Thursday, September 6, 2007

I don't know what I'm talking about, but ...

I've never let that stop me before, so here I go again.

I started this blog with the idea I would talk about nothing but the craft of writing and my pursuit to sell a novel. Click here to check out those early posts. About three people read my blog in those days. Then I started talking my view of the world outside of the business of writing. The Feedstore Chronicles kind of started the story-telling flavor that the blog has developed. Now they are on hiatus while I have moved on to Tales of the Yellow Flag. I hope the ref stories to come turn out better than the first edition but I think they will. Once I find the correct tone, groove and pace.

Funny, I should bring up tone, groove, and pace, and the fact I've strayed from writing related posts, because that is what I'm going to blog about today. I hope my now writing friends and readers will stick around to read this post and comment from a readers perspective on these things, but if not I understand. And if you hate these kind of post just be patient, because tomorrow I plant to post a picture that is sure to make you laugh, and I am doing to pay my debt to WordVixen, whom I am sure had given up on me fulfilling her request.

Back in year of two thousand and ought, at the encouragement of Hall of Fame RWA member and New York Times Best Selling Author Jodi Thomas I decided to pursue a writing career. Jodi along with a few other published authors that she shared my work with all said the same things you have a great voice. Now being new to the game I thought, but I don't sound a thing like Kasey Kasem and okay I had read out loud for Jodi in class but I'd never met these other people so how did they know what I sounded like. Only later did I find out they meant my writing voice, but even then I didn't have a clue what they were really talking about. Matter of fact it was three or four years before I really got the whole concept of voice.

And even though I feel like I understand it putting a definition into words is a bit dicey. But being glutton for punishment I'm going to try. You know how onions make some people cry, well that how I feel about this post. It makes me nervous as hell to talk about the many layers of voice when I just might come across as a blithering idiot. Sure I've learned a lot over the last seven years, but at the same time I'm not exactly cashing huge royalty checks, or any royalty checks for that matter. At least not for my three completed, and three in progress novels.

Now that I have rambled forever let me get to the meat of this post. Dang, mention of the word meat made my stomach growl. Here is what I think is the recipe that makes up a nice batch of voice stew.

Sentence Structure - He was hungry. His ravenous body craved nourishment. He needed to eat soon, before his stomach took a bite out of his backbone.

All of these same the same thing, but in vastly different ways. But is it voice or the character you are describing that determines the choice. Both. A good writer will tweak the language they use for different characters, especially when using dialogue or a shifting points of view. But over the course of a novel or short story the word choices, the length of sentences and paragraphs, and structure of an authors words will begin to show a pattern and style.

Tone - Again this can change do to genre, character pov, or other factors. But if Stephen King and Kinky Freidman both sat down to tell the same story with the same exact plot line and characters I can guarantee they'd finish with vastly different novels. How a writer develops characters, plots points, and scenes will affect how a reader sees things.

A scar, the color of a butchered hog ran jagged across his right cheek and short black stubble covered his meaty skull.

Except for the titty pink scar on his cheek he looked just like Curly from The Three Stooges.

Same guy, but I bet you look at him different. Again a good writer will use descriptions like this to manipulate the reader into a certain image and mindset but over time the writer's own preference will come out. I should have used something more neutral like a landscape to show this but hopefully you follow my meaning.

Pace - Again a suspense and a coming of age novel have to use different paces but think about a couple of your favorite writers novels. Some tend to tell large sweeping stories that cover years and years of a characters life. Other focus on a short tumultuous period of their protagonists life.
Some authors focus on the why a character is in a hole they can't get out of. Others stick strictly to how they are going to get out. As a writer I sometimes forget that a reader will not know all the things about the story or characters that I do. Deciding what information a reader will need and when is critical to how the character will be viewed. In my last complete novel. I purposely mislead the reader into thinking my character Lindsay was sexually abused by her father. I wanted readers to feel sympathy for her. I wanted readers to see her as a victim because that is how she sees herself, even though it is not true. The book would have read differently had I laid the facts out there front and center. And now if -- so scratch the if -- WHEN, A River Without Water is published you will have a bit of insight.

I know I have butchered this post, but in a nutshell voice is what you write, how you write it and why you wrote it. Voice is who you are as a writer. But the most important thing I had to learn about voice was to trust my own. To know when to tell my critique group NO. Not because they were wrong, and not because I'm stubborn but because that is not the way I would ever write it. but if they say your hero is a whiny twit, and I don't care what happens to him, listen. But don't let others restructure your every sentence and rewrite your story. Of course I'm not talking about agents and editors. The power of a contract could make me rewrite dang near anything.

