Finding Your Voice

Telling a novel in a distinctive style is both the most difficult and necessary job a writer undertakes. If the prose has a certain flair, readers are caught up in it. Literary agents and editors look for that swagger first and foremost. For them, unique should define not only the story but the storytelling.

If you are like most beginning writers, you may well wonder how you can achieve such a style. When you write out a sentence, it looks flat, like reportage. That approach is fine for explicating plot, because you do need to figure out how the story unfolds. Yet that initial thrust should be regarded as only a phase. You have moved around the chess pieces like so; now, how do wooden figures gain full life?

You need to experiment. If you’re only writing one way, and that way keeps you at a reporter’s distance from the point-of-view character, you need to break free of yourself. How do you do that practically? You write the same material from different points of view. 

Let’s pick one example to demonstrate the rule. Assume the heroine’s favorite aunt is dying from a long-term illness. In order to connect with the heroine in a meaningful fashion, try two opposing approaches. 

In the first, the heroine is close to the aunt in the later stages of her terminal condition. What is involved in that disease, such as medical equipment, and how does the character feel seeing her aunt subjected to it? You could write about a dialysis treatment, for instance. Sure, you can describe the soulless flashes of the monitor lights, but the exercise is focused on feelings. If the character feels disgust toward a procedure, what is the follow-up emotion? Compassion or I’m never coming here again? Explain to the reader why she feels that way. Go ahead and keep nattering about that position, justifying it, examining the alternatives, comparing it to other experiences she’s had with the aunt. Why can’t we just go back to that time?

Now write about the experience from the point of view that the heroine has drifted apart from her aunt over the years. The physical condition she finds vaguely horrible, but their halcyon days together have long passed anyway. Now place her in the doctor’s office as he explains what happens during dialysis. Is she ever going through those double doors, beyond which she sees the machines? If not, how does she justify that to herself? How does she talk to the doctor, defending her decision not to do that? Again, don’t worry about how well the doctor explains the treatment. What is the heroine thinking?

Exercise: Once you have tried those two exercises, now flip the script. The distant niece is stuck in the room next to the machine, and the close one is listening to the doctor’s prefatory remarks. You are finding out, through making decisions for the character, how you want to tell the story.

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