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5 Writing Lessons from a Vocal Coach

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By Boris Mann

Our guest today is Kathryn Craft [2]. Kathryn is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling (book trailer [3]) and The Far End of Happy, due May 2015. Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [4], specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing. Kathryn says, “I come to writing from a multi-arts perspective and appreciate the way that specifics from one creative endeavor can spark new awarenesses within another.”

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Connect with her on her website [2], on Twitter [5], and on Facebook [6].

5 Writing Lessons from a Vocal Coach

During the years I was first learning fiction craft, my son was studying to be a classical vocalist. Since I came to my writing through dance I was already attuned to a multi-arts perspective, so as I sat in on years of his lessons—no doubt looking to his teachers like I was hard at work on a novel—I scribbled notes that allowed me to see my writing anew. Here I share some of the comments overheard from his vocal coaches and my favorite writing takeaways.

  1. Singing is powered by the breath—by an inspiration—but don’t give it all away. Take a deep breath and try to hold it in as long as possible while still using it to power the voice. Singing is a little bit “yes,” a little bit “no.”

At the time I first heard this I was trying to wow the reader by cramming too many great ideas into the opening of my practice novel. This quote suggested I feed out my story with greater patience, keeping some in reserve. Your reader isn’t looking to understand your whole story in its opening pages. She only wants to gain orientation to the story world and its main character while discovering a story question on which to hang her curiosity. Many backstory scenes, reversals, and emotional turning points are better saved until your reader knows your protagonist better.

[pullquote] I come to writing from a multi-arts perspective and appreciate the way that specifics from one creative endeavor can spark new awarenesses within another.”[/pullquote]

Added fun: The musicality in this quote is a wonderful example of how to use sentence structure to support meaning. The quick breaths built into the first sentence, the deeper breath needed to get through the second, and the push and pull of the third all help underscore the coach’s point.

  1. When taking a breath, you are not really thinking about taking in air, but expanding the ribcage and dropping the diaphragm to create a vacuum that the air will fill.

This continues a useful metaphor about raising story questions. A question is like a vacuum that pulls the reader in. So rather than stuffing your story with events that may or may not add up to a cohesive whole, think about creating the questions that your story will fill. Keep raising questions, keep drawing the reader in. When all the questions are answered Full ArtofFalling cover [7]the story is over, just as when we are done breathing, our lives come to their end.

  1. You are trying too hard on the high notes. Maybe that’s because you haven’t yet found your true voice. You have a voice that’s all your own—when you get to the high notes, trust that it will be there.

Your reader lives for the turning points that create the emotional peaks of your story. But you don’t want her to have to sift through overwrought emotional language, flowery description, or long-winded exposition to find them. If you’ve let your reader in on your character’s motivations, desires, and goals as you powered up your story, and used plot to force change, trust that your reader is right there with you. Indeed she has anticipated this moment of character change. Once you have delivered her to it, allow her to watch the drama unfold without you screaming in her ear.

  1. Arching the soft palate is a technique that keeps the air from escaping through the nose while singing. But you don’t want to arch it so high that you paralyze the tongue, as when yawning.

I hear this as a caution about stilted prose. Reach too far toward lofty language and you too will paralyze your reader and put him right to sleep.

  1. People love baritones because of all the voices, it is the closest to the speaking voice.

My son is a baritone, so I thought the thrill of his voice was born of my love. But this is a powerful reminder of the way we delight in voice. After many virtual friends here met in person at the Writer UnBoxed UnConference last month, one of them wrote on the UnCon feed, “Now I can read all of your comments and hear them in your voice.” Our voices are precious. They are what we know of the sound of love. The closer to human voice you can come in your prose, the closer your reader will lean in to listen.

Use this post is an exercise in creative listening. Do these passages speak to you differently? If so—or if you’ve learned important insights about writing from other art forms—I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

About Kathryn Craft [8]

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [4] follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.