Sometime I have to look away from the computer monitor and stare at the ceiling. That is when I ask myself how would I describe this if I were talking to a friend or telling a story from atop a bar stool. Don't fall in love with the way your favorite author does something. Look at what they do, think about why they wrote it that way, and then accomplish the same thing in your own style. Trust your voice, even if you don't understand what it is, because in the end it is the only thing that separates you from the masses of other writers chasing the same dream.


Bubblewench said...

If I had any desire to be a writer such as you, instead of the babbling idiot I prefer to be, I would print this out and use it as my bible.

I even know a few writers that would totally benefit from it as well. I'll send them over.

I read all the time and I appreciate good writing.

THE DUCK said...

I love this crap Travis. I get inspired to write when I read these posts of yours, and I don't consider myself to be a writer. That's probably as good of a compliment as I can give you.

Monnik said...

I think this is an excellent description of voice. I don't know how you did it- I couldn't have conveyed the meaning like you did. The illustrations you used to hammer home your point were perfect.

Great information, and useful to a might want to someday write something person like myself.

jjdebenedictis said...

A writing post, yay!

Very interesting stuff! Feel free to do these posts anytime you like. :-D

angel, jr. said...

You are a great writer!! It's the reason that many of us come back to read you again and again.

WordVixen said...

Wheee! I'm waiting for the hula skirt and coconut bra picture. :)

Jason said...

I read a book by Stephen King entitled, "On Writing". Not a novel. Not one of his scary stories. Just a book that's very similar to what Travis has posted here. It's about the craft of writing. A very good read for aspiring writers.

Merry Jelinek said...


okay, I'm sick to my stomach because I just wrote an exceptionally long comment to this fantabulous piece, hit publish, and promptly lost it into the cyberspace void... which is not such a good void as I can hear it snickering.

I love this post and VOICE is one of my favorite writing discussions. I especially love the way that you point out that a really good writer will not only have their own voice which permeates everything they pen, but each character will have a distinct voice all their own. I love very fleshed out, vivid characters and their voice is always essential.

I also liked your take on critique groups... They are exceptional for allowing the writer a good look at their work through the eyes of an audience who hasn't had these characters raping and pillaging their braincells for eons by the final edit. But even the most seasoned of authors may not know your prose or story as well as you. I'm in favor of trying anything - my last round of edits nearly killed me, and I didn't completely agree with the crit suggestions but I tried them anyway.... I wound up with a bit of a compromise between the two versions and it is much improved.

I don't comment a lot, but I stop here often and it is because of your Voice... The fun thing about you is that flavor and turn of phrase comes out, even in hurried comments with no time to spell check, the meat (sorry, didn't mean to make your hungry) of the writing is still there.


Loved Stephen King's book on writing, it's a very good take on the process for him. Another one that I love even more is Working Days - Steinbeck's journal during the writing of The Grapes of Wrath I found that one during a censorship class a long while back and still keep it near enough to my desk to page through it every here and there... one of the lines that floored me at the time and still sticks with me is something he said in a letter - mind you, by this point in his career he was already a huge literary success:

"I am not a writer. I have been fooling myself and other people."

Phats said...

I think this post was interesting, and I think it's really cool you're a writer! You should be an english teacher ha. I am hoping you become a famous writer soon and give me an autographed copy of the book!

Jenster said...

I actually think this is a great post!

When I try to write with someone else's voice the piece becomes stilted. It's not true to me. Yes, the different characters speak differently and their tone is different, but the voice of the overall book has to be mine or it's not real.

And if I try to write in anything other than my voice it doesn't flow and it's uncomfortable.

I do the same thing you do with dialogue. I have an imaginary conversation with my character and listen to how I would say it.

I agree, too, that sometimes critique groups think the voice should be one way when you KNOW it should be the way it is.

Tena said...

Great post, Travis.

Voice is primarily what I read for, that, and fresh ways of saying things -- which is all part of Voice. I can forgive a lot of things (I'm not really the grammar police, ya know) but if a story doesn't have Voice, I'm outta there.

Terrie Farley Moran said...


If this is you when you don't know what you're talking about, please make sure to send me an alert when you do know what you are talking about.

Great post.


Bluefingers said...

Great post Travis.



Chunks said...

Voice is critical in the books that I read. If I can't feel what the author is telling me, then I don't waste my time. Life's too short to read a book that doesn't speak to me.

Great post Travis.

Travis Erwin said...

Thanks to all of you for the kind words. I almost deleted this psot after I wrote it because I felt like I had crawled out on a very skinny and shaky limb that I didn't know how to get off of.

When I started thinking about this post and writing it in my head it seemed a lot clearer, and I was really disappointed that I couldn't make it work on paper quite as well.

I'm going to try and do at least one writing related post a week.

alex keto said...

How about a post about how to cover a lot of time in a book? You mention that some stories cover short periods but others go over years. I always find the "over years" part harder