Wednesday, September 16, 2009

LISTEN, she said!

(Thursday -- Sarah apologizes to everyone for not responding to your posts, but an electrical storm fried her modem yesterday and has caused her no end of headaches. She promises to respond as soon as she has the new modem installed -- Amanda)

Listen, she said. This is urgent. If there is one thing you must remember, when writing a book, it’s the voice. It can make the whole thing hang together or not. The best story with an hesitant, meandering voice – a voice afraid of itself – will come across unremarkable. The oldest, most hackneyed story, blared forth in a strong voice, will make people sit up and pay attention. Lots of attention.
So, what’s the difference? Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve covered this before. But it’s my current obsession.
I confess I’d never even thought of voice as something one must have. You have to understand, I grew up reading... everything. We didn’t have a tv till I was eight, and then the tv we had had about four hours unremarkable daily programming. I used to try to catch the noon program, which was often Merry Melodies. And on Saturdays there were Westerns. But the rest of the time, really – dance competition, singing program, news, boring lecture – the books were far more attractive.
You didn’t need much of a hook to grab me. Not putting me off was enough. I read fiction. Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy and, in despair, my cousin Natalia’s "blue collection" (not what you think, dears. Blue because the covers were blue) of truly trashy romance books. (I’m probably doing this line an injustice, but the plot that seemed to be most common was girl meets matador, girl falls in love with matador. He falls in love with her. Intrigues or whatever intervene. She realizes he loves her and JUST before they reconcile, he dies. She mourns him forever. Happy ending Portuguese style.) If truly, truly out of other stuff, I read school books. Mine, my brothers’, my cousins’, my parents’ from when they were younger. For instance, I first fell in love with history reading my mother’s old school book. And if all else failed, I read want adds. Truly, no voice needed. Being on paper and printed was enough.
Then I grew up, got married, had kids. My time became very limited. I don’t remember when I began to realize about half the books I started ended up somewhere, face down, forgotten, not missed. The books needed to have something special to hold me.
I still didn’t think of it as voice. And sometimes it wasn’t. It’s very easy, for instance, for mysteries to lose me when the plot makes no sense.
As a writer, my first fear was language. This is because English is my third language. I spent my first ten years of writing in fear that all the editors were laughing at my wish to be published in English. When I let go of that – thanks to Dean Wesley Smith who told me I had worked the language enough, pick something else. Only more politely – I turned to plot, because I knew I was weak there. Characters – those seem to come naturally and without much thought. I worked plot like crazy. And pacing. Because in addition to odd ideas of "happy endings" Portuguese story-telling rhythms are naturally slower. I didn’t want to tell Portuguese stories. It’s not what I read.
It wasn’t until Constellation a few years ago, when I was listening to Dave Weber that I realized the importance of voice. Dave pointed out you can make all sorts of mistakes, provided you have a strong and confident voice. I realized this was true. Look, for instance, at the opening of most Heinleins. He tells the story so confidently, you never doubt he SAW it, and it is happening or happened. Which is the first part of giving a d*mn about it, of course. And a lot of the people I mentor are GOOD writers. But their voice hesitates, meanders. They don’t speak from authority. They let you see that they’re lying.
Since then I have been very conscious of voice. To an extent, I always was, in that until I HEAR the story in my head I can’t write it. But now I also get tied up in knots. "Is this a good voice? A voice of authority?"
The truth is I don’t know. Sometimes you can feel it, like an almost electrical charge. Most of the time you don’t know till someone else reads it. Or till you come back months later. Which is not always possible.
I bought a book on voice, but it is lame. The author’s idea seems to be that if you eliminate all conjunction, all buts and ands, you have voice. I defy anyone to find fault in authors with a more flowery/convoluted use of language, including Bradbury and on occasion Pterry. No, they have voice. This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
So, am I chasing a chimera? Is there such a thing as voice? And if there is, is it worth pursuing through the labyrinths of story telling? Or am I like those whom the (storytelling) gods love?

And in case you all have forgotten, Dave is still telling a great story over at:


C Kelsey said...

Voice is, in my opinion, *the* most important factor on whether I like an author not. They can be as technically competent as you please, with the universes greatest plots. But if they don't have a voice that provides the energy and ability to see what it is the author wants you to see, in a fun and engaging way, then they're not readable.

I'm not sure about this but, perhaps voice is another word for an author's "style"? That is, how the words are strung together, typical phrases that say "this is XXX author who I like!" Voice/style is that thing you expect to get from an author you read regularly.

Dave Freer said...

I often have readers - who know me - telling me "I could hear you when I read it." Which is kinda worrying as I don't have a great reading voice and i don't want to sound too samey... ;-) heh. What I think they're 'hearing' are the 'attitude' of the writer. I've yet to meet in flesh a writer whose work I liked the voice of that I didn't get on with and, scarier 'know'. BUT I think this might be a writer thing or a subset of readers because I have met the opposite too. People whose voice sets my teeth on edge... and I've met one without realising who it was... and I disliked him and distrusted him almost from 4 words in. Yet he sells.

This is one of the reasons i worry about depression - the midlist writer's constant foe - and its effect on writing.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, I was like you. I read everything as a child. When my mother bought my school text books in January, I read them all before school started. Because I couldn't help it.

'Voice' is fascinating. Like Dave, I've met other writers, spent time with them at conventions, then bought their books and I could hear the writer's 'voice' in my head.

It is so hard to define. It's like the the editor who says, 'I don't know how to describe what I want, but I'll know when I see it.'

Kate said...

Voice is one of those damn near impossible to define things. You know it when you see it, you can feel it wherever it is - but it shines through even when you're working in completely different styles.

I haven't found any good advice on developing voice except possibly "write a lot. After about a million words it will develop by itself. Once that happens all you have to do is relax and let it happen."

Chris McMahon said...

Voice is not something I usually consider consciously, yet I think it is a crucial thing for me. My reaction to a story on that level is often instinctive.

I tend to be an aural writer - the rhythm and voice have to be right.

I'd like to echo Dave's comments on state of mind. I had not consciously made the connection, but keeping positive, excited and egaged with the story is tremendously important. If you feel like you are crawling your way out of pit - your writing sounds like it too.