Welcome back to the revolution, comrades.
Let me start by saying, if the tags brought you here thinking you were about learn about clothing and fashion, then I’m sorry to disappoint. This post will be centered on the idea of a voice in writing, and how to go about refining that voice and make it that much more powerful.
So let’s get started, then. You have your music, and (hopefully), some motivation to sit down and crank out a story. Coaching on how to to write anything is always a tricky business, because everyone’s different. It’s something we’ve all known since our early days. Thus the world can be full of so much strife and misunderstanding, and at the same time such love and joy. But, as I’ve discovered in my own writing, there are general aspects that everyone can agree on.
The universal piece of advice is this:
Show, Don’t Tell
Anybody who’s read, written, thought, or even breathed anywhere near creative writing has heard this phrase. For those in the field, it’s something we have shoved down our throats at every corner. We all know it, it’s been drilled into my skull, not to mention yours. For the sake of overtaking the elites who know the publishing business we wish to overthrow, however, it’s something we must learn.
I won’t lecture you on this phrase, or rant about it, as I’m so prone to do. Instead, I figured I’d, well, show you it (and its benefits).
A bit of foreword, though. I am about to lay myself bare and show you two pieces of writing I’ve done. They are both for the opening of my novel, and both are intended to fulfill the same purpose: exposition. How they go about it, however, is much different.
Siddo sat in the nest, the sea breeze ruffling his fluffy down. He was only several days of the world, and yet already felt intense curiosity about what lay beyond the edges of the nest. The woven branches formed a wall against his exploits. Despite his parent’s best efforts, Siddo had already managed to escape twice, the first time nearly falling off the rocky outcropping on which the nest stood. The second time he had managed to descend to the sandy surface below, only to be swept up in the oncoming tide and almost drowned in the rolling waves. Had it not been for his father’s swift intervention, Siddo would have become another of the ocean’s eternal prisoners.
Now, confined to the nest under constant surveillance for his latest escapade, Siddo sulked and brooded. Everything had been fine until that brute showed up, he had spotted a rock and was almost to safety when a pair of sharp talons snatched him. How proud his mother would have been to see he had braved the sea and survived, how impressed his brother would have been. Instead he’d had to listen to his father’s shrill barks about stupidity and vanity, only to get an even larger scolding from his mother. Despite her overbearing nature, Siddo loved his mother, her black back and white underbelly his only comfort in the cool nights. Skrill, his younger brother, born a day after him, was a different story. Both were merely the size of baseballs, but Siddo was already gaining an advantage in size. Rather than deal with his boisterous sibling, Skrill would sit in the far corner of the nest and brood. Skrill despised his mother for favoring his older brother, his eyes dark and mysterious. Siddo felt uneasy around his brother at the best of times, but one thing united them; mutual hatred of their father.
Stern, rarely seen, and tough as rocks, their father was a bully to them both. He would hunt night and day, only returning to share his spoils. When Siddo and Skrill hopped eagerly to the kill, he would drive them both away with squawks and jabs of his beak, saving the best pieces of mussels and fish for his mate. His children were left with the scraps. They were both too young to know he meant to keep his mate’s strength up, for they desperately needed her, that these assaults were part of his way of caring for them. Food had become scarce since the days of the Silent Death, and there was more than one story of mothers being starved to death by their own growing chicks. Siddo and Skrill often went hungry, though Siddo could swipe more food with his confidence and size. Hunger built resentment, and Skrill seethed.
Siddo craned to see over the top of the nest, watching the waves smash against the sides of the great rocky peninsula. The low roar of the sea called to him, its rhythmic motions luring him towards slumber. He eyed his mother curiously, observing her drooping eyelids, her slow breathing, her relaxed posture as she lay atop her webbed feet. Her neck was turned fully back, so that her beak lay nestled beneath her black wings. Their kind had been blessed with flexible necks, which could extend to great heights and swivel about for greater vision.
Siddo could hardly wait to start using his in the curious ways his parents did. Nor can I wait any longer in this nest! He took a step onto the rise in the nest floor, about to hop over the edge and away into freedom.
Immediately a fierce yellow eye opened, freezing Siddo in its gaze. His mother’s head turned, her body towering over his. With a gruff shove of her wing, Siddo went tumbling down into the center of the nest. He gazed at the ground as she shuffled to face him, sitting so that she could look him in the eyes. The spirit of the revolution had been quelled.
“It is said that gull chicks are born with sharp minds and restless spirits,” she spoke in a hoarse, distinctly gull voice. “I have never had doubt in this fact. Within a few moments, you could walk. Within a day you could speak. And now you are growing faster and faster, growing stronger and more bold.”
Her tone grew stern, “But do not let arrogance convince you that you are above danger. You still can not fly. You can not swim. You can not fight. In time you will be ready for the challenges our world possesses, but this is not that day, little chick.”
“Every day it’s the same story. ‘Wait, little one.’ ‘Not today, little one.’ I’ve waited so long, I don’t think the day will ever come!” Siddo burst out.
