What Pop Songs Teach Us about Voice

We’re going to play a game: Name that tune. Can you name the songs listed below? No cheating! I picked a variety of decades and artists. See if you can name them all.

  1. You may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one
  2. A singer in a smoky room / a smell of wine and cheap perfume
  3. Hanging out the passenger side /of his best friend’s ride / trying to holler at me
  4. Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth.
  5. We count our dollars on the train to the party.

What Pop Songs Can Teach Us about Writing Voice

That first song has a line which grabs your attention.

The second line sets the scene with sensory details.

The third comes from a song that defined a term for a generation. But it doesn’t tell us the [Urban] Dictionary definition straight out—it shows us through a scene.

The fourth song uses a handful of similes and other fresh imagery.

The fifth song characterizes the singer and her friends.

Together, these five songs show how important a unique voice is—and how popular a strong one can become.

How do you improve voice?

The opposite of strong voice is a generic, impersonal one. To create a strong voice, do the following.

  • Be relatable and understandable. (Don’t write in a way that the reader can’t follow. Don’t try to spell out dialect or accents phonetically.)
  • Use sensory detail that your character would notice.
  • Show what you mean using people or situations unique to your character’s experiences.
  • Use similes and metaphors. Revise cliches into fresh imagery.
  • Characterize through specific word choice.

Writing Exercise—Fifteen Blinks

Option One: Read this to find out what a Fifteen Blinker is. Choose five to ten specific words or images from one of the songs below and write a Fifteen Blinker using those words.

Option Two: Pick a song with memorable lyrics. Look up those lyrics. Rewrite the song by swapping out the words and imagery for those of another character’s point of view. Some ideas:

  • One of your characters
  • Romeo, the lovestruck Shakespearean teenager
  • A pothead (e.g. one of Cheech’s, Chong’s, or Seth Rogen’s portrayals)
  • A proper British lady trying desperately to impress her in-laws
  • A man who has been cryogenically frozen through several decades and just woke up
  • A seven-year-old who wishes to be a princess
  • A toddler

Want more writing exercises? See my tag. Want some critique partners to exchange work with? Join the community at StoryWorldCon. Want a writing workshop tailored to your work and your budget? Choose your course at StoryWorldCon. Subscribe to my blog for course dates!


Click on the links below to read the full lyrics.

  1. “Imagine,” John Lennon
  2. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
  3. “No Scrubs,” TLC
  4. “New Slang,” The Shins
  5. “Royals,” Lorde

I’ve been listening to The Shins for years, but I never actually paid attention to the lyrics in “New Slang” until today. As I referenced above, they’re full of great imagery:

  • Turn me back into the pet I was when we met.
  • I’d ‘a danced like the king of the eyesores
  • New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries.
  • Hope it’s right when you die, old and bony.
  • Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall

Every time “Royals” comes on the radio (which is very frequently), I am awed by the fantastic diction. This was written by a fifteen year old: 

  • I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
  • We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
  • And we’ll never be royals. / It don’t run in our blood, / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.

What song has your favorite lyrics? I remember in tenth grade English needing to bring a song in to share with the class. I brought Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe.”

Friday Reads: MS. MARVEL, Vol. 1: NO NORMAL

Regarding Graphic Novels

Read my introduction below, or skip ahead to the review.

I’m going to preface this with the disclaimer that I’ve always loved superheroes, but comics were not easily available to me as a child. I didn’t know anyone at school who was into comics, and on the rare occasion I was far enough away from my rural upbringing that I could get my hands on comics, I’d grab a single issue. I was often disappointed in the lack of variety, the women without agency treated more like scantily clad objects of desire or killing rather than heroes. I watched Batman and Spiderman cartoons and loved Supergirl.

Pre-internet, I grew up thinking that geek girls were an endangered species.

Now I have immediate access to comics thanks to the internet. I live in a city with comic book stores and a huge interlibrary loan system.

I’m a small-town girl late to the game, but I have every intention of catching up. And let me tell you, there’s never been a better time to get into comics, especially if you’re a woman or a child.

More female characters are being given agency—they are treated as individuals, not objects. More are fronting their own series. Women comic creators are generating a ton of amazing content online and in print.

Our library separates the adult graphic novels from the teen ones, and the teen ones from the children’s ones, a division I’m very thankful for as a mother.

Go to your library, browse the spines, judge them by their covers, and take a stack home. This week I picked up Saga vol 1 (Mature: contains very graphic sex in chapter/issue 4), A Boy & A Girl (pg-13 for brief nudity and language), This One Summer (pg-13 for language and sexual references), Ms. Marvel vol 1, Misfits of Avalon, and a stack of Star Wars ones for the Captain.

