Tag Archives: friendship

Deborah Ratliff: The Writer’s Voice and Other Elements of Style

As I write this, the manuscript for my first novel and I exist apart. The words I’ve written now in the capable hands of my editor. It was a conversation with him regarding my writing idiosyncrasies that provided me with a clearer insight into my writing style and the voice I choose.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of writing to comprehend is the concept of style. Like fingerprints, one author’s style of writing is unique from another’s and can vary depending on several factors, including the intended audience. Sentence structure, word choice, and the more elusive writer’s voice constitute the elements of style.

Before I returned to writing fiction, a passion from my youth, I wrote professional articles, policy and procedure and training manuals, newsletters, and advertising copy. At times, I might work on policy in the morning, a newsletter in the afternoon. What I failed to realize was I was changing my writing style to fit my readers.

Let’s look at how the description of a thunderstorm varies from one audience to another.

A scientific journal article on the elements of a thunderstorm would present a technically correct explanation of how warm moist air rapidly updrafts into cooler layers of air forming cumulonimbus clouds. Precipitation follows, and cold air sinks creating downdrafts and winds. Electrical charges build up in the water and ice cloud particles and release as lightning, which heats the air with such intensity producing a sound wave we know as thunder.

A storyteller would write of the darkening clouds, the rising winds, a prickly feeling on the skin as the storm intensifies, the driving rain, brilliant lightning flashes, the roar of thunder. Thus, setting a mood or a backdrop for the characters to interact.

The same author can write in an impersonal, technical style or in descriptive prose. It is the choice of words, sentence structure, and the author’s voice that creates style.

Word choice:

Writing experts teach authors to eliminate unnecessary words. To be concise, to choose the best word, an action verb demonstrating a physical or mental act or a concrete noun conveying sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to convey meaning. We limit our use of adjectives and adverbs and the overuse of certain words such as ‘as,’ ‘that,’ and ‘it.’ Polysyllabic words, alliteration, and consonance create flowing sentences, while onomatopoeia and monosyllabic words can break up the flow.

Sentence Structure:

Good writers carefully structure sentences to extract the most meaning and to facilitate flow. When constructing a sentence, vary the length of the sentence to achieve different rhythms. Also, consider the word and phrase placement within a sentence which can emphasize the sentence meaning. Removing unneeded, vague or repetitive words, and including subordinate phrases and clauses will tighten up a sentence and make it more readable.

Voice:

The most subjective of the three elements of style is voice. Voice is unique to each writer and impacted by the author’s personality and one element of style, word choice.  Whether detached, passionate, objective, humorous, serious, it is yours.

This discussion of style brings me back to my conversation with my editor. I had two repetitive issues in my writing. The underuse of the word ‘that’ and my love of run-on sentences.

Somewhere, while reading what all the writing ‘experts’ suggest, I took the suggestion to eliminate the word ‘that’ where I could. Apparently, there are times when that makes a sentence clearer. My editor decided to replace those I had eliminated in my own edit. Then he read the story again and took them out, deciding the inclusion interfered with my writing style.

The run-on sentences are another issue and result from my desire to write with a smooth flow. I wrote a short story for a challenge a few years ago and received this critique, “Great story, well-done, but use an ‘and’ every now and then.” Apparently, I didn’t heed that message.

My editor offered the following advice. That the choice to construct sentences in this manner was mine. It was my style of writing and my decision to change them. It was at that moment I realized I had the final say on how my book would read.

Granted, I am at liberty to make these choices because I am self-publishing. I doubt the editor of a traditional publishing house would allow me the leeway of making these decisions for myself. The fact is I respect my editor and will likely take his advice, but his words made me realize that the style I choose to write in, my writer’s voice is mine.

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Deborah Ratliff is an administrator for the Writers Unite! Blog and Facebook page. Her first novel, Crescent City Lies, a murder mystery will be published in the Fall of 2016.

Personal Blog: the coastal quill

Author Page: D.A. Ratliff

Facebook: Writers Unite!

