Writer’s Workshop: Voice

My first blog post was “Why I Refuse to Judge Any Mother.” In it, I describe my observations of a friend’s mother, juxtapose her mother with how I felt about my own mother, and then explain how I hope my own daughters will see me as a mother—when they eventually begin to reflect.

Out of all the texts I received, I appreciated my journalist friend’s the most.

“Kathy, this is good,” she said. “You have what they call voice. In grad school, they used to always talk about how you should have voice in writing. You have it.”

In literature, “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner.

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-find-your-writing-voice

Whenever I write, I want the reader to experience exactly what I was thinking or feeling.

But how do I do this?

Brace yourself.

I may tell you something that goes against what you’ve been told before:

I pretty much write how I talk and think. Even that last sentence is an example. I promise you a grammar program will tell you to remove “pretty much” because it’s unnecessary, but I left it in because that’s how I talk and think. If we were together, and you asked me how do I write? I’d say I pretty much write how I talk and think.

What is also helpful is my brain’s duality. I was raised in a family that valued so-called standard English, so I grew up learning the syntax appropriate for news personalities and job interviews. However, I was also raised on the west side of Chicago, which by all accounts is the hood. I quickly learned how to switch the verb “to be” around or to insert a cuss word so as not to be accused of talking like a White girl. I’m not special. Many Black people know how to codeswitch in this way.

What this means for my writing is I can create a sentence that appeals to White folks and Black people…or should I say Black folks and White people. You see how just interchanging those two words—folks and people—shifts meaning and tone?

I also want my writing to be accessible. I want to have a conversation with you. In order to do that, I have to write how I would talk if we were together having a latte, green tea, or Caipirinha. So, sometimes I stop, and address you directly. Maybe I’ll add a question, like what do ya’ll think to invite you into this conversation we’re having, while also throwing in the Southern dialect I’ve acquired from living in Florida for over two decades.

Most of my in-real-life friends who read my blog say, “Girl, I could hear you saying…” And that’s what I want.

To reiterate, if you’re concerned with developing voice in writing, then you have to determine what “vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax” you want to use and why. Only you know what that is.

And remember, voice, kind of like personality, cannot be imitated because it’s something only you possess. (Full disclosure: I sat here for five minutes flip-flopping between the word possess and own).


Do you worry about voice in writing? Does it matter?

Writer’s Workshop: Improve FLOW by Removing 3 Words

I love writing that flows. When I read a book, I like to feel as if I’m riding a wave or listening to a smooth melody where the notes come together in concert to create beautiful harmony. When writing flows, you don’t want to abandon it. In fact, you may re-read sentences just to appreciate the beauty.

How do writers combine words to create flow? One way is to follow a specific rule. Now, I know in the last Writer’s Workshop I told you to dismiss rules, but I should’ve added the word sometimes.

So, here’s the advice: Remove these three words as much as possible: that, adverbs ending in -ly, and the.


THAT is considered a filler word, meaning it just adds space on the page. As much as possible go through your writing and try to delete “that.” It will make your writing and message much cleaner. Here’s an example:

She had made Daddy promise that he would come straight home.

*She had made Daddy promise he would come straight home.

Do you see what I mean? The word “that” doesn’t add more meaning to this sentence. It just increases your word count. This isn’t to say you never need “that” in writing. Sometimes there’s no way around it. But if you can do without “that,” remove it.


ADVERBS ending in -ly can also be cumbersome. The rule here is to replace -ly words (i.e., quickly, smoothly, etc.) with actual descriptions of what you’re talking about. Here’s an example of replacing adverbs.

“Well, I guess I’ll sit out here and keep you company. You sure look pretty.” He smiled sheepishly and nodded approvingly.

*“Well, I guess I’ll sit out here and keep you company. You sure look pretty.” He smiled and nodded at approval of my dress.

Sheepishly and approvingly drag the sentence along. Here you have two choices: remove the adverb altogether or remove the -ly and add descriptions instead as this author did.


