Voice Affects Content; Content Isn’t Voice

Sometimes well-loved sections must be cut from your manuscript because they do not serve the story. Many of us have heard that we must “kill your darlings” to improve, advice that has been attributed to Faulkner, but apparently goes back even further than that.

You may have written a wonderful bit of prose that captures a feeling or belief that is close to your heart and soul. You may have a deep feeling about an aspect of lifestyle, let’s use running as an example. You’re a runner, so you make one of your characters a runner. And, you write an entire section about your philosophy for running. This is content. Because running is important to you, you feel it is part of your voice. But in storytelling, that is not necessarily so.

Go from Point A to Point B

Pulitzer Prize Winner David Mamet, in his master class for writers, says your job as a storyteller is to get Jack or Jill, your protagonist, from Point A in your story, to Point B, the transformation of the character at the end of the book. The story is paramount, and every aspect of your telling must have to do with that direct trajectory the protagonist must travel. If there are brief side trips from that trajectory, they must have a specific and meaningful purpose.

The classic 1976 movie Marathon Man is a great example in which running, a seemingly insignificant aspect of a character, later becomes integral to the story.

So, if Jack or Jill’s philosophy about running does not have a direct impact on the story, does not inform that trajectory in an important way, it must go. Write it for your own satisfaction, but be prepared to cut it from the story. Doing so tightens the story; it does NOT change your voice.

Your voice as a writer comes from the way you tell a story. In your choice of words, in your phrasing, in the “tint” that you bring to your language. It is unique and natural to you. It is in your character development, your description, and your dialog. It seeps into your prose through the life experiences that have molded you, and the emotions you feel while writing a story. 

Just as how the same piece of music sounds quite different if played on a violin versus a flute (or sung by a choir or a rapper), a story that involves that same plot, characters, world, etc., can still change a lot depending on the voice used to tell it.~ Kat Zhang

Where is my Voice?

What, then, is the best way to develop your own unique writing voice? The truth is, it won’t come overnight. You can study other authors you like and practice using some of their techniques. You may hear the voices of friends or co-workers and incorporate them somehow, or let them inform your characters. Your mind is already at work, filing these details away until you’re ready to use them.

Stories come from the subconscious. What drives you to write, to some extent, are your own unresolved inner conflicts. Have you noticed your favorite authors have character types that recur? Plot turns that feel familiar? Descriptive details that you would swear you have read before (a yellow bowl, a slant of light, an inch of cigarette ash)? That is the subconscious at work.~ Cris Freese

Your writer’s voice is truly an inside job. You already have it, you just have to reveal it. All of those experiences go into the melting pot of your psyche. The more you write, the more you relax into the process of it. When you relax, clear away the clutter of daily life, and open your mind to your own creativity, your unique voice will find its way from your mind and your heart through your fingers, onto the keyboard — and into your content! 

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Patience, Tender Writer

As a journalism student in college, I learned several lessons about patience, deadlines, and editors. First of all, editors have no patience with late or sloppy writers. And deadlines are everything.

Often within the span of hours, a newspaper reporter has to come up with a story idea, pitch it to the news desk, research it, conduct interviews, write and deliver a compelling story, allowing enough time for the editor to do his/her thing. In this case, there is no time at all for them to mollycoddle. They might read the first sentence and toss it back at you. “This sucks. Rewrite it.”

Or, things like “It’s wordy.” “You buried the lead.” “Move paragraph three to the top and start over.” Or just, “Nope.” And don’t even think about a clever ending, because it very likely will get cut to make space for a last-minute ad placement.

Growing a Thicker Skin

Such treatment definitely helps tender writers grow thicker skins. But for those whose path to writing has bypassed this rewarding experience, the first time their precious work is edited can be a painful experience. And here’s where patience comes in.

If the editor returns your work quickly, you can suffer the quick rip of the bandage and get back to work much more easily than if they sit on it for weeks and months. Take their suggestions seriously. We all need an objective viewpoint, and what we think does not always come across clearly in what we write. One day you will love your editor.

We all need an objective viewpoint. Click To Tweet

If they take a few weeks or longer to return your work, you can feel stuck in the mud, no place to turn. You’ll manufacture scenarios. They must hate it. They can’t bear to read it. They never made it past the first page and threw it down. Why else would it take so long? Or, maybe they love it, they can’t think of anything constructive to say? What if it’s so good, they are already showing it to an agent, or a movie producer? What if someone gets hold of it and is sending you a contract right now?

Oh, the creative mind does wander. Click To Tweet

Oh, the creative mind does wander.

An editor may do all sorts of things, like add your work to the bottom an already impossible pile. Read it in small bits between trips to the grocery store and childcare. Read it once, set it aside for a week or so, and then read it again to see if their impressions have changed. Fill in the blank with any number of scenarios. Editors are humans after all and have their own priorities.

Feedback is necessary. Suffering is optional. Click To Tweet

But whether well-seasoned or new, a writer is not required to suffer.

Some tips to help the impatient

Patience, for me, is almost an offensive swear word, but I know it’s my challenge to conquer. Here’s what has worked for me so far.

Expect the best, but prepare for the worst

If you’re new to writing and haven’t been edited before, your best course of action is the same as preparing for a hurricane. You’ve done your best; now let it go. Feedback will come quickly or slowly according to wind speed, but come it will. When it does, stand up and take it. Repair after.

