Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why Not GIVE All of Me?


When #1 son was learning to sing, we had the hardest time getting him to “let out his full voice.”
This was not helped by the fact that #1 son has a very powerful voice – like my parents who used to sing at local celebrations in a pre-microphone age – and that his... um “very nice” music teacher taught him to suppress it so he wouldn’t overpower the other students in the choir.

When doing solos, the kid was still suppressing. Throttling back. Closing the spigot somewhat. Because the alternative was too scary. Mind you, he still sang very nicely when holding back. It was pleasant, not bad to listen to, and we never felt the need to tell him to shut up when he sang around the house. But on the few occasions (for various reasons he no longer pursues music) we convinced him to let out the full power of his voice, you got a voice and a song of operatic dimensions. It filled the house and probably the block, not just with volume but with richness and it made you vibrate with the emotion in it.

We often talk about voice in writing, though of course, it’s in a more metaphorical sense. Or is it? I’ve been in enough writers groups that I can tell you that most writers have as much of a natural voice range – expressed or not – as most singers: a voice range that can be forced but won’t sound good if you go out of your “natural range.”

How could it be otherwise? The physical limits to your voice are like the physical limits to your writing. One involves vocal cords and hearing apparatus (the reason younger son and I ARE told to shut up if we start singing,) and, to an extent, personality which dictates what you’ve listened to and practiced, which in turn affects your vocal cords and lungs and all that. The other involves brain pathways, the way the individual experiences the world (a neurological complex akin to hearing, if far more complex), and personality, which affects what you chose to read and learn and practice writing, which in turn affects your brain pathways and the way you experience the world.

This doesn’t mean you don’t grow or change. Like #1 son changed in his singing through his choir experience (no, we won’t go there) writers learn what they can’t write or can, and this expands their tool box, their ability to use certain ways to turn a scene. But it means you have a certain range. One of my friends seems prone to write mostly dark – psychological and/or physically dark – she does it very well, NATURALLY, even if she holds back more than she should. Another friends writes naturally light comedy, hitting all the right notes. She does it very well naturally. If you tell one to write what the other does, you can have some success to a point (and there’s a lot to be said for broadening your palette and expanding your toolbox, if only to learn how far you can go.) But if either of them tries to write the extreme of the other, you get a falsetto or a flat drone. It is simply NOT in them to FEEL or express that range. The voice doesn’t reach.

Now I’m not saying this to give you an excuse. That is something you should rid yourself of at the very outset. No excuses. If you’re unpublished – or even if you’re not! – at some point every writer thinks there are things they can’t write and these things are usually stupid. For instance, for years on end, I thought I couldn’t write women characters, until a workshop exercise forced me to. That type of thing is silly. I hope you understand I’m talking about a “higher level” of ability or inability. To illustrate: imagine Laurel Hamilton or Jane Evanovich attempting to write Pratchett. Look at ALL the people who have tried to imitate either Pratchett or Heinlein or Ray Bradbury. We had a saying that “The literary road is littered with the corpses of people who tried–”

This is not a judgement of quality, btw. It’s a judgement of range. I read and enjoy at least some of both Hamilton and Evanovich. But both their ranges are markedly shorter in echoes and tones and palette than Pratchett’s. This is not a criticism. If the man were an opera singer, he’d be one of those that go down in legend, able to hit the bright high notes and the deep, dark ones perfectly, often in the same phrase. Most people who try to imitate Heinlein, likewise, can hit one or two things right – the action, or the future history, or the “attitude” or (for later Heinlein) the sex (I’ve yet to see one who could even attempt to hit the way in which Heinlein’s characters are profoundly human) – but I’ve yet to find one who can hit ALL the notes.

As for Bradbury – listen. I’ve met a lot a people who dismiss him as one of those “literary” sf and fantasy writers. This is wrong. I don’t know which came first, though I think he did and the others are imitators. At least I hope so. But at least he managed something that the others aren’t but a shadow of – the man can write a plotless story that captures a fragment that is only incidentally “future” or “fantasy” and stir the reader’s deepest emotions. His range is not wide. In fact, I’d say it is rather limited. But what he does, he does extraordinarily. It’s like someone who sings in a range that very few people can achieve without sounding contrived, but he does it beautifully and hits all the right notes.

