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On Being a Banshee

Everyone has at least one strange thing that they do when they’re at home by themselves. My thing is that I sing. Endlessly.

I want to say that I sing beautifully, but the truth is that mostly my singing is not in the least bit beautiful. To sing, to really sing, you have to be willing to sing loudly and wildly. And sometimes your voice crashes and you get this sound like you have a hoarse banshee loose in your throat. The cats look at you oddly. The neighbour upstairs suddenly slams a door, and you have a feeling it might have been that thing you just did, but you’re not sure.

I am probably the worst person to give this advice because my singing is so hit and miss, but basically the trick is to fly at the note with full force. That’s what a singer on idol does, when they’re belting and their voice seems ten times bigger than they are. They don’t flinch. Because that freezes everything up; it makes the vocal crash go from possible to inevitable. They pretend they’re not scared, they take their breath in the right place, and slide or fly into that note, depending on what works best. Or they do it absentmindedly, they tell themselves it doesn’t really matter what their voice does right now. And in giving it that freedom, it does exactly what they need it to do. It hits; it holds. Sometimes it opens.

I remember this day a few years ago when I was singing along with an old tape absentmindedly, without really thinking about singing at all. As usual my voice sounded thin and I’d taken in too much air that couldn’t go anywhere. Then suddenly the extra air wasn’t in my way anymore, instead it was flooding the notes. And I could hear this voice I’d never heard before, breathy but also deep and powerful. And it was coming from me. I want to say that this was a miracle moment and I’ve always sung wonderfully with this amazing deep full voice ever since, but that would be a huge lie. Sure, sometimes I do. But quite often I sing appallingly. Ask my neighbours.

Uncovering your singing voice isn’t all that different to uncovering your writing voice. Except that writing is actually kinder than singing. If you fly at a note in writing and miss, no one has to know about it but you.

But it is scary to have a voice, one that is yours and not someone else’s. Your head produces a sentence, and then the doubts start popping up. They often wear the faces of loved ones and some English teacher you once had and that rockstar literary agent you’ve been daydreaming about. You think, oh god. My best friend would hate this. I just compared a character to a vegetable, for goodness’ sake. My mother would be horrified at this description of that boy’s body. I am not meant to know what boys’ bodies actually look like. Rockstar Literary Agent would read this paragraph and laugh. And then Rockstar Literary Agent would show it to colleagues, and it will become one of those office jokes that never die.

So you start thinking, right. I’ll tone that down. I won’t let myself write that piece of description, I’ll use the safest words possible, I’ll avoid explaining why his smell was sexy. Because whatever I write, I have to own up to it. Even when other people like it. It’s safer to sing quietly, right? That way no one will hear you if you mess up.

Yes. But then no one will hear you at all.

I’m not saying that all the risky sentences should be left in; far from it. Often you have to admit something is straining too hard, or is way out of tune. But that’s a judgement best made when editing. In the meantime, it’s better to take the risk. Because if you don’t risk being bad, you’ll never know how good you can be either.

There’s a tricky balance. If you try too hard, you can strain your throat, or write sentences full of lumpy misshapen words attempting to be grand. You have to fool your brain into thinking you are not actually trying to write well, or sing well. You just happen to be writing. And it will come out as it comes out. And for a while, it ends up sounding awful, or weak, or overblown. You know that when you reach the editing stage, things will become brutal and violent. You can hear your English teacher asking, in a polite but slightly nervous voice, exactly what you’re trying to do, in the same way that you ask a kid about to test their homemade hang glider by jumping off the roof.

But then, by accident, something good happens, so good that it feels like you’ve invented a new way to fly. It is ten times bigger than you are, and it hits the notes exactly so well it is like hearing them for the first time all over again.

And that is how you find your voice.

Picture by renjith krishnan at 
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. I love, love, love this analogy! Describing how to develop a writing voice is almost as tricky as developign it. I just hope mine *is* better than my singing voice, otherwise, I need to find another line of work.:)


  2. I love your lyrical posts, Leila.

    and I totally didn't even mean for that to be a pun.

  3. yay this post is awesome :)
    voice is hard, but you're right! You just have to go for it.

  4. So many people try to post about voice in writing. I'm pretty sure this is the best one I've ever read. So lovely, Leila.

  5. Voice is so, so important in writing. If it doesn't come across, the reader losses interest. You are so right about the need to nail voice in your MS. Nice post

  6. Thanks for this awesome post. That really is a great analogy (especially because it reminds me of my former days singing in choirs)

  7. This is a great analogy, especially since I love to sing! Great reminder to not be afraid to belt a story out :)

  8. I'm an analogies person, so I love this!

  9. Great post! Sort of have this problem right now. Lifted my spirits. Thanks!


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Item Reviewed: On Being a Banshee Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin