listening to the voices of a story

When I develop a story or piece of writing, I work backwards from the traditional advice. Mostly, I wait and listen. A new story has many layers of voices, and it's important for me to hear them all - and, as a synaesthete, experience them in several different ways - before I know it's a story I can effectively tell.

The voice of setting. This is often the first voice to call me into a story. Linden Cove was the impetus for Deep in the Far Away. The river valley encouraged me to write a story which became The Roots of Water. I have a current story asking for consideration which is centred in empty, quiet, sunlit wooden rooms. The voice of that setting is very strong, but I am still waiting to hear its heroine. 

The voice of characters. I find it easy enough to develop a relationship with potential male characters. For some reason (perhaps growing up with a younger brother) I have a tenderness for men's secret hearts, and that makes writing heroes enjoyable and interesting. But relating to a heroine is more difficult for me. Usually, her voice expresses itself through her body - how she stands, or some small activity from her daily life, or a gesture which reveals her spirit. With Isolda from The Sorcerer, it was the way she came along the road at the beginning of the story. With Emma from Deep in the Far Away, it was how she looked out her bedroom window.

The voice of mood. This voice can be difficult to negotiate with because my own mood usually changes throughout the writing of a story, so what begins as light-filled and quiet risks becoming quite weighty and shadowed.

The voice of theme. This matters more to me than plot - usually plot is just a whisper, luring me on, but theme suggests the heart of a story, and that's what I'm interested in at the start. I often try to make my first sentence reference this theme if I can.

All of these voices must come to harmony before I can settle into work with a story. Sometimes it's simple, sometimes it takes years. Complicating the process are the outside voices I must also take into account.

My voice. Am I ready for the mood of a particular story? Have I the strength or time to converse with a particular theme? Do I like the heroine who is offering her experience to me? If I don't listen to myself, but embark upon writing as if it's a manual task, rather than a relationship, then nothing good comes of it.

The voice of the audience. This is something I'm told ought not be an influence, but it's impossible for me to ignore it. What kinds of stories do people expect from me? What have I created with my previous work that needs to be fulfilled in future projects? For example, I have a story about investigators of mythic phenomena, but it's different from anything I've written before, and I have to wonder how my regular audience will feel about that.

When I look at this process, I do wonder how I ever get anything written. But when it comes together, everything is then very simple, and because I've created a relationship with the story I don't experience major blocks while writing. I guess that's one good thing about dealing with the blocks at the start. The main benefit though is that writing doesn't become a manual task but can be a relationship, a conversation, a coming together through harmony to create the story's vision in words.


  1. I love your stories, and I feel I'm learning a lot from listening to you, and then listen to my own story that wants to come through me. I like this way, of quietly seeing what will show up, and to follow a thread without fully knowing where it will lead. Thank you.

  2. you seem to have stories inside you that comes to you while I sort of get bits and pieces here and there, scattered thoughts that don't always fit into what I want to write.

    what's that tip that every writer seems to give - 'write and keep on writing'? - but that doesn't always work well. I agreed with you that sometimes you have to think more, plan more, before the actual writing.

    have a wonderful day.

    p.s., thanks for your encouraging comment on my last post. it was lovely to hear such sweet words.

  3. I love when you share about your writing process. This post is very helpful to me, and I think it will be to a lot of writers. I, too, experience story as a relationship with setting, theme, and characters arriving well before any sense of plot.

    The photos in this post are especially love to me--the light, the colors, and the subject matters call all kinds of stories into my heart.♥

  4. this was very interesting for me to read...i've never really found most writing advice very simpatico for me, all that "write x number of words in a given amount of time", or "write something (or some period of time) every day", things like that. they seem so...mechanical? that's not my style for anything. your way actually makes a great deal more sense to me.

  5. Some great advice in this post, Sarah. I find setting and characters come somewhat easily; plot is the real challenge for me. Though as you say, despite the apparent complexity of all the different strands, when a story is ready it comes together quite easily.

    I do believe that stories (and ideas, thoughts, dreams) are alive. Therefore they come only when they are ready, when we are ready. Listening is crucial, as is relationship. You've got it spot on.