Writing Legend Les Edgerton Teaches Us How to Create a Remarkable Writing Voice
Earlier this month we talked about “writing voice.” All agents want to find it and all new writers want to know what the heck it is. I did my best to educate you guys on voice, but frankly, compared to my writer heroes, I am a mere neophyte. I was at least smart enough to know what I didn’t know and to look to those who could lead the way. Les Edgerton has been one of my writing heroes for a LONG time and, frankly, having him here is making me a wee dizzy. I haven’t been this fan girl since I kidnapped James Rollins in my creepy interview van.
Unfortunately for me, did you see Les’s picture? Does this look like a dude who would fall for the FREE CANDY schtick? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. So, rather than smearing a $50 Barnes and Noble Gift Card with honey and sprinkles and hoping to catch the correct writer, I just went ahead and asked.
Boring, but effective. And come on! Les needed to be here, because, how can we talk about writing voice without a visit from the master?
Take it away Les!
Hello fellow WANAs!
Thank you so much for allowing me to appear on your blog, Kristen. I follow it religiously and am amazed at both the wonderful info you impart and the collegiality of the people who gather here. This is a signal honor and I’m stoked to be here!
You asked me to talk about my book on the writer’s voice, FINDING YOUR VOICE: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, and I thought what might be valuable would be to include a chapter from that book. Hope your readers agree. We just made it available as an ebook and you can check it out on Amazon.
I’m very proud of this book, Kristen. It was the first of my writer’s craft books and over the years I’ve received lots of emails and letters from writers who tell me it’s helped inform their own writing and that’s just plain gratifying. It’s why we all write, right? To make a difference in others’ lives.
BTW, if you folks enjoy the selection I’m providing, please consider helping me out with my own writing. My latest novel, a psychological thriller titled THE BITCH is one of six nominees for the Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel award in the Legends category. This is a huge honor just to be nominated and if somehow I’d win, well, I’d be speechless… (For those who know me, you know that’s almost impossible to comprehend…)
I need to explain that the title isn’t a pejorative title towards women, nor is it a term for a female dog, but is what outlaws and criminals call the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” ha-bitch-ual criminal statute. To vote for it, just go to the link, scroll down to the “Best Novel” in the Legends category and click on my book. Then, just scroll to the end and enter it. And… thank you!
I hope the stuff on voice below proves helpful in your own writing!
CHAPTER SELECTION ON VOICE
Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
This, then, is what it’s all about, finally.
Putting your personality into your prose. Truly, the “secret” to getting published.
William Zinsser stresses this in his best-selling writer’s craft book, On Writing Well, when he writes: ”I wrote one book about baseball and one about jazz. But it never occurred to me to write one of them in sports English and the other in jazz English. I tried to write them both in the best English I could, in my usual style.
Though the books were widely different in subject, I wanted readers to know that they were hearing from the same person. It was my book about baseball and my book about jazz. Other writers would write their book. My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you.”
If your finished novel, short story, article, poem, personal memoir, bio of the latest corrupt politician or outstanding statesperson—whatever—reads as if written by another person . . . then it was.
You need to seize it and make it the work only you could possibly have written.
First off, however, you need to determine if your voice has, indeed, been camouflaged.
There are at least three ways to tell if this is so.
Are the Word Choices, Sentence Usages, and Phrases Employed Yours?
The first “litmus test” is to check the language in the piece itself.
Author Jules Renard said, “If the word arse is read in a sentence, no matter how beautiful the sentence, the reader will react only to that word.” He’s not singling out the “olde English” noun except as an example of the sort of word a writer shouldn’t use unless it’s organic to him and is natural to the context in which it’s used. The kind of word that draws attention to itself, at the expense of the fìctive dream we struggle so mightily to create for the reader.
Look for those kinds of examples in your copy, and instead of reaching automatically for your thesaurus, try a different approach to coming up with a better word.
One way to do this is by clustering. Write the word that needs replaced in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Draw a short, straight line out from the word, and quickly jot down the next word that pops into your mind. Do the same with that word.
Do this for at least seven to eight words, then sit back and look at what you have. Oftentimes, the word you need emerges. If that doesn’t work, at least change any such word that drastically calls attention to itself to something less intruding and attention-gathering.
