Voice exercise

A while ago, Cara blogged about Words We Really Like and I admitted that I mostly see words as brushstrokes in a painting, important but not an obsession in themselves.

One reason is that character and plot matter more to me but another related reason is that I’m a very visual reader. When I’m reading fiction, my brain translates what I’m reading into a film in my head. If the author has done her job well, the words and paragraphs disappear. I become aware of them only if there’s a snag in the process: a typo, a grammatical error, a clumsy point of view change.

It works the same way when I write. My rough drafts don’t even approach being readable; they’re just my way of figuring out and recording the film in my head. In fact, they would probably read like a confusing screenplay–were I to let anyone see them, that is!

The problem with this process is that when it comes time to put the scenes into words, I’ve forgotten how to do it. I worry that I no longer know how to break paragraphs, how to use adverbs (sparingly!), how to interleave description with action and dialogue, etc… And what’s worse, I get this scary feeling that my writer voice is gone.

Classroom type exercises for finding writer voice haven’t worked for me. I can’t seem to do free writing with others around me (though I keep thinking I should try it in private). But the last time I felt this way I came up with an exercise that did help me. I selected snippets of well-written scenes from historical romances by a variety of favorite authors and then I didn’t just reread them, I typed them out. For me, the act of typing made me focus on the words and how they’re put together. It helped me figure out which elements of writing style felt natural to me, and just as importantly, which didn’t, because the goal of the exercise was to learn from favorite romance authors like Jo Beverley, Julia Ross, Laura Kinsale, etc…, not blindly imitate them. That would be bad!

This weekend I’m going on a retreat with some local writing buddies. I plan to use the retreat to get started on the 4th (rubber-hits-the-road) draft of my balloonist story. I’m still hunting down some research details but tomorrow I may try this exercise again, because I’m definitely feeling rusty.

Anyone else out there a visual reader/writer? Are there any exercises you’ve found helpful to develop writer voice? Which authors have strong voices you enjoy?


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
This entry was posted in Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Voice exercise

  1. I am a very visual writer, like you, and can’t even write without knowing exactly what the characters look like, and what they sound like.

    I only discovered this after finishing a book where I wasn’t really sure what the hero looked like–which is why it is a weak book.

    I don’t do all the drafts you do, Elena, but I do see the scenes unroll in my head, like a movie.

  2. Diane Gaston says:

    I like putting my characters in scenes and I use lots of visual elements to help me figure out who they are. I always start with photos (not always of Gerard Butler…) who represent my characters.

    That said, I like words. I like alliteration and imagery, although those might come in in later drafts.

  3. I have to know what my characters look like, and I make collages with pictures of them, and clothing, particularly now that I’m writing historicals. I also layer my scenes, they start out mainly with the dialogue, and then I have to go back and add the details, like the surroundings, the sounds, the smells etc.

  4. Cara King says:

    I’m just the opposite of a visual writer. If the author never tells me what color some character’s hair is, I can get to the end of the book without noticing! And as for eye color — I couldn’t tell you the eye color of most of my friends or family! πŸ™‚

    I do use photos sometimes to help me when I write — partly because I am so bad at visualizing things.


  5. Like Cara, I’m the opposite of a visual writer. I hear my stories much more than I see them, and my CPs are always nagging me to add more staging, give just a hint of what a room looks like, etc.

    Actually, now that I think of it, I visualize my characters pretty strongly. It’s their surroundings that fade into a blur.

    The protagonist of my WIP is a visual/spatial thinker, though, a fact that’s often important to the story, so lately I’ve been trying to see my world through his eyes, just to practice. The funny thing is, I’m starting to internalize it–I’m not half so oblivious to my physical surroundings as I was before I started asking my character what he sees.

    One more bit of rambling: every once in awhile I will get a strong visual image of a scene. Unfortunately, I’ve found those scenes are the hardest ones to write–it’s just so hard to pick the most important details from that comprehensive visual and not get bogged down in too much detail.

  6. Elena Greene says:

    Interesting how different we all are (except in creating great stories, of course)!

    Cara, if an author doesn’t describe a character’s appearance, my imagination will supply one. I once read a book in which a heroine’s hair was described as “dusky” somewhere in the middle. It threw me because I was already picturing light brown hair.

    Being a visual (or perhaps sensory is a better word) writer is one of the reasons I do so much research. Recently I learned about the process used to create hydrogen for balloons using sulphuric acid and iron filings–but now I want to know how that would smell! I’m assuming not very good. Any chemists around?

    Susan, I know what you mean about dealing with loads of detail. I don’t put everything I know into a scene though I do think the occasional detail helps to make it real for readers, too.

  7. Kalen Hughes says:

    I’d have to say I’m sort of in-between . . . on the one hand, when I read the scene does play out like a movie in my head, but I’m also aware of the writing itself. Story doesn’t trump everything else for me. A flatly written story won’t hold my attention, no matter how great the plot is. I need at least a bit of lyricism on the page (Julia Ross is a major favorite!).

