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    Tips for Developing an Original Voice

    A story without a strong voice does not come alive for the reader, does not touch the reader's imagination. That's because the author isn't present in the story. This is tricky, because one of our goals as children's authors is to remain invisible. We want our readers to become so immersed in our stories that they forget an adult is behind the words. We don't want them to ever break that suspension of disbelief and realize that a person other than the main character created this tale. And yet if we remove ourselves entirely from the book it has no soul. So your author's "voice" is really that part of you that's timeless, that reaches back across the generations and connects with the reader on his or her level. That part of you that says "I know what you're feeling," and says it in a way that only you can.

    Voice is the simplest writing technique to learn, because it's already in you. But it's the hardest to achieve, because it involves trusting yourself. It means learning what goes into a children's book and then forgetting it, or rather placing all those "rules" into your subconscious and allowing yourself to write. And learning to write without that annoying internal editor who says, "You're doing this wrong."

    All stories start with an idea. We read something in the newspaper, we have a dream, we recall a vivid childhood experience. And in that moment, that first exciting spark where anything is possible, we think, "This would make a great book."

    Then we start plotting out the story in our heads. And we begin to worry about the characters and the dialogue, when the climax of the plot will take place, how it will end. I suggest that in that first moment of inspiration you stop and ask yourself "Why do I need to write this story?" Forget about your audience. Be selfish. What's in it for you? You might try brainstorming on paper, freewriting where you jot down anything and everything that comes to mind. Leave that pesky editor in another room. You need to find a reason for creating this story that speaks to your writer's heart, in order to speak to your reader's heart.

    Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself, "When I was five, did I need this book?" Try to answer this question from your five-year-old consciousness, which still lives inside you, rather than from your current adult perspective. If the answer is no (you wouldn't have sat still for this story) then you're writing it for the wrong reasons. Discovering why you need to write this story -- and this applies equally to fiction and nonfiction -- leads you to that passion editors talk about. If you're writing the story or article because something inside of you needs to hear it told, then you're writing from your heart.

    However, you still need to develop a technique that translates this passion from your imagination to words on paper. And a big part of the key to developing this technique is time. With a lot of practice, your voice will emerge, if you let it. This involves spending many hours just writing, without the pressure of creating a manuscript that you intend to submit to a publisher. Don't feel every time you put pen to paper it has to result in something that you're actually going to show to anyone else. Instead of dictating where your writing will go, allow yourself to be surprised. Write about whatever's on your mind at that moment, describe what you see through your window, follow a memory and see where it goes. This process of stretching your writing muscles with no pressure to actually create something substantial allows you to relax, and eventually your voice will emerge.

    I suggest you keep these "creative stretches" and, after you've accumulated a file, take them out and look at them all together. Seen as a group, certain things should pop out at you. If you've really allowed yourself to write freely during these exercises without editing yourself, you'll begin to see how your writing illustrates the way you look at the world. This viewpoint, your author's viewpoint, will be original. And while I believe that there are no original themes, there are an infinite number of original stories, or ways of examining those themes.

    If you read award-winning children's books you'll notice that the prose seems effortless. This is the result of a strong voice, though it's deceiving because it takes many revisions to achieve. However, if your writing sounds forced, your voice won't ring true. This forced tone happens when authors try too hard to sound like a writer. I think the best voices happen when authors write as they speak. We've all had the experience of a story sounding great in our heads, but then losing something when it's translated to paper. That's because in your head you're telling the story to yourself in your speaking voice, and when you write it down suddenly you're trying to sound like a writer. You search through the thesaurus for the perfect word, a word you'd never use in normal conversation. And suddenly in that process of writing down what's in your head, you've lost your voice. And you've adapted the voice of someone else, or the voice you think your writing should have. So next time you write, try writing exactly what's in your head.

    If you type, try typing your writing exercise with your eyes closed, so you can't see , and edit, what you've written. Closing your eyes also helps you focus inward where the story is being created. Then all you'll have to go by is how the words sound and feel in your head, and that's the closest thing to your true voice.

    Copyright © 2000-2001 Laura Backes

    Laura Backes is the author of "Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read" from Prima/Random House. She's also the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at http://write4kids.com.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ



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