THE is a little trickier, which is why I’ve left it for the end. Although it is natural to use “the” when speaking, a lot of times this small word can bog down your writing. “The” is not always necessary. Don’t believe me? Go check out your favorite piece of writing. I bet “the” is used sparingly. Here’s an example of what I mean:

            We cut out the clothing we thought would look good on me.

            **We cut out clothing we thought would look good on me.

Here, “the” isn’t needed. If you can understand the sentence without using “the,” then ditch it.

I hope these three tips help to improve your writing, but I suggest trying one rule out at a time and only after you’ve written a draft. Editing and writing at the same time can oftentimes destroy your flow.


*The first two examples come from Mbinguni’s Looking for Hope, which I also recommend reading.

**The third example is from Sister Souljah’s A Deeper Love Inside.

Both were written perfectly in their books. I added the fake, bold first draft example.


If you’re interested in hearing more about my personal writing process and flow, then my talk with the Pasadena City College English Department may interest you: PCC Visiting Writer K. E. Garland.

Writer’s Workshop: Studying the Craft

There are many ways to study the craft of writing. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in English. You can attain an MFA in creative writing. You can even take a few classes here and there to learn from experts.

But what should you do if you’re like me and have no intention on setting foot in another university as a student?

Read. That’s what! Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish. For me, that’s memoir.

Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish.

So, in 2018, I read ten memoirs to learn what bestsellers are made of and to understand what the pulse of a “good” memoir is. Here’s what I found out.

A “good” memoir focuses on one theme. My favorite memoir that demonstrates this basic principle is Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. The overarching question is why have so many of the men in her community died? The quick answer is the interrelated nature of racism, poverty, and gender. The long answer is her 256-page memoir, where chapters are written in a seesaw fashion. One chapter is devoted to understanding one man’s in-depth story, while the next chapter reflects Ward’s life as it was related to each man. By the end of the memoir, Ward has clearly made a case for how systemic racism affects human beings.  

A “good” memoir has to present a bigger purpose. A bigger purpose doesn’t mean theme, necessarily, but it should answer the question: why is this author telling these stories? In My Dead Parents: A Memoir, Anya Yurchyshyn spends the first half of her book describing how much she disidentifies with her parents, how much she hates them, and how much their deaths don’t affect her. Part two digs deeper and explores who her parents really were prior to marriage and children and how this showed up in her life. This is ingenious. Anyone can write a book about why they dislike their parents. But she researches their histories as a way to see their identities, and then analyzes their lives outside of being her parents.

A “good” memoir weaves back and forth through time. This is a skill. Tara Westover’s Educated is superb at showing how to write a linear/not-linear story, which is important. While the overall story should be a cohesive narrative, it should travel back in time and then snap or slowly crawl back to the near present. For example, Westover remembers one of her brother’s violent acts from when she was an adolescent and then moves the story forward to a more recent memory of when she planned to visit home. The memory of the violence is important for how she will return and interact with her family in the book’s present.

A “good” memoir fits into a clear subgenre. Issa Rae uses humor for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is a coming-of-age memoir. Kenan Trebinčević’s The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is obviously a historical memoir, and so is The Girl Who Escaped Isis (Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann). Celebrity memoir is a thing, but more literary leaning ones, like Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime demonstrate sociocultural lessons. Finding Your Creative Muse explains more about these categories.

There’s nothing wrong with taking classes or seeking degrees; however, if you’d like to see what works for published authors, then I suggest reading in the genre you plan to write. I am also in no way advocating that you imitate the style of your favorite author. To me, that’s a no-no, but studying and learning about how others put words together? That’s a win for you and your growing body of work.

Are you intending to publish a book one day? Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite genre? What makes a book good?

Writer’s Workshop: Introductions

Introductions are important. Just think about your favorite song. Whether it’s the way the first note comes in or it’s the way an artist says the first word, the introduction to a song determines if you’ll continue listening or fast forward to something else.

Writing is no different.

A good first line or paragraph lets me know if I’ll be reading more of what the author has to say.

