Today I have two small bits of advice for writers, but first I want to answer Barb’s question about a writer’s voice. Barb writes, “I feel like it’s easy to engage with my class members when I teach and with friends when I write, but as soon as I start writing a book, I clam up. How can I take my teaching style and voice and transfer it to a non-fiction book?”
I’m not sure the process is any different for non-fiction than fiction, but here’s my take on it. First, I’d say that in writing a book, the most important thing is to just get it written. Don’t worry about voice right now. Don’t allow yourself to clam up. If you’ve got something to say in print (and obviously you do or you wouldn’t be writing a book), then just spit it out. This is why there’s such a thing as first drafts. Just get the thing written.
Then, in subsequent drafts, as you line edit, I think you’ll find yourself editing through your “voice” in your head. At that point, the voice will tell you how to revise sentences and paragraphs to match your voice. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott talks about the necessity to write several pretty bad drafts before she’s ready to let anyone see her work in progress. I think that one of the problems she likely finds in those early drafts is that it isn’t fully her voice yet. Editing a manuscript into shape involves, in part, making it sound more like you. Each draft should bring you closer to perfecting your voice on paper.
I hope that helps. Others may chime in in the comments section.
Now let me mention my two bits of advice. The first tidbit harkens back to my previous entry about “beauty and depth” in writing. Sometimes authors hoard their good stuff. They think, Oh I don’t want to use that now. It’s too good. I’ll save that for later. That may be true on the rare occasion (and if that’s the case, jot it down in your writer’s notebook), but good writers realize that you should use the good stuff now and trust that the well will soon fill up again. Draw deeply and write deeply. The water is plentiful. The springs that feed the well are flowing steadily.
The second item has to do with a submission I received yesterday. The first sentence in the cover letter said the manuscript was “unique.” I know the author thinks that’s a plus, but often it’s a negative factor. The truth is that “unique” doesn’t often sell. Readers tend to enjoy favorite and time-tested genres or styles of writing. For instance, most of you fiction writers know that Amish fiction is still very strong in our market. That means that publishers are, for the most part, still looking for well-written Amish fiction. But well-written Amish fiction is no longer “unique.” As an editor, I’d much rather read that the manuscript you’re sending me will “appeal to readers who love Amish fiction” or “is in the tradition of Janette Oke.” Very few “unique” books make it to print and very few of those sell well.
Next time I want to answer some more questions. Michael Reynolds has five great questions (see them in the comments in my “Various and Sundry” entry). I’m going to save those for a more lengthy blog (so hang on Mike!) and move to Dana’s great question wherein she asks about “the worst mistakes in writing and how to avoid them; querying 101 and beyond.” I’ll try to get to Tami’s question too. And then a few others. I do appreciate the questions. They let me know what you’re most interested in. If you’ve asked a question and I’ve not answered it, ask again. I’m sometimes a bit absent-minded about these things.