Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guest Post: Finding Your Voice for Writing Short Stories and Novels by Michelle Eging

Back in December when I visited my parents, I went through some boxes I still have at their house to see what I could fit in my suitcase to take home. My family has moved at least eighteen times and for the majority of those moves, I have had boxes labeled "Papers". As I went through my "Paper" boxes, I re-read some of the stores that were essentially my teething days as a writer. I picked up on something I had never noticed before.  Even in middle school, I my writing had a voice.

There were turns of phrase, descriptions, and words that I used back then that I use now. There were details that I chose to focus on over others, wry humor, and themes that still exist in my writing. I had a style woven within the tapestry of what I'd learned from the books I'd read at that point in my life.

For a budding writer, and, perhaps, even the more advanced (I'm not sure, I'll let you know when I get there), the search for a voice is almost like the search for the Holy Grail. It's this abstract thing that everyone's heard of, but no one's ever seen, or touched.  How do you know if you have a voice or not in your writing? How do you develop it? What the heck is a voice, even?

The writer's voice is what makes that story unique from the millions of narratives out there. As much as we like to think our stories are original, chances are, a version of it has been told somewhere, sometime before. It is the filter through which a story, that has no doubt been told countless times, becomes new. Perhaps another word you can use for voice is style. Not only does this encompass the story you choose to tell, but the details you include, the adjectives and verbs you use, the structure of your sentences, your pacing, your spacing. Each stroke of ink you make creates your voice.

Without it, your writing is bland and will sound cliché. With it, you become a storyteller that people seek out because they want to spend time with not just the characters you've created and the plot you've subjected them to (or they've brought upon themselves, depending on how you write), but your unique voice as well.

I might sound like a parrot when share the keys I've found to uncovering a writing voice and then polishing it so it glimmers and shines. Forgive me for not being original—I'll just have to entrance you with my voice so you won't mind:)

First, you need to read . . . a lot. Yes, it keeps you up to date with what is being written in your genre, and yes, it's great market research. But reading does more than that. It opens your mind to what is possible with narrative. For me, I can think of two books that changed the caliber of my writing and the strength of my voice in very different ways. The first is the History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Here I encountered a style that I'd never been conscious of before, one which shared similar threads with my own voice (so many metaphors!) and made me recognize their existence within me. Just minutes after finished this book, I wrote a short story unlike anything I'd ever written before, in a voice that was even more distinct. The second book is Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaimon. I never knew short stories could do what Neil Gaimon does with the art form...until I read what he did. Reading this book gave me a key I didn't know I was looking for to a door I never dreamed existed. And, as a result, I used the short story form to explore a whole new realm of what ifs.

The next method to developing your voice is just as paradigm changing as the first: write, write, and write some more. Do you expect to play Chopin after one piano lesson? Or sculpt a statue of David the first time you pick up a chisel? For some reason, a lot of people don't see writing as an art form that takes just as much practice as becoming a virtuoso with the cello. Since I can only speak from personal experience, I will tell you that I have spent thousands of hours writing—sacrificing socializing, pursuing other interests, studying for exams, and sleep—because of this drive to tell a story and tell it well. I have one novel that I've been working on since I was sixteen, learning something new about writing novels with each draft. My last draft (the tenth draft) was 500 pages long and I threw out the whole thing because I needed to change a few fundamental elements that made my story predictable and cliché.  What all this time spent writing has amounted to is an ability to use punctuation, grammar, and syntax to communicate my ideas with what seems to be little effort. This time spent writing has made the written language my element, my mouthpiece, my voice.  

Michelle Eging is a Copywriter at Five Star Franchising. She received her bachelor degree from Brigham Young University for Humanities with an English Emphasis. Her short story "Fishbowl" was published with Yareah Magazine and she is in the rewriting process for two other short stories which she hopes to shop soon. She has a blog called Grab Life By the Pen and you can find her on twitter at @MCEging

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