Let’s look at this intro to My Dead Parents:

My mother, Anita, died in her sleep in 2010, when she was sixty-four and I was thirty-two. The official cause of death was heart failure, but what she really died from was unabashed alcoholism, the kind where you drink whatever you can get your hands on, use your bed as a toilet when you can’t make it to the bathroom, and cause so much brain damage you lose the ability to walk unsupported. The case of her death was herself, and her many problems. (Anya Yurchyshyn)

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and studying the writer’s craft, I loved this introduction. As soon as I read these eighty-four words, I thought man, if this is how the story begins, then I can’t wait to read the rest of this book!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Therefore, I focus for several minutes (sometimes days) on how I will begin any piece of writing. Let’s take “Monday Notes: Seeking Perfection” as an example. Because this was a blog post, I knew I couldn’t waste time getting folks engaged. Initially, I wrote this:

I awoke in a Northwestern Memorial Hospital bed with two women staring at me, one was the nurse and the other, my mother. They told me I’d been hit by a car.

This wasn’t the most engaging introduction for a few reasons:

  1. Readers need to know why I was in the hospital sooner.
  2. Narrative is important. People prefer stories, even if they’re brief. So, I opted for an anecdote.
  3. Beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) is a strategy, but I’d begun too far in the middle. I needed to pull it back to provide a bit of context.

Ultimately, the introduction became this:

I was hit by a car when I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday. Because my father was the youth pastor, we were going to church to pick up teens for an activity. When we arrived, my then best friend stood across the street in front of the building. She yelled out my name, and without a second thought, I darted into traffic.

This first sentence may be a bit of a shocker. Most people (friends, family, or bloggers) don’t know I was hit by a car. So, I’d argue that a reader would want to read more about this. The next few sentences rewind the story a bit so that you can understand how I was hit in the first place. Then, the remainder of the blog delves deeper into the actual topic: A small imperfection, such as chipping my tooth has bothered me since I was a teenager.

There are many ways you can begin your writing. I’ve just described one: beginning with a narrative. You can also ask a question, begin with a quote, provide a statistic, or give a description.

Have you ever thought about how to begin your writing? Do you just start writing? Do you have a favorite first line from a song or book? Let me know in the comments.

Atlanta Book Reading

Do you live in Atlanta? Will you be home on June 15th? Are you interested in discussing the importance of father-daughter relationships? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then please come out to hear four of my co-authors read their stories and converse about familial ties.

There will also be free food and wine!

Details below:

Monday Notes: An Interview with Lady G (Episode 1)

Hi Everyone! It’s Women’s History Month, so I thought it was the perfect time to release a series of videos that I’ve participated in with two of my close women blogging friends. We call each other SiSTARS!

The first three interviews are intended to help you get to know Lady G a little better. If you don’t already follow her, be sure to do so at seekthebestblog.com! And if you already do, then you understand why Michelle and I had to interview her 🙂

 

400 Monday Notes

I have 400 notes. That’s 179 more than when I first began this category, which I started as a way to delete the notes. But what’s happened is because I have the category, I keep more notes. You know…just in case I want to write about something. But as I look through them, they’re not all writing ideas. So, I’m purging.

A few of my notes are simply passwords. I’ve written about this before, but it ends today! There is no reason for me to keep password upon password both on my phone and written down somewhere. Although, keeping the password to get into my work office is handy. Maybe I’ll just keep that one.

Now, I’m down to 377.

There are fourteen notes specifically about my job dissatisfaction. The reason why has become increasingly clearer to me over the past few years. I’m overqualified and that has led to a general sense that I should be doing something else with my gifts and talents. And anyone with a job knows that it’s challenging to write about one’s employer without the fear of losing said job. While these fourteen notes have been helpful in shaping my understanding of the dilemma, they are now taking up digital space, especially if I’m not going to publicly share.

363.

Six of my notes are action steps centered on The Unhappy Wife, a book I published two years ago. I’m not quite sure why I’ve hung on to these lists if the goals are accomplished. Similarly, seven are about how to sell Daddy: Reflections of Father-Daughter Relationships. These aren’t fleshed out marketing plans, but rather, thoughts that I might’ve used to do a soft sell, like this:

If you want closure, then go see a therapist. If you want understanding and empathy, then read this book.

