Thursday, January 08, 2009

Oy Vey: Voice, and Also Twilight

So I'm gearing up to write a talk I've been putting off for a long time, which will be all about voice. And I am rediscovering the reason I've been putting this off for such a long time, which is that voice is to fiction as air is to life: It's simultaneously everything and nothing, essential to have and impossible to grasp, all-encompassing and absolutely individual. Voice to me includes both what is said and how it is said; imagine, if you can, the jolly voice of the narrator in the Narnia books suddenly describing a scene of zombies eating people's brains with soup spoons, dripping blood and corpus callosum; or more unlikely still, describing an explicit sex scene. The persona (intelligence, imagination, soul) behind that narrator would never discuss those topics; they aren't dreamt of in its philosophy. And that seems an important thing to know about a voice, its limitations and its tics; as opposed to the voice of the narrator of Possession, say, who also is unlikely to offer up the zombie brain scene, but who describes the sex quite easily. . . .

When I think about voice, I think about how real a sentence sounds to me, how believable it is as the voice of a real human being, if it's in first person; and also about how elegant a sentence sounds if it's in third person (and also in first, if elegance is appropriate for that character)--how smoothly it flows, whether it chooses the right (and yet also sometimes the unexpected) words, its rhythms and its eddies. So already in talking about voice here, I'm talking about perceptions of reality and of quality of aesthetics, and bloody hell if I can do those topics justice in an hour and a half.

I've thought about anatomizing the elements of a strong voice, with examples, but I'm not sure that would necessarily help writers improve their own writing -- do you go back through your writing and say "Hmm, according to Rule #28, 'Strong voices use distinctive adjectives (in some cases)'; therefore I will replace every fourth 'nice' in my book with 'persnickety'"? This seems unlikely, and I do like the theory of my talks to have some practical application. So for all these reasons, I'm finding it damnably hard to figure out any useful principles relating to voice other than "Have a distinctive one."

(And I think I am also getting tangled up in my own confusion here; perhaps some of these things I'm wrestling with aren't voice but style, if the two can be separated; and why shouldn't I try to nail down a perception of reality in my talk? Ninety minutes is a long time. And perhaps I am also enjoying my own melodrama over the difficulty of writing here -- always a danger with writing something in public. . . .)

In any case, I'm turning to you, dear and thoughtful readers, to ask for your help in coming up with some questions about voice I can try to answer in my talk. What issues do you struggle with in regards to voice? Do you struggle with voice as a concept in your writing, or do you just ignore the concept and make a voice, without much theorizing about it? Is it all about person for you -- whether a first-person or a third-person or, goodness, even a second-person narrator is the right perspective to tell the story? Or do you worry about distance, or energy level, or those distinctive adjectives? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

One thing I've thought about doing in relation to this is just making up a list of Prose Tics That Annoy Me and teaching people not to use those in their writing, along with why said Tics are bad -- much like the Principles of Line-Editing I posted a long time ago, but in much greater length and detail. Would that be useful? It would, at least, be correcting the Tics in a voice that add up and ultimately make me put a submission down; and I could probably compile a list of Prose Tics That Please Me likewise -- though the most pleasing tic is usually the unexpected and original one.

And speaking of Prose Tics That Annoy Me . . .

I've written, at this point, the equivalent of about ten full text pages on Twilight, but none of them feel quite right as a response, either because I'm pretty sure other people have already said what I'd say or because the pages go into that swamp of reality and aesthetics and never come out again. It's a fascinating book. I also felt strongly reading it that it was not a good book, though when I asked myself why, my reasons were all political and aesthetic and not emotional: Bella doesn't earn any of the adoration she receives on all sides; there is no plot besides her passion for Edward*; Edward is a bossy, condescending, snickering, sparkly emo boy (though did I mention perfect?); and the book is chockablock with Prose Tics That Annoy Me, not least the redundant dialogue tags and the reiterations of how perfect Edward is.