So, it’s not the matter of your range that determines quality. It’s whether you’re singing out with your full voice, or merely obediently trying to hit the notes the way the choir teacher (editor, publisher, agent or more commonly your own perception of the market) tells you to. Whether you’re singing as yourself or a pale imitation. Whether you’re filling your chest and letting it all come out, or holding back.

Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. Though likely you don’t.

There is some level of holding back we all do. There is some level of holding back inherent in writing. I often feel as though writing is trying to paint on canvas using ONLY fog. Or like pinning a beautiful butterfly to your collection without killing or hurting it.

You are aware of that level. Everyone who’s ever finished a novel is. It’s a compromise with ourselves. “There’s no way I can show her full personality without making the book incomprehensible. She’s the villain. I’ll show her being nasty.” My pathway from unpublished to published followed that. I started getting published when I concentrated on ‘giving the reader the right signals.’ Likely most of you have figured that out. And know you’re holding back that much. And go “um. But if I let that out...”

That is not what I’m talking about. That is the equivalent of your learning to sing to the music, instead of doing what kids do and just belting out the words at the top of your lungs, not caring if there is a melody behind. Yeah, it’s discipline and in that sense “holding back.” But it’s not the holding back of anything that hurts your performance. It’s more learning to fit the form.

But in the process of learning that, you learn to sing with the choir, too. You learn to hold back, because otherwise you’ll stand out too much and the choir teacher – editor/publisher/market – will never buy/like/accept it. And you’re not even aware of those barriers. Well... most of you aren’t. I wasn’t. For the last ten years, I have been desperately trying to reach for my full voice, knowing I was falling short, but not knowing where or why.

Part of this is because a lot of the barriers were erected before you even learned to form letters. Look, like a kid with a strong voice – oy, don’t I know this – you get told some things you don’t do. “Use your indoor voice.” Or in my – and apparently Synova’s – case “grown ups don’t cry.” Or “don’t make a fuss.” Or “this is not something people show or talk about.” And by the time you reach your writing maturity you are consciously avoiding what you think are socially unacceptable actions.

I think in my case it was reinforced by being of the generation that came after the boomers. When you watch the younger adults in your life “letting it all hang out” – when you have to read a short story in literature class where the whole point seems to be that the character has diarrhea, because this was never written about in the past, so the author must (pardon the image) rub the reader’s face in it – your tendency is to go the other way. Preferably go the other way very fast. And stay there. Because you realize, after being forced to read a few of these things that this is not art but a toddler’s “I can get away with this” self satisfaction.

So, if you think I’m telling you to let it all hang out, I’m not. That’s no more art than keeping it all in. Primal screams aren’t songs. Art is the way we convey emotion but to be art it must be conveyed in a controlled/purposeful way. Preferably a way that intensifies it and makes it more real than reality to the reader.

So, what in heck am I telling you to do? Ah, I’m telling you to do something much more difficult. I’m telling you to let your full voice out in a professional way. Whatever your voice is, let it shine through. Don’t worry about trying to be dark when you’re naturally light. Don’t worry about trying to be serious when you’re naturally funny. Try the “other side” every once in a while, but don’t FORCE yourself.

Mostly, though, stop “dampening” the notes of your song. Look, you know as well as I do what I mean. How many times do you have a character cry? This is one of my favorite examples, because even though most of us were trained not to make a fuss, we often have the character cry rather than describe/feel/express his emotions. Why? Because it feels “real” but it isn’t. It certainly isn’t more real than real. Nina Kiriki Hoffman, in a workshop, said that if the character cries, the reader doesn’t need to. More importantly, if the character cries, the writer doesn’t need to. So we do this instead of crying. “She cried” or even “Tears dropped down her face.” is a cop-out. An escape hatch, when the writer feels uncomfortable. If you refuse to write that and instead scratch the surface and write what’s going on in the character’s head that makes him/her want to cry, the scene will be much more powerful. For those of you who’ve read the last fifteen pages or so of Draw One In The Dark, I was in danger of shorting my keyboard with tears. And Kyrie doesn’t even realize she’s in pain.

