Do Your Stories Match Your Voice?

by Jami Gold on April 12, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Opened padlock and keys

I’ve been having a great conversation with Serena Yung in the comments of one of my posts about voice from a few weeks ago, so voice has been on my mind again this week.  When I found a fantastic article by author Julie Leto about voice and how it relates to our writing, I knew I had to blog about it.

Julie shares a quote by Laura Backes of the Children’s Book Insider that I love:

“The voice is what beckons the reader to curl up with a book and whispers, ‘Pay attention.  I’m going to tell you a story.'”

“I’m going to tell you a story.”  That concept goes along with my other favorite voice concept by Janice Hardy:

“[V]oice is that sense there’s a person behind the words.”

I’m going to tell you a story. There’s a person behind the words.  Voice is intimacy.  Voice is what invites readers to join the characters in their journey.

What Goes into Our Voice?

How do we invite readers to come closer?  Many people have tried to identify what goes into creating our voice, but it’s a hard thing to define.  We often just know it when we see it.

In her article, Julie shares what she sees as the five most important elements of voice:

  • Description:

How much do we use?  How many senses do we evoke?  What tone do we take when we write?  The importance of description to us as authors and how we use it comes down to the types of stories we innately want to tell.

  • Character:

What types of characters do we gravitate toward while we’re writing?  Some of us write stronger alpha males than others, some write snarkier women.  The common threads between our characters—from one heroine to another or one hero to another—give insight into our voice.  This doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who aren’t a good match for our voice, but they might be harder to write.

  • Style:

What are our writing habits?  Do we end scenes or chapters on cliffhangers?  Do we write with a lyrical quality or are our sentence more choppy?  The words we use and how we break up sentences, paragraphs, and chapters all act as one ingredient of our voice.

  • Plot:

Do we write beat-driven plots where readers sense when big events occur?  Or do we write plots where one event blends into the next?  What kind of villains or secondary characters do we write, and what kind of conflict do they create?

  • Premise and Theme:

What’s the big picture and/or theme of our stories?  Writers typically revisit similar themes over and over.  At the high level, we might also write stories with similar premises.  Heroines who discover how special they are.  Heroes who must fight to get what they want.

Did you notice what all those things have in common?  We find the commonalities we tend to gravitate toward after the fact—after we have multiple stories to compare.

Gaining a Voice Takes Lots of Practice

In other words, we have to practice writing a lot before we become good at recognizing what makes our writing ours alone and what makes our voice unique.  I didn’t recognize my voice until I started my third story.  Julie said it took her the same number of manuscripts.

She also points out that we can’t explore any of those elements with our voice until we have the craft down.  If we’re still struggling with plot structure, our unique approach to plotting won’t be as clear.  If we’re still head-hopping, the point-of-view of our characters won’t be deep enough to show who they really are.  Same with the other elements.

We Have a Voice, Now What?

Let’s say we’ve written enough that we have a clear idea of what makes our voice unique, what do we do with that knowledge?

When we know the idiosyncrasies of our voice, we know what types of stories are a good match for us.  Maybe we’re writing YA stories but our voice would work well in adult fiction.  Maybe comedy would be a better match than suspense.  Or maybe our plotting approach would fit novellas more than novels.

In other words, once we know our strengths, we can play to them.  Julie calls this writing “a book of our voice” rather than chasing “the book of our heart.”  We can discover the types of stories we truly love to write.  And in many cases, those stories will be easier to write than if we fight our natural tendencies.

This knowledge might help us decide between multiple shiny projects.  Does one story idea fit our voice better than the other?  If so, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write the other one, but we’ll be aware upfront that we might find it more difficult.

Also, the more we know our voice, the more we’ll be able to resist misguided suggestions from others.  One of my beta readers struggled with her editor because she tends to write dark stories and her editor wanted her to make a story fluffier and happier.  She’d have been miserable if she tried to fit that box.  Knowing the stories that fit her helps her know when to say “no.”

Know Thyself and Others Will Too

We’ve all heard how we should write multiple stories rather than editing the same one over and over.  That advice isn’t just about making sure we’re moving forward.

Writing new stories with new characters and new plots and new premises all works together to help us find the commonalities in our writing.  Those commonalities inform our voice, the stories we like to write, and the stories that might be easier to write.

Interestingly enough, being aware of those commonalities can also help us create our brand.  Readers would know that we’ll give them a story with X kind of characters, Y kind of style, or Z kind of plot.  (“Ooo, she writes the best tortured heroes.”)  And readers who know what to expect from our writing—even if we switch genres—might become fans of us rather than just readers of our books.