Distract yourself

I always have several other projects that need my attention. Right now there are eleven items on my desk, not including this post and the stacks of family photos I’m supposed to scan. Immersion in any one of them will take my mind off the waiting, and hopefully reduce the number of projects staring back at me. I get frustrated and sometimes overwhelmed, but I am never bored.

Get physical

My absolute favorite is to go outside and weed the flowerbeds. I mean weed them, rip those suckers out with brute force. It’s a form of editing and can be immensely satisfying. Plus, you can see your accomplishment before you; what you managed to uncover is more beautiful than when you started. Immediate gratification. Um, you could also just go for a swim.

Pleasure and relaxation

My go-to for this is chocolate and a walk on the beach, maybe some shopping, and if I am really brain-frazzled, just an old movie and a blanket. I don’t recommend alcohol; it’s depressing and highly detrimental to brain cells, especially the creative ones. Ice cream or a magnificent espresso concoction will do the trick much better. As will a massage.

When the feedback arrives — whether you like it or not — put on your big kid pants and deal. Be grateful someone took the time to read your work and pay careful attention to it. You worked very hard on it. You want it to shine. Editors do too.

Founder Chat: Screenplays — Part 2

 Nancy: Books rely heavily on description and dialogue to reveal character. How does that differ in a screenplay?

Wren: This is one of the greatest challenges when it comes to screenwriting. You not only have to rely on the actor’s intuition to convey the emotion but also on the director’s overall vision for the film. This is why it’s so important to write the best screenplay you can because you’re really creating a blueprint for the production team and the cast. On the screen, visual elements are really what’s telling your story. Yes, exposition comes through dialogue, but the audience is responding to what they’re seeing on the screen.

Nancy: How long do you think it normally takes to write a screenplay from a novel? Is it common for an author writing a novel to create the screenplay simultaneously?

Wren: The length of time really depends on the complexities of the novel. One of mine went through 32 rewrites while going from stage play to film. In the end, only 10 pages remained from my original script. Many of the changes were required based on production limitations and budget issues. Yes, many writers write both a novel and a screenplay simultaneously. They really inform one another during the creative process.

Nancy: When you write a screenplay, how do you know when you are done? Do you hear fireworks or are the angels singing?

Wren: I would love a choir of angels to announce the end of a screenplay. That would be wonderful. I feel like the screenplay is done when I’ve told the best version of the story I can — when I feel I’ve done the characters justice. It’s tough to know when you’ve reached that point because it’s hard to be objective about our own work. At some point, you have to force yourself to get up and walk away.

Nancy: From horror to romance, what differences does genre make in an effective screenplay?

Wren: Genre is everything in a screenplay because each genre comes with their own set of rules, their own set of audience expectations. For this reason, I think some of the best screenplays are genre hybrids. Kelly Fremon Craig’s screenplay for Edge of Seventeen is a great example of this. That movie successfully fit into multiple genres.

Nancy: How important is the format?

Wren: The format in screenwriting is critical because it’s industry standard. It’s one of the biggest challenges for a new screenwriter.

Nancy: Can a screenplay be reviewed and edited in the same way a book is edited, or should you find people who specialize in screenplays?

Wren: I recommend that screenwriters have their work critiqued by other screenwriters, or someone in the entertainment industry that is familiar with the format, such as a producer.

Nancy: I have been a fan of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for several years. Are there other screenwriting books you would recommend?

Wren: Yes, I really recommend The Screenwriter’s Bible. I use this book each time I teach a screenwriting course. It’s a terrific resource for many reasons, including learning the rules about formatting a screenplay. I also recommend Syd Field’s classic book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Both of these books are resources for most screenwriters. I also recommend checking out a wonderful program called The Script Lab. They offer a low-cost online program called Screenwriting Summit that is fantastic. They have a tremendous library of videos that are conversations with executives, agents, producers, and screenwriters. Each is filled with very valuable information about the industry and your life as a professional screenwriter.

Nancy: Once completed, polished, and ready for publication, my guess is that a screenplay requires an entirely different approach for marketing, compared to books. Is that true? What should the author be focusing on at this point?

Wren: Once your screenplay is finished, the next step is getting it into the hands of someone who can get the project to the screen, whether that’s a producer or an agent, or even an actor. It’s almost impossible to sell a screenplay without having an agent. If a screenwriter has finished a script that they feel has potential, I would recommend securing an agent. The Writer’s Guild of America publishes a list of reputable agents for screenwriters.

Nancy: For me, I think the real work of writing a novel is perseverance coupled with humility. I have to work on it every day and be willing to recognize where I am wrong. You are such a prolific writer of books, plays, and screenplays. What would you say is the ‘real work’ of it for you?

Wren: Disciplining myself to write every day has been a challenge for me over the years. I love the end result, of having written something, but the actual writing process is tough for me. Any writer can talk about the many sacrifices required to be a writer in this world but the finished result makes each of them worth it. Before I became a professional writer, I didn’t realize how much work each step of the writing process required. The writing itself is hard work, but so is the planning, marketing, and business side of what we do. Writing takes more stamina, dedication, and discipline than most people realize. It’s a demanding career, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling.

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