  8. Kalen Hughes says:

    Oh, I forgot to say:

    Balloonists, Balloonists, Balloonists!!! I’m dying for this book!

  9. janegeorge says:

    My degree is in art. Writing my books is like living in the movie.

    Going deeper into POV has helped me with those pesky tendencies to describe and not show.

    I strive to stay balanced between left brain and right brain by analyzing my sentences while I write. It helps me move forward rather than stopping the movie.

    My son is test-reading my current project, a contemporay YA. He wanted me to pick a famous someone who looks like one of my characters, a 16 year old boy who is both a cutter and super-Gothie-Goth. He found all kinds of pictures of young men in bands. I kept saying, nah, nah, nah, and then I asked him to picture a skinny, teenaged, Goth Clive Owen. I actually found a pic of a very young Clive. My son drew on it to Goth it out, and it is scary how exactly like my character that picture looks.

  10. Elena Greene says:

    A flatly written story won’t hold my attention, no matter how great the plot is.

    I agree though for a slightly different reason: a flatly written story doesn’t translate into a good film in my head. A beautifully written one will create a vivid picture even though I don’t notice the writing unless I stop to analyze it.

    Which is what my voice exercize is all about. Now that I think about it more, I’ve heard some writers say they can’t read fiction while they’re writing because they find it affects their voice. I feel differently. I think we all have our influences. I learned very early that I couldn’t directly imitate them. My first (unpublished) attempts were cheap imitation Georgette Heyer and very unsatisfying! But I learn a lot from studying them.

    Balloonists, Balloonists, Balloonists!!! I’m dying for this book!

    Aw, thanks! πŸ™‚

  11. Elena Greene says:

    I strive to stay balanced between left brain and right brain by analyzing my sentences while I write. It helps me move forward rather than stopping the movie.

    It’s great that you can do that, Jane. For me it would be like spinning plates while riding a unicycle. πŸ™‚

  12. janegeorge says:

    **For me it would be like spinning plates while riding a unicycle. :)**

    You’d fit right in my story! I have characters who do that “for real.”

    If I don’t try and balance my brains, the left half would be so shrunken and the right so swollen that my right cheek would be squashed flat on my desk all time.

    I have a left brain only day job, too. Not that I really want to think about it…

    Here’s to the best of luck in giving those balloonists voice!

  13. doglady says:

    Can’t wait to read about the balloonists! I tend to see my novel as a movie in my head. I like to have photos of my characters to give me and idea of how they look. But I add my own dimension to them with the color of their eyes when angry, aroused, sad, etc. I like to have photos of the houses too and I sometimes sketch out floor plans so that I can visualize what is happening.

  14. Definitely visual! I have a board on the wall by my desk where I put photos and images that help with my WIP. I just turned in my Caribbean book, and am starting my Regency Bath-set book, so have lots of postcards of old Bath prints, photos of the Pump Room, etc. My heroine looks a bit like Kirsten Dunst, so I have a “Marie Antoinette” pic there, but I need some help with my hero. He is Italian and gorgeous–any ideas???

    And when I read I also see it as a film in my head! Stilted writing jerks me out of that film. One author whose voice I love is (of course!) Laura Kinsale. And Judith Ivory/Judy Cuevas–I “see” her stories so vividly when I read them.

  15. Todd says:

    Not sure how the process of producing hydrogen would smell–I’m not a good enough chemist for that! The hydrogen producing reaction is

    H2SO4 + Fe –> H2 + FeSO4 ,

    that is, it produces hydrogen gas and iron sulfate (which is a solid); so if the reaction worked perfectly then it wouldn’t smell. However, it seems possible that there might be some other byproducts, such as sulfur dioxide (smell of burning sulfur) or hydrogen sulfide (smell of rotten eggs). I don’t know, though!


  16. Todd says:

    BTW, your exercise of starting by typing a paragraph by another writer reminds me of a scene from the film Finding Forrester, which is one of very few movies that makes being a good writer seem like a cool thing.


  17. Elena Greene says:

    I like to have photos of the houses too and I sometimes sketch out floor plans so that I can visualize what is happening.

    Doglady, you are not alone. I once sketched a map of an imaginary village for the same reason.

    Jane, would love to read about plate-spinning unicyclists. πŸ™‚

    Amanda, I so agree about Judith Ivory/Cuevas. Her writing is beautiful but all in support of the story.

    Todd, thanks for the chemistry insights. The late 18th/early 19th century process wouldn’t have been very perfect. A few accounts mention a smell. They don’t describe it though. Didn’t they know I’d want this information a few hundred years later? πŸ™‚

  18. Rodrigo Santoro, Amanda, the guy who was in 300 (I think he was also in Love Actually), or the guy who wooed Diane Lane in under the Tuscan Sun. Both hot men although only one is actually Italian.

  19. Diane Gaston says:

    Google Italian Hunks. Even if you don’t find one, it will keep you well entertained.

Comments are closed.