Ah, November. National Novel Writing Month. I can almost smell the fresh office supplies, the hint of double espresso and sugar drifting on the wind. The beginning of November is full of hope, promise and inspiration, but by week two?
I have been running a series on structure and sure structure has the obvious benefit of having a coherent plot/story at the end. But, there is another benefit to plotting that we often don’t think about. Voice.
Plotting ahead of time gives a newer writer an advantage that most people don’t think about. It gives us a playpen to contain our baby writing “voice.” Voice is one of those aspects of writing that is tough to define and quantify. Yet, it is at the heart of who we are as writers. The more we write, the more mature our writing voice becomes. Leave an immature, unformed voice to wander off on its own, and it will be wandering around getting into everything and making a mess.
We will get back to voice in a second…
In my opinion, there is a mistaken assumption that creativity is birthed by removing all boundaries. Just a blank page, a keyboard and your wildest imagination and GO! I disagree. I believe that limitations, boundaries, and constraints are necessary for creativity to thrive. Don’t believe me? Take a tour of Alcatraz. There are few people more creative than prison inmates.
On the positive side, if humans were born with the ability to fly, would we have invented such a vast array of flying machines? If we could communicate telepathically, would we have invented the telegraph, telephone, cell phone, or even e-mail? It is our inability to do something that focuses our energy and generates dynamic results. Light is wonderful, but when focused it becomes a laser.
An author’s voice is what defines his style. Dean Koontz has a distinctive voice when compared to John Grisham or even Amy Tan. Voice is defined by how we use words to convey imagery. I believe that when writers are new, most of us possess a voice that is in its infancy. I propose that this voice will develop more quickly if given boundaries. If an author will choose a genre, then whittle all the ideas whirling in her head down to one kernel idea, she will be closer to finding her unique writing voice than had she just started writing.
How is this?
The writer has erected boundaries that will focus her creative energy instead of letting it dissipate like white light.
Think of the preplanning for a novel as a series of lenses. You are going to shine the brilliant white light that makes up the whole of your creative capacity. Ah, but then we erect the genre lens. Genres have rules. Picking a genre will focus that white light creative energy. Then, the next lens is the one-sentence original idea. The energy focuses even more. With these two lenses, it will be harder for us to stray off on a tangent. Then, want another lens? Even a rudimentary plot outline will concentrate our energy even more. Finally? Detailed character backgrounds will add a final lens that permits us to take on that novel with all our energy at laser intensity.
When we are new, many of us have a lot of favorite authors. Our infant writing voice (tucked in its playpen to keep it out of the adverbs) is much like a baby learning to speak. It does a lot of mimicking. I find it humorous when I read first-time novels. I can read the prose and almost tell what author that writer was reading at the time he wrote the section. The voice is all over the place. That’s normal. When we are new, we are experimenting and looking for the influence(s) that will eventually take root and hold. The trick is to get past this stage.
So what are some ways we can develop our author voice?
1. Erect Boundaries
We just discussed this and it could wholly be my opinion. I believe that even pantser writers (those who write by the seat of their pants) will benefit enormously by erecting even broad constructs. You don’t have to outline down to the last detail, but a general idea of where you are going and the stops along the way are great.
Normally, around mid-way through Week Two of NaNo, I start seeing writers hit a wall. I can almost guarantee most of them just started free-writing without even a general plan, and now they’ve painted themselves in a literary corner. Been there, done that and have the collection of T-shirts…and coffee mugs. Their mind locks up and they have no idea what to say next. Not wanting to be “limited” by devices like an outline, in the end, they are “limited” by the word-prison created by failing to plan.
So how can a “limiting” device like an outline actually bring more freedom?
Think of it like taking a road trip. When you begin a trip, how you decide to travel makes a huge difference. If from the beginning, I decide my trip will be by car, as opposed to by plane, train, bicycle, roller skates, or pogo stick, I understand my limitations. By car, I cannot, for instance, go to Hawaii. Then, if I choose an end destination, there are only so many possible logical routes.
Say I am going to go to L.A. Well, from Dallas, TX, there are only so many highways that will get me there. Also, I know some routes are just a bad idea. I-20 East is not a consideration. So I know I want to take certain highways to L.A. Now my path is much clearer. Also, since I know the main highways I need to stay on, if, along the way I decide to amble down a country road (pantser) to visit the Alligator Farm and World’s Largest Ball of Dryer Lint, I know that I just have to be able to find my way back to the highway.
But what kind of trip do you think I might have if I just began driving? Sure, I might uncover some great places and have unplanned adventures….but those unplanned adventures might not be positive. They could involve getting lost in the projects, circling the same landmark 50 times, or having a flat tire in the desert.
2. Read, read, then read some more.
The best musicians study all kinds of music and then blend elements with their own unique style. That is a great parallel to how we develop our own writing voice. Read other writers. What do you like? Try it. What did you hate? Lose it. What could have worked, but didn’t ? Modify it. The more you read, the more hues of color you add to the pallet that you will use to define your voice. You will have more subtlety, nuance and dimension than a writer who doesn’t read.
3. Write, write, then write some more.
Put it to the test. Does a certain style work for you? Did it feel natural or forced? When did you hit your stride? Can you push it to another level? Practice, practice practice. Jimi Hendrix did not start out his music career playing Purple Haze. Elvis, Axel Rose and Meatloaf began as a gospel singers. Picasso began painting traditional subjects in traditional ways. All of these artists practiced and studied and added new elements until they created something genuinely unique.
Nanowrimo is a wonderful time to mix things up, try new styles, take on a genre you’ve always loved but maybe were too afraid to write. I once wrote a sci-fi fantasy. It isn’t my genre, but dabbling in something was exciting and fun and pushed me in new ways. The story ended up winning a major contest, and this was in a genre I didn’t even believe I could write! Trying new things strengthens those literary muscles, so be brave.
What are your thoughts on voice? Do you guys have a different definition? What are your experiences? Frustrations? Does your voice climb out of the playpen and cover the living room in Cheerios? Do you have some suggestions you’d like to add?
I do want to hear from you guys!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!