|My agent, Chip Macgregor in a photo showing all the power of Photoshop and how it can remove literally dozens and dozens of imperfections...|
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
FINDING YOUR VOICE
Years ago, I published my first writer’s craft book, FINDING YOUR VOICE with Writer’s Digest Books. It enjoyed wonderful success and last year sold out all of the print copies. My agent, Chip Macgregor was able to secure the ebook rights to it and with his help I was able to put out an ebook version of it. We changed the cover and everything else remained the same. And, it’s still selling like crazy!
In the last few days, Chip has graciously posted a couple of excerpts from it on his blog and he got a lot of great comments on the posts. You can access them here. This link will take you to the most recent post and if you just scroll down, you’ll find the two posts on Finding Your Voice.
I thought it might be helpful today to include an exercise I used to give when I was the visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Toledo. I stole it from my buddy, Jane Bradley. (Keep in mind what they say: Good writers borrow—great writers steal…)
The impetus behind it is knowing that every single person and living thing sees the same exact scene in a different way. Take a single city block. Say, a residential street in a lower-class neighborhood. Take two different individuals, one a welfare worker and the second an aluminum siding salesman.
The welfare worker might notice the tricycle standing upended and with a missing wheel in the front yard that needs mowing and weed removal, along with the sack of empty beer bottles at the curb awaiting pickup, and think, “I need to check with the people in this house to see if there’s any child abuse going on.”
The siding salesman might not even see or register the trike or the empties at the curb, but might see the peeling paint of the house next to it and think, “Damn! Here’s a guy who could use some new siding.” The things the welfare worker saw might be invisible to him. He sees them perhaps, but he doesn’t see them.
These are just two small examples of how different people look at the same exact scene but each registers very different things.
It’s this condition we all operate under that you can use to inform the characters in the novel you’re writing. Let’s say you have a burglar in your story and you have him walk down that same street. He might not notice the trike in front of the one house nor the peeling paint job of its neighbor, but he might indeed notice the widescreen TV he sees through the front window of the second house and notice that the door is slightly ajar and the wood appears to be a bit rotted. Easy access… Neither the welfare worker or the siding salesman noticed what your burglar focused on. We all practice selective vision depending on who we are, what our jobs are, and on a myriad of other factors.
And, this is how you get into your character’s frame of mind. If you’re writing a story and have a character who’s say a game warden, then climb in your car and take a drive in the country. Get yourself inside what you perceive is a game warden’s mind and try to notice the kinds of things such a person would notice. Really look for the things a game warden might notice that you yourself probably wouldn’t. Let’s say you drive by a woods and notice a pickup truck parked in the open field next to it. If you were driving down that same road in your normal frame of mind as a novelist or a housewife or a Laundromat owner or whatever and whoever you are in “real life,” you might notice there’s a truck there, but it would most likely be a blip in your minds’-eye and quickly be gone without much or even any thought to it. But… in your game warden frame of mind, you notice that it’s July and as far as you know there’s no hunting season going on and you wonder if maybe that truck belongs to a deer poacher.
Now you’re thinking like your character! This is the time to return home and begin writing the scene from the game warden’s pov. You’ve just became that game warden yourself and will write with the kind of verisimilitude a real game warden might bring to the typewriter or computer.
See how this works?
Here’s the exercise I gave my students: I prepared a list of all kinds of characters and made little slips of paper with each character on it. A typical list might be: a nun, an armed robber, an astronaut, a six-year-old girl, a German shepherd, a person from Ghana on their first day in the U.S., an Amish teenaged girl who’d never been away from her farm before today, a sparrow, an alcoholic with no money and no booze, a pimp and so on. You can put virtually anything and any kind of character you wish on the list. I then ask the students to draw out one of the slips and not tell any of their classmates what they drew. They’re then asked to go out into the campus and note what they see but through the eyes of that character. When they’re done, they’re to return to class and take ten minutes to write a brief scene through that persona. Nowhere in it are they to reveal who or what they are, other than through the artifacts they describe seeing.
When they’re done, each student stands up and reads his or her scene. Then, the rest of the class tries to guess who or what they are. It’s a very rare occasion when the class doesn’t guess almost instantly who they are, even if their character is really esoteric, like the Amish girl or the German shepherd. This is absolutely one of the best exercises I’ve ever come upon for showing writers how to get inside their fictional characters hearts and minds. It’s also extremely instructive in illustrating how the same scene is seen very differently by the various characters. Most just go out into the quad the campus buildings are around so most are using the same exact scene. But, if there are twenty people in class, we’re treated to twenty very different descriptions of the same exact scene. I’m not big on most writing exercises, but this is one that really works. Try it for your own novel or short story if you’re writing a character that isn’t you. You’ll be amazed at how much more accurate your depiction becomes once you’ve walked around your neighborhood or taken a drive in your town looking at ordinary vistas you look at every day but through the eyes of your particular character.
Plus, it’s just plain fun to do! I guarantee you no one misses that class when they know it’s coming up. They’ve heard too much about it from kids who took the class previously.
This exercise and other info on how to write in your own particular and unique voice are within the pages of FINDING YOUR VOICE. Hope you glom onto a copy and more than that, I hope you find it valuable in your own writing.