That was the beginning of my ripping off the thin crust of ice over my writing voice. I did more/more intensely of it in Darkship Thieves, partly because the character forced it on me. She is so locked in herself that you need extreme events to rip it out. A friend recently told me the scene where Kit makes the choice of surrendering to Earth is one of the grimmest he ever read, and he’s a hard core horror addict. The reception of that book has told me that my full voice might not be there, yet, but it’s starting to shine through. Same with the Daring Finds mysteries. There the full voice is “full on zany.” In the second book – French Polished Murder – the editor tried to get me to take out the part where one of the characters writes the rats’ names on the rats with laundry marker. It felt to her like a bridge too far. But I’ve gotten more fan mail about that passage than any other. Why? Well, it’s “full voice zaniness.” It stands out from the choir.

And then there’s the just-completed Sword and Blood, which has sexual overtones. These make me uncomfortable, not the least because the sex involved is to put it mildly “odd” and I’m afraid people will think it’s my particular kink. (It’s not.) I realized I was stopping fully before any chapter where sex needed to be and then ‘got around it’ by TALKING about sexual feelings. Because that was rationalizing it, and I’m more comfortable with rationality. But the character is not rational about this. In fact, that’s a great part of his challenge. So I had to pull my damper out of it and go in full voice.

Is this scary? Oh, heck yeah. It’s terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous about my agent reading anything of mine as I am about Sword And Blood. The first time you try to let a part of your voice full out, it’s easy to lapse into primal scream. And you won’t know at first which one you’ve done – scream or sing. You’re just not used to it.

So, how do you know if you’re singing full voice? How do you avoid dampening it? My guess is if you allow yourself to think/feel about your work, you’ll know full well where you’re falling short. You’ll know where you got squirmy and went “but I don’t write that” or “But what will people think” even though you know full well it’s needed for the cohesion of the novel. One good way to think about it, is that you need to give us the low notes as well as the high.

One way to break through it, for me, is to read stuff I normally don’t read, stuff that goes where I normally don’t go. Erotica, for instance. Or some incredibly violent, graphic account of violence and murder. Or the biography of someone who went through unimaginable trauma. Or a violent thriller. That teaches me to listen to those notes. And learn to put them in.

Which ways have you found? What would you like to try? What do you think would work? Or do you think I’m completely off my rocker?

30 comments:

matapam said...

I'm shy, don't do public. I had a story I wanted to write, but like your Sword and Blood, it made me uneasy, and more to the point, it wasn't something I wanted my Mother to read. But it was in the way.

So I decided no one would ever read it.

It just poured out. Even the nasty parts. I hadn't realized my discomfort with people had gone so far. It change a lot about the more mainstream stuff I wrote.

C Kelsey said...

My natural voice seems to skew toward the silly/ridiculous side of things. I once attempted to write a horror story (something about my always writing lighter, humorous stuff has me wanting to do something dark). The horror story turned into a light hearted experiment at writing emotion/romance. That definitely left me with a "what the heck?" feeling. Even weirder, it's probably the best thing I've written to date.

Then there was the time I wanted to take some of my charcters from my current works and place them in a non-cannon environment to see what would happen. The result? Flesh eating, fire breathing, rainbow and butterfly farting, unicorns.

I need to get through what I'm currently writing, and then I'm going to take a crack at the horror thing again.

matapam said...

Chris, you sound like me. "D***it all. I said rape, not romp! Can't you characters read the outline?"

4th guy said...

An excellent post, long but worth the read.

Ellyll said...

With me, it's the emotional stuff. The real pain or love. I was raised to be stiff-upper-lip, no histrionics, please, and above all, suck it up and deal.

