughts with a bit of useful information snuck in occasionally. This isn’t directly related to voice, but is an important consideration for style.
Flow and rhythm
Henneke from Enchanting Marketing suggests adding rhythm to your writing to make your voice distinct. And, while I personally wouldn’t recommend adding things to find your natural voice, it’s a great thing to keep in mind when constructing a new voice. This doesn’t mean you have to write poetry, either. Just keep in mind the way that your words and sentences flow together. Read poetry or a very “lyrical” piece of prose (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) out loud and then an instruction manual for your fridge and spot the differences in sound.
Description vs. action vs. dialogue
The aforementioned Masterclass article suggested balancing your dialogue and description. This is another piece that I think would be great to play with when it comes to crafting an artificial voice. Some people write using a lot of description and others, like The Witcher’s Andrzej Sapkowski, can write entire scenes with only dialogue that somehow still has plenty of action.
Plot- vs. character-based stories
I will, of course, end up writing more about this. For the sake of a quick definition, however, plot-based stories are where everything happens to your protagonist and they react to it all. Character-based stories are where your protagonist goes out and finds adventure. There are a lot of opinions on these two methods, but that is not the focus of this article.
Point of view
Point of view can be taken in a technical manner: first, second, third person limited/omniscient, or you can look at it as incorporating experience into your writing or in the voice of the character narrating. Someone who knows everything about a situation will be able to describe the scene completely, and might not explain everything they mention. An outsider to a situation, however, may not notice important things, or be able to describe anything in a coherent manner.
This is somewhat similar to the second point above: using your experiences. However, this might be including allusions or references to famous literary works or mythical characters/creatures. You might write a character who’s storytelling style is heavily influenced by the oral traditions of an indigenous culture, or the dark, cautionary style of Germanic fairy tales.
Anything you write naturally is your style. Anything you decide to add to a narrator’s voice simply is their voice. Feel free to experiment with any of these and find other things to tinker with as well.
How to find your voice (finally, right?)
Please don’t look at the above list and feel overwhelmed. You do not have to use all of these consciously, and when you’re finding your own voice, you might want to steer clear of using any of them consciously at first. This is merely a list of things that you might want to think about when considering a voice or what might make one’s own voice unique.
This next part reflects advice I found around the internet, followed up with my own thoughts on the matter.
Reading is the second most common piece of advice I found online. I am not sure how reading other people’s work will allow you to find your own voice (which is specifically what I was researching), but it is definitely worth it to study how others can be distinct. Enough reading is also required to start to be able to spot cliches and ineffective methods of writing voice, such as poo’ly wri’en accents or ye olde difficulte too reede voyses.
This was also surprisingly common. Many writers suggested you write down adjectives to describe yourself, jot down thoughts on how you see yourself or how others see you, or ask others how they see you.
I say “surprisingly common” though I don’t think it’s bad advice. It sounds like a great way to start to refine your voice once you’ve found it and to develop your personal brand.
This, of course, was the most commonly found advice. Write, write, write, write, write.
Journaling can help you discover what it is you care about and what your ideals are. These are great for refining your voice and finding topics you will want to write about in the future.
Emulating others, which was also suggested, is a more “hands-on” approach than reading, in that you feel what it’s like to write in different voices. How it is to resist your own natural voice, and may even help you understand your more natural voice through the process of elimination.
Experimentation gets you exercising your creative muscles, coming up with different voices on your own.
Try combining all of these different options: emulate a distinctive style, then try writing the same thing in a style you think could be considered opposite that you’ve created, then write in whatever “journaling voice” you use about how the two felt – what did you like about one over the other? Was there something good or bad about the both of them? How might you change either voice to suit you more?
I found a few pieces of unique and interesting advice I wanted to point out here as well.
Consume challenging content
Brian Kurian wrote for Writing Cooperative about this, and suggested consuming content that challenges you. This basically means anything that makes you think or consider different viewpoints. I like this advice because, while reading a lot exposes you to a lot of words, reading content that challenges you exposes you to a lot of different voices. This also applies to podcasts, videos, Ted Talks, etc. Vary what you expose yourself to and you will get a breadth of experience.
