Finding a voice as a writer can be tough. You want to be clear, original, insightful, hysterical, dramatic! But the simultaneous pursuit of all these things will come off as novice, a try-hard, or just plain boring. That doesn’t mean you are those things, it just means it’s time to rethink how you’re approaching writing. Nobody is confined to a one-shot style box, but it helps to find the base of your voice before branching out.
It’s seems obvious because it is. Reading helped me a tooooon as I started to get more serious about writing. Read. Re-read favorite authors then find some who are completely different and read them too. The more voices you meet,vu the better idea you’ll have of where you fit into the grand scheme of writing styles. While I was still getting my footing, I found myself slipping into style patterns of the authors I read the most. You never want to mimic someone else completely, but borrowing some insight by finding words that feel right to you, that communicate exactly what you’re trying to express on paper, is a great way to start figuring out what kind of words are most natural to you.
It’s hard to grow into a voice if you’re limiting yourself to what you already know. So experiment! If you’re more of a prose writer, try to improve your poetry writing, and vice versa. Genres are not mutually exclusive. A lot of my favorite novels are written by authors who “write like poets.” Their sentences flow seamlessly into each other, use a lot of descriptive language, and make me feel like I’m reading in a pool of moonlight. I do not write this way. My default is a short and choppy structure, or complex sentences strung together by commas and semicolons. So for me, style involves experimenting with tone, but also with how I structure sentences to create those tones. Depending on what I’m writing–a poem, a prose piece, a blog post–I have to change the way I’m presenting my voice to best communicate what I want to say.
But that doesn’t mean overhauling my entire persona. On a base level, I still write a little sassy, a little sweet, and fairly straight forward. I write like me. Even when taking on the voice a a character in the first person, I maintain those underlying notes that make my writing identifiable as mine through word choice, sentence structure, and tone. So if you aren’t sure where to start, there’s a simple answer: Start with you! Just get something down. Write about an opinion, write a conversation you wish you could have with someone. The more you write as you, the closer you will come to finding your voice on paper. Find that, and you’re on your way.
A common response to when someone makes a mistake is, “Nobody’s perfect!” Which is true. We live in an imperfect world which is why so many of us turn to the nearest escape hatch–books.
Who We Are
We read to go seeking a world that’s a little more magical, that feels a bit more like “the good old days” or a utopian future. But “the good old days” had problems too, and utopia is unlikely. (I know, it hurts my sunshine idealist heart too.) Imperfection is who we are…and it’s who our characters should be too.
What characters are you most drawn to reading? It’s pretty safe to bet it isn’t the cardboard ones that are perfect people that just have bad things happen to them. What we see in fiction are reflections of our world, and that hope for utopia comes from a hope of growth. Much like the plants in my brother’s tiny apartment, if your characters are rooted in a stagnant box then they have nowhere to grow.
What Perfection Does
In case you haven’t seen How I Met Your Mother, which you should, meet Patrice.
She is a happy-go-lucky office worker who has never done a thing wrong in her life (we know this, and we love you). Patrice is peppy, thoughtful, and genuinely wants nothing but to love everyone around her any way that she can, to which the general response is:
Because while we adore these kinds of people in real life, even they are not as perfect as Patrice, and if they were, we would be just as annoyed as Robin Scherbatsky. Imperfection is what makes characters relatable, and makes us root for them. It’s why the protagonists of HIMYM are the heavily flawed band of Robin and friends and not Patrice.
How to Handle Flaws
Make them real. Make them hurt. Make them redeemable. Clumsiness is not a character flaw. I repeat, NOT A CHARACTER FLAW. It’s relatable, but it’s not internal. The flaws I’m talking about come from our fears, our desires, and how we enact them. A glory-seeking hero underestimates the villain and consequently someone dies. The bookish girl wants the world to operate by her moral compass, which it doesn’t, prodding her to have a hellish temper. Two best friends share a pride streak, so neither one knows that the other is in danger because they both refuse to apologize first. These are the kinds of real flaws that readers can relate too, even when inflated by fiction. While flaws may show themselves in external action, it starts at the heart of the character.
