Meet Lisa Hannon! Lisa is a good friend, and considered a mentor by the members of the Fort Stockton, Texas Writers Group, Critique Cafe. Here 's what she has to say about finding your voice.
Finding your voice
“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.” Terry Pratchett
Have you ever had someone say to you, “You write just like you talk; I could ‘hear’ your voice while I was reading every word.”
Congratulations! You’ve found within yourself that attribute an author needs most of all—your voice. The good thing about this ability you’ve already developed is that, when you sit down to write your novel, you will also be able to write down your character’s words in their voice. If you haven’t developed it yet, you can, very easily.
Listen. To yourself, to others, to your characters. Listen a lot.
The biggest trouble I’ve gotten into in a novel is when I’ve started telling my characters what to do and attempting to crowbar them into my outline. When I stopped listening to their voices, they simply stopped talking. And doing. And that meant my fingers slowed on the keyboard, dragging and stumbling, until I finally had to put that novel down. And, until I’m willing to listen to my characters, that’s where that particular piece will stay.
Oh, but when I listened, they ran and fought and loved and argued and cried and loved some more, and I was scrambling like mad just to write it all down fast enough. That’s what writing feels like when it’s right. When you stop listening, they stop talking. So listen, watch, learn and write.
How do you make sure each character sounds different in dialogue, especially when they’re regionally similar, with comparable patterns and colloquialisms? Give them a verbal tic. Be sparing with it, and even if you are, you may still have to go back and take a lot of them out later, as they get annoying. One character might start every third sentence with, “Here’s the deal…” This can be because they’re insecure and explanatory, or overbearing and bossy. Another character might end every sentence or nearly every sentence on the upswing? Yeah, it’s annoying, but that one little piece of punctuation can define a character very clearly.
Start listening to the people around you talk, if you don’t already. Note how they speak, the patterns of their speech, their intonations and their accents, as well as what they’re talking about. Steal whatever you need for your characters.
My current day job is writing proposals. My most successful proposals have been those which I wrote in the same way I speak in business situations. However, in that world, I construct my speech very differently than I do at home, or with my extended family. You probably do as well.
I do this because I’ve worked virtually for a number of years. In order to make it easy for the other people on the phone, who are not necessarily native English speakers, my voice slips into deliberate Midwestern newscaster blandness. That is, of course, other than the occasional, apparently inescapable “y’all.”
However, while my vocal intonations and word choices may change, my vocal patterns do not. I am to the point, blunt without being impolite, and tend to cut through the drek to stay on agenda as much as possible. This is exactly what I do in written documents, as well. “Here is what you asked for—I look forward to working with you after we win the bid.”
I have written a number of unpaid articles for LinkedIn, and plan to continue. Bluntly, I am still struggling to find my voice in those. It remains somewhere between proposal-speak and opinion-speak, and I’m working on it. By writing. And reading. And listening.
Op/Eds or Blogs
Another way to exercise your writing voice is to write opinion/editorial pieces for your local paper. Papers are almost always looking for local writers who are dependable and who have a point of view that might matter to their readers. Don’t just write it as a “here’s my opinion” throwaway piece. Write it as if you were speaking to your first reader, whether imaginary or real. Most of my op/eds are written as if I were speaking to my extended family, with my amazing first reader, my husband, sitting beside me.
You won’t make much money—I don’t even charge the primary small-town paper I write for—but you will get your writer’s chops, and have proof that you know how to write to a deadline week after week.
If you’d prefer to blog, then blog. Oddly enough, it’s probably the most personal writing I do and probably the most boring for other people. It’s the place where I put my photographs of this beautiful country, as well as some of my crafting results, baking recipes, my ambitions, all kinds of things that are important to me and not necessarily to anyone else. It’s where all the stuff that I write that doesn’t fit anywhere else goes.
If a blog is where you choose to exercise your voice and want it to be heard, please note that the philosophy, “If you build it, they will come,” does not work for anything other than baseball fields and Kevin Costner. If you want blog traffic, you’re going to have to work for it—and that is a whole other column on its own.
My Voice, as Opposed to Your Voice
Every writer has a voice. My “natural” voice tends to be colloquial Texan, more East than West. I’ve included the ending I wrote for next week’s Fort Stockton Pioneer op/ed in the next three paragraphs. The gist of this “Thinking Out Loud” column opines that so many of the issues we face in this country are because we are so polarized: black/white, Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative.
You name it; we pick a side to be on. My tendency to listen to both sides often gets me in trouble.
“Here’s the deal about fences. If you build them right, they’re quite comfortable. Mine’s about a foot tall, easy to step over, padded quite nicely so I don’t bruise myself, and has nice little seats built on it every ten feet or so. It’s where I sit while y’all rabbit on about whatever you are emotionally invested in for a belief system. It lets me remain comfortable until I hear something that I can agree with, or at least nod and say, ‘You have a point.’
Which drives my husband crazy.
I married a conservative. My family is conservative. I live in a conservative state. But I’m thinking out loud that this does not mean I’m allowed to stop thinking. You’re not either. Don’t just nod when someone puts a bowl of ca-ca on the table and tells you it’s chocolate pudding. Tell ‘em it smells funny. And don’t take a bite of it.”
I wrote each of the sections above in the voice I was referencing—or at least I gave it the old college try. Go back and read it again, if you like. Did you pick up on the fact that I used almost no contractions in my section on Business Writing? That’s because I don’t use them in my business meetings, as they’re confusing for those people who know English only as their second language. I also keep my colloquialisms to myself, other than to help people laugh and relax before getting down to business.
There are also very, very few places in my life where I actually find myself speaking in complete sentences, so I long since discarded the subject-verb-object rule. You’ll find sentence fragments sprinkled like rose petals across the silk sheets of my writing. Not necessarily proud of that, and oh my, do I hate the little green squiggly lines of the grammar autocorrect. But I choose to write that way because I choose to speak that way.
The My Voice section was also written the way I actually speak. This particular section is simply written in my relaxed trainer/writer voice, as were the Fiction and Op/Ed blog sections.
I’m about up to my chin in this whole self-referential stuff, so I’m going to stop here.
What do you think about your voice? Do you still have a way to go? Do you think I’m right about how important voice can be in writing? What taught you most about your own voice? How do you hear your character’s voices? Mostly through their actions or their dialogue? Please add your comments below.
Thank you, Jody Day, for reaching out to ask me to guest post today. I was honored to be asked, and pleased to supply the post!
Lisa C Hannon is a 30-year veteran writer and editor, including print, web and video content for business and industry, as well as decades of opinion writing for community newspapers. In her eclectic career, she has served as a newspaper editor, website writer, designer and editor, and a communications consultant, among other less savory occupations such as carnival ride operator. Her awards include honors from the Texas Gulf Coast Press Association for serious and humorous articles, as well as photography. She also won the Telly Award for scriptwriting for a video history of the United States Army. Along with writer, mother, grandmother and ranch wife are just a few of her current identities, thus the title of her blog, “Trials and Tribulations of the AADD,” which can be found at http://ttaadd.wordpress.com.