For me, stories almost always begin with a voice. To put myself to sleep, I tell stories. I come up with a character and situation and just listen. Usually, I hear only a snippet before falling asleep. By morning, it’s gone. If the voice is compelling enough that I remember it later, I know a story wants to be told.
This idea of beginning a story with a voice may seem odd, but it’s fairly common. While we use all our available senses to navigate our world, most of us experience the world through a primary or dominant sense. Writers who experience life primarily through sight tend to see characters and setting and write gorgeous, evocative description, something I’ve struggled to master. Visual writers begin with an image.
I’m auditory. On a train, I’m more apt to hear conversation than notice what people look like or what’s happening around me. I’m glad I’ve never witnessed a crime. I’d probably identify the wrong perp! If the police played a recording, then I might get it right. Writing dialogue, which some visual writers struggle with, comes easily to me. It feels natural for me to find my way into stories by listening to someone talk.
In Leah’s Wake began with the voice of the town gossip. This woman was merciless in her criticism of this family. Her voice got under my skin. I was curious about the family’s connection to the townspeople and the reasons for her harsh judgment. While ultimately I edited her voice out of the novel, listening helped me understand the story. The voice-her criticism and judgment-gave me a specific approach.
When I’m writing, immersed in a story, I hear the narrator’s voice or characters speaking. These voices lead me to the next scene. This happened constantly while I wrote In Leah’s Wake. I’d be in the midst of an activity and a character would start talking, and I’d disappear. My distractedness annoyed my poor husband, no end; he assumed it was a response to him. Thankfully, he’s accustomed to my weirdness.
Some writers express this experience as characters telling their own story. I don’t see it quite that way. As writer, I’m responsible for editing, so even if I follow a voice or conversation, ultimately I’m in charge. I write organically, from my heart, as opposed to my head. In early drafts, I try not to get bogged down worrying about where I’m headed or what readers may think. I give myself the freedom to allow the story to go in unexpected directions. That can be frustrating, because it’s scary, wondering if the story will come together. You have to trust the process. As Dory says in Finding Nemo, ‘just keep swimming.’
What surprised me with In Leah’s Wake is that the voices stayed with me. In the past, when I finished or gave up on a story, as sometimes happens if I don’t have a clear focus, the voices vanished. Not so this time. After a publishing contract fell through at the final hour, I considered giving up, putting the novel in a drawer, but I couldn’t. It would have felt as though I were giving up not only on the story or on myself, also on the characters. I pushed through revision after revision-sticking with the novel long after everyone I knew began insisting, for my own sake, that I quit-until I finally published last year.
Last fall, when I edited the novel for the last time-this current edition-the voices returned. For two months, throughout the editing process, I hung out with the Tylers. Now the story is finally finished. It was hard, especially at first, to say goodbye. But I’m listening to new voices now, from Nowhere to Run.
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Hi Terri, great post as ever. You know, I think I start with an idea and then find the voice (although relate to all your tales of observation!) but this has its pitfalls as your story can then struggle to find the soul, the draw of the story. I've read books which other people have loved and the difference is always that I just couldn't get into the characters. It doesn't mean you have to like them, does it, just be interested in what happens to them, for whatever reason. Different things work for different people but carry on listening to those voices, it clearly works for you!
Thank you so much, Jackie! I was so lucky with Leah, it really gave me an opening. I think it's great that we all work in different ways, though!