* Which is fine as a plot, as far as it goes, but since she doesn't want anything besides Edward, once she discovers Edward actually wants her too, she has everything she wants and there is no conflict, mystery, or lack. (At which point the bad vampires conveniently show up so there is conflict again.) Protagonists in romance novels should always want at least one thing outside one another, so (a) they're interesting as individuals (to me, interesting people always have something they like thinking and talking about besides other people, and Bella and Edward did not pass this test) and/or (b) they have to choose between the loved one and this other want, which forces conflict and growth.

I gather the big choice for Bella and Edward in the course of the next three books is whether Bella should become a vampire, but by the end of this book, it seemed obvious to me that of course she should become one: She doesn't love anything else in her human life, or that human life itself, with anything like the force of her passion for Edward, and there is apparently no downside to being a vampire, so why not? When I was watching the movie, I recognize see those downsides, as many of the human pleasures I love most -- sleep, food, touch -- seemed to be denied the vampires (I'm thinking of Edward's stone skin here, not that that seems to keep Bella from snuggling with him). But since none of those pleasures seem to matter to Bella really in this book, the decision doesn't seem like a difficult one.

Still, when I thought about the book from a sheerly emotional perspective -- which can and often does matter more than anything else in a reading experience -- then I totally understood why so many readers love this book so passionately, why they would call it not only a good book but one of the best ever: because more than any book I've read in a long time, it captured the exhilaration and fear of falling and being in love. When I read the scenes in which and after Edward and Bella confess their love to each other, I remembered such scenes in my own real-life experience, how delicious and vertiginous those moments were. And for teen readers who might not have had such an experience yet, I imagine those scenes could be all the more shivery and wonderful. (My political brain sticks its oar back in here and says "Yes, and ridiculously-high-expectations-inducing!" But we are ignoring it for the moment.) When I talked about the book with friends whose literary taste I admire, why they felt compelled to read all these in four days flat, they seem to have plugged straight into that emotional vein and managed to ignore the rest, which I clearly couldn't. But I respect and even envy that experience in some ways . . . More power to you people (though the political brain still wants to recommend a good kick-ass fantasy heroine instead).

So: Twilight, problematic but fascinating book; voice, fascinating but problematic subject. End of post for the night.

30 comments:

  1. I so agree with you on every level about Twilight. I read (and actually quite liked on an emotional level) Book 1, but have no desire to read the others (which is rare for me--I like to complete series). I'm like you: I thought the ending was inevitable and couldn't really see myself carrying through with the rest of the books.

    As for voice: I recently attended a conference in which Greenwillow editor Martha Mihalick talked about voice (my notes on her talk are halfway down my sidebar on my blog, if you'd like to compare).

    She did use a couple of examples (Love That Dog stands out in my mind, also Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse) and I found that very helpful in understanding what she meant and breaking up the lecture format.

    She broke things down into categories, which was helpful--basically, that voice can operate on several different levels (such as word choice, pov, etc.) which was helpful, but not as helpful to me as I felt that was pretty basic stuff.

    One of the best things was a side-by-side comparison of Beauty and Rose Daughter (both by Robin McKinley, both based on the myth of Beauty and the Beast). Because it was by the same author on the same subject, it was easy to see the distinctions of what made the voice of each different. I think this could almost be taken further--if there was some way to show the development of voice (i.e. an original scene written by an author, and then some changes made to inject more voice into it, then the final version that has all the voice). That would be very helpful to me as a writer as I would then have an easier time spotting a problem and have some methods on how to fix it. Not sure where you could get a scene like that...but....

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  2. Voice. Hmmm.

    My critique group is cheering me on, but in the privacy of my laptop space I worry about whether this 40 something woman is getting the right voice down for her 18 year old male MC.

    I can't write what I 'know' because I'm a female with only female siblings. I want to stay true to my MC and avoid cliches. A list of your Tics to Avoid would be great!

