Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"That's not fair."

Last night #4 heard a suggestion that it was about time to brush his teeth and get ready for bed.  Since it wasn't a direct command, he decided to disappear into the laundry room.  Not to do laundry, mind you, but to prepare an act for us.

He came out with his PJ bottoms rolled up into shorts and the waistband about four inches above his belly button.  He danced around a bit humming a song that I recognized more my context than his rendition, and said, "Who am I?"

My wife wasn't sure so he said, "Come on, Higgy-baby, who am I?"  I helped by joining in on his song.  She guessed at once and started laughing hysterically.  The night before we'd watched an episode of Magnum PI and she had commented on his shorts.  My daughter, flabbergasted, said, "You're only just noticing them now?  They're awful.  They’re always awful."

I thought that was a bit harsh, but the shorts were pretty funny looking.  And #4's interpretive dance lampooned them perfectly.

Which brings me to this week's tool of the trade - Voice.

Voice is your specific style, the way you communicate your unique vision.  Without voice you're just part of the crowd, a cheap knock-off.  With strong voice you not only stand out but are immediately recognized.  If #4 had just put on a pair of goofy shorts and asked, "Who am I?" he would have just looked like a Magnum wannabe and we wouldn’t have thought it was funny, but by being himself and clowning it up, his brought his own style.  It was fresh and fun.

I do a lot of writing for my job and in previous years that included ghost writing for my superiors.  The first time I was asked to write something for my boss to distribute was about 5 years ago and he came to me with my wonderful memo and said, "Jon, this is great but I'd never say it this well."  He was a very good boss.  Told me I'd failed at the assignment but was a good person in that one sentence.  I was immediately hooked on the challenge of writing like someone else.

In my "hey-day" I was writing in 4 distinct alternate voices - three senior managers and something boring I'll call "generic office."  It was really interesting work and I got very good at it.  But there's a world of difference between emulating someone else's style and having your own style.

You will absorb things into your writing style from others -- maybe sentence structure, or specific vocabulary and that's good.  Musicians do that all of the time - Heart was heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and if you listen carefully you can hear that.  But Heart wasn't a Led Zeppelin cover band.  When you write, you shouldn't be indistinguishable from P.D. James even if she has influenced you.

To develop your own voice you need to read a lot, from different authors and genres, and write a lot, preferably on different topics and from different points of view.  These two things will expose you to a multitude of style choices and provide ample opportunity for you to practice putting your ideas to paper in a way that is instantly recognizable.

It also helps if you untuck your shirt when wearing shorts that hug your ribcage.

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