In today’s Savvy Saturday, I want to give a shout-out to my many wonderful writing friends and their unique and fabulous writing voices. While having a good story to tell lays the foundation for a novel, having a good voice is what keeps people reading. Some authorial voices are fast-paced, excited, dashing from one adventure to another, while other authors meander through the landscapes of their stories, giving you time to smell the literary roses. Both are worth reading, but they tell different types of stories.
I’ll show you what I mean.
Last year, some of my English-major friends and I participated in a writing game. We each took the same opening to a fantasy story, written in the first person past tense, and rewrote it in our personal voice. Take a look at these opening segments, and you’ll see the differences in authorial voice between them. How would you rewrite this story opening? What kind of adventure would this opening lead to for you?
I awoke to the warbling of birds and the rustling of wind through the trees. Still half-asleep, I took a slow, deep breath. The heady scent of a pine forest filled my lungs.
Pine? That couldn’t be right. My head still foggy and confused, I fumbled around for my glasses and found them near at hand. I put them on and gasped.
I wasn’t in the hammock where I’d gone to sleep.
More than that, I wasn’t in Nalai anymore.
This pine forest, with its soft grass, its birdsong, and its lack of hills, wasn’t anything like the jungles and mountains of the island where I distinctly remembered falling asleep last night. My memories of the night before were crystal clear: I had bid my friends goodnight and we’d all drifted off to sleep in our hammocks, each suspended between two of Nalai’s abundant palm trees. The ocean had lapped softly on the Nalaiyan beach nearby, the warm night-breeze had carried with it the smell of tropical flowers, and the air itself had tasted rich and exotic.
Nothing like the crisp wind that was now blowing in my face. What was going on? I shivered and pulled my light blue coat around me, my thoughts flying fast as the pine needles swirling at the bases of the nearby trees. Then I frowned. Why was I wearing my coat? Or, for that matter, my travel clothes? I patted the pockets of my heavy-duty pants, and found my folding knife and the stronger-than-it-looks thin rope that I always carry with me when I go adventuring. My frown deepened. It certainly didn’t look as though I had been plucked from my hammock in Nalai.
I gritted my teeth, let out a deep breath, and clasped my knife firmly in hand. Whatever had happened, I was going to get to the bottom of it…
My first friend has a down-to-earth authorial voice. She sounds friendly, uses a colloquial style, and her writing is quick-paced and active. Take a look:
I awoke to the warbling of birds and the rustling of wind through the trees around me. I breathed in deeply, the fresh scent of a pine forest filling my lungs. My eyes snapped open. I bolted upright and scrambled to my feet.
Where am I?
This pine forest didn’t look anything like the jungles and mountains of Nalai. There was no sign or sound of any animal or human presence nearby. I was alone in the grass-carpeted glen.
What had gotten me here, leagues away from Nalai, and back in my travel clothes, without waking me up?
I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers against them. I concentrated on the swirls of neon blue and yellow in an effort to keep my mind from going completely wonkers. Okay. Okayokayokay. Umm. Not good.
Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to know that I wasn’t going to get out of this mess by panicking. I exhaled and opened my eyes. My gaze fell on a path leading out of the clearing…
My second friend’s style is a bit more relaxed, introspective, and flowing. Note, for instance, the use of semi-colons and two kinds of mental dialogue (normal authorial voice and direct speaking to oneself). This friend typically writes literary fiction, which spends a lot more of its time on description and characterization than on plot happenings. It’s beautiful work, but gives a very different flavor to the piece than the almost panicked section above.
I awoke to the warbling of birds and the rustling of the wind through the trees.
Where was I?
My head hurt a little. Had I gotten drunk again?
No. No, that made no sense. I’d never been drunk; I’d never made it past a warm buzz in the whole course of my life. Drunk people got stupid, and I didn’t like being stupid. Besides, I despised the feeling of nausea too much to risk it; by sheer force of will, I hadn’t vomited since about age twelve.
Alright. Congratulate yourself later. Focus.
I breathed in deeply. This place smelled like… pine.
My eyes snapped open, and I sat up. Where was I?
The last thing I could remember was bidding goodnight to each of the other members of our gathering, and drifting off to sleep in my hammock, suspended between two of Nalai’s strong-but-supple palm trees. The ocean had been lapping softly on the Nalaiyan beach nearby; the warm night-breeze had carried with it the smell of tropical flowers. The air itself had tasted rich and exotic…
But this? Pine. Soft grass, familiar birdsong, no hills… It didn’t look anything like the jungles and mountains of Nalai. I listened hard, but, besides the birdsong, there was no sound of any animal or human nearby…
Last, my third friend has a wonderfully droll (though somewhat dark) writing style. I often find myself chuckling at the wit and cleverness in her work, even as I’m carried along by its easy flow. See for yourself!
I awakened in gradual stages to the clamor of birdsong and the rustling of wind through the trees. The air was fresh and tangy and smelled of pine. I nestled deeper into my bed of moss and twigs, hoping it wasn’t terribly early in the morning.
Birds? Pine? Moss and twigs? Where on earth was I?
My eyes snapped open and I sat up, disoriented. This… couldn’t be real. I last remembered bidding my friends a good night and drifting to sleep in my hammock, alarmingly suspended between two of Nalai’s abundant palm trees. The ocean had been lapping softly on the beach nearby, the warm night-breeze had carried the smell of tropical flowers, and the air itself had tasted rich and exotic.
I found my glasses lying beside me, put them on, and stared. This pine forest, with its soft grass, familiar birdsong, and utter lack of hills, didn’t look like anything I’d seen in Nalai. To make matters more bizarre, I’d gone to sleep in my pajamas, and now I was dressed in my travel clothes. They weren’t anything fancy: just a shirt and trousers and a light summer coat with—yes, of course—empty pockets.
I had no idea what I was doing here. I couldn’t remember anything beyond falling asleep in a hammock. Had I been drugged? Poisoned? Cast into one of those particularly nasty spells, where you think you’re living through all sorts of unpleasantness while your enemies point and laugh? If yes, someone was going to spend his retirement reminiscing about how he’d once had a liver and spleen.
Until he’d eaten them.
I love reading my friends’ writing – both these friends, and others who have beautiful voices of their own. I must admit, I nag them probably more than they would like to share their unfinished work with me. But I’m sure you can see why. Each of us has our own unique style, our own way of telling a story, that lets us start with the same material and take it in completely different directions. And that’s why there’s always room for another author to tell “the same” story – because no one has a voice like yours.
If you come up with an opening based on this writing exercise that you’d like to share, paste it in the comments below! Or feel free to use it and start your own adventure, with your unique authorial voice to lead readers on a journey they’ll never forget…