    WandaV in AL

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  3. I think you've summed up *exactly* my feelings on 'Twilight!'

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  4. This may be a very basic question, but the first problem that comes to mind in my own writing is the difficulty of making the first-person voice something--anything--other than my own inner voice. Occasionally it just clicks and suddenly you're speaking out of another person's head, but some concrete ideas about getting from Point A (my character is a mini-me) and Poing B (my character has her own voice) would be helpful.

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  5. That's EXACTLY how I felt about Twilight: it's a fascinating book, but not a *good* book. Reading it, if I read one more sentence that described someone's facial expression I was going to ram my head into a wall. But I totally finished the book in two or three days.

    I'd love to hear about Prose Tics That Annoy You. Sometimes "what not to do" is just as helpful or more helpful that "what to do," especially when "what to do" is so intangible.

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  6. A question I've been pondering about voice: when you write in the third person, how much does your voice, especially when you're voicing the protagonist's thoughts, have to match the age and ability of the character? I just read Kevin Henkes's Bird Lake Moon, and kept being irritated by what I thought of as an unbelievable voice--words and constructions that didn't make sense for young boys. But probably it's fine for the third-person voice to "speak" in a somewhat higher-level than the characters--right?

    By the way, I noticed two of your books on the Smithsonian Notable list--congrats to you and your authors!

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  7. I solve the voice question by nearly always letting the narrator be the main character. Makes the story seem more immediate (to me) and allows me to be more surprised by how events turn. And it *has* to be authentic.

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  8. I'm currently writing in first person and feel very comfortable in the voice of a character who is not at all me. My problem? Striking a balance on how much to tell of the character's thoughts and feelings. Too little and the character is blank, too much and their inner monologue drags and slows down the action.

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  9. The quality of voice in a first person narrative is the ability of the author to become the protagonist - a 40 year old author who writes a first person narrative of a twelve year old boy and has the reader losing himself or herself in the story has gotten the right voice.
    In the third person, defining voice is much more difficult. Voice here is the degree to which a narrator wants to "reveal" him/herself. On one end you have the narrator that talks to the reader and on the other you have who describes only what a protagonist sees and when describes the thoughts of the protagonists thinks in the manner and with the words of the protagonist. No narrator can ever disappear completely, however. That's what makes voice in third person narration so fascinating.

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  10. Voice to me comes down to the character's actions, dialog & inner voice. Actions and dialog have always been the easiest for me to write. It's that confounding inner voice that drives me bonkers. What is that protagonist thinking? Get it written so I'm not the only one who knows.

    JK Rowling may write Harry Potter felt ashamed or frustrated, but then she backs it up with one or more full paragraphs describing his emotions, his past and present experiences, and provides the answer to the vital question - Why? So as I write this response, I realize it's not just about the character thinking something, it's getting the reader to understand why. Any shot at reader empathy with the character hinges on it.

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  11. I, personally, enjoy reading and writing a narrator who is a storyteller. Perhaps that is characterization of the narrator, but I do like it. I'm all for fine art and sparse prose and all of that, too, but give me a story and someone real and alive and full of breath to tell it to me. Then I will be yours for life.

    On that note, I am interested in the tics. For instance-- what is the difference between Bronte's "Gentle Reader" and DiCamillo's "Dear Reader" tones, if there is one? Is it because there are differing points of view? Different times?

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  12. Yay! your take on twilight!

    Do you know how long I've waited for this? Since that weird x-mas hiatus post! Haha

    I am one of the people who sunk my teeth right into the emotional vein, leaving all the rest a dusty speck in the horizon. hmm, not really, it would've been a dusty spec had I read it 10 years ago. But at the tender age of 27 *mental eye roll here*, I have just enough wisdom to pass on to my little sister who read it with me - I told her to take everything with a grain of salt, that real life might not be that way, but also to go ahead and enjoy the book, because though it is not a *good* book, it certainly is captivating, passionate and entertaining, a real page turner. Am I loosing my optimism? *GASP*.

