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Monday's End: Voice Part II

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
The thing is, it's not just practice, practice and listen, listen. It's a very active process.

In writing, this may mean spending some time with Strunk and White. A well-trained voice is never sloppy in its heart. After all these years, my first drafts are very clean. Very few technical errors and I'm able to concentrate on the story that way.

As you write, you concentrate on writing well -- by the way, this works best for me in the 2nd draft stage. I can't often just throw words on a page and call it writing. Other writers may be technically messy, but they still get the story out. With practice, the technical part will clean up a lot and you can still focus on story.

Another word about practice. I learned from a pianist friend that it's not just "Practice makes perfect. It's "Perfect practice makes perfect."

If you spot a flaw in your writing, you can't just keep repeating the same flaw over and over. You don't learn from that. You spot the flaw, you fix it, you keep an eye open for it. Eventually, that flaw is conquered. On to the next flaw.

Once you've got the basics down and you've learned to spot the flaws, then you learn to manipulate your voice.

Jason Alexander -- yes, George Costanza from Seinfeld -- actually has an amazing voice. Not only does he do the full-up, slightly nasal, Ethel Merman Broadway voice for laughs, but he's able to sing a ballad that can make you cry. It's all in how he uses his voice. Smooth over the rough edges and make it pure, billow up that flat nasality and make it full, pull back to a whisper, then cry out to the heavens. Short. Choppy. Phrases. Or long, lyrical, vibrato passages.

As writers, we do the exact same thing. Learn to vary your voice. Make it fit the story, make it fit the character, make it hit the note you want.

And how do you learn to do that, short of having an actual teacher stand over your shoulder? You listen.

Listening for writers is reading. And learning what's crap and what isn't. We don't all have the same tastes and one person's wall-banger is another person's keeper. I don't think Kelly Clarkson can carry a tune in a bucket, but I'm a sucker for Carly Simon.

I know that when I started writing, it kind of sucked some of the fun out of reading for a while. I analyzed every single thing I read. Did I like how she made this character redeemable? Did I think this character did something really out of character? You know how it goes.

After a while, I got most of the enjoyment back, but I've become a lot more discerning about the things I take the time to read. Things that are on my keeper shelf start looking ragged really quickly. I read them over and over and start to memorize passages.

More than passages, really. I start to memorize the emotions those passages evoke. It's not about the words, it's about how they impact me.

See? At this point, we've moved past technicalities. We know how to breathe, how to stand, how to write technically clean copy. Now we have to learn -- without copying directly -- how to get to the heart of our reader. Two people can sing the same song. Both can be technically proficient. But only one will really speak to me. Why? It's how they use their instrument. Their voice.

Sing to me, sweetheart.

By the way, I'm going to try to be a little less self-indulgent in future Monday Meanderings. These first tries have felt a bit pretentious.
7/18/2006 07:48:00 AM : : Sela Carsen : : 12 Comments


Great stuff. You should turn this into an article for RD.

By Blogger Kristen Painter, at 8:57 AM  

You know, I actually thought about that yesterday. What's the word count on those? I'll check in with you about it.

By Blogger Sela Carsen, at 11:03 AM  

Spot on.

And agree--this would make an excellent article.

By Anonymous raine, at 11:47 AM  

I think you do move past the technical stage...and that's when you hit gold. It's part of finding your own voice, your own process. :)

By Anonymous Michelle, at 7:27 PM  

Ecellent post.

By Blogger Jaye, at 8:06 PM  

Thanks, you guys! I appreciate the feedback!

By Blogger Sela Carsen, at 11:12 PM  

I don't know, I kind of enjoyed it... lots of good points. And DUH smacks, but I get those a lot. :)

By Blogger Danica/Dream, at 12:58 AM  

Excellent analogy.

By Blogger Bernita, at 6:53 AM  

Great post!

By Blogger Amanda Brice, at 5:54 PM  

Awesome post Sela! Wanted to let you know I added you to my blog sidebar so I can pop in here more often :)

~Ann Cory

By Blogger Ann Cory, at 6:55 PM  

Ohmigosh, y'all. I thought I was totally up my own rear end with these posts. I'm so glad they went over well! Ok, I guess I'll keep going with them. Yay!

By Blogger Sela Carsen, at 8:33 PM  

Definately keep it up, Sela! Great post!

By Blogger April, at 1:14 AM  

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