How well do you know your voice?  Can you describe it in regards to those five elements?  If you’ve written multiple stories, how many did it take for you to have a clear idea of your voice?  What do you think of the “book of our voice” idea?  Did you gain any other insights from Julie’s article?

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Carradee April 12, 2012 at 6:15 am

Hm. Back in December, I approached this from the tack of “Catering to your strengths/writing to hide your weaknesses“, and that’s how I usually think of it.

For example, I want to write a cozy mystery series—but I’m a character-based writer. I come up with characters in situations, and plot comes later. At this point, I’m not solid enough in plotting to trust myself with writing a mystery series. Eventually, I hope to get there; but for now, I know I can’t pull it off.

I also intentionally adjust my “voice” on different stories, but I think I’ve written enough to know what comes naturally to me.

1. Description: light to moderate amount; more tactile than average writer; matter-of-fact tone.
2. Characters: tend to be not quite right, emotionally; often introverted; tend to have more sense than sensibility 😉
3. Style: concise, minimal
4. Plot: My novels seem to funnel, with the plot at first seeming to have different aspects that actually end up tying together at the end.
5. Premise and Theme: As a Christian, I start with the premise that man’s basically bad, not good, and… I’ve recently realized that I have multiple themes in stuff, depending on how you look at it. A lot of my work could be interpreted as the outcome of trusting overmuch in the wrong things and not enough in the right things.

At least, that’s how I see myself. ^_^ Someone else will probably have a different interpretation. I’ve been compared to Robin McKinley in plotting (though not description!) and Shakespeare in character and situational twists. >_>

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Jami Gold April 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Hi Carradee,

For some reason, your link was being wonky, but I think I fixed it for you. And I absolutely agree with you about how we don’t want to get so locked into what we “think” our strengths are that we don’t want to experiment. Stretching ourselves is a great way to find new strengths.

I think cozy mysteries can definitely be character based, but you’re right, they need a tight plot as well. I have no doubt you’ll get there. 🙂

Ooo, great breakdown of what makes your writing you! Thanks for sharing!

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Carradee April 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Thanks for the link fix. Knowing me, I was probably missing a quote mark. 🙂

The main issue with “stretching yourself” is to avoid going too far. Stretching yourself too much, too quickly, is a surefire way to snap. 😉

Does this mean you’re going to share your own writing style analysis for yourself?

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Jami Gold April 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yes, stretching ourselves comes with risks. Luckily, my experiment worked out well. In some ways my novella follows my “typical” voice and in other ways it doesn’t, so seeing where the differences are–and which of those differences were very difficult for me–helped me see which pieces made up my voice and which were just habits. 🙂

Hmm, my writing voice:

Description: I tend to write sparse description when I’m drafting, and I typically have to add more in editing. I’m a very visual person, so I have to consciously pay attention to the other senses. That means that when I do have other sensory information, it’s typically very strong because it had to cut through my visual chatter to make it onto the page. My overall tone in setting and description is typically toward the darker end (as the stories themselves range to the darker end).

Character: As I mentioned in my comment to Serena, I typically write morally gray characters who struggle with issues where the “right” and “wrong” choices aren’t always clear. The heroines have strong backbones, and the heroes are workaholics. They all see themselves as less accomplished/special/desirable than the romantic interest sees them. Even my most alpha males don’t fall into the “jerk” category–they’re usually tortured heroes instead. My heroines have trouble being likable enough because they’re reluctant to reveal their vulnerabilities. (My heroes are better at being vulnerable than my heroines! 🙂 ) They all have some amount of sarcasm, but not too strong.

Style: I write punchy sentences and paragraphs (often using medium-to-long sentences followed by a short sentence to end a paragraph). My scenes and chapters almost always end on some type of hook–emotional or plot event. Words that are normal to me are less common to others, so I have to be careful not to overuse them because they stand out to readers too much.

Plot: My stories are very beat-driven, meaning that events build, build, build to X and then all hell breaks loose. Repeat. 🙂 My villains are typically nuanced and rarely evil just for the sake of being evil. It’s not unusual for my antagonists (and sometimes even the big bad villain) to find some measure of redemption, or at least pity or understanding, by the end of the story. In many cases, the conflict they cause echoes the internal conflict in some way. My secondary characters threaten to steal the show–I adore them. 🙂

Premise/Theme: As I mentioned to Serena, I tend to write about the strength of love, the meaning of family, whether everyone can find redemption, and that morally gray area where the “right” choices aren’t obvious. Many of my stories explore free will vs. fate, and the role each plays in our choices. You put all that together, and you have story premises with heroines who think they’re more “bad” than they are because of their morally gray choices, heroes willing to fight for what they want, and plot events that force them all toward choices and epiphanies of love, family, and redemption.