The recent release of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has left fans across generations dazed. Taking to social media, anyone can find a range of conflicting opinions, but there seem to be two dominate camps — the “this is groundbreaking” faction and the “they ruined everything” faction. This post goes out to all those fangirls and boys who have ever left their heart bleeding at the feet of their favorite storytellers, disappointed. (Disclaimer: The title of this post does not reflect my personal opinion of The Last Jedi. No spoilers will be listed in this post.)
A Moment of Validation
You’re right, they ruined it. Those evil writers have ruined your favorite book series, TV show, play, or movie franchise. In a culture of reboots and infinite sequels, it was bound to happen eventually. I am truly, deeply sorry. They had no right. No right at all. If your anger is directed toward the death of a particular character, please seek some therapy from my earlier post, the 7 Stages of (Fictional) Grief.
We Have T-Shirts
On the bright side, you’re not alone in your despair. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of other members of Club Disappointed. I earned my punch card when I reached the end of the Hunger Games trilogy, furious at the sudden and uncharacteristic turn of events dropped at the end of the third book. Each of us has experienced that surreal moment of realization that what was understood to be true about a certain fictional world has been shattered. If you haven’t, prepare yourself. Your day is coming.
Where We Go From Here
We have a few options. There’s my father’s approach, which is to be initially vocal and then go on to quietly stew over the death of a fictional reality until, just when everyone thinks you’ve finally come to terms with it, burst open another floodgate of outrage. If you are this person, I hope you have someone as patient as my mother to listen…over…and over…and over. There’s my approach, which is to pretend large chunks of the story never happened and write over those grey areas with a false memory. Or, you can grieve, accept that nothing gold can stay, and try to rekindle the fiery fan inside of you.
So go forth, fellow fans. Tell the story of your pain, but do so in moderation, and maybe not to a random guy sitting next to you on the bus. He probably doesn’t care.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Fairytales may be old, but they are no less powerful for it. A bookish nobody plucked from the dust of Zosma’s great library, Lazlo Strange joins a party of delegates chosen by the legendary Godslayer of Weep. Weep, a city thats true name was stolen from the minds of the world. A city Lazlo continued to believe in even after it had become a fairytale to everyone else. Going on blind faith, the delegation aims to solve the dark mystery that has haunted Weep since the Godslayer earned his name during the Carnage. A shadow on Weep’s history that must be seen to be believed.
First and maybe most importantly, I would like to give this book the “shiniest cover I have ever experienced” award. The cover art is as lovely as its content. True to form, Taylor writes prose like poetry. The plot is a little slow to start, but Lazlo’s charm and his author’s narrative keeps it moving smoothly. It has the kind of finesse that can only be achieved by an avid lover of fairytales, and it was easy to image Taylor sitting beside me, telling the story as if she’d seen it first hand. My biggest critique of the book is it’s length, which resulted in a little bit of excessive repetition when there were shifts in the narrative point of view. Otherwise, Laini Taylor has once again solidified her place as one of my favorite fantasy writers. I recommend this book for admirers of myths, legends, and all other forms of literary fantasy. Long live the dreamers.
Other recommended series by Laini Taylor:
Having recently read S.E. Hinton’s classic novel The Outsiders, I decided to dedicate a post to writing about sibling love. The sibling bond is something strange, and I’m not sure there’s any other relationship like it. (Shout-out to my brother for permitting me use the banner images. Just so you know, bro, I probably would have done it anyway. Love you!)
Sometimes We Get Along…
There are many stories that feature siblings as a joint force to be reckoned with. We see it in classics like the Curtis brothers in The Outsiders or the March sisters in Little Women, but also in more recent pop culture such as The Avenger’s: Age of Ultron superhuman duo, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, or the Elric brothers of Full Metal Alchemist.
The key to these relationships is they aren’t perfect. Even in their most loving moments, siblings may be looking for ways to make their family the butt of a joke. In other words, don’t over-romanticize the closeness of siblings, not even the ones who generally get along. I’d recommend avoiding grandiose speeches of brotherly love sometimes found in emotional or climatic moments of stories unless you’ve built a relationship with your readers so that they expect and respect dramatic effect. If not, keep it short, to the point, and in character. That is where the more powerful impact of sibling love lies–in subtle and sometimes imperfect gestures of support.
