I was thrilled to listen to Wayson Choy at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in August. I first read his novel, The Jade Peony, after it was recommended by my English and Creative Writing teacher, Debbie Bouska. I loved his vivid and powerful portrayal of second-generation immigrants’ struggle with identity, as well as his lyrical writing style and use of multiple narrators.
Wayson gave a very moving speech on his writing and personal experiences–from growing up in a community where stories were kept secret to surviving a close encounter with death. Despite the serious discussion, he showed a witty sense of humor that engaged and entertained the audience.
Since I admired his work, I approached him for advice on the writing process, especially how to develop a distinct Writing Voice. I’ve been reflecting on voice because I’ve received comments that my characters lack an original voice, which is crucial to an engaging story and something many aspiring writers struggle with.
Despite his busy schedule, Wayson met me and gave me amazing tips:
1) Overwrite and Rewrite
He sees writing as a long process; he spends 6 drafts discovering materials, 6 drafts doing research and rewriting, and another 6 drafts editing.
He compared this process to Michelangelo’s approach to crafting the statue of David: “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”
When you write, you need to write a lot before you can go beyond cliches, pick out original ideas, and find the best words.
2) Take Risks
Wayson explained to me that a main reason behind the lack of a strong voice is not taking enough risks. You don’t have to show your writing to anyone if you don’t have to, so just write whatever you want, even if you worry your mother or society might not approve. If you take risks, try different things, and tell the truth, you’ll find what works best for you.
3) Use Your Imagination
A lot of young writers struggle because of lack of experience. You may not be able to write from the perspective of someone from a different age, background, or belief than you. However, Wayson doesn’t believe in writing only what you know; you can research about people and read works with diverse voices. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to use your imagination.
Just as Picasso once said, “art is a lie that reveals the truth”. As a fiction writer, you’re trying to create literature that reflects truth and the human experience, not an exact replica of reality and facts.
4) Read, Copy, and Imitate
An excellent way to improve writing is to read like a writer. Read different styles of poetry. Look at the best passages of your favorite fiction writers and copy them out. You can examine things like diction, style, and punctuation choices, just as artists in older days used a magnifying glass to examine paintings or a filmmaker might analyze Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.
To take this a step further, write a piece that uses the same scene elements (character/event/setting/etc) as the passage, but change one thing about the narrator, such as personality or age. You can compare your writing with the original to see how the change affects the voice. You also get to experiment with different scenarios and give them your own spin.
Wayson’s insightful advice is designed to help improve writing in small yet significant steps and an amazing example of deliberate practice. I’m also fascinated by his comparison of writing to sculpture, art, and film. I hope to put his suggestions to practice in Camp Nanowrimo and beyond.
Any thoughts on Wayson Choy’s advice? Tips on developing a distinct writing voice?
If you enjoyed this post, please share it and leave a comment so I can ask more writers for advice in the future 🙂