Thursday, April 19, 2012
FINDING YOUR VOICE available as an ebook!
I’m extremely proud to announce the release of my first self-published book, FINDING YOUR VOICE: How to Put Personality in Your Writing. It’s up and available for sale on Amazon, Smashwords and other ebook outlets.
Check it out here at: http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Your-Voice-Personality-ebook/dp/B007VEGNS6/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1334841824&sr=1-1-catcorr
It’s not exactly a self-published book. It came out in hardcover and paperback in 2003 from Writer’s Digest Books and eventually sold out. My agent, Chip Macgregor, requested the ebook rights from them and they graciously granted them and the result is the ebook is now available.
We priced it at what we felt was a fair price--$4.99—which is half the price of the paperback version.
We also changed the cover. I’d never liked the cover Writer’s Digest had provided and I saw this as an opportunity to come up with one I did like. I loved the cover they’d done on my second book for them—Hooked—and wanted to come up with something that would tie into that look. My nephew, Bo Goff—a very talented artist—came up with exactly what I wanted. The same blue background in Hooked and instead of the goldfish, he used a parrot. Get it? Hooked=fish; Voice=parrot. And, we needed to create a new press for this so I came up with… ready?... you guessed it. Blue Skies Books.
I’m very proud of this book. It was my first writer’s how-to craft book and I saw it as a response to what I perceived as the single biggest obstacle to a writer getting published—not writing in their particular, original, unique voice. As an editor myself, I knew that to be the case. For more times than I could count, I read cover letters from writers that immediately triggered my “this guy/gal can write!” antenna, only to begin reading the manuscript itself, which seemed to be written by an entirely different author. An entirely different boring writer. They’d departed from that really cool voice that was their own in their letters to this… writerly person trying to impress.
And it didn’t.
What follows is from the introduction and lays out clearly how I came to write this book and why.
I've written all my life (in my case, that began just about the same time as dinosaurs were put on the “endangered list”) and have also been privileged to teach several hundred writers of all levels and abilities as an online teacher of creative fiction writing in the famed UCLA Extension Writer's Program and these days for other venues. Even though I'd enjoyed success myself as a writer and teacher, I was much like most of my students—searching for a “secret” that would guarantee for my work the light of publication. I hunted along all the canyons and woodlands wherein such a secret might lie ... workshops, writing magazines, “how-to” books, queries to published authors I met… and so on. Even though I'd been published, I was still convinced that others met success without as much blood and sweat as I had. There just had to be some kind of “secret” Tim O'Brien and Kurt Vonnegut and Barbara Kingsolver weren't sharing—were holding close to the vest, so to speak.
Well, there was.
I discovered that secret in the most unlikely of places. In the Indiana state prison at Pendleton.
In my wild and tempestuous youth, I had gone afoul of the law and ended up serving time in that institution. I'd come home from four years in the Navy, the last two spent in Bermuda, and just kind of went crazy “back home in Indiana.” I fell in with some other guys who were very pleased to let me go insane right along with them and ended up committing a bunch of burglaries and robberies and getting my very own personalized number on my blue denim state-issued shirt. They say you remember your social security number all your life, as well as your military number. Along with those numbers, I find it hard to forget an additional series of digits . . . #49028. That was my “personality” for the next couple of years.
Decades later, having straightened up my own mess of an existence, I felt I owed something of a debt to the guys I'd left behind and so, a few years ago, I began to pay visits to the inmates downstate. I'd offer up my own life as proof that anyone can overcome the label of ex-con and go on to contribute to society rather than simply take from it.
What began to happen was that after many of those visits, an inmate would write me a lengthy letter, telling me that he, too, had ambitions to become a writer and could I advise him on how to go about learning the craft. These letters would also go into great detail about how the unlucky incarcerate had personally been “bum-rapped on the litigous” (a term I coined in one of my short stories titled “Dream Flyer”, available in my collection titled Monday's Meal). The letters would tell marvelously-inventive stories of how society had dumped on the inmate and how it wasn't his fault that he found himself in a six-by-eight-foot cell, painted an unfashionable gray. A con job, but what good writing isn't?