And now a common critique of my writing is that I separate my characters from their feelings, or I don't convey their emotions very well. Sigh. It's something I'm working very hard on. One day, I'll cry at my keyboard, and then I'll know I got it right. ;)

Rowan Larke said...

I love you.

I came to the post to be supportive, because er, well I'm a nice person (or something.) But the timing of it is perfect for me, because today I'm writing my list of "things I've sublimated that I should or should not write"...because they're strangling my voice.

Thanks, you.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,
I think I told you I never thought of myself as shy. Not when it came to writing. And then Isold my first story. When my friend Charles called to tell me the magazine was downtown in the kiosk, my immediate reaction was "buy all of them. What if someone I know buys them?" Needless to say I'm over it. Also, and very fortunately, my mom doesn't read in English .

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

Well... maybe your natural voice is humor. I recommend you read some Pratchett and a bunch of other comic authors, including Tom Holt (Expecting Someone Taller; Flying Dutch.)
Then sit down and write down all the humorous situations you enjoyed that you wouldn't have written because "it's too silly."
Then reconsider. Trying horror is fine, but it might never be your thing. As long as you're aware of that, you'll be fine.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,
Well, the question is, are you avoiding the rape for fear of what you might find out about yourself? Or because it honestly holds no interest whatsoever to you? And if it holds no interest, why did you put it in the outline?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

4th Guy,

Sorry, I do tend to run long. I'm afraid of being misinterpreted, you see!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowan,

Nice to see your phosphors around here!
The declaration of love is a little unexpected but not, of course, a surprise, since EVERYONE loves me and... oh, wait. Rather obnoxious character has hold of my mind just now. Let me lock her in back room.

There. Done.

The list is not a bad idea, but consider it a little differently. Go through your bookcases, physically, if you have the physical book. Take out your ten favorite books. Then go through each of them and list the scenes in them that would have made you squirm uncomfortably if you'd written them. The "what would my mom think" but also the "I'm not the kind of person who--" Or even the "What would my agent/editor/neighbor/friend think of me if I wrote this?" both in terms of sex scenes, in terms of emotion and in terms of "how silly." Then imagine the books WITHOUT those scenes. Kind of wet firecrackers, right? Now draw the obvious lessons. :)

Actually, now I think about it, that's not a bad exercise for any of us to determine how far we've been damping ourselves down. If these are scenes we enjoy, something in them speaks to us. So they might be within our range. Normally we flinch away from stories not in our range.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ellyl,
Do me a favor. Do the following exercise:
Take a character you've had for a long time. Kill him. No, no, don't yell, it's just for the exercise. You can reassure him/her afterwards that it was all a dream. But for the purpose of this exercise I want you to tell yourself it's real. Kill this person. Then go into the head of his/her nearest and dearest as he/she copes with the death.

I don't want you to make this static, though, so make this person have to cope with the PRACTICAL implications of the death -- whatever falls to their lot -- whether it is (depending on who nearest and dearest might be) funerals to arrange, relatives to inform, bank accounts to deal with, clothes to pack off, room to clean or just reservations to cancel, stuff that was borrowed/shared and will never be returned. WHATEVER is practical and real. Have the survivor deal with this. Have thoughts of what life will be like now, and the hole this person leaves. Concentrate on minute by minute events. Make this person try very hard not to show emotion and to "act perfectly reasonably." Do NOT use "crying" "mourning" etc. Just tell us the thoughts going through this person's head, mixed with the practical ones and with recollections of the good times. (BRIEF recollections. Sentence, two.) Do this for me and report back on the results!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Interesting post, Sarah.

I didn't get 'voice' until I met a writer at the World con in 1999. I spent the con hanging out with her.

Then I bought her book and started reading it. WOW. I could hear her 'voice' clear as day.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yes, Rowena, but this about more than voice. There is a certain "cadence" to voice, and some people write just like they speak. Such as my younger son. :) But this is more about a metaphorical "voice" that includes your choice of topic and how completely you immerse yourself in it.

Kate said...

