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This is a writer's most precious commodity

On Writing

This is a writer's most precious commodity

Stephen H. Provost

A writer’s voice is like his or her soul.

No offense to ghostwriters. I don’t mean to suggest you’re selling your soul by trying to sound like someone else. Everyone’s got to make a living, right?

Maybe that’s the problem, though. Writing is such a difficult way to make a living, that sometimes, it might seem like the best way to do so is to sound like someone else. I’m not just talking about ghostwriters. I’m talking about authors across the spectrum who can't help but feel the pressure to write the "next" Twilight or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

I have three words of advice: Resist that pressure.

Because ...

  1. Someone’s already done it better than you possibly could, even if you were the best writer in the known universe, because the person who did it first was the original.
  2. Apart from that, another "someone else" out there can probably do it better than you can, too. No offense, but in a world of 7 billion people, there are probably just a few writers who are more gifted than you are.
  3. Most fans of established authors aren’t looking for the “next J.K. Rowling.” They’re looking for the next book from J.K. Rowling.
  4. Trying to emulate another author too closely isn't much more creative than filling in the blanks on a Mad Libs game (remember those?). We all try to emulate successful and talented authors; at a certain point, however, a line is crossed between inspiration and mimicry that's like comparing a bus stop to a bus. To put a finer point on it: Even if it feels like you're spinning your wheels, that's far better than not having any.
  5. And, most importantly, if you’re writing like someone else, you’re not writing like yourself. Which is not only a big loss for your readers (because no one else can write like you can), it’s can also be personally demoralizing. Is there anything that puts a bigger damper on the creative instinct than the feeling that you can only find success by imitating someone else? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of one.

Your voice is your most precious commodity as a writer. You may feel like, as an author, you're on a leaky lifeboat in the middle of a storm-tossed sea (and what author hasn't felt that way at one point or another?) In such moments, the last thing you should throw overboard is your voice. That's your life-preserver.

Day jobs

The good news is that, contrary to what many readers believe, the vast majority of authors don’t make their living writing books. They’re journalists, science teachers, medical doctors, public relations professionals, website designers … you name it. Even many of those who have won awards use writing to supplement their incomes rather than to pay the rent.

This may not sound like good news, especially to the large number of authors who would love to quit their day jobs and make a living from their writing. But consider this: If you have a day job, it gives you the same kind of freedom authors like Rowling and King and Patterson have the freedom to write whatever the hell you want.

If you’re a mid-range writer on a contract who’s struggling to make ends meet, you might have a lot of people telling you that you need to write specific things that sound like a specific someone else.

How much fun is that?

“I could never be a novelist because then I would have to stop being a ‘write-for-TV-sometimes-ist’ or whatever the things are that I want to work on,” bestselling author, scriptwriter, etc. Neil Gaiman said in a 2014 interview. “I have the freedom to write whatever I want, for example children’s books.”

Gaiman is, in fact, a novelist, and he’s written some very good fiction. His point is, he isn’t just a novelist. He’s other things, too, and he can afford to be those things because he's "made it."

What those of us with day jobs often fail to realize is that we can do the same thing. We may not be free to write as much as someone at the top of the pyramid, like Gaiman, but we do have the same kind of freedom. So instead of trying to “make it” by writing like someone else — and becoming entrenched in a less-than-creative process of grinding out the next not-quite-so-great fill-in-the-blank title, why not exercise that freedom?

Original spin

I have a day job, and I don't make enough to live off writing books. Would I like to? Sure. But I’m luckier than most because my day job involves writing (I’m a newspaper editor/reporter) and exposes me to plenty of fodder for my off-the-clock writing.

That’s allowed me to, like Gaiman, explore a diverse array of topics and genres. I've written (as Stifyn Emrys) books that are philosophical and inspirational, and (under my own name), I've tackled speculative fiction and historical nonfiction.

As long as I don’t get caught up in worrying about “making it,” the process is a lot of fun. Plus, I get to keep my own voice.

My foremost criterion in writing each of the books I’ve written for Linden Publishing — Fresno Growing Up, Memortality and Highway 99 — has been originality. People had written about Fresno’s pioneer years before, but they hadn’t focused primarily on the Baby Boom generation. There are tons of books out there about Route 66, but Highway 99, which was similarly important out here on the West Coast, had received little such attention. As to Memortality, I have yet to run across another story that pairs the concept of a person’s eidetic (photographic) memory with a supernatural ability to raise the dead.

What fun is it to cover the same old ground, anyway?

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but I’ve never been interested in flattering anyone. I’ll stick to plain ol' sincerity and hope someone else likes what I’m putting out there. If so, I’ll be ecstatic. If not, I’ll still have had a ton of fun along the way.

 Photo by Ray Dumas.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Value your voice

A good editor will:

  1. Fix errors in spelling, grammar and usage.
  2. Point out inconsistencies and content gaps.
  3. Suggest ways to tighten and punch up your writing.
  4. Give you ideas about where to take a story.
  5. Suggest changes in style where they may slow down or confuse the reader.

But a good editor will never simply change your voice without consulting with you. Changing your voice without asking or just because it sounds better to the editor’s ear is not OK. (Your ear matters as much as or more than the editor’s — suggestions are fine; wholesale changes without consultation most definitely are not.)

If you come across an editor who wants to significantly change your voice, my advice is to run like hell, don't look back and keep on writing.