Friday, May 8, 2015

The Voice of a Storyteller

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

I have a thing for real life history that plays out like fiction. Lately, I've been reading up on Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. Two men, one from the FBI and one from the CIA, who sold American secrets to the Russian and Soviet intelligence services during and after the Cold War. Traitors, both of them.

The two men weren't working together, but their overlapping activities made it difficult for the CIA and the FBI to find their leak. Ames was found out first and his capture made it clear that they had not entirely solved their problem. They still had a mole.

In the end, you know what outed Hanssen?

His voice.

The FBI purchased a recording of him speaking to the KGB. Agents working the case recognized the voice, but could not recall who it belonged to. Pilfering through a stack of documents they had obtained along with the recording, the agents found an off-color, racist comment--a comment they had heard Robert Hanssen use in conversation. Listening to the recording once more, they realized that it was indeed the voice of their coworker.

His voice, you guys. That's what did it.

I love this story and when I read it the first time, I couldn't help but draw parallels to the literary world. You could tear the covers off books written by my favorite authors, change the font, try to convince me they were written by people I'd never read, but you'd never, ever succeed.

I know their voices.

I've read Tasha Alexander enough to know when I've picked up one of her stories. I can decipher Maggie Stiefvater's writing without even trying. And Ted Dekker and Jenny B. Jones and Kate Morton and oh, my, gosh Jennifer Donnelly.

These authors have collected words as they've traveled through life. Words they've polished and played with and turned on the tips of their pens. There's a cadence to their writing that I recognize. A swagger. A fingerprint-like uniqueness that declares ownership of the tales they spin. They'd have to pull off a magic trick to disguise their voices from me and I sincerely hope they never try.

I pick up Tasha Alexander's books because I want to hear her tell me a story. And I'm working hard to develop my voice so people will pick up my books to hear me do the same.

Developing your storytelling voice is not an easy thing to do. Like going through puberty, almost. And no one thinks that's fun. Your voice deepens as you grow and with every story you tell it takes on nuance and sheds old habits. Sometimes we sound awkward and stilted, but we improve if we continue to live, and read, and try. Like our favorite authors, we collect words along the way and we weave them together in a way only we can.

Your voice is yours and yours alone. And though it will change and grow, it will always sound just like you.

So, continue collecting words and studying stories. Read for pleasure and for growth. Write because you want to and because it's a challenge. Stretch yourself, put pen to the page, and appreciate the gift that demands a journey.

Because that's exactly what the voice of a storyteller will require of you.

19 comments:

  1. Love this post! I've been focusing less on plot and more on my writing style lately, and while it can seem like it's going nowhere at times, it's starting to look so different from my old writing that most people would have no idea it was the same person. I'm assuming that's a good thing, since my old books were packed with cliches, ripoffs, and flat descriptions…

    --Ellie

    http://thespellboundreader.blogspot.com

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    1. My first book was same. Well, minus the ripoff part :). I've learned so much since then.

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    2. My first wasn't a ripoff, but it had zero conflict, so I'm not sure it counts as a novel . . . the second had a similar problem, and I only did five chapters of the third, but that one had some plagiarized elements. The fourth, now THAT was a ripoff. All I needed was a magical game played on flying broomsticks and it could've been Harry Potter.

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    3. Well...technically it wasn't a "book" as I never finished it...I wonder if it counts.

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    4. If you only count ones I've finished…then I've written exactly one book, as opposed to five or six. I generally count any draft that was more than a few chapters done as a book. At that point you have the idea fleshed out and it COULD be a book, at least.

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    5. So glad you all are seeing growth in your writing!

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  2. Beautiful post! A strong voice is the best, and something we should all strive for.

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  3. Thank you for this post Mrs. Dittemore! I've been thinking about voice a lot lately. The past two weeks I have read a novel called The House on Mango Street in my college literature class. The author of that book has such a lovely voice. As soon as I read the first page, I was drawn in, just by her voice. I will always remember how her voice was like a friend, making me feel at home within the pages of that novel. And now I am inspired--because I would love, someday, for people to respond to my writing like that. Thank you for this reminder that voice is not something we have right away, but rather something we have to discover and develop through practice.

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    1. Lots of practice, yes! But it does happen. I'm sure of it!

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  4. Thanks for this inspiring post, Shannon! My favorite author's also have such strong voices, and among them are Clare Vanderpool, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anne Elisabeth Stengl, Markus Zusak, Elizabeth Wein, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the one with the strongest voice I know: Ray Bradbury. I think I recognize little nuances to my writing like the way I organize my sentences and the way I arrange my words, but right now they are only slight hints of my voice. I guess I'll just have to keep on writing!

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    1. We must all keep writing. I wonder if a writer ever truly knows when they've stumbled onto their voice? I doubt it. We all just keep on. Writing and reading and our voice grows with us. It's others who know the sound of it, I think. The readers.

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  5. You just inspired me to start writing :) I haven't been thinking of any story ideas lately, but I'm going to just start and see where it takes me because I want to write. Thank you!

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    1. Yesssss! Anything that inspires writing can't be too far off the mark, right?

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  6. This is the most inspiring thing I've read in quite some time. Thank you so so much. Gave me a kick in the pants today, which I needed. :)

    Also, I find this so cool because it's kind of the theme of my NaNo novel this past year that I got stuck on but keep coming back to. Basically, the MC is a singer who loses her ability to use her voice for months, but a friend helps her discover other ways to use her voice--and not just "the sound that comes out of her throat," as the friend tells her. So, I guess you could say it's something that really resonates with me (no pun intended!). :)

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    1. I love it when life conspires and uses many teachers at once to seed a lesson. And we all need a good kick in the pants now and then. I'm happy to oblige. ;)

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  7. I had to tweet that quote picture, it really was inspiring and brilliant. This article made some fantastic points and now I'm off to write some more! Great stuff Shannon!

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