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Short Story: Live For Me

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Live For Me

I hesitated. My fingers wrapped around the last button of my suit jacket. Today was an important day in my life, the goal I had set for myself so many years ago was within my grasp, yet there was an emptiness inside me. I expected joy would fill me on this day, instead my heart was heavy as memories crowded out my happiness.

“You ready Mom? Dad’s started the car.” My son, handsome in his new navy suit, stood in the bedroom doorway.

“I swear your father is more excited than I am.” Grabbing my purse, I accepted my son’s offered arm, and said, “Time to do this.”

The drive into the city was full of chatter. My newly married daughter was going on about the arrangements for the celebratory lunch at her husband’s restaurant. My son informing me his friends from law school were coming to my swearing-in ceremony. Yet, my heart ached for the one person I wanted to attend who couldn’t. She was dead.

The journey to this day began when I was six years old. My mother worked as a maid for a federal judge and his family. Summers were my favorite times as a child. The judge sent his wife, son, and daughter, James and Celia, to their beach house on the South Carolina coast, insisting, my mother and I share the summer with them.

As children, we ran through the hot sand, splashing in the surf, all under the watchful eyes of our mothers. Some days, Celia and I were mermaids, her older brother James posing as Poseidon as we ruled the seas. Other days we were pirates, searching for buried treasure, which always took the form of colorful seashells. As we grew older, James made friends with other boys spending the summer at the shore but Celia and I had each other.

We spent our days sunbathing, Celia laughing at me, wondering how I could possibly tan… my skin already dark. We snickered over teen magazines and talked about boys, worried about pimples and bra sizes. We couldn’t have had more fun. Then the summer when we were fifteen the harsh reality of life invaded our idyllic existence. Celia became ill during the winter, an aggressive form of leukemia.

That summer was different. Her father spent more time with us, and James ignored his sailing buddies, taking us out in his small sailboat instead. Celia and I walked the edge of the surf daily, neither of us wanting to discuss her illness. As her energy waned, her strength impressed me. She never allowed us to wallow in our sadness. She was full of life until the end.

A week before she entered the hospital for the last time, we sat on the beach under the inky night sky, glittering stars drifting toward the sea’s horizon. What she said to me that night changed my life.

I stood before the bench in a federal courtroom as I took the oath of office as a federal judge, then addressed my family and friends. Tears flowed down my cheeks when I spotted Celia’s father, now frail, her mother, along with James and his wife standing beside my mother and my family.

My voice quivered as I began, “Celia Beckett is why I am here today. Celia knew how much I loved and admired her father who treated me as if I were his daughter, then and now. I longed to be an attorney, even daring to dream of becoming a judge. However, as the black daughter of a maid, I held no illusions I could become a lawyer much less achieve a judgeship. The last night she was well enough to sit on the beach, Celia changed my life. I’ll never forget the starlight reflected on the pale strands of her hair or the words she said to me.

“Celia traced circles in the sand with a fragile finger as she spoke, her voice slurred by medication. She called me a twit for having so little faith in myself. When she reminded me there were worse fates in life than having dark skin, bile rose in my throat. I agonized about the choices facing me, but she no longer had those choices. She tired quickly and as we returned to the beach house, she reminded me I was too smart to give up fighting for what I wanted. She grasped my hand, hers chilled even in the warm night and told me she counted on me to live my dreams for her.”

The room was silent as I continued, “Today, I celebrate not becoming a federal judge but my best friend Celia, who gave me this life.”

Her father rushed to me, hugging me tightly, and the emptiness within me began to fade. Looking over his shoulder, my eyes widened as a wispy disembodied hand appeared before me, and I reached out. For a fleeting moment, icy fingers intertwined with mine. My heart flooded with warmth, Celia was with me.

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This ‘interview’ was written in response to an exercise for Fiction Writers Boot Camp on Facebook. The exercise was to interpret the picture prompt in any way we chose. The purpose of the exercise was motivation. Fiction Writers Boot Camp was created to address the fundamentals of writing. https://www.facebook.com/groups/674413989356676/

(Photo provided by Fiction Writers Boot Camp. Can be found on Pinterest… “I Miss Mom” page.)