Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Mind of Your Story

Style & Voice: Markers of Greatness

I recently reviewed The Mind of Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook, a hardcover writing craft book detailing how the brain creates Story for my book review site, and fortunately, you can teach an old dog new tricks. I may be a relatively new author, but I’ve been branding and marketing since big hair was in vogue. The book reminded me what’s so special about great writing and the mystery of creativity, whether that’s coming up with an idea for an ad campaign, a solution to a household problem or writing a novel.

Basically Right Brain is the creative side while Left Brain tries to come up with all the logical reasons you aren’t creative. (Probably in annoying bullets.) Which is why a lot of editing takes place in Left Brain. The “new trick” or greater understanding I got from the book was the author’s view that stories come from three seeds:

Direct personal impression (what you saw) + imagination (obsession) + writer’s resource of experiences (your emotions).

Writers naturally catalogue experiences. We may note our reaction, especially if it’s strong, and it gets filed away. If we can’t stop obsessing about it, the file begins to grow. Throw in the personal experience we may have had with the object/subject/happening and then wham, bam, you can’t type fast enough. When an author feels that the story has “taken over” it’s because Right Brain is running wild. The seeds have blossomed and out comes Story.

The book covers every area of craft, and some of it is so tried and true I’m not sure anything new or different could be said about it, but I paid close attention to the author’s section on Style and Voice. What separates the wanna-bes from the gonna-bes in any writing craft class comes down to style and voice, which is much harder to critique. Either you have it. Or you don't.

If the rhythm and cadence is missing from the story, it simply doesn't work, end of story. You can rewrite and revise all you want, but until stamp your own fingerprint of stylistic writing that sets your work apart, it's simply words on a page. I noticed the rhythm of Stephanie Meyer's work in Twilight, the book that launched a saga, a multi-millionaire, legion of fans and movie, which is sure to be a hit this December. Her style is quick. She has a lot of one-sentence paragraphs, which place emphasis and keep the story galloping along.

Style breathes life into every scene. It makes us fall in love with the characters and turn the page with baited breath. I had the good fortune of experiencing it two weeks ago when I read Mrs. Perfect by Jane Porter. Her writing style is simple and direct, yet she goes so deep into character that I felt like I was living there. I recommended the book to a friend and when she finished, she said the same thing. Style (how you write) and Voice (your unique marker) shouldn’t be confused with Language or Prose. They are simply smaller pebbles under the boulder that is Voice.

To get how a writer writes, Lenard-Cook recommends studying the Masters, being any master you hope to write like some day. She suggests propping the book up and taking a legal pad and pen and writing the scene out so you get the feel for the rhythm. It is not copying, it is learning. No amount of retyping some else’s work with make you write exactly like them, but you will have an understanding of flow and cadence and impact and emotion.

What are your thoughts on Style and Voice? Who are your Masters? Who would you like to learn more from?

Malena Lott
Dating da Vinci, Nov. '08


  1. Interesting post, Malena! Style and voice are so important for authors to establish, so it's cool to hear about where they are stemmed from.

    I think my masters of style and voice (as I mentioned on Athena's Bookshelf) are Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie because they can write ANYTHING-poetry, fiction, non fiction, reviews, literary criticism-and it is not only obviously their work, but it's always top notch!

    I also love Jane Austen, JD Salinger and Charles Dickens for their particular characteristics :)

  2. Great post, Malena! I had entered a vampire novel and Heart of the Wolf in a contest some years back. One of the judges gave me perfect scores on both and said that even though she didn't know who the author was and even though the stories were so different, the author had to be the same person because of her great voice. I should have framed it! Which goes to prove our voice comes through everything we do. :)

  3. Thanks for such a thought provoking post, Malena!

    I loved your imagery of the pebbles under the boulder of Voice. :-)

    As for my masters, Diana Gabaldon and Terry Brooks inspired and influenced me to write early on in my long and crazy journey. I also love Jenny Crusie, Christina Dodd, JAK writing as Amanda Quick, and so many others...

  4. Wonderful post, Malena!

    It's always seemed to me that our style and voice is the heart and soul of our books.


  5. Malena,
    Looking back, I think a lot of my voice came from reading British authors. Unfortunately, being a native of Louisville, Ky, it doesn't always mesh, and a lot of that Brit influence gets edited out. The trouble is, when it's gone, it reads very choppy to me and I want to add it back in!

  6. This is good sound advice, and something that I have done myself. Not copying, exactly, but closely observing how my favorite authors get a scene done, what they leave out, how they manage to convey an entire setting with a few simple but incredibly effective phrases. I don't think you ever stop learning how to improve.

  7. Excellent post! I really do think that Voice, above all, is what makes the writer. In the bookstore, I'll always flip open a book that sounds interesting and skim a page or two before making a decision. Some rhythms and cadences, just like with music, are more appealing to me than others, and if I like the voice, I'll head to the register and give the story a go.

    One of my masters, in a big way, is Nora Roberts. I love the way her sentences flow, and the rhythm of her dialogue. It's very distinctive, and I know it's had an influence on me.

    Great, interesting post!