Sunday, September 12, 2010

Voice and Writing

"All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen." (from "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas)

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a very unevenly edited book and contains many passages that simply seemed to its editors like a good idea at the time.
One of these (the one Arthur now came across) supposedly relates the experiences of one Veet Voojagig, a quiet young student at the University of Maximegalon, who pursued a brilliant academic career studying ancient philology, transformational ethics and the wave harmonic theory of historical perception, and then, after a night of drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Zaphod Beeblebrox, became increasingly obsessed with the problem of what had happened to all the ballpoints he'd bought over the past few years." (from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams)

"Lula and the couch were almost identical shades of brown, with the exception of Lula's hair, which happened to be cherry red today.
"I always feel sort of anemic when I stand next to Lula. I'm a third-generation American of Italian-Hungarian heritage. I have my mother's pale skin and blue eyes and good metabolism, which allows me to eat birthday cake and still (almost always) buttoning the top snap on my Levi's. From my father's side of the family I've inherited a lot of unmanageable brown hair and a penchant for Italian hand gestures. On my own, on a good day with a ton of mascara and four-inch heels, I can attract some attention. Next to Lula I'm wallpaper." (from Seven Up by Janet Evanovich)

"She started to laugh. She couldn't help it, she had to, and then she couldn't stop, even when Shane knocked on the door and said, "Agnes?" she still couldn't stop, and he rattled the door but she'd locked it, so he kicked it in and came in and held her and said, "It's okay," and she held on to him and said, "I know," and cried and then after a while she stopped, and he kissed the top of her head and patted her back, and she said, "That was bad," and he said, "Yeah," and she said, "I won't do it again," and he said, "I thought you meant the shooting," and she said, "That, too," and let go of him and got dressed and put on her glasses.
"When she had herself together again, she went out to the kitchen and got Rhett a dog biscuit in case he'd been traumatized. "At least is won't ever get any worse than this," she told him. He seemed comforted by that.
"Then as Brenda's goddamned son of a bitch ugly black grandfather clock gonged midnight in the front hall, she went out onto the porch to wait for somebody named Carpenter to come and clean the blood out of her kitchen." (from Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer)

Voice. I've quoted above four of the most distinct voices in 20th or 21th century fiction. Certainly not the only authors I could have selected, but four that I happened to have on my bookshelf and four of whom I actually read on a fairly regular basis. Dylan Thomas, Douglas Adams, Janet Evanovich and Jennifer Crusie.

Voice. Can you hear it? If I lined up Brian May, Eric Clapton, The Edge and Mark Knopfler, I might make Yvonne's ears bleed. But as well, I could tell you within 2 chords, if it took that long, which of those four men was currently playing. Even if they each were playing the one song I've conquered on the guitar - Jamaica A E-minor C - I'd recognize their individual guitarist's voice.

Voice. What is it? Barbara Samuel tells me, "Voice is the potato, style is the French fry." Voice is the ingredients that I have shopped for literally all my life. It is in part my grandfather's humming and stacking and restacking cutlery at the dinner table and my grandmother's yearly family reunions; it is my eldest siblings learning Spanish when I was two, teaching my absorbent mind to count to 10 in Spanish before I could in English. It was my minister's Welsh accent and my weekly Scottish Country Dance lessons with an English neighbor. It was the first book I ever read by myself, Fraidy Cat, and the first song I learned in another language, "Frere Jacques."

Voice. What is it? Kathy Gilles Seidel tells me, "Voice is the result of everything -- who you choose to write about, where you set your books, what you notice in your descriptions, your values, your interests, pretty much everything about you as a person/writer."

Voice. Can you figure out someone elses? When I read Dylan Thomas, I can hear the sound of the sea in his language, in the rhythm of his words which comes from the rhythm of the Welsh language and accent. But what about in popular fiction or genre fiction rather than literary poetic-prose? Can I hear Cambridge in Douglas Adams' voice? Or the Fens? Did he listen to the Rolling Stones and the Yard Birds? How obvious is the Mid-West in Jenny's writing or Jersey in Janet's. At least if Jenny's weren't situated in Ohio or Janet's in Trenton?