The thing was, these stories had all the elements of great fiction. They were rollicking, exhilarating tales of car chases, lawyerly ineptitude, shootouts, and judges they were convinced had been “fixed” or just politically motivated to be perceived by the voting public as “crime-fighters.” I might also add that many of the letters were rife with misspellings, along with grammatical and punctuation errors, but through all the slag and dross that might cause an English teacher to cringe, shone the unmistakable luster of literary gold. These guys were writers! I wrote each of them back, asking them to create for me a short story and we'd go from there.
I felt like a budding Maxwell Perkins. I was “discovering” writers and would have a major hand in shaping their craft. At least one of these guys was going to emerge a major American author, when I was done. Eat your heart out, Normie Mailer—my cons were more better than yours ever were, dude…
Not so. The stories I invariably got back could never possibly be matched to the authors of those original letters. In every single case, the author had opted to become ”writerly.” I could imagine the earnest tyro sitting on his bunk, hunched over a yellow legal pad, scribbling with a blue-capped Bic… with a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and Random House Thesaurus open beside him. Plus a copy of a coverless Zane Grey glommed from the prison library's priceless collection. Instead of the stories so passionately expressed in their letters, I was given tales of rustlers in the Wild West and Sam Spade retreads in Los Angeles and ”Noo” York City… written in a hand unmistakable as an imitation of the original…
The same thing happened when I began teaching for UCLA in the nineties. I'd get these great letters at the beginning of the class in response to the bios I asked for from my students… and then the stories that began to emerge utilized an entirely different voice.
It dawned on me what had happened. Faced with writing something an “authority” (that would be moi…) would actually be reading (and judging), they had fled from their own natural, wondrous voices and succumbed to what I started to recognize as the “writer's inferiority complex.” An inferiority complex I began to see everywhere in beginning writers and even in some fairly-seasoned pros.
As time went on and I began to teach more, I saw the malaise among beginning writers everywhere. Universally, it manifests itself in definite patterns.
The writers afflicted with this most wretched of all writer's maladies almost always “hold themselves back” from their best writing (read: natural voice) because they approach their craft with overmuch respect for the published word and/or to satisfy the critical voices they hear in their heads from all the writing teachers or mentors they've had, and end up trying to create prose they feel is in what they see to be a “writerly” style.
Instead of the very likable voice that is unique to each of them, they try to be a William Faulkner or a Sandra Cisneros clone, or, in the case of many of my inmate friends, a Zane Grey-ite, as well as for all those writing “authorities” sprinkled in their pasts, and in the process do much good for their mail carriers' end-of-year bonuses, keep the paper mill industry profitable and amass a significant collection of editor's rejection slips, but do little for their own careers.
Some of these folks do get published, but many times only because they've learned how to be technically perfect. The piece of writing accepted didn't hit any of the editor's “hot” buttons, those buttons that allow them to get through that humongous pile of manuscripts staring at them from across the desk. The buttons I'm referring to are the “don't's” of writing, i.e., improper format, misspellings, grammatical mistakes, etc.
Editors are busy folks and to get through the mass of manuscripts most use an internal checklist of “mistakes” to automatically reject a manuscript. If a story or an article makes it through that minefield, it sometimes gets published simply because it didn't hit any of those buttons or “mines.” As an editor of The Crescent Review, I would see stories like that being accepted every now and then. Sometimes, I wish we'd published the writers' cover letters instead, since those were in their natural voices and much more interesting reading.
About that “natural voice…” The theory I've arrived at through these observations is that readers select certain authors to read in much the same way as they select their personal friends: on the basis of the “voice” (personality) of that person. All human beings in the world have a circle of people who like them and want to be around them… and they also have folks who don't like them all that much. The same is true of an author's readership. They are the “friends” he or she will accumulate. Contrary to what many think, I don't believe readers are attracted nearly so much to plots and characters as much as they are to the personality of the person regaling them on the page. The same holds true for nonfìction—a reader may initially be attracted because of the subject or to the basic “facts” revealed, but unless the author provides a personality to the material, many won't stick around till the end or will only read it because they’re forced to by a boss or a teacher.
Which doesn't mean that every single person who picks up your article or story will be fascinated and mesmerized to the very last word, but lots more will than if you don't make the story or piece unmistakably yours and yours alone.
Although some won't…
That's not bad, folks. Just as in “real life” you don't honestly expect everyone to like you or want to join your “gang,” neither should you expect everyone who picks up your story or article or novel to feel a rapport with you. That's just not reasonable to expect. Don't worry about it whatsoever. You'll pick up lots more friends (readers) by being yourself than you will be by writing in a beige voice. Lots and lots more!
