Friday, July 30, 2010

Finding Your Voice

When I was in that frustrated stage of publishing where I was getting rejections from literary agents and deciding whether to self-publish, one realization hit me which really led me to put my book out myself.

I had a voice.

Now, don’t ask me to define exactly what that is because I can’t tell you. But with every rejection I got, all the agents kept telling me that I had great voice and the word “voice” connected with me because I’d heard it before…about 20 years ago.

For those writers who think you must have formal English training, an MFA or the like, to write novels. Let me tell you that I don’t. I’ve written in journals all my life, was pretty much a straight-A student nerd, and did pretty well in English classes throughout school. But one day changed my perspective on my writing.

My English 101 professor, Francis O’Leary (of Irish descent and knew more about African American literature than anyone I’ve met to date—I’ll never forget him) gave the class an assignment. The details are foggy but we had a list of short stories and we were supposed to select two of the stories and do a contrast and comparison—3 pages long. I looked at the list and was completely lost. On the surface, those stories couldn’t have less in common than a chicken and a yo-yo. I mean nothing. We had two days to get the assignment done and I stewed for two days and couldn’t think of a single angle. Talk about frustrated.

Finally, about 2 hours before class on the day I was supposed to turn the assignment in an idea just hit me. I remember selecting The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe. In each story, the protagonist kind of took a morbid laissez faire attitude about other people’s pain…until the pain became their own. Anyway, so I start writing this 3-page piece of fluff crap, pulling words completely out of my butt, talking about some saying that my grandma said, knowing darn well she’d never said it, and just pulling ideas out of thin air…or so it seemed to me at the time. The words flowed like the River Jordan. I couldn’t stop them until I got to 2 and a half pages (not 3 pages as assigned) and then it ended. When there was nothing left to say, I just couldn’t write anymore. No matter how hard I tried to fill in that last half page.

The whole comparison was entertaining but filled with crap that I’d made up. I didn’t care. It was done and I was going to turn the stupid thing in no matter what the consequences were. For some reason, I was most scared because I didn’t write the entire three pages, just 2 and a half. Hand shaking, I passed the last minute job to Professor O’Leary and I prayed and sweated and hoped that I would just pass the dang assignment. I just didn’t want an “F.”

The next day we were in the middle of an in-class writing assignment and Professor O’Leary calls me to the front of the class. I thought, “Oh hell, he’s gonna let me have it in front of everyone.” My stomach dropped through the floor and I was trembling. Keep in mind that as a nerd, grades were my life…especially A’s. So, I get to the front of the class and he pulls out my paper. At the top of it, an enormous “A” circled in red ink. He hands it to me and whispers, “I’d like to read this in front of the class tomorrow if you don’t mind. This was excellent. You have a great voice! Keep writing!”


What the hell’s “voice”?

I didn’t know, but I agreed to let him read it. A shy writer (to this day), I showed up 20 minutes late just so I wouldn’t have to suffer through him reading my work to the whole class. I walked in just in time for the light applause.

When I thought about my process later on, I remembered the place I was in, where the words just flowed. I heard voices speak to me and I transcribed. I was a vessel for some imaginary person in my head that had something to say, and I wrote the words the way they told me to write them.

To this day, that’s where my words and my characters come from. That place where the characters speak and I listen and then write.

There is where I found my voice, that ingredient in writing that makes your characters come alive. And they refused to let me put their words in one of my journals. They wanted a book and they wanted it published. And wouldn’t let me stop until I did.

I self-published…and the rest as they say is history.

So fellow writers, when you’re wondering why you’re doing what you persist in this writing “thing,” remember those voices and let their stories be heard.


  1. Love this, girl. So, so true! Sometimes, the voices are so fast, so forceful they're scary and I find myself stopping to play on roam on facebook. And then I remember the speech "Our greatest fear..."

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. You mean those voices in my head are CHARACTERS? I'm not crazy? What a relief!

    You, Karla, are an inspiration. Your blog is informative, entertaining, and full of hope for all us kookie writers.

    We'll be referring to it often when the marketing blitz begins.


  3. Thanks Karla for another great post. Building your character's voice is something many newbie writers have struggles with. Sometimes staying in character and making that voice come alive on the page is difficult.