As Anthony Burgess says, “People don’t like using dictionaries when they’re reading mere novels.”
Jane Burroway, in her seminal writing text, Writing Fiction:A Guide to Narrative Craft, says much the same thing, but expands the advice even more: “When you are carried away with the purple of your prose,the music of your alliteration, the hilarity of your wit, the profundity of your insights, then the chances are that you are having a better time writing than the reader will have reading. No reader will forgive you, and no reader should. Just tell the story. The style will follow of itself if you just tell the story.”
Check your text for overt evidence of a writer at work. Whenever the reader becomes aware someone is writing the piece—whether it be fiction or nonfìction—then the “fictive dream” (which applies to nonfìction as well) is interrupted and you’ve lost your reader at least briefly, if not permanently.
You’ve created a speed bump, at the minimum.
If you can identify more than 5 percent of the language you used as being essentially foreign to your normal usage, then you’re not employing your own personality on the page. That’s just too many words alien to your vocabulary and it will show up as forced and unnatural. In fact, 5 percent is just about the upper limit. Go back and substitute more of your own language.
The structure you give your sentences can show you whether or not you’re solidly within your voice.
If you’re using complete sentences, you’re probably not writing in your natural voice.
In a recent Neighborhood Connections class (local, adult-ed class) I taught, a woman who wrote otherwise wonderful prose had a sticking point with sentence fragments. She simply could not bring herself to write anything less than a complete sentence. She confessed that every time she did, the image of her seventh-grade English teacher loomed large on the screen of her mental Sony.
The result was prose, that, while writ with grace, beauty and interest, nevertheless, was being strangled with formality. She was such a good writer that she was able to imbue her “Tom Wolfeian beige voice” with energy, but it wasn’t until she was able to force herself to write sentence fragments within the text that her stories really began to sparkle.
She “thought” in sentence fragments at the appropriate places in her writing, but she had developed the habit of editing them as she wrote to render them complete units, with subject, predicate, and all that stuff. It took almost the entire six weeks of the class for her to work through her problem, but once she overcame that inhibition, the traces were thrown off, and she confessed, after her last class, that she felt “wildly free” for the first time in her writing life. She’d been so “conditioned” that at first she couldn’t even bring herself to use contractions in her character’s dialogue!
The trick to writing well? Write simply; write clearly. Eschew flowery language.
Aim for the same kind of clarity-bullseye in your own writing, whether it be a lean or lush style. The kind of writing that when the nonwriter or casual reader reads it, thinks, “Man! This writing stuff looks easy; I could do this¦”
Look at other writers you admire and see if the simpleness of their language—whether lush or spare or somewhere in-between—isn’t one of their strengths, too.
When rereading your work and you come to a part that has been gussied up by the over-baroqueness of your language, try rewriting it with only one thing in mind—to make it as clear to the reader as a day in Santa Monica after a Santa Ana wind has blown through.
If your style requires ten words to do that and another’s style uses four, that’s all right. Just don’t use twenty words if ten do the job, or eight, if your own style is comfortable with six. Compare the initial version and the rewritten one, and see which one you like the best. Better, have someone else read them and tell you which one they prefer.
Don’t stick a Rolls-Royce hood ornament on your Chevy Lumina and try to fool people!
Second Litmus Test—Get Feedback From Others
Perhaps one of the best ways to cull out those parts of your writing where you’ve strayed from your own trés-cool voice is to solicit the opinions of others. If you belong to a writing group, ask your fellow writers if you can read your material to them, requesting they inform you which, if any, parts “don’t sound like you.” Mark through those sentences and sections with a marker (I’d suggest yellow instead of black), and then later, go through them to see if you agree. If the language has departed from the rest of the piece, you know it needs to be rewritten until it blends with the rest.
Read your material aloud, and ask yourself if you’d like to be locked up in a room with the person who wrote this and listen to the sound of that voice for several hours at a time. If not, then you’re probably not putting your own personality into your prose as much as you should be. After all, we like our voices when we’re ourselves, don’t we? We hardly ever tell ourselves to “shut up!” when we’re being natural.
