The Musical Magic of Words

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Have you ever watched a great storyteller? The other day, during lunch with a group of women, one gal held our attention as she told about replacing her wood stove with a propane furnace. It sounds ho-hum, doesn’t it? Then why did we listen so intently? It wasn’t what she was saying; it was how she was telling her tale. She changed the tempo and volume of her voice; fast and strong as we heard of the workmen tearing open walls, soft and slow as she talked of dust settling and dreams of warmth throughout the winter nights. It was a musical tale of a mundane experience. As writers, we can make music with the sound of words.

A well-written story, article, or poem carries the cadence and rhythm of memorable music. Just as in oral storytelling, the tempo, or pace of words and the beat, or inflection help create feelings and images. These are the devices that distinguish your writing from forgotten pop to classical music. Music and words sprouted from the human need to communicate. Here are some seeds to plant in your creative garden. Allow them to grow from your material and strengthen your writing.

  • Alliteration – musically creates moods with sounds and meaning by using neighboring words beginning with the same consonant. Alliteration need not be a string of words to be effective.

Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail.

–Helen Keller, The Seeing See Little

  • Consonance – subtly creates mood and lends musicality through the repetition of a pattern of consonants.

Linger, longer, languor
Rider, reader, raider, ruder

  • Assonance – unconsciously reinforces meaning and creates mood with the repetition of same or similar vowel sounds. This excerpt employs everything.

Night came on, and a full moon rose high over the trees into the sky, lighting the land til it lay bathed in ghostly day.

–Jack London, The Call of the Wild

  • Connotation – Choose wisely, words have a wily way. They evoke emotional and imaginative associations. Consider: fat, corpulent, obese, each creates a different mental image in the reader, yet describe a person not underfed.

In other words he was a carbon-based bipedal life form descended from an ape. More specifically he was forty, fat and shabby and worked for the local council. Curiously enough though he didn’t know it, he was a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernable Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in (him) of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the turn and a predilection for little fur hats.

–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • Onomatopoeia – you know this one, a word that imitates natural sounds or sounds like its meaning. What I want to know is, who came up with the word onomatopoeia? Here’s a lovely poetic example of words and sounds.

The moan of doves, in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

–Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Princess

  • Pacing – is the musical tempo of your writing. Think in terms of speed and movement. A slow, relaxed atmosphere is conveyed through long descriptive sentences or employing “ing” words: Sallie watched the ball hitting the glass. A fast paced world is conveyed with short sentences and action verbs: The ball shattered the glass.

Watching these small subliminal seeds grow in your creative garden is more an act of discovery than imposition. You can become a virtuoso storyteller when you listen to and orchestrate the musical magic of words.

Final Poll Results

Recognizing Your Voice

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“A defective voice will always preclude an artist from achieving the complete development of his art, however intelligent he may be… The voice is an instrument which the artist must learn to use with suppleness and sureness, as if it were a limb.” —Sarah Bernhardt

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably had a writing teacher encourage you to find your voice or heard a fellow writer claiming to have found hers. Maybe you’ve even used the phrase yourself.

So many writers seem to suffer from laryngitis that sometimes I wonder if there’s a mutant strain of streptococcus circulating through the writing community. Is voice really such an elusive thing that it’s lost this frequently and found only with much effort?

Voice is nebulous, in part because it can be hard to define—with respect to writing, that is. After all, you know what your speaking voice is; it’s that sound you make when you open your mouth. You can vary it by singing, whispering, or yelling, affecting an accent or peppering it with slang, but any way you serve it up, it is always indubitably you.

Voice in writing is, well, it’s like your speaking voice, only on paper. Your voice, the author’s voice. If you write fiction, don’t confuse voice with point-of-view—the perspective of your narrator or protagonist. Your writing will have voice even if you’re writing a technical manual.

Sometimes described as a combination of style, tone, and personality, in simpler terms, voice is the how of writing. It’s not what you say or who you say it about; it’s how you say it.

In a profession where an hour can be spent fussing over the placement of a period, it’s understandable that broader elements of writing like voice get fuzzy. It’s like looking at a photograph pressed against your nose. It’s right there—but you can’t see it.

Step back. Way back. Voice is not exclusive to writing. An example: I have before me two images, an Ansel Adams photograph and a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. I’m not going to tell you more; I don’t have to. Even if you’re only slightly familiar with these artists, you immediately pictured something. Though both lived in the western United States in the same era and portrayed similar subjects, each artist had a distinctive look. One of Adams’s monochromatic photographs would never be confused with one of O’Keeffe’s colorful abstractions, even if both subjects were the same.

That look is voice.

Everyone has a voice. Voice isn’t something to be found; it’s not lost. And unlike grammar and plotting, it’s not something that needs to be learned. Let’s dispel the myth of “finding your voice”; it’s a misconception. You don’t need to find it; you need to recognize it.

