Last week, we started talking about voice. Voice is the essence of our writing, and having a strong, original voice can be the ticket to literary legend. I believe most of us are born with a storytelling voice. All humans are storytellers, and, in fact, humans passed on information, history, and stories orally for thousands of years and “voice” is actually a holdover from this oral tradition.
Humans are a story people.
Narrative structure is hard-wired into the architecture of our brains. This is how even a three-year-old can nail us when we skip part of the bedtime story. Unless one has suffered some brain trauma or debilitating psychiatric trauma, all humans are storytellers. Just like, unless one has lost a limb or suffered a major injury, all humans can dance. Now, all of us aren’t necessarily good storytellers (or dancers). Natural talent can make some of stand out from the crowd.
But is talent enough?
To quote Stephen King, Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.
There are no shortcuts to publishing success. Yes there are strange literary savants who write one book and it’s perfect, but they are the odd outlier, not the norm. Go tell your family this so they stop hassling you.
So success in writing, like all other arts, comes with a lot of hard work, even if you happen to be graced with natural talent/voice. Yet, all new writers (I did it, too) believe that we can write one book and be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. I am here to offer some tough love. Just because we hold a basic command of our native tongue in no way prepares us for professional publication. Sort of like a high school Home Ec class doesn’t prepare us to take over as head chef at Claridge’s. I know your friends and family might think college Literature 101 is enough to rocket you to the NYT best-seller list, but they are wrong. Learn to ignore them.
Every art requires training. Just because I run out to an art store and buy supplies doesn’t make me an artist. All art forms have basics that are drilled in over and over and over. I spent seven years in ballet, and all dancers begin with the basics–learn the five foot positions. If I decided to “skip all the boring stuff” and ran out and bought toe shoes on day one and just took off dancing Swan Lake, not only would it look more like Wounded Chicken instead of Swan Lake, but I could also expect a lot of pain and lasting deformities.
Same with writing.
Now all of us, I do feel have a natural writing voice. Then friends and family step in and make snarky remarks and this dings our confidence. Then, on top of that, the world is full of scared, boring people too chicken to follow their own dreams, and will always find time to criticize ours. Learn to tune them out or they can affect your natural voice and keep it from growing stronger.
Aside from ditching or cleverly avoiding
family toxic people, the single greatest way to develop voice is to learn our craft.
#1 Know the Rules
There is a difference in being courageous and being reckless. Our job as writers is to learn the difference. How can we know the difference? We must study.
I recently went to an art exhibit here in DFW at the Kimball Art Museum. The museum is showing one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings, and yes, I am the person who reads every one of the little placards along the way. What I found interesting was that all of the masters like Monet, Degas, and Renoir spent extensive time studying the great painters of their day and even those masters who’d come before. Yes, they broke with all the traditions to become successful in their own rights. But…
They knew the rules so they could break the rules.
I can tell in less than five pages if a writer reads and if he or she has taken time to study their craft. People who know the rules and them break them are called artists. People who don’t know the rules and don’t seek to learn them are called amateurs.
#2 Understanding our Craft Creates Confidence
During the days of the emerging Impressionists, it was popular to paint noble subjects. Artists would stage elaborate sets in studios where they could control the light and arrange or rearrange the scene if they needed to. Painters like Monet, opted rather to “happen upon subjects” and they preferred the common and unexceptional to the lofty subjects of “popular artists of the day.”
The Impressionists painted scenes of ordinary life–a woman drawing water in a river, the steamships unloading timber, a factory churning black smoke into a summer sky. These artists made the mundane magical, but the only way they could do this was to know the rules so they could break them.
If our writing voice comes from confidence, then confidence can only come from knowing the rules. Sure I could hand any of you a clarinet and maybe one person in a hundred thousand could pick up that clarinet and be an instant prodigy. Most of us, however, need to spend time learning to read music and doing scales. When we are so accustomed to the “rules” that we know them in our sleep? When our fingers naturally move to position on the instrument? When we have studied the great musicians and know them so well we can instantly take off on a creative riff?
This is when magic sparks to life. This is true with a clarinet, a sketch pad and yes, a computer keyboard.
#3 Practice Indeed Makes Perfect
Writers don’t do scales or sketches or work on the barre, but we do write. We write good, bad, brilliant and boring. We write and write and write and write until we know the keyboard by heart. We work hard and it is through this sweat equity that we earn our right to be called an artist. We are all writers the second we put words to screen/paper. We have to train and suffer to become artists.
Each of the great Impressionist painters painted thousands of paintings and made thousands of sketches even though only a handful ever made it into the galleries. Renoir didn’t paint one painting and expect to make a fortune. Knowing the rules comes with practice. Practice creates confidence, and confidence creates artists.
Sorry, no shortcuts. Yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess this bummed me out just a little, too. So we just keep writing, keep reading and keep connecting with the masters of our art and trust that one day the magic will ignite.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any books you like about voice? My favorite is Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice. What are your thoughts? Struggles? Experiences?
I love hearing from you!
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Winner #1 from two weeks ago is Pauline Baird Jones. Winner from last week is Anne Stanley. Ladies, please see your 1250 word Word document to me at author kristen dot lamb at g mail dot com. I am still working on a new web site so we’ve had all kinds of issues with my other e-mail. Thanks for your patience.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.