Tweety in the Coal Mine
Way back when, coal miners would carry a canary in a cage down into the bowels of the mine with them. The purpose of the canary was to let the miners know if deadly gasses were present so they could get the hell out before they keeled over. They kept a close watch on Tweety, and if he fell over dead (with those little Xs for eyes), they hiked as fast as they could to the surface.
That’s what you need. A canary to let you know if the ”gas” of your prose has become deadly. Hopefully, your friend or writing group won’t fall over onto the floor with those little Xs where their orbs used to be, but they should be able to sniff where your writing has become stifling and beige.
Beige has an odor somewhat like skunk cabbage does when you step into a patch of it. Deodorize your prose until it smells sweet—like you!
Be Alert to Critic Nag in the Room . . .
The third part of the litmus test to see if you’re camouflaging your natural voice is to check the room periodically to see if Critic Nag has crept in under the doorsill or through an open window. He’s usually invisible, so the only way to spot them is to read what you’ve written to see if he was typing while your mind spaced, as it does from time to time with us writer-types.
A good place to look for evidence that he’s lurking somewhere in the room is in your character’s dialogue. If you find your characters never use contractions in their speech, for instance, that’s a solid clue that Critic Nag is sitting over in the corner, smirking evilly at you.
If your characters always use complete sentences, wouldn’t dream of using a contraction, without fail use the correct words or word combinations like “give me” instead of “gimme,” then Critic Nag has probably snuck into the room with you.
Look for Critic Nag’s whisper in your ear when you’re writing emotional scenes. He’ll try to encourage you to use lurid language and not trust your own writing ability to convey the emotion. He’s a crafty little imp!
When you’re writing those scenes, keep in mind the advice of Philip Gerard in his excellent book Writing a Book That Makes a Difference, where he says: “Flatten the language. The hotter the action, the cooler you want the language, to a point.”
You need to choose the word that fits the situation on the page you’re trying to create—whether that be description or the business or action of a scene, but you also need to choose the word that fits you comfortably. It has to carry the intent, but it also has to reflect you and your emotions. That’s the only way it will ring true and be unmistakably yours.
Another clue that will tell you ol’ Critic Nag has been around is if your passages of description have been overwritten and in a too-flowery style. If you read passages full of window-pane, static description, instead of active, page-turning description. This is what one of those many fiends who compose Critic Nag urged you to do way back when. He’s in the room!
He’s also been around if you begin to reread your stuff and unfamiliar words jump out at you. You know, those words you’ve never once used in conversation and look newly-purchased from that sale you visited on Dictionary/Thesaurus.com. (Or, found on eBay, most likely.)
To Reiterate . . .
In summary, there are three basic ways to seize control of your material and make it your own:
1. Check the language you’ve used in the piece.
Mark the words that leap up at you from the page that clearly aren’t yours and come up with choices from your vocabulary.
2. Have others read your material and tell you which parts aren’t “you.”
Pick folks who know you well. Don’t use them to tell you if the writing is “good” or make that kind of quality judgment; instead, simply ask them to let you know which passages “don’t sound like you.” That’s all you need—someone to point out where you departed from yourself.
3. Seek out and banish Critic Nag from the room.
Just always remember: Don’t let others rent space in your head! Especially Critic Nag . . .
THANK YOU LES!!!!! Many of you who follow this blog already know and LOVE Les because I talk about him all the time and make you buy his books :D. So please, for those of you who have loved Les’s work, please go vote for him in the Spinetingler Award. I know you guys have a ton of books, but you have until the end of April to read and vote for The Bitch… *giggle*.Just go to the link. I hope you guys can show some WANA support for a writer who has done so much to help use newbies grow into trained professionals.
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, 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 April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note–I’ve been having technical problems lately and am in the middle of rebuilding my web site. Also, my toddler has had an allergic reaction to something and he has been home sick, which is slowing me down.
I will just have to announce last week’s winner on Monday. Sorry, icky sick baby has made it impossible to tally all the comment entries from last week (especially since I had the rare privilege of being Freshly Pressed, which means the comments EXPLODED).
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 . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the 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.