You’d think you’d know what you sound like, but in practice it’s much easier to spot another writer’s voice than your own. Much like speaking voices, really: you can recognize and describe the voices of your friends, family, and co-workers, but what about your own? Ever heard a recording of your own voice?

Ah. You see the problem.

Dig out some of your own unpolished, not-meant-for-publication writing—journal entries are best, but letters or emails will work. Try to find something old, preferably composed before you started writing seriously. Spend some time reading and absorbing your voice—and make a note to yourself when something clicks. Read the “now that sounds like me” sections aloud.

Now pick up something you’ve been working on recently—maybe something that’s been frustrating you—and read it over. Do you hear your voice—or someone else’s? When you find an awkward section, something that sounds wrong, read it aloud. Compare it to the other piece, the one you know sounds like you. Try to pin down what’s different. Have you used big words when normally you use small ones? Are you using dialect you’re not familiar with? Maybe you’re trying to be poetic, when your natural voice is spare.

When you start writing, it’s natural to imitate the voices of your favorite writers or writers you’ve recently read, much like your speaking voice picks up local accents and expressions when you travel. In fact, the better your ear for the sound of good writing, the more likely this is to happen. But if you know your own voice, you’ll recognize what you’re doing and slip back without fuss, just as you effortlessly return to your regular speaking voice when you come home from a trip. Mimicking another writer’s voice is a fun exercise, but in the long term it’s too damn hard. If writing has become arduous and you can’t figure out why—check your voice.

But don’t feel that you have to lose every trick you’ve picked up from other writers. Just as a lifetime of experiences influences your speaking vocabulary and pronunciation, what you read affects your writing. Keep what feels right; techniques culled from a variety of sources will only make your voice more decisively you.

The more you write, the more aware you’ll be of your own voice. Other writers will still influence you, but they won’t have the profound effect they did in the beginning.

Compare a story that’s at least a year old with a recent one. If your writing is progressing, the newer piece will sound more like you. Not sure? Listen to your readers. A definitive sign that your writing has a recognizable sound is a reader saying, “That’s so you.” Sounds obvious, but such comments are often brushed aside as unimportant. When this happens, make a note of it. It’ll give you a touchstone to refer to when your voice falters.

Because even when you know your own voice, it can be a challenge to stay true to it. Why? Well, one of the first things you probably did when you started writing was seek out other writers. Perhaps you took a class or joined a critique group. And while classes and critique groups are great for mastering the basics—things like good grammar, a consistent viewpoint, a plot that makes sense—they’re terrible for developing voice.

Think about it: grammar, viewpoint, and plot are objective elements. For example, “should of” is wrong. Period. If you’re writing in third person, you can’t start saying “I did this and that” halfway through the story. If a character dies (really dies) in Chapter Two, they can’t be seen ordering a cappuccino in Chapter Nine.

Objective elements like these receive consistent feedback. Everyone will notice your dead character drinking coffee and point it out. But voice is subjective. The more unusual your voice, the more likely it is that ten different critiquers will have ten different opinions about how you should tell your story. If you’re a good little writer, your instinct will be to try to accommodate all of them. Resist.

Trust yourself. Listening to multiple opinions will only muddle your voice. The purpose of editing is to polish and clear up discrepancies, not to please others. Say what you think and feel, not what you think someone else wants to hear. Keep reminding yourself why you’re writing. What do you want your oeuvre—body of work—to say about you at the end of your life?

If you know why you’re writing, you’ll stay focused on how you’re going to say it—even in the face of opposition from your best writing buddies—and your voice will be sure and true.

Final Poll Results

Mirror, Mirror:
Finding Your Writing Style

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Some days, it seems like every second person you meet writes on the side, as if writing is to a real job what fries are to a burger. No other profession is more usurped by pretenders than writing. Unlike other jobs and careers, the superficial tools of a writer–pen and paper or computer–are accessible to anyone, and nearly everyone is capable of stringing together words in some fashion.

But having a spiral notebook and a gel pen doesn’t make one a writer. Neither does keeping a journal or penning a letter to the editor. Writing is about more than words and a writer does more than write. The most important tool a writer can have is not talent, creativity or passion. It’s persistence.

Persistence means plowing through the parts of writing that you hate, whether it’s research, editing or composing a three-line bio. Sitting down to write when it’s a sunny summer day and you’d rather be at the beach. Turfing the piece you know in your heart isn’t good enough and starting again.

Fought some of those battles and won? Congrats! A genuine writer lurks inside you. Still worried that “pseudo” applies to more than your pen name? Relax. Even the most dedicated writers can stumble during the writing process. Have a look in the mirrors below and decide which reflects your writing style. By pinpointing your weaknesses, you’ll be one step closer to reaching your full writing potential.