There was a twinkle in her eyes as she continued, nudging him gently with her wingtip, “Do not despair, my dear. I understand how you feel. Not too long ago I was a little one, waiting desperately for my chance to spread my wings and see the world. But you’ll be seeing nothing but the bottom of those gray waters if you refuse to listen to your father, Siddo.”
“Pah! Father,” Siddo scorned, his gaze darkening. “All he ever tells me is what I can’t do, why I can’t do it, and where I can’t go.” He trudged away, ignoring his mother’s comforting gestures. It’s as if he doesn’t want to see me at all.
“Your father loves you, Siddo,” his mother called after him as he hunkered down at the far corner of the nest, refusing to face her. He just can’t bear to see you hurt, like so many this season, too many.
In the furthest corner of the nest, a pair of brooding eyes watched the altercation, at home in the shadows of the twilight. Skrill fumed at what he witnessed. There he was, blatantly disregarding both her and father’s wishes, and she goes about coddling him like usual!
He jumped as a wing caressed his back. “What about you, little one? What are you thinking in that mysterious head of yours?”
Momentarily stunned, Skrill’s defenses reassembled. He fixed his mother with a fierce glare. “Nothing that you would care about,” he spat, hopping away from her.
No, no matter how much of a bully Siddo was, he was always the favored one, the untouchable successor to the family legacy. Nobody cared about the runt, the dark spot on their name. As far as Skrill was concerned, everyone was hoping that he’d just wander off and get snatched up. That was why Father was so angry with Siddo for nearly drowning. They were hoping it would be me.
“I am always here, my son,” his mother called after him. “You can always talk to me.” She shook her head as he didn’t react, eyes focused on the corner. There was no way of knowing how gulls this young would turn out, she reassured herself. Every family had a dark horse, she just hoped hers would turn out all right in the end.
I know, it’s long for a sample, but I promise, there’s a purpose here. Almost smothering, isn’t it? The opening paragraphs just appear as a desert of words, huge dunes to be scaled. I write off the cuff, which means that I have a vague idea of the ending of the novel, but not much else. It’s more exciting that way, but it means that I include a lot of unnecessary detail so that I as the writer don’t forget anything as I invent things.
Attempting to combat this tendency, I rewrote the opening.
“What, are you just going to sit there and stare all day?”
“It’s not like I can do much else, thanks to Father,” Siddo said, staring out over the edge of the nest. The world stretched before him, the dark sea roiling between the patches of green. “Besides, I think it’s incredible. All this to explore.”
“Whatever,” Skrill muttered. “Just a bunch of rocks and water to me.”
“That’s because you have no imagination, Skrill.” It was a word he’d heard his father use. Neither knew what it actually meant, but it was enough to get Skrill going.
“I’ll show you imagination,” Skrill lunged forward. The two chicks pecked at each other with their pink beaks. Siddo flipped up, Skrill’s featherless wings buffeting at his head as the older chick pinned him to the bottom of the nest. The weathered branches creaked as the two rolled and tussled.
“No fair,” Skrill panted. Siddo had him pinned again. “You’re bigger.”
Siddo couldn’t contain his smug grin. “Yeah, but you talk enough for both of us.” Born only a few days before, Siddo had beaten his brother into the world by moments, but already, nature favored the first born.
“It shows I’m smart,” Skrill said, a smile creeping around his beak. The tiny talons holding his chest had loosened as Siddo talked. “Unlike you!”
Rolling out of his hold, Skrill sprung off the edge of the nest. The flying blur of brown and black spots knocked the wind from Siddo. Siddo shook the stars from his vision, finding his brother standing over him. The smug grin belonged to him now.
“Oh, we’re only getting started.” Siddo whipped his feet around, tripping Skrill. The brawl resumed.
“All right, my dears, that’s enough,” a black wingtip separated the brothers.
Massive and regal, their mother stood over them. Her white head glowed in the twilight, flowing down into the dark back and wings. It was the heritage of their species, the Black-backed gull. Someday, both he and Skrill would be that large and strong, the largest of all the gull species. Neither could wait.
“Please, Mother? I haven’t defeated the villainous crow yet.” Another big word Siddo’s father had used in one of his tales.
“I’m sure the ‘crow’ can wait to learn his lesson until tomorrow,” their mother smiled.
“But this foolish Northerner still thinks he’s a match for-”
“I said that’s enough,” her head whipped around. Skrill stumbled backwards, eyes wide. Even Siddo felt a jolt.
“Besides,” she said, feathers smoothed once more. “If you keep on being heroes, you’ll miss your dinner. Looks like you lost half your down already today.”
Tufts of brown fluff whipped away as the great wings of their father churned up the air. Both chicks had to fight to stay upright, but already their eyes were focused on his talons. A wet sea bass smacked down against the sun-baked branches.
Stomachs rumbling, Siddo and Skrill raced forward. A black wing swept them off their feet, the two mites sailing to the other corner of the nest. “No,” their father grunted. “Your mother first.”