Read your work out loud
Laura Davis of The Write Life wrote about how, even once you found your voice, you might get too caught up in description or other technical aspects of what you’re writing and stray from your own voice. If you see a lot of instances in my blog posts where I didn’t use contractions, this is probably because I didn’t read it out loud. I have zero idea why I write like Data speaks, I just do.
I would argue that this is also a way to find your voice as well. Assuming you don’t have a speech impediment or disability of some sort, if you read your work out loud and stumble over every other word, this may not be your natural voice.
Don’t write how you speak
To refer back to Henneke again, they mention that you should not write how you speak. I balked at this at first, but then the explanation was that we all use too many filler words and sounds – ahs, ums, likes, etc. – to be used in our writing. This is very true. If I wrote with as many filler sounds and textually trip over my own words as often as I do verbally, this blog would be unreadable.
I even agree that how I write and how I speak are not super similar at all. However, as I’ll explain in a moment, that is how I got where I am now.
My thoughts on all this
I’ve gone through all this advice and more on the internet and I have my own thoughts as I went through this myself. You can follow my advice or the others’, I just hope that something here will resonate and help you get where you want to go!
Finding your voice, Charlie-style
Find a topic that you care about. It doesn’t have to be anything super controversial, just something that gets you a’talkin.
Start talking! Yes, out loud.
Transcribe yourself. This can be done either as you’re speaking if you can type fast enough, or you can record yourself and transcribe on playback.
Clean yourself up. In the spirit of not writing how you talk, take out any filler words, misspoken words/phrases, etc. You can experiment with swearing if you are so inclined.
Repeat. Do this over and over. If you don’t want to journal, go online! This might seem like a strange thing to do, but I did this naturally since I grew up with AIM and now use Discord all the time. I don’t typically use a lot of shortcuts when chatting unless I’m tired or being silly, and I used to naturally talk to myself as I chatted (I occasionally do that still, but only when I’m alone I promise).
Eventually you are going to get really good at writing exactly how you would say something out loud. Then comes phase two: refining your natural voice. This means that you are taking all of those parts of speech at the beginning of this article into consideration and tweaking how you write to match how you want to appear to others, or the tone you’d like to convey in your writing.
Once you can get to a comfortable spot writing how you want to sound, you can start working on better dialogue, or in-character narration, or even, as mentioned in the previous article, writing in the “house style” for collaborative projects you might want to join.
It might sound like the long way around, why not just learn how to write other voices right now? You can do this, and I’m sure you can become very effective this way. However, I personally feel you would be remiss if you didn’t study voice from the inside. For example:
Why do you write the way that you do? What part of you says to use that word versus this one? How much of what you say is calculated, or traceable to an actual reason over happenstance? Your answers can inform your choices for characters for the rest of your life.
For those of you who have already, how did you find your voice? For those who haven’t, what methods do you think you might use? Who else out there feels deeply uncomfortable when Brent Spiner uses contractions? Discuss in the comments below!
I did research on writing voice assuming that I didn’t have as much to say as others did, but found most give about the same pieces of advice. I also found, when explaining how frustrating this was, that I have way more opinions than I realized.
There are many different parts that make up a “voice,” but today I’m going to talk about why you want to find yours. Next time I’ll write more on the technical bits.
What is voice?
Voice is basically how you are going to write something. It’s the way your words will feel or sound inside your readers’ heads. This doesn’t have to be your own, natural voice either. As we’ll discuss in a moment, many situations call for the use of a brand new one or for you to match someone else’s.
But why bother?
A case against it
Noah Berlatsky wrote an article about this in the Atlantic some time ago. He argues that, while it is commonly given advice, it has been a distraction if not a detraction to his career. In this article he talks about changing his voice to submit to literary magazines, and how he had to force himself to sound more like the other writers when collaborating. Even when writing on his own, he says that he had to modify his voice for his intended audience.
