Monday, September 26, 2011

My Playlist for Darkroom

Here are the songs on my ipod when I'm writing:

1) Calamity Song - Decemberists
2) Don't Carry It All - Decemberists
3) Superman - Five for Fighting
4) Numb - Linkin Park
5) Boulevard of Broken Dreams - Green Day
5) Emergency - Paramore
6) Pressure - Paramore
7) Digging for Fire - Pixies
8) Here Comes Your Man - Pixies
9) Collide - Howie Day
10) Butterflies and Hurricanes - Muse
11) Unintended - Muse
12) All I Need -  Air
13) Body and Soul - Death Cab for Cutie
14) Mad World - Gary Jones
15) Time of My life - Green Day

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Voice & Sherman Alexie

I’ve sat through a few supposed lessons on voice --in one the teacher had us discuss favorite quotations about voice in writing, in another the teacher elaborated on the technical aspects of viewpoint in literature.  Recently, though I found another door into voice in young adult literature.

My writing partner and I read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I thought, "Okay, now this is a book with voice!"  Arnold Spirit's voice IS this book.  It's distinctive and memorable.  It's because of the voice that you can't put the book down.  How did Alexie do this?

I discovered that the reviews excerpted in the front of the book held a lot of clues about how Alexie captured Arnold's voice on the page.  So I got out my highlighter and started marking key words in those reviews.

Time and again reviewers referred to the novel's HONESTY.  Breathtakingly honest, emotionally honest, tell-it-like-it-is, unapologetic emotion, raw feeling, doesn't pull many punches, profane, fearless, fierce observations, brutally honest --all these terms are repeated throughout the reviews.  I got a gut feeling then.  You know how a lot of times you have to force yourself to write?  Maybe it’s because we get afraid of writing from that place of honesty.  When we go there, we find a lot of unsettling stuff, stuff we could avoid by checking e-mail or grocery shopping.  Writing from your gut, that where the honesty is, the source of voice.  And when I really go there, that’s when my characters’ voice start speaking up.

Here's another term that reverberated through Alexie's reviews --FUNNY.  So hard to come by in novels the older you get.  Here's how the reviews put it: no-holds-barred jokes, devastatingly funny, sharp wit, sardonic insight, raw emotion leavened with humor, hilarious language, self-deprecating.  Now not every story is funny, but I've also heard it said that comedians are the saddest people.  Humor is sometimes the only way we can get at what's hardest for us to face.  Which takes us back to honesty, doesn't it?

Of course there were a bunch of descriptors in the reviews about Sherman Alexie’s LANGUAGE.  Jazzy syntax, emotionally spring-loaded and linguistically gymnastic, narration  [that] is intensely alive and rat-a-tat-tat with short paragraphs and one-liners, verbal succinctness.  If I pay close attention, I thought, there might be an element of voice I could craft –the sound of the language.  So I started getting into the rhythms of characters’ voice, started hearing them as music.  I would let the actual words blur temporarily in my mind in order to just hear the pacing and intonation of their speech.  A voice’s rhythm says a lot about a character’s internal state.

In the back of my Part-Time Indian edition, there is an interview from the artist, Ellen Forney, who did the cartoon illustrations from Arnold Spirit's viewpoint.  She makes some interesting comments about drawing that can be applied to voice in writing.  "Arnold's artwork needed to span different situations and moods, so his drawing style needed to change as well."  There are some drawings which capture well-developed ideas, some realistic portraits which evidence intimacy with his subjects, some portraits drawn from photographs showing distance between Arnold and his subject, and for special reasons some even combine realism and cartoon.  The illustrator even compares Arnold’s sketchbook to a diary –a haven of voice.  Forney made me consider how a  voice would change depending on who the character is talking to or who he’s feeling.  I started tuning into not only distinct voices, but also each voice’s range.

I hope this gets you started thinking about the qualities of voice.  I'm not suggesting analyzing voice to an extreme --that would kill it off pretty quickly.  We all know it needs to flow.  But if we write it off as totally elusive than how can we improve?  I believe we can help ourselves tap into that flow with some study.  How would you characterize voice?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Voice and Music

One of the things I’m trying to help slip into the voices of my characters is music.  I know a lot of writers listen to music to help them get in the mood.  Some authors even post play lists for their books on their sites.  So you can see what songs Laurie Halse Anderson listened to, for example, to get in the zone for writing Speak.

Being a thirty-something mom, I am way out of the loop when it comes to current music.  I may have bought  my last CD in college.  How would I know what music speaks to the 2011 teenagers I’m trying to write about?

So I started checking out author play lists of books like mine and tooling around on You Tube where I could listen to songs and get new suggestions.  A lot of songs came back to me, and I realized not all the songs on my play list had to be songs teenagers are listening to now.  It’s not like my play list was going to appear in the book.  These songs just had to get me into the mood of my story.

So in about a week I had a play list of about eight songs, old and new, that captured the tone of my story and spoke to my characters' inner struggles in an almost uncanny way.  I downloaded the songs onto my ipod, I plugged in for a writing session, and I LOVED it.

The immediate benefit –listening to music while I write drowns out the negative voices in my head.  Voices that say things like, "Are you kidding?  That is so not how teenagers act," are now blasted away by Muse, Linkin Park, and The Decemberists.

I am also able to write more and to write faster.  (There is a similar effect on the treadmill by the way.)  Where I usually slow down or get stuck editing, the music sets a pace.  And the pace keeps me in touch with my subconscious.  Just writing, not editing, just capturing first thoughts.

Maybe most profoundly, I am encouraged by the music.  All these great bands are singing about themes I’m trying to weave into my novel.  What I'm trying to get at, or what one of my characters may be trying to say can't be that out there if Green Day and Paramore are writing about it too.  I feel bolstered to stand up and say what I intuit, what those negative voices in my head might dub as too weird to say out loud.

The music frees me up to just play during a first draft.  I have songs that get me in the mood for certain scenes, songs that sound like particular characters talking, songs I can imagine in the soundtrack when my book is optioned for a major motion picture.  The more I listen to my play list (like when I run) the more nuances I find in the lyrics.  Songs I thought were about my protagonist also tell me something about his enemies.

Now I am always asking people what they’re listening to, and I have a whole section of my notebook full of new bands and songs to check out.  What you are listening to when you write or how you have used music to inspire your writing?

Monday, September 5, 2011


So my latest obsession is VOICE.  At every writing conference or class I go to, the agents and editors always go directly back to voice.  They want to hear fresh, original voices.  They're right.  The books I remember most, the books that suck me in in the first three lines are the ones with distinct voices.

I don't always struggle with voice, but I am with my current novel.  Maybe it's because the protagonist is a guy.  Maybe it's because I get too close to my protagonists and end up turning them into myself.  Whatever the case, I've found instruction on HOW to work on voice pretty sparse.  My initial scan of writing books and the web has not amounted to much.

Maybe that's because voice is such an allusive thing.  It's kind of misty, kind of hard to touch, kind of hard to explain.  Once in a while it happens.  And we all thank the writing gods.  But there's got to be a way to study it, to enhance your chances of stumbling onto a vivid voice.  So I'm going to look into voice myself.  In the posts to follow, I'll share what I've found and raise the questions that continue to bug me about voice.  And maybe my protagonist will start to speak for himself!

In the meantime, if you’ve found any great resources on how to wake up the voice in your writing, please share!