Thursday, November 05, 2015

Find Your Voice

The National Novel Writing Month is an organization (website) dedicated to presenting writers with a monthly challenge, once a year, to complete fifty thousand words in thirty days, or roughly seventeen hundred words a day. It's fair to say that this site changed my life. No doubt about it.
Although I've been writing fiction for the better part of twenty years, and despite having read (and loved) Stephen King's book, On Writing, where he admonished writers for not producing more work, I had somehow fallen into the deep well that believed more time meant better quality. I thought the only way I was going to produce a classic fantasy novel was to spend years on it. The book was called Second Blood. (I spent ten months alone on the world.)
Month after month, year after year, I edited and cut, edited and cut, and edited and cut some more. I wrote well over a million words in various forms, never quite feeling like it was right, though I did send it out to agents a few times. With every new iteration of the book, it seemed a little bit better, and a little more incomplete. It was like playing writer Whack-A-Mole. And with all the time, the edits began to seize my brain, and my internal censors would not let go.
If you use coarse language, you limit your audience.
If you make it too religious, you’ll scare people away.
If you make the writing or world too complex, people won’t be interested.
How can you call this a classic? Everything has been done before.
What will your parents think if they read this? What will your friends think?
Questions rained down on me, and every day I slogged through them like a school kid holding a binder above his head to protect himself from a downpour. Discouraged, worried that I’d never finish the book, I came across the NaNoWriMo site and made a decision.
I would do the hardest thing that a writer, that any artist, must do. I would cut the line to nearly six years of work and begin a new project. A project that I would write in just over a month.
As daunting as it was, I felt something loose from my shoulders. Felt myself relax for the first time. At that pace, I would not self-edit. I would not hear the inner censor. It was too much work, too fast, for any of those concerns to bother me. More, I would have to live the story. Be absolutely absorbed into it. (Two thousand words a day is like a daily three hour gym workout. It is exhausting. It is also thrilling.)
When I began The Last Angel, I started with two images. The cover of Hugh Howey’s, Sand (the picture of a desert), and the notion of angels in the TV show, Dominion. That’s it.
A month later, my story was done. It needed a few more edits, but unlike Second Blood, I had finally found my voice, the most important, most crucial aspect of being a writer.
Over the next year, I wrote two more novels in the same world. I started a fourth, didn’t like it, and started a fifth. Turns out, Stephen King had been right. And with the help of the NaNoWriMo challenge, I learned that my tendency is not slow work (much of which is excellent, but it just isn’t me) but that I need to be prolific to be good.
Whether you’re a writer or a business owner or an entrepreneur, you must find what works best for you. That is, you must figure out who you are and how you work to maximum efficiency. For me, speed helped me get out of my head. It worked better that a story was ripped from me than for me to spend months and years on the same work.
Obviously, the years at honing the craft were necessary. Writing is not magic, it is a learned craft that takes thousands of hours to perfect. But I’d already put in the time, I just needed something to help me find my voice.
Whatever you’re doing, especially for my fellow artists, if things aren’t progressing the way you’d like. Perhaps it is better for you to slow down. In my case, the best path was to speed up.
Remember, everyone is different. Part of the problem in being “slow” for me was that there were too many voices, both around me and in my head. In writing, as in life, the more clear we become about who we are and our limitations, the better chance we have to be successful. The mirror is our friend, even when it tells us that we are not the fairest of them all.

-Steve