It is an interesting read, so I recommend taking a look, however I must respectfully disagree with the premise. Please allow me to explain:
Benefits outside of writing
Even if you decide not to publish another word, I truly believe that finding your writing voice is important. Why? Because it all comes down to confidence.
I’m not saying that you are going to go from socially anxious wallflower to politician just because you can write an essay. I am saying that it’s a good first step. Think about it this way: finding your voice is mostly about figuring out who you are. Once you know who you are, and you’ve developed the confidence to express that in your writing, you are once step closer to confidence in the “real world.”
There are obviously a lot more steps after this one, and confidence is not just a matter of following instructions. Getting there is outside the scope of this particular post, however.
Voice helps both fiction and nonfiction writers
Voice is one of those things that does a lot of heavy lifting. It helps you to stand out, it contributes to your personal brand, it helps with your interaction with your audience, and even helps you to write faster.
When you collaborate with other writers on a project where you all are writing together on all the same parts, or different parts that should be pasted together into a whole, you can expect that you will have to write with the same voice. However, you will still need to actually get that job.
You will most likely communicate with someone via email, submit writing samples, have your Twitter feed/Facebook examined, etc. If you write with your own, unique voice, you have a chance at standing out among all the other writers hungry for that job. You won’t disappear in a fog of rambling words while trying to say, “please hire me!” There’s another point related to this that I’m going to talk about in a second.
Even when trying to find an agent, or pitching your projects to publishers, you want to have your voice figured out. Having an interesting, consistent voice that sounds like you know what you’re talking about is a great way to grab someone’s attention.
I know, I know. So many people hate this phrase. I promise you, though, that it is not what it’s made out to be. I’ll write more on this topic later, but for now I’ll just say that it is literally how you appear to the rest of the world. Working on your personal brand isn’t making a fake persona, but making your impression a little less scatter brained.
As far as writing voice goes, your personal brand is represented in everything you write, and finding your voice lends to a successful personal brand.
It is recommended time and again that you interact with your audience. That can be in the form of answering questions, giving updates on projects, or just posting cat pics online, but you are sharing words with them in some form. Your voice can make or break this type of relationship – or, more specifically, not having a voice can.
Yes, I know it sounds unlikely. But think about it this way: once you know how you are going to write something, doesn’t writing it go much faster? Why not develop a steady, consistent voice so you don’t have to worry about that aspect of writing anymore? Once you stop waffling over tone and word choices, you can focus on your content and research.
Voice helps nonfiction writers
Along with everything above, voice can assist nonfiction writers with making dryer material more interesting and lend credibility to your work. Imagine the Ben Stein versus Bill Nye talking to you about the molting habits of insects. Or as far as credibility, imagine Bill Nye referring to every tool of his as a “thingy” and glossing over his explanation with “then some science stuff happens I think.”
Voice helps fiction writers
Finally, my favorite part! Earlier I mentioned that there was an idea related to writing collaboratively I was going to write about later. Now’s that time. Knowing how to find and refine your own voice, means you will be able to find and refine many voices.
This will help you when you work collaboratively, in that you will be able to easily adapt to the “house” style, but it will also be a boon for writing characters and narration.
For characters, everyone speaks differently. The parts that make up dialogue are going to be very similar to the parts that make up one’s voice. If you are able to figure out how to personalize these parts to your characters, every one of them will sound unique. Working on believable and interesting characters is a different post.
When you watch a movie with Tom Cruise in it, you know you are watching Tom Cruise. This is because when he is in something, it is Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise playing [insert character’s name here]. This is not a bad thing necessarily. It’s an artistic choice.
Similarly, there are writers who, when a familiar reader sees just the very first line of one of their books, can automatically be identified.
But then we have Gary Oldman. I have been midway through a movie he was in and swore when I realized he was in it, because he melts into his characters. When the camera is rolling, Oldman no longer exists.
Writers who take this approach use the narrator’s voice purposefully. Maybe they need to have an unreliable narrator, or one that has no idea what is going on in general. Maybe they need to have a narrator that understands what’s going on as a sort of anchor while the main character bumbles about. Horror novels tend to have a different voice from romance novels – and you aren’t forced to write one or the other.
