Today we author Kate Walker sharing with us some tips on how to keep your 'voice' while writing. She is multi-published and also wrote a 'how-to' book on craft of writing. Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance is an awesome tool to have in your writer's toolkit!
Originality and Voice - making your writing essentially ‘You.’
The question novelists are asked more often than any other, is this one:
Where do you get your ideas?
Now how am I supposed to answer that? Where does anyone get their ideas? From life – just existing – watching other people – seeing TV programmes, reading newspapers, magazines and . . . well reading. The writer’s mind is like a well of imagination, full of all sorts of things. They all get mixed up together and when I’m creating a story I dip my bucket into the well and bring out a selection of ideas. Some work, some don’t. Some run away with a wonderful new story, some have to be thrown back in perhaps to be used at some other point in the future.
But I – and every other writer under the sun - have to keep filling up that well with more life, more discoveries, more reading. Reading is one of the very best ways of ‘refilling the well’ of the imagination. But some people have a problem with that. They think that it risks plagiarism – stealing from another author to create your own work.
Now plagiarism is wrong. Plagiarism that is stealing from another author’s writing, rather than writing your own book. Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would want to do such a thing – after all, I became a writer because I wanted to write. I write the books I do because I have ideas, voices of characters that speak to me, and I want to tell their stories. But the truth is that ideas are very rarely brand new, very rarely really original. And the originality, the skill as a writer is to take one of those tried and tested ‘tropes’ - the secret baby, the runaway bride, the marriage of convenience, the parted lovers reunited . . . and make it your own, putting your own voice, your own telling of the story into the book and so turning it into something that, while it may not be hugely original, it will be authentic – to you. This is what will give your writing your voice. And voice, your individuality is what editors are looking for.
In 2011, I and three other authors were asked to create books for a new mini series – The Powerful and the Pure. The original idea for this series was that the authors should produce modern romance novels inspired by the classics of romantic fiction – the novels that everyone thinks of when talking about the all-time greats. So the books were Jane Eyre (The Forbidden Innocent), Pride and Prejudice (In Want of a Wife), Emma (Mr and Mischief) and my own The Return of The Stranger which is inspired by Wuthering Heights.
Some readers thought that this was not the right thing to do – that it was wrong to re-work the plot of all time classic novels. Some even decided that the authors involved were ‘stealing’ from the greats.
Huh? From time immemorial writers have been reworking plots, telling the same stories in different way, with a new slant, a new twist. Prior to the 18th century, writers borrowed freely from each other without shame or punishment. (The Latin word plagaria referred only to the act of physical kidnapping.) Shakespeare borrowed passages from Plutarch and contemporaries.
But plagiarism means just that - lifting another person’s words, copying their story, adding nothing new or different and above all never acknowledging the debt to the original. What romance writer has never written her personal version of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Taming of The Shrew, Pride and Prejudice . . ? Even if she hasn’t followed the path of the original story, the memories of it, the themes and plot lines are there in our collective story-telling imaginations and they will come out to a greater or lesser degree in each story we tell. If I meet any writer of romantic fiction who tells me that she had never ever touched on any of the classics then I’m unlikely to believe her. Where do the wonderful alpha heroes we all know and love (or hate as the case may be) come from if not from these classic stories? Every author is the result of who she is, what she has read, what she has experienced, all combined in her imagination.
All fiction is full of echoes and reflections that writers play with their predecessors. The Russian critic Vladimir Propp has even proposed that all stories could be made up of one of seven archetypes, that cover the whole of fiction for all time. No matter what amazingly unique idea you might come up with for your new novel, chances are it's already been used hundreds, possibly even thousands of times before. You can’t copyright an idea. You can’t copyright tall, dark handsome heroes. Or beautiful heroines - whatever their colouring. If that was the case, we could only have one novel with a tall, dark and dangerous hero, one with a blonde, blue-eyed heroine. You can’t copyright the weather on a day a scene takes place. You can’t copyright the idea of a heroine who suffers a miscarriage. Or one who has a ‘secret baby’
So many of the themes ( whether you call them plots. Archetypes or tropes) are common to so many romance novels. That is why the ‘secret baby’ trope or the ‘marriage of convenience’ have become so popular – because they work so well and readers want to read them again and again – but the important consideration here is that they are more of the same, but different.
The themes, the tropes of this book are archetypes of romantic fiction. Each time a story is retold it is worked into a different form , with different characters, a different setting, different touches that take a classic trope/archetypal characters and turn them into something fresh.
And this is where a discussion of plagiarism/copyright becomes an important lesson for would-be writers. Because it’s not the trope or the archetype that makes your story a winner. It’s the way you tell it. It’s the personal ‘spin’ you put on it that lifts the story from ‘more of the same’ to ‘more of the same but different.’ And what makes the difference here? That indefinable thing – your voice. The way you tell the story, the backgrounds you create for your characters. The way they think. The interests they have. The family they came from. The reasons why they behave as they do. And many more little touches that make one sheikh story where the hero wants revenge on the heroine’s family uniquely different from another that starts out on the same theme but turns on to a totally different path entirely.
One of the most revealing exercises I use in the classes where I teach writing is to take a basic idea, a hero and a heroine and a situation they find themselves in. Everyone in the class is given exactly the same basic idea, the same material to start out with. Then they go and plan out, write the story for themselves. And everyone comes back with something different. They use their imaginations – that well that they have filled up with so many ideas from so many sources – and they combine those tropes into a brand new story, one that is uniquely theirs. I even have a brilliant cartoon where Snoopy in his persona as a creative writer is advised by Lucy to take a tried and tested theme and put his own spin on it. Everyone says you should write about what you know – I always advise that you should write what makes your story special/personal to you – so Snoopy takes the story of Snow White and creates Snow White and The Seven Beagles.
I see many would be writers setting out to write what they believe is a ‘romance plot’ so they create a Greek Billionaire, a heroine who he believes is a gold-digger . . . .and they don’t see that this is a broad concept, not original material. It’s what you DO with the trope that makes you into a writer, not that you merely thought to use it in the first place.
So why not try it? Take a look at a plot that gets used a lot – I do this with ‘soaps’ on TV. I look at a plot that the writers are obviously taking down one particular path – and I ask myself how could I write that differently? What interests me that I could bring to this story to make it authentic to me and my voice? What other ways could these two characters take their lives/their relationship/their romance ? What other sources of conflict could they have. And why?
The answers to those questions will help you create your own unique version of any story. And that unique story will reveal your individual voice as a writer of romance.
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given came from the wonderful Jacqui Bianchi Senior Editor at Harlequin Mills and Boon. This was way back before my first ever book – The Chalk Line – was published and she had taken me for my first ever author lunch. I’m amazed that I can recall anything at all that was said at the time, I was in such a state of excitement and nervousness – but I do remember this because it hit home. Hard.
I know I told her that I found some of the heroes of the time too dark, too brutish for my taste and I didn’t think I could write heroes like that. Her advice? To write the sort of hero that I could believe in, the ones I could find attractive, the ones I would fall in love with and if I wrote them well enough then I would make my readers fall in love with them too. It was great advice because it respected me as a writer and my voice. And it told me that I could take the tropes/themes of the time and make them authentically my own. It’s what I’ve done ever since and 61 books later, I’m still doing it.
So you see – it’s not really possible to be stunningly original when writing romance but it is possible to be authentic – to be true to yourself as a writer. That way you create your own voice and then whatever trope or theme or even characters you create your story will always be yours and not a cheap, weaker copy of anything anyone else has ever written.
Kate Walker on the web:
How do you ensure that your writing voice is fresh and uniquely yours?