What is reasonable for you to expect is that no matter how idiosyncratic or “different” your own, particular voice may be, there will be a number of readers who will lìkc it. Who will be drawn to the personality on the page.
It's usually a mistake in any business to try to be “something to everyone,” and that's kind of what writing in a neutral or colorless voice is kind of doing. Trying not to offend by being so bland that the readers' emotions are left untouched.
I think that's a mistake. By being yourself on the page, you'll more than likely attract more readers because of your individuality than you would by hiding your personality behind a neutral style. Consider the departed Howard Cosell. He got it right when he said he didn't care if viewers hated him or loved him… just so long as they watched him. In fact, for those of you too young to remember Howard or those of you who couldn't care a fig less about sports, there were vast legions of people who actively hated the man and his nasal voice and belligerent projection of superior attitude. Cosell-haters probably made up half his audience! He actively cultivated those folks and they helped pay his salary by tuning in and increasing his Nielsen numbers to be much, much higher than those numbers would have been if he'd been a more neutral and unbiased observer and commentator. Providing commentary in a “beige” voice, so-to-speak…
Do you suppose everyone in America loves John Grisham's voice? Or Stephen King's voice? These are authors who are megasellers as we all know… and yet, there are lots and lots of readers who wouldn't dream of picking up their books. Think that bothers Grisham or King? Not on your life! They're very much aware that you can't be all things to all people. By developing their own personalities in their writing, they don't attract every single reader there is ... but, boy, do they attract a lot of others!
And you will, too.
Much of this writing thing is in the delivery. Professional comics realize this. They know all too well that two comedians can tell the same joke and one will get belly laughs and the other mute stares. Think about your own experience. Remember in the third grade when Joey Dultoid told a joke and everyone just stared at him and an hour later, in the lunchroom, Anna-Banana Smith told the very same joke... and had the gang hooting until they cried? Different personalities at work…
Even though Joey bombed with one audience, however, chances are he was a hit with his own circle of friends, a different audience with different sensibilities. Kind of like authors and their readerships. Anna-Banana may be the Stephen King of the lunchroom and may enjoy a large and appreciative audience because she just happens to have the kind of personality that appeals to more people, but Joey also probably has an audience, albeit smaller. If Joey tried to imitate Anna-Banana's style of delivery, chances are not only would he fail to gain any fans in that group, he'd also lose his own audience, albeit smaller. Even if the number of people who enjoy his jokes is smaller, it's still an audience, one that would probably disappear if he tried to be something he wasn't.
Kind of the same deal in writing.
Employ your own personality and, to steal a popular saying that came from the movie, Field of Dreams, “they will come.” Be someone else on the page… and they won't.
This is where I think many books on writing leave a hole in the advice given. Granted, it's vitally important to know the nuts and bolts of writing, but more importantly and universally neglected, is the tremendous role your personality plays when you arrange words and sentences. How you tell a story is at least as important as the content of that story and I contend it's quite possibly even more vital. The most important concept we can grasp as writers is sublime in its simplicity—to be yourself on the page\
And this is what the book you hold in your hands will concern itself with. Not only the critical importance of being yourself on the page instead of trying to emulate someone else or writing in a neutral voice, but also to offer up some concrete methods by which you can accomplish this goal.
To discover that your own voice is desirable is incredibly liberating and empowering. It will bring out some of the best work you've ever done. Writing that has a much higher possibility of being published.
In my own experience, ever since I've discovered this and incorporated my theories in my teaching, my students' efforts, without exception, have improved exponentially and perhaps even more important, the percentage of those getting their work published has risen dramatically. In my files, I have dozens of letters attesting to that from students who tell me my classes are head and shoulders above every other class they've ever taken and chiefly because I forever challenge them to find their own, unique voice. Now it's time to find yours.
And that’s what Finding Your Voice is all about. Hope you pick up your own copy! If you like what you read, please consider posting a review and hitting the “Like” button. I’d appreciate it!
P.S. Hope y'all all got a free copy of THE PERFECT CRIME when it was available as such. Looks like the promo worked well--it's selling like hotcakes now. Also, if you haven't yet voted, I could really use your vote in the Spinetingler Magazine's awards for Best Novel in the Legends category for THE BITCH. Thanks!