Voice is essential to enhancing your writing, your career, and your life, even if you don’t use it very often.
Next week I’ll post more about the parts that make up your writing voice as well as advice (both mine and others’) on how to develop your own.
Do you have your own opinions on if you should or should not develop your own writing voice? Please share in the comments!
A few months ago when I began writing posts for this blog, I had a goal: write enough posts that I could have 20 weeks worth of posts at the ready. This would allow me to schedule them, then get to writing fiction. With fiction, I would write one flash fiction story draft in a week, write a new flash fiction story in the next week, edit the first one in the third week, and then finish up editing the second one the week after that. I would be able to do this for 20 weeks – that’s approximately 5 months, or 10 stories. I would take a little bit of time to write up cover letters and find places to submit the stories I wrote each month, and then get back to writing while I waited to hear back. Adorable.
I outlined, and wrote, and re-wrote, and edited. I honed the process over time so that I could write faster and better starting with the first draft. Eventually I outlined 20 posts, but only actually finished about 8 of them. Close enough, I thought. I could just start scheduling them and go from there.
Then I had the idea that I could alternate between writing fiction and writing posts, since I had 8 weeks of posts under my belt. Including retrospectives, that was 10 weeks. So I tried that.
Truth is, when I have the pressure to do well on my mind (and little recent practice under my belt), it takes a lot longer than a week to write flash fiction. “Flash” also tends to morph into “short.” When I didn’t have the pressure there, I could write a first draft of flash in a day, so I thought I was giving myself ample time to deal with not only the writing but writer’s block as well. Apparently not.
Anyhow, I shifted from flash to posts to working on worldbuilding for a novel I want to write during NaNoWriMo this year, and sometimes I would switch between them in matters of minutes. I kept track of my word counts, so I knew I was writing something, but it didn’t feel like it. I was making little to no progress, and it only got worse once I realized my older pieces I wanted to spruce up for publishing needed major rework. Was this due to my newfound perfectionism or because they were written in a day?
But I kept pushing, kept switching, kept flailing and failing, until I found myself headed for burnout. I didn’t really know what to work on or when. I set up a schedule which helped for a little while, outlining that I’d work on fiction in the morning, blog posts at lunch (during the work week, since I have to have a “real” job for now), and then school work or whatever was most pressing after. It felt better, having some order. But I quickly devolved into chaos again.
I can’t even remember what spurred my decision to start writing out my goals, but whatever it was, I’m thankful for it. I’m still working out the kinks, and I’ve discovered that I really need to have stuff like goals and task lists very visible all the time, but here’s what I’ve started with, if you want to follow along at home:
By the end of the year, I want to:
Finish the first draft of The Dragon (mostly during NaNoWriMo, naturally)
Submit my stories to LitMags ~30 times (I’ve given up on the rejection goals for this year, since that requires them actually getting back to me by December 31st)
Finish reading 12 more books
Manage to post on my blog every Saturday until the end of the year
So I guess it’s just time to start working, right? WRONG. Your plan is bad and you should feel bad. And you probably will if you try to make that work – I know I did. Hence this article!
Breaking it Down
Knowing these specific goals, I can now break them down into smaller ones. For finishing The Dragon (I am slowly starting to hate this name, but it’s simple enough to work with it for now), I will need to make sure I finish character development, worldbuilding, and plot/story planning before November – or at least as much as I can before then. I will naturally find holes that can’t be filled until I write scenes, and in the spirit of NaNo that’s a no no. Then during November, it’s fifty thousand words I’ll need to write in thirty days.
For submissions, if I submit one story five times each month, then I can reach this goal. That means that I’ll need to finish writing/editing/polishing at least one story a month and submit it to 5 different places. This is going to definitely be a stretch considering my current burnout problem and also NaNoWriMo kind of conflicting with this goal, but that’s okay. I won’t die if I fall short, but it gives me something to reach for.
To read 12 more books is simple: read 2 of them every month until the end of the year.
