Saturday, 9 November 2013

Finding your Voice - and finding mine...

A few days ago, I posted about having lost my voice.

There must've been something in the air that day - a writer friend, having seen three blogs all on the same subject, recommended the book Finding your Voice, by Les Edgerton.

I decided to buy the book. I read it, cover to cover. And boy, did I learn a lot.

This post isn't a book review though - I stuck that on Amazon. Instead, I wanted to share what a difference Les's view of voice has made to my own. I now understand why my own natural voice has turned 'beige' - the sort of technically brilliant, please-everybody stuff that lacks soul; the kind of writing that 'lacks sparkle...isn't commercially viable...isn't strong enough'. Sound familiar? I've certainly heard those phrases more than once before...

Anyway, one of the exercises in the book is to rewrite something you've already written, but only when you think you've begun to recognise your own, unique voice. I'd like to show you the difference it made to mine, using snippets from the first chapter of a new WIP. See what you think of the changes...

Before Les:
In three days time, they’ll tattoo me...
            The thought set Ani’s limbs trembling and she drew her cloak closer. The sun had not long risen above the dunes and there was little heat in it yet; that’s what caused the shiver, she told herself.
            Not the thought of any pain.
            Shifting position, Ani heard only the faint hiss of disturbed sand in the heavy silence of the desert. A movement at the edge of her vision showed another early riser - a brown mottled lizard, emerging from his burrow an arm’s length away.
            It was pure impulse that made her pick up a stone and throw it at the reptile. There was a moment’s satisfaction when, with a flick of tail and a spurt of sand, the lizard disappeared. But then Ani realised exactly what she’d done, and glanced over her shoulder, checking that no-one else had seen.
            Alone again, she hugged her knees and stared into the empty desert.
            Why did she have to be tattooed? It was so… so… unnecessary! There hadn’t been a Listener for thousands of years – there were plenty of oases now, enough for everyone who still chose to live in the desert. But because Baba always stuck to the old ways of the desert, instead of opening his mind - like Uncle Niyall - to some of the ways of the people who lived beyond the sand, Ani had no choice. Bitter frustration sent hot tears coursing down her cheeks.
            When her name was called, Ani didn’t answer. Everyone knew where to find her; under the twisted date tree at the very edge of the oasis, where she was free to dream. And, Ani thought when the caller came into view, it wouldn’t hurt Tulisa to walk off a few of the dates she’d been so keen to consume yesterday evening.
            “You’re to come straight away,” Tulisa gasped, when finally she drew close. “Mommi wants you.”
            Ani considered ignoring the order. But the woman who had filled her mother’s place eleven years ago had a heavy hand, and she had no wish to feel it again today.
            “Did you hear me?”
            “I heard.” With deliberate slowness, Ani rose to her feet and made a show of brushing the sand from her dress while studying her half-sister from the corner of her eye.
            The two girls couldn’t have looked more different. Tulisa was short and round: Ani, a good head taller and slim as a palm tree. Not for the first time, Ani wished she had Tulisa’s golden skin and brown hair, instead of skin the colour of roasted coffee beans and hair the colour of a moonless sky. The girls shared just one physical characteristic – their father’s pale blue eyes. Other than that, they looked just like their respective mothers.

After Les:
In three day’s time I’d be tattooed with a lizard on the left side of my neck.
            I didn’t want it to happen. I might have been too young to say no to the piercing, a year ago, but I wasn’t going to give in so easily this time. They couldn’t force me - I’d run away, go and live in the city. Problem was, Baba could – force me, I mean.
            I started to shake. From cold, of course, nothing else.
            Well, that’s what I tried to tell myself. It was because the sun hadn’t been up long and there wasn’t much heat in it yet. I pulled my cloak tighter, disturbing the sand underneath me and making it hiss in the silence.
            What was that? A movement – just a lizard, emerging from his burrow. Daresay he was going to take advantage of the early sun.
            Damn him.
            I picked up a stone and threw it. Ha! Almost!
            I felt a warm glow inside as, with a flick of his tail and a spurt of sand, the reptile disappeared. The glow suddenly froze over as I realised - someone might have seen. A quick glance over my shoulder was all it took to reassure myself I was still alone. I didn’t fancy a beating…
            The sun rose higher, doing little to lift my black mood. It just wasn’t fair! All this fuss, just because centuries ago, we’d had need of a Listener to save us. We were perfectly able to look after ourselves now – well, those of us who still had to live in the desert, anyway.
            I really wished Baba would try the city – Uncle Niyall had. He’d come back with such tales, Baba had nearly had a fit. There was no way he’d go against our traditions. That’s why I already had a great big hole in my ear. Tears of frustration prickled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.
            “Ani! Ani, where are you?”
            I scrubbed my cheeks dry. They’d sent Tulisa to fetch me. Suppose that was better than Baba. Everyone knew where to find me when I went missing – under the twisted date tree. 
            As she got closer, I could hear Tulisa cursing under her breath. She hated having to fetch me – hated the long walk to the edge of our oasis. At least it walked off a few of the dates she’d stuffed herself with last night.  
            “You’re to come straight away,” Tulisa said when she reached me. “Mommi wants you.”
            For a split second, I thought about ignoring the order. But Hesta had a heavy hand, and I didn’t want to feel it again today. And anyway, Hesta was not my Mommi. She just happened to be my father’s wife.
            “Did you hear me?”
            “I heard you.” Taking my time, I stood up and brushed the sand from my clothes. 

Result for me personally? The second one was written with very few edits - almost off-the-cuff, it felt so...comfortable. And I also discovered that I write pretty natural dialogue - what my characters said needed hardly any changes at all in the rewrite. I'm sure there is more I could do to 'improve' the piece further (I've already received several suggestions - thankfully, none was 'start over'!!) but what was SO different about this second version is that it wasn't hard work. I simply told the story in the way I'd have told it to my kids.

In MY voice.

It was a lightbulb moment. Heck - it was a whole DIY lighting department moment, complete with chandeliers!

So, if anyone's struggling with voice, I'd really recommend Les's book. Read, digest, and make sure you do the exercises - they WILL make a world of difference. I'm off now, to rewrite chapter 2...


  1. Brilliant! I know exactly what you mean about feeling comfortable writing in your voice - voice is such a hard thing to explain/demonstrate but I know when I've nailed it because it's like hitting the sweet spot :-)

    1. I bet that's Jesika talking! x

      It is a huge breakthrough moment though, isn't it? Fingers crossed it gets us where we want to be...

  2. Absolutely! I can tell the difference if I'm trying to write a more formal post. It doesn't flow, takes me a lot longer and is much more difficult. My natural voice is more informal and when I write in this way, words just flow and it's so easy. I think the reader can tell when you're not using your voice. Writing from the heart (and speaking come to that) is just more authentic. I'm glad you've found your voice! Great post, I enjoyed reading it thank you.

    1. Thanks, Andrea! It's weird, 'cos I always thought I HAD found my voice - but this exercise just proves that I start with my voice, then rework it to beige!

  3. Thank you so much for the shout-out, Katherine! I'm just stoked that you found it useful in your own writing. As my Brit friend and fellow noir writer, Paul Brazill, would say: "I'm gobsmacked."

    Now. Just let us know when your book hits the shelves--I'll be first in line to buy a copy.

    Blue skies,

    1. Fingers crossed, Les! Granny Rainbow is a pre-voice short story collection which hits the shelves early next year (self-pubbing), but you'll be in the acknowledgements if Ani's story makes the big time! x