…Sometimes We Don’t
Of course, rivalry and personal differences can sometimes break the family bond and leave an emotional fissure. As readers, we often hope or expect these wounds will be mended, but we don’t always get our happy resolution. Siblings know each other’s weaknesses, even if they’re as small as pet peeves. Ill-willed siblings will often use these to their advantage. Hateful siblings definitely will. When reading about a protagonist and antagonist that are siblings, I usually find the villainous activity turned up to eleven. I live for that fictional drama. But again, don’t undersell the importance of the subtler emotional jabs that only someone with the insider knowledge of a brother or sister possesses.
I’d also like to mention that not all siblings fall in the “I love you” or “I hate you” camps. Sometimes siblings simply co-exist in independent neutrality. No two sibling relationships are alike, but I hope these tips will help to get you thinking.
For those of you wondering why my brother and I look like prom dates in the lefthand banner photo, it’s because we kind of were. My junior year of high school we became friends with another brother-sister set, and our moms thought it’d be fun for us to all go to prom together. Thus I came to understand the age old sentiment that no one knows awkward family situations like siblings.
Question of the week: Who are your favorite fictional siblings?
The Flats by Kate Birdsall
A dead boy. A cast of deadbeat suspects. A detective determined to root out the killer. Detective Liz Boyle’s hunt for a child murderer sends her reeling when someone she cares about becomes entangled in the web of confusion surrounding a little boy’s death. But just when the case seems synched, a faceless new player slips onto the scene, and Boyle must decide how hard she is willing to push herself and those around her to find justice.
Detective Liz Boyle and her partner Goran are the kind of crime-fighting team I’d want on my side. The Flats is full of solid characters, but Boyle and Goran were by far my favorite duo. Birdsall’s tight writing style and classic cop narrative easily ushers readers into Boyle’s world of crime. There are few times when the narrative slows the action, but nine times out of ten Birdsall balances action and dialogue with narrative beautifully. She swings smoothly between Detective Boyle’s personal and professional life as the line between the two become increasingly blurred over the course of the book. The plot itself is self-propelling as Boyle’s investigation leads her down a sinister rabbit hole. I enjoyed the twists and turns that Birdsall sprinkles throughout the book, and the subtle clues that all lead up to a suspenseful climax and satisfactory ending. I recommend The Flats for lovers of mystery, detective dramas, and realistic fiction. And good news — if you like The Flats, it’s only the first book in the Detective Liz Boyle series!
Before it hits theaters in 2018, catch up on:
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Four scientists enter Area X, drawn by their need for discovery. They are not the first group to undertake this exploratory mission. Previous expeditions have died of illness, gone missing, and devolved into murder. Readers join the twelfth expedition as Area X quickly begins to take it’s toll, eating away at the trust and minds of the expedition members, twisting the meaning of reality.
A biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and an archeologist walk into a bar…and by bar I mean a creepy, nature-ruled limbo where logic is rendered useless. Vandermeer landscapes an exciting and utterly unnerving tale of exploration. Guided by his scientific style of writing, I could feel the characters’ fear and confusion as their realities unraveled with each new discovery. I recommend this book for lovers of the strange, of apocalyptic fiction, and of mind-bending worlds.
P.S. Find the movie trailer here.
Looking for a creepy read this fall? Try:
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
There’s something out there…and all it takes is a glance for it to kill you. Newly pregnant in a rapidly devolving world, Malorie seeks safety in a house with fellow survivors while, outside, people are going mad. Dying. Anyone brave enough to look outside could be infected by this unknown menace in an instant. But Malorie and her friends can’t stay inside forever.
Holy crap. Right up there with Pen Pal, this book had me racing between pages with anticipation. The dramatic irony is strong with this one, and it’s to die for (sorry…kind of). Suspenseful, dark, and utterly chilling, lovers of horror found in the unknown will love walking the psychological high-wire that is Bird Box. (Also, this author hails from Michigan, my home state!) It has a style that flows like contemporary and reads like old-school literature. I recommended this for adult readers.