Speaking as the friend Sarah says goes naturally to the dark... Um. Yeah. I stifle that because it doesn't scare me.

I genuinely don't know when I'm going too far for other people's "ick" and "ew" buttons, so I pull back at where I think they are. Of course, I don't always get that right. And I still scare people.

C Kelsey said...

This is me not confessing that some of the things that I have done to my characters have brought me to tears at night... Of course, I subscribe to the Bernard Cornwell philosophy of character development at times. Set the characters up as happy and confident, and then bash the heck out of them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

Er... yeah, well, I have that problem too. And with Sword and Blood -- which, Pam, incidentally, also POURED out as soon as I allowed it to -- I guessed and was terrified it was either wet or too dark. Agent seems to like, though...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,
I don't bash them. I build a fire behind them and force them to crawl through ground glass...

C Kelsey said...

Sarah, heh. I literally hit one of them with a car. Had one of them get smashed by and IED, and had his girl friend on the brink of dying from hodgkins lymphoma. Then I made it all better... just to have all hell break loose. Does my voice skew towards humor? Yes. Can I be a mean jerk to my characters in the mean time? Oh, my yes.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. Great post.

I like the singing analogy. Just like your voice becomes rusty and you lose range if you don't sing, same with writing - you need to keep the words flowing - and write up and down the range.

Brendan said...

I always thought as long as you know what your points of constraint are you can work at subverting and overcoming them. Of course you may not choose to do so as you suggested in your reaction to the post boomer literature crowd.(see my thoughts on "modern lit" here: http://brendanpodger.livejournal.com/23472.html ) Some things may simply be a bridge too far but as long as you recognise why that is you my be able to examine it and find points of value in the feces.

matapam said...

Sarah, no, in this case it wasn't my introversion. It was my subconscious recognizing that the set up was more suited to a raunchy farce than something dark. Either the whole scene and the build up to it, has to go, or I'm going to have to admit that the story just isn't going to get that dark.

behindpyramids said...

So question--how can you tell the difference between when you are suppressing your voice and when you are doing something that is out of range?

I'm just getting started as a writer and sometimes these lines blur for me!

Synova said...

There was one thing that had me outright sobbing as I wrote and this made me think of it. So I went to look. I thought I'd left it half done but I'd finished it. I think I remember it being half done because I felt as if I'd rushed the end. The last date on it was January 2008. Wow. In any case, reading it "fresh" I'm not sure if I rushed it or not. It's seems okay. I'm pretty darn insecure about the "voice" which isn't my usual one. I tried to do my polishing and other tweaks without changing it, though, because then it would be something else.

And I still bawl at the end, for better or worse.

So... if I could make a request for a future post from someone with advice on marketing a 3.5K fantasy that would be just awesome.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Brendan,

I can see the point of having characters who need to use the bathroom. It can be a plot point. You missed the murder, because you were in the bathroom. But just reading about it... no.

My "favorite" story in college was the one designed to be plotless and uh... characterless. It was a novel set in a car. There was occasional dialogue. the car was parked. NOTHING happened. they said it was a great triumph.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ah. Matapam. Well, that happens too. Sometimes I outline stuff, then get to know the characters and it... changes.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

behind pyramids,

Well, if it's something you're more or less intentionally blocking there are several hints:
first, you'll find yourself doing something. Anything. WHILE you should be writing. You'll start writing and inexplicably you'll find yourself cleaning the litter box. I call this 'rotating the cat.'
second, the book/story will POUR out, until you stop it, forcibly.
third, when you finish it and you forced yourself to put stuff in, you'll be TERRIFIED.

OTOH if it's something that's out of your range, you'll write it and fob it. NOT the same thing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Synova,
go to ralan.com and DO NOT SEND TO PAYS IN COPIES OR SHARED ROYALTIES.

And good luck.

Brendan said...

Sarah,

You may be happy to see this: Crime Novel wins Miles Franklin Award

Synova said...

No "pays in copies" or "shared royalties" I promise. I sent it to the 8 cents a word start-up hope-it's-legit one.