Friday, April 22, 2016

The First Goodbye

The writing group at my local library celebrated poetry month by talking about sonnets at this month's meeting. I couldn't be there (for reasons I'll talk about in a moment), but the coordinator did ask me to send one in to share. I had a sonnet in mind, something I'd already written as part of one of my books, but at the last minute I sent her this instead:

The first goodbye did hasten toward its close
Upon swift wings and mercurial feet,
But as the mem’ry lingered I supposed
That though goodbye was bitter, it was sweet.

A thousand more goodbyes it did portend
And promised of hellos much sweeter still;
Stretching out before us to the end,
A lifetime built together with good will.

Through brief, goodbye was seal’d with silent vow,
Revealed in tender touch and ardent sighs,
That we would be together here and now
As one more transient moment passes by.

As I reflect, so many years now past:
That first goodbye was sweeter than this last.

So the reason that I was not at the writing group this month was because I was at my grandfather's memorial service. My Poppop was a man of integrity and strong character, and he served his family, his country and his community selflessly all his life. He was quiet and humble, good-natured, unwavering in love, faith and compassion. I'm proud to be his granddaughter, and I hope I live my life with as much dignity as he did.

The sonnet itself isn't specifically a tribute to him but about final goodbyes in a broader sense. As a far more fitting tribute, my uncle performed this song (he's the singer), the recording of which was played during the memorial along with a slideshow of beautiful pictures my cousin put together. And, particularly special to me, my dad spoke about my grandfather's life with eloquence and even some very fitting humor. He told us my Poppop used to say, "Better to light a candle than curse the darkness." I want to remember that.

I'll also remember one particular long car ride with him when I was a kid. He had come to pick up my brother and me to take back to his house for a week, and we started talking about World War 2. He told me story after story about people and places and dates. I marveled out loud that he could remember so much. "Well, I lived through it," he said simply. I think that was the first time it dawned on me that my grandparents had whole lives outside of being grandparents.

He didn't talk about himself much, at least not that I witnessed, but there was one afternoon when I had lunch with him and my grandmother and I asked him about his police work. He told me all about both his hardest and his most rewarding moments, and I felt so much pride and respect for him and the things he had done. People like him are the rocks that communities are built on.

I got to say goodbye to him the night before he passed away. He was able to speak to me and to express how fiercely he loved his family. I'm so glad I was able to be there.

We love you too, Poppop. You're our hero.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Voice: What It Is and How to Write It

Recently I did a critique for a new acquaintance, and after a bit of back and forth with her about the voice in her book, I wrote up the following. Here it is, for anyone else who struggles with voice, even after reading through all the standard advice.

On Voice

I went looking for some links to give you an idea of what voice is all about, but the ones I've found weren't as helpful as I hoped. They all say some version of "voice is what you sound like when you're talking," but if you're anything like me that's really hard to pinpoint. For one thing, it's harder than it seems to figure out what your own natural speaking voice sounds like, and for another, a lot of people change their speech patterns depending on the crowd they're with.

Beyond that, there's the fact that my own natural speaking voice is *not* the right voice for most of the characters I write. If I wrote the way I speak, most of my characters wouldn't fit their stories. This is particularly clear when writing historical novels--the slang and idioms that pepper our language are very out of place in books set centuries ago. I'd have to have some idea of how people spoke in the time period I was writing if I wanted to do them justice.

Voice is, in essence, what your words sound like on the page. That might seem nonsensical, because *of course* words on a page don't actually make any noise. And yet, as we read we can hear the words in our minds. The cool thing about writing is that, depending on the cues you give, the reader can hear different voices through the text.

Voice encompasses such things as accent, vocabulary, tone and rhythm. Consider these two opening lines:

1. I ain't a smart man, but I reckon I know a thing or two 'bout horses.

2. The thing about horses is that they're much taller than people generally seem to recall, and, if you must know, I'm rather afraid of heights.

Each of these is just one sentence, and yet it's easy to see that the speakers are two very different people. They have different accents, use different word choices (the first would use words like "reckon" and "recollect," whereas the second would say "suppose" and "recall"), approach their stories with different outlooks (which affect tone) and speak in very different rhythms (one straightforward, the other rambling). Their voices make them sound human instead of robotic.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to get comfortable writing with voice if you're used to academic or technical writing. Professional writing of that sort so often strips away everything that is unique about a voice. There is a very proper voice to use in academia, and it's challenging to break away from that.

But if you don't, your book will sound stilted and lifeless.

So how do you come up with a voice? Well, if your setting is very specific (as yours is), the best thing to do is to listen carefully to speakers native to that setting. If you can talk to those people, that's great! If not, can you watch videos? Can you read books written with those voices and imitate the style? Can you find other resources to give you clues? (I came across a Dictionary of Americanisms from 1848 that was vital to writing one of my books.)

Once you've done the research, try to get the voice into your head. Imagine the character talking to you. Imagine the accent and the words or phrases they overuse. Imagine their attitude toward life and toward their story, and let that inform the way they speak. Do they put everything out there? Do they hold back? Do they take forever to get to the point or pounce on it abruptly? When you start feeling comfortable with the voice, pull up a blank page and start typing in that voice--about anything at all. Break it in like you'd break in a new pair of shoes. Then, once you like the feel of it, start writing your book in that voice.

And let your characters' lives inform your story. This is something I've struggled with, but that I make an effort to improve. When a thunderstorm rolls in, don't just say that it's raining. Tell us whether the character likes the rain and why. Were they frightened of thunder as a child? Do they get a thrill watching the wildness of nature at work? Is the rain a nuisance or a blessing? If you give a unique perspective in a unique voice, your characters will truly come to life.