Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Q&A with The Lit Coach: Finding Voice

Welcome to part two of three of Q&A with The Lit Coach! Today I'll address the issue of finding the best voice for your fiction.

Q: I'm revising a novel and was lucky enough to stumble upon Stephen Koch's incredible book, THE MODERN LIBRARY WRITER'S WORKSHOP: A GUIDE TO THE CRAFT OF WRITING. I love his chapters on storytelling and most of all on voice.

Can you recommend any other works - chapters, essays, books that focus on voice for those of us trying to sort out this issue in our own fiction?

A: While I highly recommend investing a substantial amount of time learning everything you can about the craft of writing through workshops and from great books like the one you suggested, there comes a time when you must face your characters and allow them to show you what they're made of. While I'm sure Koch's book is no doubt inspiring and thought provoking (and I'm being totally sincere about that), you will learn more by reading lots of fiction within the genre you see yourself best fitting (to start, then expand to other genres for an advanced study) and studying how THOSE authors developed their characters' voices through careful detail and dialog.

But this issue isn't about voice, really. Voice is what shines through from knowing your characters. You having total clarity about your characters is how you achieve voice. So let's take a step back and examine your main protag/antag: What's their history, their passions, their motivations, their challenges, heck, their DNA? What makes them unique? Why do we care about them? You should know your characters as well as you know yourself (and I hope you know yourself pretty well by now) BEFORE you write the first sentence. Knowing your plot before you start is great, you should, but knowing your characters just as well will help you determine how those characters are going to navigate that plot structure. Side note: you may collect lots of fun data about your characters that will never make it into the book and that's fine - we'll get the impression through your storytelling.

What can you do now? If you're just beginning to write your novel, get to know your characters. Sketch them out in detail. Know what excites them, what sets them off, what turns them on, what challenges them, what they fear, love, loathe. What do they want more/less of in their lives? Have fun with it! What kind of music do they listen to? Clothes? Pets? Weird habits? You get the picture.

Step Two: Once you know them (and your plot), then start writing. You'll be amazed how easily you'll slip into the voice you created for them through character detail. Go with it! It may sound like hiccups at first; you're just warming up. Keep writing. It will begin to flow.

What if you're already mid-way or finished with a novel and your/your character's voice is still flat? This is a tough decision to make, but one that you will ultimately need to follow through with if you want any real change. Rebuild your characters. Go back to square one and draw up those character sketches. Get to really know them. Sometimes beginning writers are afraid to change something they've worked so hard on and I totally understand the "I gotta save this because this took me forever to write" mentality but honey, if it ain't workin', it ain't workin' and no amount of cut and paste editing is going to do the trick.

I've taken a few of my clients through this tear down and re-build exercise. It's intense and it's a lot of work, but they are finally seeing the light shining through their characters and best of all, they're having FUN with them! They actually LOVE them now! They let go of what they thought their characters should be (the ones that weren't going anywhere), got to really know them by rebuilding them yet keeping a few good attributes, and are letting them loose in their plot maze, which they will navigate expertly with distinct voice.

So, writers, to recap: To achieve a compelling voice for your characters, you have to know them. Draw out your characters through a detailed character sketch so you know everything about them. For inspiration and education, read fiction (your genre to start) to study how other authors have developed their three-dimensional, colorful, life-sized characters. Then start writing.

Hope that helps, Kay! I wish you loads of success!

Friday, I'll address plot structure.

Happy Writing!


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