Sunday, February 26, 2006

Sirens of the Sea

How do you find your story's true voice?

I mean, seriously, it's not as if you can find it like a perfectly formed conch shell on the beach or discover it buried like pirate's treasure beneath a palm tree.

If it's something you hear, what does it mean to hear a voice that's deep inside you?

And once you find it, how do you transform that voice from a sound in your ear to words on a page that reproduce the same sound in your reader's ear?

Often, I fear, we're lured by sirens of the sea, drawn into shallow waters by false voices that leave our projects wrecked on unforgiving reefs.

How can we recognize the true voices of our stories?

Ursala K. LeGuin, in her book on writing, Steering the Craft, suggests thinking about your story's voice in this way:
Voice is a word critics often use in discussing narrative. It's always metaphorical, since what's written is voiceless. Often it signifies the authenticity of the writing (writing in your own voice; catching the true voice of a kind of person; and so on). I'm using it naively and pragmatically to mean the voice or voices that tell the story, the narrating voice.
That "narrating voice" can be heard as soon as you open a book and begin a story.

Listen to the voices in the following opening lines:
Liyana Abboud had just tasted her first kiss when her parents announced they were leaving the country. -- from Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved. -- from What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman

It all started the day Grampa Joji decided to wash his precious flag of Japan and hang it out on the clothesline for the whole world to see. --from Under the Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury

Pearl wondered exactly when it was that her mama had gone off the deep end.
-- from Moonpie and Ivy by Barbara O'Connor
Can you hear the narrating voices at the heart of these stories?

Each voice contains--and resonates with--an emotional truth that arises out of the struggle awaiting the central character in the pages ahead.

Try it yourself. Pick up your favorite book and turn to the opening line. What do you hear?

Listen closely, see if you can detect what Jane Yolen calls the "true tone of the tale."

If you haven't read Yolen's book for writers, Take Joy, you have a treat waiting for you.

Here's how Yolen talks about the story's voice:
Writing teachers speak of 'finding your voice' as if the damned thing is lost somewhere: behind the desk, under the computer, in back of the commode. Whenever I hear that phrase, I am reminded of the 'discovery' of America. Columbus did not discover America, he encountered it and the native people who already lived there. They were not lost, to be found. And neither is the story's voice.

The story's voice. That is what must be uncovered, not discovered. It is not the author's voice, but the true tone of the tale.
But how does an author uncover the "true tone of the tale" and share it with readers?

Perhaps it will help to listen to Ralph Fletcher in Live Writing: Breathing Life Into Your Words:
Think of writing as chatting on paper. As you write, imagine yourself on the morning after a sleepover with your best friend. You're sitting in the kitchen, eating cereal or bagels, chatting away. Be yourself. Try to get that easy tone--comfortable and conversational--into the words you put to paper.

Your writing voice is like a handshake; it makes the connecton with the reader. For this reason it is a crucial ingredient in any piece of writing. As a writer you can use humor, sarcasm, little asides to make your narrator sound like a real person. It's worth the effort. When writing has that authentic a-real-person-is-saying- something-important-to-me quality, it's hard to put down.
That "authentic, a-real-person-is-saying-something-important" quality is crucial. It's that quality of voice, I suspect, that holds a readers attention, even as the voice itself introduces crucial elements of the story.

In their book, Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction, Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall, affirm Fletcher's observations that a true voice possesses a natural quality.
Your voice is actually a very ordinary thing: It is just who you are, projected artistically. It is often linked to your speaking voice, and your breath, and the rhythms and sense of pace that you draw on when you are too absorbed in what you are saying to listen to yourself from a distance. It is also linked to your body, the language or dialect you spoke in childhood, and whatever naturally interests you. Your voice is how you write when you don't have time to be elegant.
But this natural quality isn't easily achieved. Often, it can take months, if not years, to capture the right tone, the right pitch, to unlock your story.

"A search for voice must always involve a willingess to experience what you already know in a new light," Frank and Wall write. "It doesn't matter whether the objects in your world are unaesthetic, beautiful, ordinary, or extraordinary. The key is to become aware of them."

"By following the voice and surrendering to it," note Frank and Wall, "I discovered significant images--images that contained the core emotional charge of the story I wanted to tell and that unpacked like a series of Russian nesting dolls, allowing me to improvise with relative ease. "

So, try to resist the lure of the sea's sirens.

Listen closely for your story's true voice.

And remember, as Jane Yolen reminds us, that "even the best of us stutter."

"We are like children just starting to speak," Yolen writes. "Writing is like the language of angels: lovely to listen to, long to learn. It never fully adapts to the human tongue."

Recommended resources:

Ralph Fletcher's Live Writing: Breathing Life Into Your Words (Avon, 1999). You can find out more about Fletcher and his work, as well as more tips on writing, at his website:

Thaisa Frank & Dorothy Wall's Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction (St. Martin's Griffin, 1994). You can learn more about Dorothy Wall at her website: For an intriguing interview with Thaisa Frank on writing, check out

Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering The Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998). For more pointers on writing from Le Guin, go to her website at

Jane Yolen's Take Joy: A Book for Writers (The Writer Books, 2003). To read some of Yolen's random thoughts on writing, check out this page from her website: And if you'd like to keep up with her daily activities, you can read her blog "Telling the True," at

1 comment:

jo'r said...

You’ve bit into an apt subject there, Bruce. Even before your characters can be shown to be unique, fascinating people, and before the plot can capture a reader, that quality of voice needs to be in there to win over a reader. I’ve had several letters from editors, along with tons of those impersonal rejection slips, where some kind person wrote that the story and characters were interesting, but the voice wasn’t strong enough. And though I like Ralph Fletcher (enjoyed his wonderful book of poems about young people—“room enough for love”), I don’t think the answer for me is to “Be yourself… comfortable and conversational,” and maybe not for a lot of other writers. The trouble is many of us are not natural, intriguing conversationalists. But I’m hoping we can acquire some facility with creating a strong voice for our characters, with enough practice.

I’ve certainly enjoyed clicking on some of your web resources links. One of those links introduced me to author John Dufresne’s blog, where he often has suggestions for a story waiting to be written. Here’s mine for today, from the British, Sunday Times, Feb. 26, 2006 (excerpted from the Arts & Letters Daily web site):

A study by the World Health Organisation found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202.

(Can this really be true? Gads! And I thought global warming was an imminent disaster.)