The two had to watch as the adults had first pick of the meal, unable to approach without being shoved back. Siddo looked over at his brother, finding two hard eyes boring into their parents. Finally, the remains of the tail sat before them, their father flying off into the darkening sky. Both chicks rushed in, tearing away at the fish.
Stomachs full, the pair felt their eyelids growing heavy. But Siddo’s perked up when he noticed that his mother too had settled down. His bliss was cast aside by the urge to explore. Checking on his mother once more, he dug his talons into the side of the nest.
Immediately, a fierce yellow eye froze Siddo in its gaze. His mother’s head turned, her body towering over his. With a tap of her wing, Siddo tumbled down into the center of the nest. He looked down as she shuffled to face him, lowering her neck to look him in the eyes. The revolution had been quelled.
“It is said that gull chicks are born with sharp minds and restless spirits,” she spoke in the hoarse voice of their species. “I have never had doubt in this fact. Within a few moments, you could walk. Within a day you could speak. And now you are growing faster and faster, growing stronger and more bold.”
She shook her head, “But do not let arrogance convince you that you are above danger. You still can not fly. You can not swim. You can not fight. In time you will be ready for the challenges of our vast world, but this is not that day, little chick.”
“I haven’t heard that one before,” Siddo muttered.
There was a twinkle in her eyes as she continued, nudging him with her wingtip, “Do not despair, my dear. I understand how you feel. Not too long ago I was a little one, waiting for my chance to spread my wings and see the world. But you’ll be seeing nothing but the bottom of those gray waters if you refuse to listen to your father, Siddo.”
“Pah! Father,” Siddo scorned, his gaze darkening. “All he ever tells me is what I can’t do, why I can’t do it, and where I can’t go.” He trudged away, shaking off his mother’s comforting gestures.
“Your father loves you, Siddo,” his mother called after him. He just can’t bear to see you hurt like the others.
Skrill watched how she spoke to his brother, the gleam in her eye. There was something about it that pulled at him, made him long that she would show such kindness towards him. But beneath that, there was something else, unfamiliar. It made his talons dig at the branches beneath him.
He jumped as a wing touched his back. “What about you, little one? What are you thinking in that mysterious head of yours?”
Skrill’s defenses reassembled. “Nothing that you would care about,” he spat, hopping away from her.
She shrugged. Knowing Skrill, if he didn’t want to talk, he would rather starve to death than open his beak. There was no way of knowing how they’d turn out at this age, she reassured herself. Every family had a troublemaker, but she had hope for hers.
Figuring that any further attempts to explore would only land him in deeper trouble, Siddo settled down beside his mother. She lifted her wing, shifting it so that it cradled his body against her soft underbelly. Wrapped up in her scent and warmth, Siddo felt like nothing could harm him. His eyes felt sluggish
Even as slumber carried him away, Siddo noticed that Skrill had not snugged up beneath her other wing. Skrill glanced towards his brother from the edge of the nest, then looked away. Siddo’s mind felt too slow to think about it any further.
In the cool night, his ears picked up wing beats. Recognizing his father’s deep voice, Siddo kept perfectly still, not daring to open his eyes. He could tell right away that what they talked about was serious.
“…two more on the eastern shore. The Silent Death’s not finished with us yet.”
His mother shifted, blocking out the conversation for a moment. Siddo couldn’t make out her question.
“I had to fly close to the North to find that fish. Maybe what they say is true about the disease driving away fish. If that plague doesn’t get them, a lot of young gulls are going to starve… Some are talking of leaving…”
Their voices lowered even further, Siddo’s ears straining.
“…I was born on this rock, I don’t want to leave either. But for the sake of our sons…”
A breeze picked up, carrying off their whispers. Protected against the cold wind, Siddo felt a dream calling to him. Too young to understand most of their words, he chased off after the massive fish, determined to catch it and its sea monster brethren.
Notice a difference? Hopefully so, because that means my labors paid off. The main part would be the opening lines themselves. Instead of summary and description, you’re given a question, which immediately creates tension and engagement. The audience wants to know the answer as much as the character who asked it.
From there, the action picks up, with subtle hints to what the first version unloaded on you. You’re shown the strain between the parents and Skrill, not told, as in the other version. I also made him a bit more sympathetic, but that was a tweak to the plot, not the style.
Another great thing about subtlety is that it leaves the audience with questions. Why? Because you haven’t spelled out the entire relationship/setting/conflict/character for them right there. And what do you do when you have questions reading a novel? You read on! And that’s what every writer should strive for: engagement and intrigue.
I hope this has helped translate a vague concept into concrete form. If it’s hard at first, don’t worry! Editing is where you take the raw ideas and refine them. It took me five years to come to this point in my writing, and as you can see, I’m still learning. The important thing is that you work at it, and learn from your mistakes. If there’s one thing I excel at, it’s making mistakes and then figuring out how I could’ve avoided them.
Now, for what you’ve really come here for. Soundtrack of the Revolution Song #4:
Until next time, comrades. To victory!
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