Finally, posting every Saturday is just as simple as the last goal: don’t miss a Saturday! That’s making sure I finish polishing up about 4 posts a month.
But I’m not done yet!
Breaking it down even more
For The Dragon, breaking it down further is a little more difficult, mostly because characters, setting, and plot are so interconnected. Basically I’m just going to start with character development and plot first and go from there. I’m trying out Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method for this book, just to see how it goes. Don’t worry, I’ll write about that in the future.
For submissions, I’ve already got several short stories started and lined up for this year. I’ll need to rework and rewrite them, which I hope to do in the first two weeks of each month. Then I’ll let it rest for a few days while I try to find places to submit, then head back into editing and rewriting for the rest of the third week. The fourth week I’ll let it rest for a day or two, then polish it up and write the cover letter for the story of the month.
Every twoish weeks, I’ll be reading one book, and each week I will finish up and polish a post.
Also every week, I will be going even further and trying to set up every day so that I will make sure I do a little bit of what needs to be accomplished each week. Once I have everything checked off my list for the day, I can relax.
This list doesn’t include the things I’m doing for work or class or just being alive in a society of laws in general, but I have included those into my plans. In fact, because there are so many things I need to get done, I have also made sure to prioritize my goals so that if I need to remove some things, I know what to axe first.
To use my writing goals as an example, I will be lowering the number of submissions first. I still want to have experience for finishing and submitting pieces, so I won’t be nixing that goal entirely. Next will be lowering the number of books to read. Then I might end up having to just finish the prep work for The Dragon and complete the first draft early next year. I’m really hoping I don’t need to take anything off of the table completely, but if I do, it will probably end up being The Dragon. That’s mainly because of the amount of sustained effort required to see that kind of project all the way through combined with the fact that next year I should have a lot more free time to work on it, so I can catch up quickly. Everything else has a cumulative effect on my skills, so they need to stay.
This is actually the beginning of making SMART goals. I might end up setting these up in the future, but I am taking it one step at a time for now.
Update: Since I am still going to be working a full-time job in November, I am most likely going to end up nixing The Dragon until next year unless I can get enough posts written and all the prep work done before then.
What about you:do you have a goal-setting system of your own you’d like to share?
I’ve written a retrospective, but no posts about my experiences. This is what I had originally intended for this blog, I just haven’t felt like anything I’ve done or been through was worth mentioning yet. I’ve started to reflect on what’s changed, however, and I wanted to talk a little bit about the overall shift of attitude and habits between hobby and professional writing. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t earned a dime yet, but I have committed to writing in a “professional manner,” so there’s still at least a subtle difference.
When you’re writing as a hobby, there’s zero pressure to do well. Don’t like a story you’re writing? Toss it. Don’t want to finish it? Don’t. Is editing the bane of your existence? Forget about it. There’s no reason to agonize over tone or flow, and if you write something that’s not great but still okay, that’s fine. No one is going to read it anyway.
The shift that happens when you try to write professionally, is that you have an obligation to keep going. Don’t like a story you’re writing? Figure out why and fix it. Don’t want to finish it? Too bad. Is editing the bane of your existence? Deal with it. “Git gud,” as the kids say.
This isn’t to say that I’m not enjoying this. On the contrary, I feel that it lends the credibility I needed for my new addiction profession. I no longer feel like a child now that I’m paying attention to schedules and I’m actively reading about writing. I’m setting goals and objectives, planning out my learning and doing all of the career ownership I never did in any other job I’ve had before. I enjoy this and take it more seriously than anything else in my life, and it feels…purposeful. Liberating. It’s why I’m doing the retrospectives and keeping tabs on metrics. I’m my own boss, yes, said with all the puffed up pride as the next guy. But I’m also acting as my own manager.
I’m sitting in my new writing spot as I type this. My “writing spot” has moved multiple times over the past couple of months, indicative of the changes I’ve gone through. There’s a lot more pressure now, but it feels good. When I write something terrible, my first thought is still “oh god, why?” but that’s followed closely by “How can I make this better?” and “Editing this will be great practice for me.” It’s a strange shift, going from a fixed-mindset to a growth-mindset. I’ll have to write more on that as well.