How’s that? 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee April 14, 2012 at 9:35 am

Quite a bit more detailed than my own self-analysis. 😀 Thanks for sharing!

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Jami Gold April 14, 2012 at 10:36 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Was it? I just rambled until I ran out of things to say. 🙂

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Angela Ackerman April 12, 2012 at 10:34 am

Voice is probably the most difficult thing to define and one of the hardest for a writer to master. This is a most awesome post!

Angela

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Jami Gold April 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Hi Angela,

Yes, voice is one of those things that I’m not sure if “master” or “skill” is even the right word. In my experience, it was more about writing enough to recognize my innate voice. Once I had that, I was able to make sure I didn’t edit it out, either during drafting or revisions. In addition, now when I’m debating between certain ways of expressing an idea, I know which option is more my voice, and I’ll usually choose to go with that one. Thanks for the comment!

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Frances Silversmith April 12, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Hah, now I know what it is that I’ve been looking for this past year and more. Haven’t found it yet, but I think I’m getting close.

Thank you for this enlightening post!

Frances

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Jami Gold April 12, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Hi Frances,

Yes, it really can take several stories before we’re familiar enough with our writing style to recognize our voice. It doesn’t mean that we don’t (or can’t) have a voice earlier, but we might not be able to make it as strong or consistent as we can after we know more about it. Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda April 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm

I think I need to take more classes. Or a class, to begin with, since I’ve never taken one. So far, all of my characters have a certain degree of snark in them (frankly, the snarkier, the better). All of the heroines are emotionally damaged in some way, and one even has a mental disorder!

The funny thing is, one of my beta readers commented on my most recent WIP that she couldn’t hear “me” in the story (this is the one with the mentally unstable heroine.) The character was so different from all the ones I’d written before that it threw her off. At first I thought that was a good thing. I wanted to create a character that was different enough from others I’d created that people couldn’t say, oh, she’s just a slightly different version of so-and-so. But the more I think about it, the more I start to think maybe she’s kinda right, and then I shake myself and say screw it.

I’ve got another topic for you: tackling the synopsis! I hate writing them! Any tips?

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Jami Gold April 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Hi Amanda,

Don’t panic. 🙂 We do tend to write certain types of characters who resonate with us. Just because they have a common thread between them (and often, us) doesn’t mean they’re the same character inside. We’d only need to worry about that if (as Julie Leto mentioned in her post) we could exchange one heroine for another and nothing in the story would change. I don’t think you suffer from that problem. 🙂

That also doesn’t mean that we can’t write characters who feel very different from us. I’ve written characters before where I thought they were way out in left field, but as I got to know them, I found ways I related to them regardless. That’s a good thing–we want relatable characters. 🙂 If this unstable heroine resonates with you, then she matches you as a writer. But maybe this beta reader of yours doesn’t know all the sides of you, so she’s just surprised at how this character could resonate with you.

One of my beta readers is convinced that I must be a con artist at heart because she’s read two stories with morally ambiguous heroines. LOL! In truth, it’s the other parts of their characters that appeals to me, and the moral ambiguity just makes them more interesting to write about from a character arc perspective.

Ugh. I’ll think about the synopsis issue and get back you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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CC MacKenzie April 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Great post, Jami.

Hmm, voice, an interesting one indeed. Strangely enough it’s the one thing I’ve never struggled with and I wonder if it’s because I’ve been writing for years without being aware of it. When my mother-in-law was alive (she was a voracious reader) we lived in Africa and she lived in Oban, Scotland. So my regular handwritten letters to her about her son and three grandchildren were eighteen to twenty pages long.
She used to say she felt I was standing in the room with her and my letters made her laugh and cry. The penny should have dropped then about writing fiction, but I digress.

Then I wrote ‘how to’ books for the sales team of a construction multi-national. Since I didn’t want the girls to yawn and fall asleep I tried to make them ‘readable’ as well as factual. Not easy, but those books were thumb eared in the sales centres so I must have done something right. And the girls used to tell me that they heard ‘me’ in the middle of explaining the why? of doing brain numbing competitor analysis.

Something that’s really important is the rhythm of speech or the heart beat of the story. The da dum da dum da dum. Each one of us has our own beat as a writer. And we only find that once we’ve been writing for some considerable time. It’s a beat that appears to be a constant throughout all my stories be it paranormal romance or contemporary romance. It seems to underpin the entire work and I know once I find it the writing flows. That doesn’t mean I can’t explore emotionally tough topics from miscarriage to sudden adult death or trust issues or fear and still make the emotions real enough to bring a rock to the throat. But it seems to be part of the structure, I think.

