Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
How Hearing Voice(s) Led to Order In a Previously Chaotic Manuscript, Molly Best Tinsley, Writer Unboxed
Listening can be as important than reading during our editing process. After grappling with the direction of her novel, Tinsley explains how she began to find her footing:
One day in the muddled middle, as I silently reread everything I had so far, I noticed I was hearing it inflected in my head. In other words, it had a voice. When further analysis actually identified three voices, I had the glimmer of order I needed to see the novel through. By the time I had a zero draft, Margaret had braided three different stories, each directed to a different audience—a threatening stranger, her threatened self, and a lover whose death she’d never grieved.
When her protagonist, Margaret began to speak of a past experience, the narrative turned towards a third-person timeline. While Tinsley was happy to discover these new voices, she realized that she needed to test them all out on each facet of the story:
The more I wrote along that timeline, the more I felt confined by the third person. It was producing a voice that felt as reserved and inflexible as Margaret’s public persona. I shifted to first person, and immediately her private, emotional life began to speak. As this second strand developed, so did its vulnerable, confessional voice, one that evolved into love letters to a ghost.
Tinsley points out some considerations to make while reading to better “hear” the distinct voices in our writing:
- Audience and purpose: Those two specifications might not immediately pop to mind in third-person narration, yet they suggest a way to test and focus voice. You may feel it’s just you narrating for the general world of readers, but which you are you calling forth, for what subset of them?
- What is your attitude toward your story? Are you sympathetic to the action or do you disapprove? Do you find it comic? Then a deadpan voice might render it best.
- If you have consciously invented a narrator, ask about her investment in the story. Why has she broken silence, and for whom? These questions challenge your technique by setting limits, and from limits comes specificity. Hence “limited omniscience” has become the most popular choice for the third person: the narrator speaks from the narrowed vantage of a central character, whose attitudes, feelings, and intentions her voice can thus reflect.
- Narration as action: Words not only say something, they can do things too–praise, rationalize, mock, confess, plead, mourn, you name it. Imagine the motives, and an audience, and allow them to inflect your voice.
Integrating our own human senses into our editing and rewriting process is an integral, but sometimes forgotten practice. Practicing this throughout the process is a step toward deepening the connection with the reader.
How to Get Out of the Writing Doldrums, Mathina Calliope (@MathinaCalliope), Jane Friedman
Finding a balance of discipline and self care is essential to achieving a feeling of success as a human being. The same statement is true for a rewarding writing process. After receiving a series of difficult rejections, Mathina Calliope found herself questioning her balance:
Such setbacks can get under our skin and pervade everything about our writer selves in ways both overt and subtle. Although my early summer was jam-packed with immersive, positive writerly experiences (Yale Writers’ Workshop, Denver’s LitFest, Barrelhouse’s Writer Camp), I couldn’t seem to shake the insecurity the rejections provoked.
So when I sat down to write out my intentions* (a fun dose of woo I highly recommend) for August, it surprised me that they all related to writing. Usually they’re spread across various domains of life: fitness, work, friendships, fun. But this month they were a monolith:
I honor my muse and creativity.
I write for the love of it.
My voice is true, powerful, and uplifting.
My writing reminds people of what really matters.
I have an agent.
I believe in my book.
Realizing that this list in fact sparked anxiety, rather than motivation, she turned her attention to a “self care” process, and developed a list of motivational activities to get her back to the page:
It occurred to me that the way there might be through writer candy—easy-to-access and reliably pleasurable writing-related activities. So I came up with a list of them:
Prompts. They’re quick and low stakes, and they almost always yield something unexpected. Look for lists of prompts online, pick up the book 642 Things to Write About, or take Leslie Pietrzyk’s bitchin’ Right Brain Writing workshop.
Word lists. I’ve been keeping word lists in various notebooks for as long as I’ve been writing. Anytime I come across a word I want to learn or move from my receptive to my productive lexicon, I jot it down. Simply going back to these lists and reading them makes me happy.
Libraries. Just being in a library, I feel myself becoming a better writer. I browse new titles and nearly always come across a book I’ve been wanting to read. It’s invigorating.
Novels. Reading the novel you want to read, not the one you think you should read, just delving into it Netflix style, may be the lowest-hanging fruit there is for climbing our way back into the tree of writerly productivity because it drops us instantly and easily into the language and rhythm of story.
Snarky usage books. Okay, one snarky usage book: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. This guy managed to subtweet The New Yorker in a book: “If you’re going to have a house style, try not to have one that’s visible from space.”
Thesauruses. The physical, hold-in-your-hands, made-of-paper kind. Just browse one! I especially like J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. It’s fun to pore over how words relate to each other and to fill your brain with exciting new possibilities for your own writing—for when you’re in the mood to write again. Add them to your word list!
The process of the writer is a fluid one, and must sometimes be influenced in new ways in order to flow at a comfortable pace. Calliope explains:
There are times for ruthless discipline in the writing life, but there are also times for knowing not to push ourselves. In those times, gobbling up writing sweets may be the best reminder of why we do this, the best way to renew and refresh until our muse returns.
In seeking our unique balance from day to day as writers, we often end up surprised by what moves us to act. This can carry through, surprising readers and holding their interest as well.
The Art of Fiction, Toni Morrison, The Paris Review
This month we lost the great Toni Morrison, so I decided to go back and find some of her best interviews to shed light on her process. In her 1993 interview with The Paris Review, she describes her daily writing ritual, and how it prompts her to initiate the creative process:
Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard—but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?
Many writers are plugging away at odd hours due to other day to day responsibilities. At times this may prove discouraging, and feel as though it can feel like a massive obstacle. Morrison explains how her ideal writing routine looked in her mind, versus her reality:
I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out—life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.
Despite the challenge of time, keeping track of thoughts as they pop up throughout the day are also integral to success:
Sometimes something that I was having some trouble with falls into place, a word sequence, say, so I’ve written on scraps of paper, in hotels on hotel stationery, in automobiles. If it arrives you know. If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down.
It can be easy to overthink how the audience will feel about a certain character or storyline, and begin to doubt ourselves. Morrison overcame this by writing only for herself, and going directly to the characters to shape the story:
If I come to a place where I am unsure, I have the characters to go to for reassurance. By that time they are friendly enough to tell me if the rendition of their lives is authentic or not. But there are so many things only I can tell. After all, this is my work. I have to take full responsibility for doing it right as well as doing it wrong. Doing it wrong isn’t bad, but doing it wrong and thinking you’ve done it right is. I remember spending a whole summer writing something I was very impressed with, but couldn’t get back to until winter. I went back confident that those fifty pages were really first-rate, but when I read them each page of the fifty was terrible. It was really ill-conceived. I knew that I could do it over, but I just couldn’t get over the fact that I thought it was so good at the time. And that is scary because then you think it means you don’t know.
In character development, Morrison describes her method for keeping them under control, so as not to take over too much of the story:
I take control of them. They are very carefully imagined. I feel as though I know all there is to know about them, even things I don’t write—like how they part their hair. They are like ghosts. They have nothing on their minds but themselves and aren’t interested in anything but themselves. So you can’t let them write your book for you. I have read books in which I know that has happened—when a novelist has been totally taken over by a character. I want to say, You can’t do that. If those people could write books they would, but they can’t. You can. So, you have to say, Shut up. Leave me alone. I am doing this.
Approaching the writing process and the outcome as a living, breathing entity that requires careful thought and gentle direction seems to be the overarching message. It is up to the writer to nurture this relationship in order to allow it to bloom.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!