We are getting closer and closer to the day when I’ll be able to actually quit and write full-time, though I’m not counting this as my “be a full-time writer” goal until I’m actually making money from it. I also don’t have delusions that I’m going to write the next Big Thing that earns me millions, but I suspect that I might be able to make enough each month to cover the gap between what my partner makes and what we need to both make rent and eat out a time or two.
This gets me to the part where I write a little more about the lessons I’ve learned in this process.
Lessons Learned Thus Far
Letting a piece rest
When you cook meat, you always want to let it sit at room temperature to rest for a little while. This allows all the juices to redistribute, otherwise when you carve it, you’re just going to have a wet cutting board and dry meat. When you finish a draft, what I’m learning is you want to let the story rest, lest you cut into it for editing and…your story juice gets…you know what? Terrible metaphor. I find that it gives me space and clarity. It sounds a little less like my own writing and it makes it easier to tear apart. The longer a piece rests, the easier it is to edit, but you don’t always get that luxury. Letting it rest between edits is useful as well, especially if you change a significant portion or are doing rewrites.
Setting your objectives
If you have a lot of projects you are trying to get done all at once (say, a blog, a book, and a short story or five), it may begin to feel like you aren’t making progress on any of them. I felt this. It was like I was pressing the pedal all the way to the floorboards and my wheels were caught in mud. Pulling away from everything and writing down exactly what I wanted to accomplish this year made it clear where I wanted to go, and writing down exactly what I aimed to accomplish when gave me a plan for how to get there (this might actually be the next article, since it has been so helpful). This allowed me to simply trust in this plan, as long as I could stick to the daily tasks. It also allowed me to plan for time off. That brings me to another item:
I cannot say this enough. If you are trying to get through a night class, do homework, work full time, and start a brand new career, you will need time to rest. Not having the clear plan I mentioned in the last point combined with a need to be constantly working sapped the life out of me and reduced me to a panicking, sobbing mess two or three days out of the week. Don’t be like me–er, the old me. Be more like the me now. Whatever – don’t burn yourself out is the important bit. Plan for down time.
Find a writing group
I haven’t actually done this one yet, and I hate it. I need to have someone who I’m not married or related to read my work for feedback, and I need to get better at critiquing others’ work as well. Why the second one? It’s important to learn from your own mistakes and writing habits, but you get double the lessons out of learning from someone else’s as well. There also inherent risks involved in writing groups, but as long as you remain aware of them, it makes for a great way to grow.
Sometimes you need to completely start over
The other day I was working on a flash fiction piece that I wrote the first draft for a year or so ago. No matter what I did, nothing seemed to work – the descriptions were clunky, the piece had no point, nothing really mattered. I hated it, but as we’ve just established, professionals at least try to finish what they start. For a week I wrote a paragraph here, did some copypasta from the first draft there. Removing lines, adding words. Taking out and promptly putting commas back in (seriously, I have a problem). In frustration I opened a new document and started from scratch. In about an hour I had something far better than I’ve written in a long while.
Once you figure out that a piece isn’t working, and you can’t get it to – nix it. Toss it. Kill it. Not the whole idea, but parts that aren’t working. My example was flash fiction, so I could afford to start from scratch all over again, but if you’re working on a chapter that doesn’t fit – get rid of it and try again. No need to throw away the book, but the chapter can go, I promise. You will soar once out from under that dead weight.
Most importantly, be honest with yourself
If you know you aren’t going to work on Tuesdays, don’t try. Make that your Saturday. If you know that you like your spouse and you want to spend time with them once they get off work, make sure you finish your tasks for the day before then. If you know that you’re very “out of sight, out of mind,” hang your tasks and schedule on the wall where you see them every day. Stay mindful of what works and what doesn’t, and don’t be afraid to change something, even for a day, if you think it will help.
What have you been learning about yourself or your process recently? Any specific tips to share with the rest of us about making the switch to “professional?” Share in the comments below!