A big part is the use of language, especially strong descriptive verbs and careful word usage again with rhythms.

Not sure I’ve managed to explain how it works for me but key to it is to write with confidence and authority and tell the story your way.
That’s it.

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Jami Gold April 12, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Hi CC,

Oh yes! I do think your long missives to your mother-in-law helped you develop your voice. Now that I “know” my voice, I see it popping up everywhere in normal written exchanges for work and family emails. (In my day job, I even got someone (a non-writer) to do a huge favor for me because she loved the voice (her words!) of my email so much. 🙂 )

Yes, I pay attention to rhythm a lot as well. I’d consider that falling under the “Style” category above, where we decide how to structure sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. Sentence structure often is a rhythm decision for me.

“[W]rite with confidence and authority and tell the story your way.”

Great way to put it! Yes, if we’re not confident in our story, we can’t pull the reader along with us. Thanks for sharing and for the great comment!

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KN April 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I’m embarrassed to admit that my ‘voice’ in high school and college was, by turns, brash, clumsy and Cambridge-worthy snobbish. The next 2 decades were full of some blunt life lessons, and when I came back to writing in my late 30s, my voice had changed.

My word choices are now simpler, the plot lines cleaner and the details muted, but it comes across as warm and intimate, even when the story is in the epic style. The greatest delight I have is when a reader says “I feel like I was there, watching the action unfold”.

Thankfully, I have awesome first readers who give me good feedback and let me know where I’m overshooting the mark. (Or flock-shooting. I do a lot of that.) I hope that another 100K words under my belt will help me gain a little more control and consistency.

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Jami Gold April 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Hi KN,

I don’t think I have any of my high school or college writing and I suspect that’s a good thing. 🙂 I’m sure my writing was full of “trying too hard” issues. That sounds like great feedback you’ve received. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I have to say, this is my favorite article so far apart from the plot vs character-driven one, not just because you mentioned me, but because this is so helpful and insightful!

(Be prepared for a long comment; this topic is just too interesting and I have too much to say. Hope you don’t mind…)

About the five aspects, I especially love the parts about recurring kinds of characters, story premises, and themes.

Some of my recurring:

–Themes: Love, friendship, soulmate-ship (yeah made-up word), and best-friendship, hope, and the imagination.

–Characters: The best friends, soul mates, the artistic or imaginative characters; the emotional, empathetic, and caring one (usually male); the severe pessimist (usually male); the severe optimist (usually female); and the passionate character.

–Story premises: I don’t know why, but for some reason, my stories seem to almost always be about a savior best friend, or savior lover. So it’s the savior, the saved, and the new, bright, wonderful life after being saved.

Why am I so obsessed with saviors and being saved? The creepy (and cool) thing is that all these stories flowed naturally from me, as in they all came from the deepest parts of my heart; they were the stories and characters I seriously, rapturously HAD to write. I never consciously intended to spin around this same story—they just…happened. The subconscious is a curious thing.

I found out this part of my voice (the story premise part especially) after I finished 3 major stories (I had a lot of random tangential ones). So is 3 the magic number? As for my 5 major stories after that, some finished some unfinished, I am astonished to find that this same story premise emerged again!! Seriously, why on earth am I so fixated on the savior-saved theme?

This repeated story premise idea is especially interesting to me because I can see that Charlotte Bronte had the recurring story about the governess heroine falling in love with an older master. F. Scott Fitzgerald likewise repeats a same story in all 5 of his novels; he admits this repetition too.

Ah I really like this advice about striving to write multiple stories rather than editing the same stories for many years, because I am guilty of writing too many new stories, and being too slow on my editing. It is indeed really fun to have many stories in front of you so you can compare them and discover patterns.

I also love the part about how you shouldn’t “try to be different” and write something completely alien to you just because you want to be more “diverse”. For my stories with their recurring themes, characters, and stories, I was quite worried that I was treading the same path over and over again; but now I feel assured that I can go full out in writing about those same topics, as long as I’m genuinely passionate about them.

In addition to this encouragement of writing from your own voice and not trying deliberately to write outside it, I now feel that it is perfectly fine to repeat the same basic story premise (as long as the specific plot details vary). In spite of the same underlying story, each work will sparkle in its own way—they will each be different and special, as Julie says. Take Charlotte Bronte for example. Jane Eyre, The Professor, Shirley, and Villette are all the same basic story—governess or female student falls in love with older master or teacher. However, each story has its own personality, its own delightful idiosyncrasies and details, that I enjoy every one of them and definitely don’t feel I am wasting my time “reading the same thing over and over again”.

