Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

First of all I want to apologize about my repeated absences from this blog. After the horrible feather allergies at Opus, I seem to have been destabilized enough to catch anything that came by and – obligingly – my younger son brought home a horrible bug. In a sort of poetic justice, he got walking pneumonia out of it, while I just got very ill and unable to string two words together, which has me even later on my late deadlines.

Now the kid is better and I’m just getting back into working shape and it’s time to resume my ramble on voice.

If we all remember – I barely do :) – when last we saw our heros, we were discussing – or at least I hope we were – how good voice can cover a multitude of sins. A convincing voice will make you believe the character exists and thereby glide all sorts of inconveniently awkward world building behind its all-pervasive authority. A really good voice is the sort of thing that if you say "The sky is green and the moon made of cheese" the reader will believe it, even if they’re looking out the window and seeing it otherwise.

So how do you acquire this mysterious elixir of "a good voice."

Well... easier said than done. For one, if you’re a normal writer – yes, unlike me, but even I have this when I’m not writing as someone completely different – you can’t hear your own best voice. You’ll be writing, and it’s easy – this is one of the clues you’re doing it right, actually. You’re not fighting it – and it’s flowing, but you keep thinking "Heavens, this is blah. There’s no art to it." Then you give it to your beta readers and they go "Oh, wow. It sang. It danced. It did dishes." This usually means you’ve hit your natural voice and that because it’s natural to you you can’t "perceive" it.

So what am I talking about on the "writing as someone completely different" above? Well, while my natural voice might sing, dance and do dishes, it has some issues. One of them is that it tends to be a little dry and over-intellectual. Look, it’s how I was brought up. My inner self is eighty years old and wears half-moon glasses. My other issue is that unless I’m writing far future or foreign my voice can seem "odd" to native speakers. Nothing bad, mind you, but enough to have someone put a book down.

Fortunately I’m not a normal writer – and you’re all warned, right now, that if you reach for the phone to call the men in white coats on this one, I shall be MOST seriously displeased – and seem to suffer from a form of self-induced multiple personality disorder. I’ve been heard to say that my books start with a character who wants his/her story told. This is true. What I don’t normally reveal is that this is no half-formed wraith, but a definite voice. Oh, not in my ears – at least not yet – but in my mind. It’s a voice with a personality and his/her own word choices and attitude. I will usually get one or two paragraphs, sometimes if I’m lucky a whole page. I have only once, so far, got three chapters and only once – differently – a whole book.

If anyone else is afflicted with this – I honestly don’t know if this is normal – the first rule is to trust that voice. Write down however much you’re given and trust it as you build the rest of the novel, then trust it as you resume writing. This is harder than it seems. I always have an almost unbearable temptation to go back and edit those "given" sentences and make them more grammatical or more whatever. This is always a mistake.

Also, when writing after that, it is important to try to keep the voice consistent with those first sentences. Weirdly, if the book is going well, after a while it’s not an effort.

So, what if the voice isn’t there? Well... I also experience this. Note above "most of my books" but not all of them start with the character and the voice. Sometimes I have a great idea. Or worse, an idea that sold, but the voice won’t come.

Again, my advice will sound at best silly and at worst useless, but it’s what I do – cold comfort though it is, I advise you to seek the voice. Try it out. Give it some time, then try it out again. Think the book, immerse yourself in it. Think of the character, the character’s situation, what the character wants. Then try again. My record is two hundred and some first pages, but the voice did eventually come. Sometimes – again at the risk of being silly – it helps if you use a different medium to write those first two pages. Like, take a notepad and pen and try it long hand. Something about the shift jugs your subconscious lose.

But above all remember the important thing about voice is confidence. Your confidence in the voice translates to the page which in turn translates into reader confidence in what you are saying. So work on it, but don’t over think it and don’t doubt it.

Curiously, for those three people who aren’t tired of hearing about my art-class experiences, this translates to art. My art teacher says confidence and a distinctive, self-consistent style will carry the day over accurate technique and careful execution.

So, go forth, be confident, and have the courage to trust your words. PARTICULARLY when you’re telling made up stories.


John Lambshead said...

Welcome back, Sarah

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I love your posts on Voice, Sarah.

Voice is so hared to define, but you manage to do this. A bit like saying there's the wind, you can see the trees moving!

Anonymous said...

"have the courage to trust your words. PARTICULARLY when you’re telling made up stories. "

If I was brave I'd get that tattooed on my chest. Or possibly the tinyurl on my wrist.

Seriously though, words to write by.