By Jennifer Stevenson
Okay, say you’re one of those people so unlike me that you are painfully humble. You think nobody listens to you now, so why should they read what you write? You think you have no contribution to make to anything, not even the world of trashy entertainment, where I myself am struggling to make a buck.
Right now, I will give you an exercise that will show you how unique you are. How your voice is a marketable force. Why someone will want to read whatever you write, whatever you choose to say. You will need to find at least two other friends who will try it with you. Four is better.
Are you ready?
Find your voice: get fan mail from the future!
In this exercise, you will learn at least five things about your writing that make it unique, that mark your voice as one in a million, that will point you toward where you will make a success of your writing. You will get some fan mail in advance. You will read the rave notices on the back of your twelfth paperback, where they put all the five-star reviews.
This exercise may take two sessions to complete.
Session one you can manage alone. Or your writer friends can help. This takes long enough to pile up about a two-inch-high pile of clippings.
1) Find a pile of old magazines, preferably a mixture. Your library sells them for two bits per issue. Pick up a Vogue, a Road and Track, a National Geographic, a TIME, an Entertainment Weekly, a Tiger Beat, and a Fly Fishing Quarterly.
2) Cut out a big pile of pictures. Be picky. Take only the ones that appeal to you.
Session two requires three to five writers. This takes about two hours.
3) Sit in a circle in front of your pile of magazine pictures. Everyone choose two pictures. Push the rest of the pictures aside when you have chosen your two.
4) Someone use an egg timer to time this. Everyone look at their own first picture. Start the egg timer for two minutes. Write for two minutes about the picture in front of you. There are no rules. Your snippet doesn’t have to be first person or third, it doesn’t need to be iambic pentameter, it doesn’t require a strong narrative hook. It doesn’t even have to be about the picture. Just have the picture in front of you while you write. It is okay to suck. At the end of two minutes, do this again for your second picture.
5) Now that you’ve written about each of your choices, pass your pictures to the person on your left and take the pictures from the person on your right. Rinse. Repeat.
6) When everyone has written a two-minute snippet about their own and everyone else’s pictures, one by one, each of you read all of your snippets aloud, one after the other. Listeners jot down two or three things about what they are hearing. When the reader has finished, everyone reads aloud their comments. Tell the writer what you felt when you listened. Tell them what you noticed. Tell them what you were guessing about the rest of the story, even though there is no “rest of the story.” Examples of comments:
“Your stuff makes me laugh.”
“All your pieces are in first person, I did this, I saw that.”
“There’s lots of description. I can really see and feel things.”
“I hear lots of emotion in your writing. I’m right there with the character.”
“Wow, nonstop action!”
“I notice there’s always a conversation, even if the picture has no people in it.”
“I can tell this is going to be a mystery!”
“They’re going to fall in love, aren’t they?”
“She’s going to kill him with that fork, isn’t she?”
Notice that every one of these comments is positive. If you don’t like what you hear, find something positive to say, or don’t comment at all.
7) While you are listening to your friends read their work aloud, notice this: You all wrote about exactly the same pictures. Yet what you each wrote is very different. The combination of what you care about, how you feel, what you want to say, and how you chose to say it, all mixed together to make a unique voice. Nobody, listening to those snippets, would ever guess they were all written about the same set of pictures.
8) As you listen to your friends comment on your work, write it all down. This is exactly what you will be reading in your fan mail, ten years from now, after your eighth novel is published. This is how the Kansas City Star will review your books.
Because this is the core of your voice.
Your voice doesn’t change over time. It just gets more intense. Your voice is who you are. If you can find your own voice and love it and feed it and let it run free to say what it says best, you will sell like crazy.
Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt if you knew some grammar. But grammar can be taught.
Your voice is not taught. It is you. Learn what it is, respect it, nurture it, experiment until you figure out what sort of story it wants to tell.
And then put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.