I’m pretty sure I never used it because it sounded a bit harsh. Either way, I’m down to 350.

img_7736There are ten notes specifically with the word “self” in the title. These are ideas I really intended to flesh out, like 3 ways to Be Self-aware, Re-defined: On Being Selfish, One-minute Self-worth Ideas. Because I’ve already devoted February 2018 to self-love, and with the help of others successfully shared varied ideas on the topic, I’m going to consider this mission complete.

340.

There are a fair amount of notes that are just people’s names, so I remember next time I see them, which seems borderline redonkulous because I don’t think I’m going to search my phone when we cross paths. Another part includes random places, like meeting rooms and events people have invited me to.

Deleted. Now, I’m down to 326.

For the most part, what remains are actual topics I’d planned on writing about, but as I re-read them, I’m just not. Instead, I’ll share a brief list of blog/social-media starters:

  • “So, I was watching videos of how the FBI infiltrated black organizations,” this is how Desi begins conversations with me.
  • I like confessional songs and memoirs because I’m seeking authenticity. Can I tell the truth in each moment? Can you? And if not, why?
  • Does it matter if your spouse practices the same religion as you?
  • Children are not people who need fixing.
  • 3 top knots in a Nissan Versa doing 48 on the interstate (this really happened and I thought I’d write a brief story about this beginning driver).
  • I hate guilt-trip gratitude. Usually sounds like this, remember someone didn’t wake up this morning. I should be grateful because I’m not in someone else’s shoes? Nope. You should be grateful period.
  • There is nothing you can buy outside of yourself that will make you a better/happier person.
  • I want someone to create a “Blame Trump” t-shirt. I’d buy it.
  • How many lies does it take to make someone a liar?
  • Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from situations, put yourself together, and then re-enter with a new mindset.

Welp, I’m down to 316 notes.

You know I’m happy to talk about any of these ideas. Let me know what you’re thinking. Until then, I’ll be working on a new Monday Note.

Monday Notes: Rambling/Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness is the name applied specifically to a mode of narration that undertakes to reproduce, without a narrator’s intervention, the full spectrum and continuous flow of a character’s mental process” (Abrams 299).

I’m leery to call what follows as stream of consciousness. But this is what my internal dialogue looks like. It’s innate for me to add periods and press the return key, even if it is in my Notes section. Does that mean it’s not stream of consciousness? Here it is. You be the judge.

***

I write about the little things because it’s the little things that keep us up at night. We wonder why we didn’t get the party invite, some of us even at 40+ still wonder. We worry about how our voices sound and how we look in video. You know who you are.

I write about the little things because they turn into big things. Little indiscretions turn into major experiences that we wonder how tf we got into. Small slides of behavior turn into whole acts of disrespect.

I write about the little hints because that’s what’s relatable. I save the big things for books: abuse, drugs, flaws of Christianity. Yes. The little things are daily. It’s where annoying coworker meets zen philosophy. It’s where wrong job choice meets law of attraction. I want to have discussions in the middle of those spaces. I want to know why you haven’t talked to your dad in 12 years and I’ll tell you what happened with mine. Hmmm…is that little or big? I guess it depends on the size of the hole in our heart.

***

img_7481After re-writing this as-is, I’ve decided it is stream of consciousness for me. You see if I were writing a final, public version, I wouldn’t use wonder twice. I would revise hints to things and probably not use things so much. I would capitalize Zen and Law of Attraction. I would have used the phrase “Christianity’s flaws,” not “flaw of Christianity” because one rolls off the tongue and the other doesn’t.

I would’ve titled this “The Little Things” or “Why I Write.” And I would’ve given more examples. For instance, I write about why people have a fifth drink when they should’ve stopped at two; three more drinks can turn a small decision into a fiasco or a lifetime regret. I would keep the rhetorical question in the end and add this: what I’ve learned is they’re all little things. What we choose to hold on to and how we decide to respond makes them seem larger than life.

Also, if I were being all formulaic and precise,  I would end with an MLA citation for that beginning quote 😉

Looking forward to hearing what you think about stream of consciousness or the topic.