Sunday, February 06, 2011

Getting Beyond Voice

Since I've started writing fiction and paying attention to writing about writing, I've read a lot about this magical, mystical thing that people call "voice."  You have to develop/stay true to/find your unique voice.  This strikes me as about as meaningful as my freshman students when they used to talk about writing that "flows."  Both terms have essential importance to good writing, but very few people know how to define either much less explain how to accomplish them.

So I'd like to make a suggestion to anyone out there worrying about their "voice."

Forget about it.

Back sometime around when time began, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales.  (I know, I know.  Boring Dead White Guys.)  Here's what he wrote:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents- he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. . . . In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. 

So what can these BSWGs teach us about our own craft?  Actually, quite a bit.

You see, when Hawthorne sat down to write his stories, he wasn't only thinking about being a Great Writer that students would someday be forced to trudge through.  He wasn't that much different from any of us as he sat in the Custom House, compelled to write even as he had to work to put food on his table.  He was thinking about making a sale, reaching a public.  That's not to say that he didn't have literary merit in mind.  We who write commercial fiction know that the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Poe saw something in Hawthorne's writing that I think we who worry about this mysterious thing called voice can learn from: it's not about you--it's about the story.  Everything that goes into the story has to be selected purposefully, but more than that, it has to do more than just fit a plot that's already been predetermined. To put it simply, writing, literature is best when it's about more than getting from point A to point B.

Here's an example:

Death, with all its cruel beauty, lived in the bayou.  It's shadows ran deep.  Cloaked by them, a whisper in the marsh grass or rushes, in the tangled trap of the kudzy, meant life, or fresh death.  It's breath was thick and green, and its eyes gleamed yellow in the dark.  Silent as a snake, its river swam a sinuous line--black water under a fat white moon where the cypress knees broke the surface like bones piercing skin.

This passage gives me chills.  It did the first time I read it; it still does now.  It's the opening lines from the prologue of Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou, and it's about as perfect as a passage can get.  Every detail, every adjective works to create an overall sense of unease and danger.  Even the rhythm of the sentences--long, complex sentences that build detail upon detail--works to give the effect of something mounting, building.  And that something isn't going to be good.  Not even 100 words into the novel, and the reader already knows that danger is ahead, but that it will be a danger wrapped in the lushness of its setting.

It's why Roberts is an absolute master of her craft--every bit as good as any of the BDQGs that we study in school.  It's also why a Nora Roberts book sounds like a Nora Roberts Book.  The details she selects, the words she crafts, the way that setting and atmosphere are always interwoven into the fabric of her characters and their journey--those are her signatures.  Even in her early Silhouette series work, you can see her learning how to manipulate language so that every word is there for a reason. 

But I doubt she ever worried about voice.  Her books sound like her because she has a unique approach to what she finds important, moving, and essential to her stories.  Her works tend to be heavy on atmosphere and her writing tends to have that same cumulative, building rhythm that the above quote has.  Because of her unique perspective, her unique relationship to language, her works stand out as hers.  It's the same with any author, from Faulkner's long sonorous sentences (he really talked like that) to Julia Quinn's brilliantly funny and wickedly sharp dialogs. 

Which is not to say that voice isn't important.  It it. But I don't think it's something that you can consciously craft.  That feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse, to me.  I think that it's something that comes out of learning the craft of writing, and as Poe suggests, one of the essential elements of the craft is creating an overall effect.

We can't control voice, but we can control the effect we want our words to have.  We can ruthlessly pare down our prose so that only what's absolutely essential remains.  We can become more conscious of our own bad habits, whether they be grammatical or structural.  We can work diligently to make sure that every sentence of the text builds towards a certain effect.  We can try to work toward an effect rather than just working toward The End.  Those are the things that we as writers can control, and ultimately, those are the techniques that will help us build, shape, and refine our Voice.


Callie James said...

Wonderful, blog, Lisa! Anyone confused about voice before reading this, certainly has a better understanding now. I believe as we improve our craft, our voice comes out more distinctly each time. I notice this with every book I write.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking take on such a vague concept!

Christine said...

Love this post. I discovered that I have a similar style in all my books (unpublished), but that the technique and the craft now give my style strength. So I guess the first words were like that of a child and as I grow up they become mature. But underlying the technique, the craft, the quicker acceptance of certain words or not acceptance is the original spec of my writing style.

Lexi said...

Awesome and so very true. Bottom line is butt in chair and write!

M.V.Freeman said...

Excellent post!

I agree with what you say. There is no substitute for hard work. You have to want to learn and continue to grow.

So..write it is. LOL

And voice will come.

Louisa Cornell said...

Great post, Lisa, and very true! I recently had an epiphany of sorts where voice is concerned. Voice is very individual and it morphs and grows and evolves the more you write. It is not something that can be taught. It simply is. And I firmly believe the more you write and the more you LISTEN to what your heart tells you to write the stronger and more unique your voice grows.

Carla Swafford said...

Great post, Lisa.