One more comment: Julie mentioned that a lot of “Book of the Heart” novels are angsty and depressing. I just want to point out that this isn’t always the case. My “book of the heart” stories are always very optimistic and cheerful. They are always about deep happiness, not deep sadness. Maybe this is because I’m one of those joyful idealists (not the tragic ones).
Also, I don’t know if this is just me, but my “Book of the Voice” and “Book of the Heart” are the same. The more passionately I care about a story I wrote, the more clearly my voice is in that work.

Phew I have finally done ranting! Thank you for your patience and again, I hope you don’t mind me taking up so much space!

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Jami Gold April 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Don’t worry, I’ve said many times I love having conversations in the comments. 🙂

What a fabulous analysis of your voice! And I agree the subconscious can be creepy and cool at the same time.

Long ago, I was almost guilty of the eternal editing problem. I desperately wanted to make this one story work because I love it so much, but my writing skills weren’t at the level yet to fix its problems. I’ll go back to it when I’m ready. As for the worry about writing similar stories, I see this as the same issue we talked about with whether our story had already been done, only in this case, we’re the ones writing the pre-existing stories. And just as we talked about there, the details of the characters and the specifics of how we explore the big ideas makes all the difference.

I tend to write about love, the meaning of family, redemption, and morally gray characters who struggle with issues where the “right” and “wrong” choices aren’t always clear. Those are huge ideas to explore. I could write 300 stories with those same themes, characters, and premises and still never repeat myself. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the comment!

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Rebekah Loper April 13, 2012 at 9:42 am

I don’t know that I’m at the point yet where I can describe my own voice, but I am starting to notice what I enjoy writing and what I’m good at doing, as well as what types of themes, characters, etc, I gravitate toward.

I, so far, write a lot of female main characters, because I’ve never had men that I had a good relationship with until I met my husband. I’ve started branching out more, but still gravitate toward a woman’s mindset.

I tend to write dark fantasy, and I know exactly why – my life has been anything but cheery. I like to explore the what-ifs of situations, and like Carradde above, I also work from the Christian mindset that man gravitates toward evil more naturally than good.

But evil makes for such interesting stories :D.

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Carradee April 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm

But evil makes for such interesting stories 😀 .

Agreed!

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Jami Gold April 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Hi Rebekah,

That sounds like a great start on knowing your voice. And you’re right–evil does make for interesting stories. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson April 14, 2012 at 8:11 am

I’m very tuned into my voice. I immerse myself into my characters, so I’m truly in their heads & vice versa. I’m not so sure about the practice part, at least not for everybody. I never even knew about voice when I started writing. It just came out. And at least half of everything I write is from a guy’s POV, yet I feel intensely intimate with it. But I do so agree that the voice is one of THE most important aspects of a novel. It’s what nearly drove me to violence when I read “Shatter Me”. *shivers at the grating, drama-queen voice*. Great post. I’ll be referring back to it many times, I’m sure.

BTW – you got a mention over at my place today. I’m doing the A to Z & today is “M is for Mentor” day. Have a great weekend!

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Jami Gold April 14, 2012 at 10:36 am

Hi Nancy,

Interesting. You have a good point–the more we have a deep POV with our characters, the more their voice matters and the less our author voice matters. Character and author voices are very related, but sometimes a strong character voice can kickstart our own. In fact, that’s what made the third manuscript the tipping point for me. The character voice in that story screamed off the page and that’s when I saw voice–my voice and her voice–for what it was.

Ooo, that’s interesting too about your experience with guy’s POV. As I mentioned to Carradee, my heroes often have an easier time showing their vulnerability, so I often capture their voices quite easily. 🙂

Thank you so much for honoring me as one of your mentors! *hugs* I’m truly touched. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Violetta July 6, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I just wanted to thank you for explaining this stuff. My best friend and I started out hoping to be “the next Lewis and Tolkien”, but we have such different voices that it’s hard to even bounce ideas off each other without hitting a formidable communication barrier. It’s helpful to know that the problem isn’t really either of us, but just natural human diversity running its course.

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Jami Gold July 6, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Hi Violetta,

Ooo, interesting problem. Lewis and Tolkien had very different voices as well, so it must be possible. I don’t know if they bounced high-level premise ideas, plot ideas, character ideas, or all of the above off of each other, but maybe try some of those different options to see if any approach helps your brainstorming. Good luck and thanks for the comment! 🙂

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