Friday, January 15, 2016

On Listening to your Story...and Finding your Voice

Up until recently, I was really struggling with my WIP (work-in-progress).

It began as a NaNoWriMo project, and on November 1 I had every confidence I'd be done with it by November 30. I'd done NaNo twice before, after all, and “won” it both times. I hit the ground running, burning through words in a story that I was passionate about.

But on November 30, I was a little less than halfway done. And I wasn't near as passionate anymore. I was definitely, most definitely, in some kind of dreaded doldrums.

And why? Did I not believe in the story? Nope. I love the story, and truly believe it will make a great middle grade adventure.

Couldn't connect with the characters? Absolutely not. The characters felt alive to me, and important, and interesting, and complex.

I did a lot of soul searching in December as I puttered away, adding a hundred words here, a hundred there.

And then, in a flash that was retroactively incredibly obvious once I'd had it, I knew the problem: it was the voice. I loved the story, I loved the characters...but I didn't connect with the voice it was being told in. Opening the document and trying to put new words on paper was disillusioning and uninspiring and just plain sucky because I didn't like the voice I was talking with. It's like when you jam too much Play-Doh in the Play-Doh Factory and try to push down the lever to make Play-Doh spaghetti. It's almost impossible, it hurts your hand, and the Play-Doh mostly just squeezes out around the sides and makes a mess. It's not the Play-Doh's's the ham-handed, stubborn forcing that's the problem. I was trying to ram my story out in a voice that it didn't want to be told in. And it hurt. And it was making a mess.

I really, really thought that the story needed to be told in 1st Person. I was sure of it. And I adore my protagonist. But, for whatever reason, I just could not tell his story through his voice. His voice didn't work in my brain. It was like using Google Translate on long, complex chunks of text: some of the meaning gets through, but it's stiff and awkward and unnatural. It does not pass the sniff test.

So, I faced the facts. I looked at my 26,000 1st person words. I raised a glass of something strong to the muses and shook my fist at the heavens. And I started over. In 3rd Person.

I haven't looked back.

It's only mid-January and I'm already about back at the 26,000 word mark. I've got momentum, the words are flowing, the story is humming, the characters are breathing and moving around and causing all the wonderful problems they're supposed to. I didn't find my story – that was there all along. I found my voice. And that makes all the difference.

Voice is so, so important. It's important in all markets and genres, but I think it's especially important in middle grade literature. Middle grade readers aren't just in love with stories...they're in love with being told stories. So you've got to tell the story right. Even if it means tossing two months of work out the window and starting all over with once upon a time.

And the worst part is, somewhere inside me, I knew it all along. I knew every word was a struggle, knew the story was not coming out right, and I knew the problem was not with the story but with how I was telling it. But I was stubborn. My brain was telling me that, rationally, this story should be told in 1st person. So I ignored my heart. And, worst, I ignored the story. It was fighting me every page, and instead of listening to it I plugged my ears. And you know what? It's pretty hard to write with your fingers in your ears.

So, if you're having problems with your WIP, my piece of advice: check your ears. Are they full of your fingers?

Listen to your story. Has it been whispering the problem to you all along? Your problem might not be voice. Maybe you started in the wrong place. Maybe you're forcing in too many subplots. Maybe you're trying too hard to shoehorn in a theme you're passionate about, but that doesn't really fit in your story. Maybe your characters are too one-dimensional and you've been in denial about it. It doesn't matter. If your story is digging in its heels and trying to tell you something, listen. You owe it to the story. You owe it to yourself as an artist. And you owe it to your reader.

And starting over, or making huge changes? Nope...not a lot of fun. But we need to be okay with the work. Because all that work? That is writing. Writing is not the ideas. The ideas are just the starter's pistol. They're exciting. They're even loud, sometimes. They're what gets us going. But then it's up to us to pump our muscles and pound the pavement and ignore the fatigue and put in the work to get to the finish line.

And when you get it right - when you listen to your story and the words are flowing and you're racing down the track and hitting that ribbon with your chest – well, it's worth it every time. And, then, all that work doesn't really look like work anymore. 

It looks like winning. 

1 comment:

  1. I love this post! Recently I was working on a sequel to a book and had decided to write ths one from another character's voice and perspective. It just didn't work for me. As soon as I switched the perspective and voice back, the book got its mojo back! But my other WIP could never be told in first person. You are so right - our work often shows us how it wants to be written!