05-26-18 – Blog Queen - Sarah Raplee

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

VOICE - it's all about YOU

Hi everyone! I am YA author B A Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for teens. My tagline tells you what I am about - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them. 

This past weekend I attended a retreat sponsored by the Windy City RWA chapter focused on that elusive quality in writing called Voice. It's that thing that no one can exactly define, but editors all cry out for a fresh voice. As readers, we all know it when we see it on a page.  Voice is what keeps readers coming back for more books by a favorite author, not just more any old book.  When a reader says, "these words speak to me" they are talking about the author's voice feeling real.

About sixty authors attended the retreat at the Hilton Garden in Naperville, Il. There, Rita Award Winning author Barbara Samuel led us through discussions and a series of exercises to show us that Voice (not the character voice, but our voice as a writer) is the sum of everything we as individuals have ever experienced.

We can't not use our voice. However, we can lose it, water our voices down by trying to appeal to a specific market or editor, or by struggling to respond to critique partners or contest judges. This can lead us to blunt the edges of our unique voices and end up creating something watered down and bland that leads to a rejection or tepid reviews.

Our own personal experiences have an effect on the stories we chose to tell, and on the way we tell them. The fast-paced event (really, a day and a half went by much too quickly) was filled with insightful commentary along with short, timed writing exercises that helped us understand our own voices. Barbara Samuels also responded to questions about the differences between Voice and Tone, and how voice transcends genre.

The various exercises were instrumental in helping me understand and cultivate me own voices. For example, we were asked to list things we loved - and not people like a spouse or child. We had to come up with specific things about them that we loved, forcing us to dig deep. Many of our answers involved the senses, the taste of that first sip of coffee in the morning, the feel of certain materials on our skin, the timbre of a laugh, or the smell of different foods, flowers, etc. Some of the answers were so poetic I almost fell in love with other people's favorite things. The exercise also brought home the importance of using the senses in our writing, especially the sense of smell, because of how many memories that sense evoked. We self-examined out lives, at young ages when we first began to differentiate ourselves from our family, during the middle school years when .we started examining our place in the larger world, and in new adulthood, when we had to contend with real independence.

Setting effects more than just our stories. The culture we grew up in, the geography, and even the weather  have inevitable effects on our writing voice. Voice, Barbara emphasized, is the "sum of you." Everything that made us during our lifetimes explain how different authors can take the exact same idea and come up with vastly different stories and representations.

During one writing exercise we were in groups of two and each person wrote a small vignette based on the same picture.  (Not this picture. I assure you, the picture we had was of a more stern-faced and truly imposing woman. This one makes me think of a grandmother. But the idea remains the same.)

I came up with a piece from the point of view of a relative of the woman in the picture, describing a feisty woman with no patience for tourists.  My partner, knowing as little about what I wrote as I did about hers, wrote a story about a tourist spying an elderly woman, and stopping for selfies with her.

That's how voice has different authors of different backgrounds create totally different works and feelings even if based on the same event or person.

We were reminded that being a writer meant having an intimate understanding of the true meaning of delayed gratification.  That's one reason we must not, can not work primarily for money.

Yes, money is important, but if it is the number one reason for writing, an author will end up emotionally unfilled and without a feeling of joy in your work. The writing that results will display that plainly to any reader. The workshop included advice on ways to recover before we lose our joy in writing, to reconnect when the act of writing seems too much.

Things we can do to keep that joy infusing our Voice:
  • Take some time to read purely for pleasure – not a how to book, or the news (that's pretty joyless these days anyway) or for a class, but just something you feel a desire to read.
  • Take yourself out for “artist dates.” Go somewhere stimulating and fun, for example the botanical gardens or a pet show.
  • Spend ten minutes a day writing something just for you. Not for an editor or even for a friend, write something you want that you know only you will ever see.
  • Use discipline to combat the inevitable distractions (including that darn internet)
  • Remember to lighten up; its only a book.
At the end, participants received a worksheet of questions that were an opportunity for self-examination. Some of the questions forced us to think about things like:
  • Where we grew up (our life setting)
  • What were the main ethnic groups around us as we grew up (our cultural milieu)
  • A particular book we wished we had written
  • Our secret passion
  • Things we would like people to say about our work.
Then came the big questions – If you could only write one book in your life, what would it be. And why aren’t you writing it?

In the end we used the answers to come up with a statement about ourselves and our unique voices. Curiously, by the time it ended, I had a variation on my tagline, my voice is: about real young people facing today's trials while in the process of growing up to be real adults...and the people who love them.

As Socrates said, Know Thyself. It's the beginning of wisdom, and of an unbeatable Voice.

Barbara Samuel (contemporary and historical romance)  also writes as Barbara O'Neal (women's fiction) and as Lark O'Neal (New adult romance)

P. S. If you are interested, here is the piece I wrote:

You never see Tia Ana without her hat. And no, don't you dare tell her that's a man's hat. Actually, don't say anything to her except maybe "Good day," unless you don't like yourself and don't mind getting blasted when she lifts her head, stares at you, and lets lose with her fire-edged tongue.
Some tourist -- had to be a gringo with that pale face and blue eyes-- once asked her to let him take a picture of her.  Would you believe it, he's still alive, but his camera isn't. Not after she swung her oversized bag at his head. They both hit the cobblestones, the camera cracking as it burst into pieces, the guy sobbing. 
She harrumphed and waddled away, a smile playing on her thick lips. Never mess with my Tia Ana.
I looked back at that and said yes, that's they way I write. Real people in all their glory.


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, B.A.--good reminder that we all need to use our unique voice.

Diana McCollum said...

I really enjoyed your post!