Voice. Can it be nurtured? Can it be killed? Because Style is different than voice, an author's voice should shine through no matter what he's written. Be it an opinion piece he wrote for Entertainment magazine, his memoir On Writing, or Cujo, Stephen King's voice resonates through all of his writing. What if he hadn't written Carrie, though? What if he had tried a different genre? Cozy mysteries. Fantasy. Romance. Would he still be Stephen King, multi-million selling, bestseller-writing author? Or did he stumble onto a style that fit his voice?

Voice. Do I have one? It is one thing to write about myself and my opinion and another to write about a fictional character or world. As an author, I must try and fail and try again and experiment in order to discover where my voice best fits. While I'm fairly certain it isn't in tech manuals, and I hope it isn't in hard science fiction as I have no interest there, the rest is as yet unsettled.
What about you? Can you see or hear your distinct voice? Have you ever thought about where it came from? Or do you think it's all hokum, and an author just needs to write a good story?


  1. Do I have one? The answer is yes, every writer has a voice. The question for me is whether it is distictive and unique and noteworthy enough which is asking way too much of someone who has to get words from my head and onto "paper" So I keep writing and wish I spent more time on description of the scene and less on what is going on in my character's head.

    Wonderful post Marjanna. Thnanks for getting my Monday starated in such a thoughtful way

  2. Mary,
    That's such a good point. It isn't whether or not we have a voice, it's whether or not it is distinctive and stands out. Be it friendly or thoughtful or snarky or intellectual or curious. I for one, having been lured through your books by the sound of your voice, can definitly say, yes, Mary, your voice is noteworthy and unique and followable.

  3. Yes, it's all about mememe! Thanks Marjanna. PLease, juust keep writing and don't let anything discourage you. I can hear your voice already.

  4. Marjanna ~ I don't think much about my voice. Not when I talk, not when I write. It comes to me naturally. It flows from who I am and the choices I make. And, truly, I don't think it matters if I write category romance, paranormal romance, or poetry--my voice will be consistent because it's part of who I am when I'm not thinking about it. Does that make sense? I'm all for find your writing niche. Where you fit in genre (or, gasp, literary fiction) . . . but I think when we focus too much on the tone of our voice we can alter it in ways that we don't then recognize.

    You've got a lovely voice. And I totally understand you're expanding your horizons and trying to figure out where you fit. But, sometimes, I think our own voice is invisible to us. Others can see it. And either love it or hate it, but we just co-exist with it. :) Good luck!

  5. Forgot to mention . . . loved the post. And I loved having the four examples of different voices. Wonderful. Thoughtful post. Thanks for the food for thought. ;)

  6. I think the issue is, at times, hearing the editors and agents talk about The Voice and Bringing Something New to the Table. Barbara Samuel mentioned the faint voices that need coaxing to life, and I wondered about that, because I have been writing so long, I'm not sure mine truly needs coaxing. But I do want to be aware of it. Not to box myself in, but to know how to articulate it and show it off in the hopes of one day being published.

  7. The attraction of trying to figure out how to pinpoint voice for *me* is the hope that if I figure out what my voice is -- and what it's good for -- I might be able to target my writing better. Because most of the time I'm just shooting in the dark. I agree, though, that it's really hard to identify our own and may even be counterproductive. Sigh.

  8. In some ways, if voice comes out of what interests us and who we are, and we write what interests us, then I'd think we write what suits our voice.

  9. If I think about voice while I'm writing I sound stilted or can't write at all. So for me, I guess, part of voice is being yourself vs. trying to watch what you say. Like the conversation you have with someone close to you compared to the conversation you have on a first date. And I agree with your 9:11 PM post. :)

  10. Plus, when we vomit out a scene (oops. I wrote scent there, and I don't really want to know what scent we vomit out), we are getting the bones out (like an owl! Vomiting up the bones and fur!) And that may sound stilted, cos, well, it is first draft. But then when we revise, it takes shape. Our Voice, though, comes through in either form. I think our Voice has to do with our Ideas as much as our Words. Smoothing it all out may actually be our style.