I’ll likely be reading and reviewing newer releases, ones that are either stand-alones or the first in a new series. This isn’t a comic or graphic novel review blog—it’s a blog about writing and editing—so I’ll be reviewing ones with a broad audience, ones that should be available at local libraries or bookstores.

But do comment below with your favorite graphic novels! It’s no secret I’m a fan of The Dreamer, but I won’t be reviewing it, since Vol. 3 is out in stores now.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal


This is a very mild origin story (think Peter Parker without Uncle Ben dying), so whether you’ll like it or not depends on how well you connect with Kamala.

Kamala Khan is the kind of superhero I craved as a preteen. She’s geeky and spunky and relatable. (Again, a lot like early Spider-Man.) I can see why some might consider her a Mary Sue character, but in #5, when she had her first “victory,” I was hooked. If the conflict and stakes don’t keep intensifying, then I’ll probably walk away, but for now, I’m so in.


If you have daughters that want to get into comics, I’d recommend Kamala for 8+

Writing Exercise

Pick up a copy of Ms. Marvel Volume 1 from a library or bookstore (you could read the whole thing just standing in between stacks). Then write a 15-blinker origin story.*

*It doesn’t have to be a superhero story. It could be about your origin as a writer.

And don’t forget to comment with your favorite graphic novels, comics, or webcomics below, if you’ve got some!


I received an ARC of The Baseball Player and the Walrus and am excited to share this picture book with all of you!

Image links to Amazon Smile. With Amazon Smile, every purchase helps the charity of your choice!

Short Version

A sweet, surprisingly deep*, story about balancing responsibilities with pursuing dreams. Children will empathize with the characters, and adults will enjoy the details and theme.

*This isn’t to say I’m surprised that any picture book would be deep, since most have a lesson or takeaway element (that, and the illustrations, are why I love picture books!)—I just expected this to be a fun, silly story, and I was pleasantly surprised that it was much more than that.


Alex Latimer’s illustrations are packed with amusing details that demand encore reads. My favorite are the suitcases overflowing with bills and fish, and the trophies scattered haphazardly on the bedroom floor.


Ben Loory has written a crafty tale about the unfortunate choice between work and passion. While the recommended age for this book is 5-8 year olds, I (mother, writer, artist) read it to my four-year-old son. He enjoyed it and was emotionally attached to both the baseball player and the walrus. I don’t want to give spoilers, but when I asked him what he didn’t like and what he liked about the book, his answers were dependent on the emotional state of the characters, rather than, like, a dragon or explosion or something “cool.” I can’t recall him empathizing with a picture book character before now, so that’s something I’m really pleased about. That’s why I advocate all people read—reading makes us empathetic humans. Every online troll should read picture books with empathetic characters. Maybe they’d learn something.

Oh, the preschooler also said he liked the walrus’ tusks. So there’s that.

Recommended for

Besides trolls who need a lesson, I’d recommend this book to elementary teachers during read-aloud time, since some of the words might be difficult for early readers. But I’d also recommend it to high school seniors and adults. The subtext and some of the humor will be appreciated by adults who live the dilemma posed in the book, asking themselves whether it’s more important to have “lots and lots and lots of money” and a job they succeed at, like the baseball player, or to invest time and energy into something more fulfilling.

On our first read through, the theme spoke to me as a mom trying to decide between working full time and staying at home. But on the second read, it spoke more to me as a creative, one who is constantly deciding between good paying jobs and really exciting ones.

Have you ever heard the quote “You can never step into the same book twice, because you are different each time you read it”? It’s attributed to John Barton. I think it only applies to books with relatable, human experiences. With theme and subtext.

It applies to this book.

Buy Links

Benefit a local, independent bookstore by preordering via IndieBound.

Benefit a charity by pre-ordering online via Amazon Smile.

The Baseball Player and the Walrus will be available for purchase on February 24, 2015.

Writing Exercise

Write a 15-blinker about a choice between passion and responsibility.

The Never-Ending Source for Writing Prompts


Ready for a never-ending, always refreshing writing prompt just waiting to inspire you?

It’s called Endless Interestingness, and it’s an endless, multidirectional stream of Flickr’s most interesting photos.

Endless Interestingness


Move your mouse to scroll, and click on a photo to enlarge. You can click on one that looks inspiring, or you can challenge yourself by closing your eyes, moving your pointer about in a haphazard, childlike fashion, and clicking.

Then write a 15-Blinker on it—About 300–800 words for prose, or fewer than 30 lines for poetry.