  1. THE WANNABE
    • Most often heard saying: “I want to write.”
    • Think you’re a wannabe? Wannabes sit in on writing classes and read books on writing. They hang out with writers. Attend poetry readings. Haunt bookstores. They purchase pretty blank books, fancy pens and expensive software. They drink a lot of coffee. They ask questions about agents and how wide their margins should be. They’re in love with the idea of being a writer. They do everything to do with writing except write.
    • #1 asset: Wannabes are equipped. If it’s a tool of the trade, a wannabe will have it.
    • Best advice for Wannabes: Practice write. Pick up one of those pretty notebooks and write for 10-15 minutes a day. Write for the entire 10 minutes without stopping. If you’re blocked, write your name or “I don’t know what to write.” over and over. Copy out your grocery list. Anything to keep your hand moving. If you want to be a writer, first you must write. Worry about content later.
  2. THE PROCRASTINATOR
    • Most often heard saying: “I have to defrost the fridge/run 10 miles/make my first million before I can write.”
    • Think you’re a procrastinator? Procrastinators have a problem with sitting down and starting to write. When they finally start writing, they’ll write for hours. Unfortunately, writing always gets pushed to the bottom of their to-do list. On some level, they don’t think they deserve to write until they get everything else finished, which it never will be. Procrastinators crave order, but can never achieve it to the level they desire.
    • #1 Asset: Abundance of ideas. Procrastinators have an endless supply of stories conceived of whilst they were not-writing.
    • Best Advice for Procrastinators: Make writing appointments. Put them in your calendar and keep them. If your calendar says “Saturday, 9am-noon. Write.”, then at 9am, sit down and start writing. Face the fact that that your email inbox will never be empty, there will always be more laundry to do and the phone will never stop ringing. Write first. When your appointment is over, then tackle the other stuff.
  3. THE TIPTOER
    • Most often heard saying: “Write what you know? But I don’t know anything!”
    • Think you’re a Tiptoer? The feeling that nothing they write could possibly be as good as what someone else might write overwhelms tiptoers. Their feelings of inadequacy cause their mind to go as blank as the page or screen they’re staring at. Though they may have tons of ideas whenever they’re doing “something else”, when they sit down to write, they nearly always find themselves flummoxed as what to write about.
    • #1 Asset: Willingness to learn. Tiptoers are soak up advice like sponges. They are eager to change and to grow.
    • Best Advice for Tiptoers: Grab a notebook and start a list. Every idea that pops into your head, scribble it down. Something funny one of your kids did. A memory from when you were six. The car that cut you off on the way to the dentist. What your boss looked like when he yelled at you the other day. Then, when you sit down to write, pick up your notebook and choose an idea at random. Without thinking about it, start writing.
  4. THE EGOTIST
    • Most often heard saying: “I’ve been published–and it only cost $50 to buy the anthology!”
    • Think you’re an Egotist? Egotists write copiously, while believing firmly in the sanctity of the first draft. Editing is something for other people. When criticized, egotists rebut the critique, justifying each flaw that has been pointed out. They are blind to the dubiousness of organizations that publish anyone and anything–for a fee–believing that, for example, being published by poetry.com makes them Maya Angelou.
    • #1 Asset: Indestructible self-esteem. No amount of rejection or criticism will ever crush an egotist’s spirit.
    • Best Advice for Egotists: Learn to recognize quality writing. Read the genre that you write-if you write poetry, read poetry. Read the classics, but also read new work by critically acclaimed authors. Sign up for a workshop with one of those authors, preferably one where you have to read your work aloud. Listen to what the others have to say. You may thank them for their comments, but do not rebut what they say or “explain” yourself. Just listen.
  5. THE FEEL-GOODER
    • Most often heard saying: “I write for myself.”
    • Think you’re a Feel-Gooder? Feel-gooders write anecdotes about kids and pets or tearjerker sagas of the “my sister was squished by a giant spider” variety. To abort attempts at criticism, feel-gooders state up front that they don’t write prizewinning material. This invites others to say things like: “Oh, but it’s good, really!” If criticized, feel-gooders will defend themselves by saying they write for themselves, which would be fine if it was true. However, the fact that they are sharing their work proves otherwise.
    • #1 Asset: Relentlessly cheery. Can find good in any situation, regardless how dreary.
    • Best Advice for Feel-Gooders: Decide who you’re writing for: yourself or an audience. If you’re honestly writing for yourself, keep it to yourself, or share with a friend or relative. Stay away from critique boards, workshops and writing groups. It’s not fair to other writers to make them waste time on work that you have no intention of revising. If you decide you are writing for an audience, take a deep breath, bite your tongue and open yourself up to criticism.
  6. THE PERFECTIONIST
    • Most often heard saying: “I’m almost finished.”
    • Think you’re a Perfectionist? Perfectionists write and write and write. Think of Grady in The Wonder Boys. If they do make it to the end of the first draft, then they edit. When they get to the end of the second draft, they edit again. Perfectionists hold themselves to a higher standard than they do everyone else. While they’ll forgive flaws in others, they’ll never forgive them in themselves. Submitting a manuscript with one misplaced semi-colon will toss them into despair.
    • #1 Asset: Perfectionists are above-average writers with a firm grasp on what quality writing is–except when it comes to their own work.
    • Best Advice for Perfectionists: Find a writing buddy. Perfectionists will never think their work is good enough. They need someone else to tell them when it’s done. So find someone you trust, let them read your work, and trust them when they tell you to stop. And give yourself a break. Stop agonizing over insignificant details. An editor isn’t going to reject your manuscript because you used a dash instead of a comma.
  7. THE EXAGGERATOR
    • Most often heard saying: “I wrote for Days of Our Lives!”
    • Think you’re an Exaggerator? Exaggerators aren’t afraid to use ancient credits, or to twist the truth to make it sound like they’re more qualified and successful than they really are. That letter to the editor that Time published sounds like it was a feature article by the time the exaggerator gets done with it. They often work in partnerships with more qualified writers and bask in the reflected glory of the other’s success. Think George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.
    • #1 Asset: Connections. Exaggerators are consummate schmoozers, able to work a crowd with the best real estate agents and used car salespeople. If they know someone who knows someone who knows someone, exaggerators will make that work for them.
    • Best Advice for Exaggerators: Recognize your failings instead of trying to hide them. Maybe you’re not going to write the Great American Novel, but perhaps you’re able to churn out stellar advertising copy. Instead of riding on someone else’s coattails or coasting on a past success, work at your writing and take some chances. Once your writing’s polished to perfection, you can use your connections to market it.
  8. THE THWARTED GENIUS
    • Most often heard saying: “I was first published at 16.”
    • Think you’re a Thwarted Genius? Thwarted Geniuses usually had early success, but then fizzled. They may have won a prize, a scholarship or had a single story published–but they never lived up to the promise of their early years. Disillusioned by themselves or the business, thwarted geniuses often turn to teaching, dispensing writing advice to others.
    • #1 Asset: Thwarted Geniuses have a good grasp on the basics of writing and can be charming and helpful mentors to beginning writers.
    • Best Advice for Thwarted Geniuses: Decide whether you’ve honestly given up on writing. Teaching shouldn’t be a fallback career. If you find yourself becoming irritated when one of your students writes better or becomes successful than you, it’s time to quit the teaching gig. Put yourself back in the student seat and give your own writing another shot. If you opt to stick with teaching, recognize your limitations and admit you don’t know everything.
  9. THE FORMULA RACER
    • Most often heard saying: “I had three books published last year!”
    • Think you’re a Formula Racer? Formula Racers are prolific and financially successful. They churn out generic books that demonstrate everything beginning writers are told not to do–flat characters, stereotyped plots, “as you know, Bob” description. They have a blasé attitude toward writing that not everyone can master and are eager to give advice on how to “break into the market”. They’re apt to view writing more as a smart business move rather than a calling or vocation.
    • #1 Asset: Formula racers have the business sense that most other writers do not. They know how to market themselves and their writing.
    • Best Advice for Formula Racers: Think outside the box. Formula Racers find a routine that works for them and stick to it; eventually, this becomes stale. Try writing a story where the characters do the opposite of what you normally would have them do. Read outside your genre. Consider having a well-respected author critique your work. Try writing in a different genre or entering a contest that has a word limit or other restriction, just to shake things up.
  10. THE ATTENTION-DEFICIENT
    • Most often heard saying: “What am I working on? How long do you have?”
    • Think you’re an Attention-Deficient? Attention-Deficients write, copiously. What they don’t do is focus. They jump from project to project, never finishing one before moving on to the next. Everything and anything triggers story ideas for them, but instead of just writing an idea down and saving it for later, they feel the need to write about it NOW. Hence, it takes them forever to finish any single project.
    • #1 Asset: Never lacking for inspiration. Could write 1,000 words on their big toe if asked.
    • Best Advice for the Attention-Deficient: Pick a project to focus on. Recognize that you will get distracted, but once you’ve burned off your initial head of steam on the new idea, return to the project you’re focusing on. Keep doing that until the focus project is complete. Then pick a new one and start the process over. Rather than thinking of everything as a long-term project, consider using some of your ideas as the basis for a column or compiling a book of short stories or personal essays.