    As for voice, a list of ticks that annoy would help a LOT. Also, this maybe a bit abstract and silly, but I'm going to ask anyway: what do you do if you almost never like the voice in which you write with? I am this close to hanging up this writing dream of mine because I can't seem to nail down a voice interesting enough for me. I mean, what do you do to improve this kind of situation? IS there anything you can do to improve it?

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  13. your TWILIGHT comments left me wondering if appealing to a young girl's hormones isn't just writing a different form of pornography?
    I have not been innocent of this myself, but pondering the question.
    My wife, when I submitted the question to her, asked, what about boy rock stars? Isn't that what they do?

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  14. Here's a question to ponder.

    If a novel is written in first-person POV, is it okay to "break the rules" if the character's voice supports it?

    Simple example: A teen character thinks in -ly adverbs. How many -ly words can the author use to be true to the character's voice without violating the apparently sacred rule of no -ly adverbs?

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  15. Oooh! To add on to that.

    I have a character who talks in the most incessant run-on sentences. She just keeps going, and there's no stopping her.

    So to broaden the question: What to do about voices that are unique to a character but perhaps not the prettiest or most elegant voices to listen to/read?

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  16. I think voice is one of those things that is really difficult to teach, especially if you tend to come by it naturally. For me the trick is to become the character so fully that I feel things exactly the way he would, including his resentments and angst. This can be a drawback for the real-life people around me who wonder why I'm mad about something that never happened to me. :)

    James N. Frey suggests writing the same scene from several exaggerated voices as practice. He also advocates imitating a variety of voices from your favorite novels as an exercise.

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  17. I think great voice comes only from characters that have depth, desire and motivation. But I get so confused in trying to learn and discern an author's voice compared to a character's voice.Because they're not the same.Right? And each lends to the book in different ways? See. I'm even confused writing it.

    One thing I'm not confused about is that a list of prose no-nos would be greatly appreciated.

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  18. I read Twilight when my daughter picked it up at a book fair. I thought, boy, the author is setting up these girls for disappointment when they start dating. They are all going to be looking for an Edward - a gorgeous, smart, rich, athletic guy with a touch of mystery who is mature and devoted and doesn't want to have sex right away.

    But I thought it was a good book. I didn't put it down in the middle and that's my "good book" test.

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  19. Your Twilight comments were similar to my own thoughts. I didn't read the books when they first came out, but having seen the film i went back and am now reading the series. I read the first book in one day, the second and third in two and im waiting on the fourth to arrive. At an emotional level I suppose it does draw one in, but i've got increasingly frustrated with Bella for being an empty vessel waiting for Edward's attention to fill her with life again. The apparent ignorance of feminism bothers me- since when do any teenagers do that amount of housework, particularly in the post-feminist age?! Having said that, I am intending to finish the series...I just hope that Edward will lay off the 'snickering' for the duration!!

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  20. My writing process is much like ACTING. I try to get inside my characters' heads and say and think the way that they actually would--much as an actor would get into the head of his or her character. I literally try to imagine myself as the characters in my books, responding and speaking appropriately according to their own unique backgrounds and experiences.

    I really do try to feel what they're feeling from a very personal level, and the characters' voices flow naturally from that.

    Love your comments about Twilight!

    sf

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  21. I like Handygirl's acting out a character. Being an actor -- getting inside the character -- is what we're trying to do anyway.

    Virginia Woolf talks about writing as being "a wave in the mind," which involves listening, deeply, even though your mind is clogged with actions and images you want to put onto paper, but you have to wait for that wave to come.

    But those writers who don't have 50 guineas to live on have to do their best. Voice seems to rise from the unconscious mind, so keeping voice consistant is partly about listening for the little 'pings' that you feel when reading, when the voice isn't right. (tip of the pen to Robert Owen Butler's book, From Where You Dream, for that suggestion.) Then it's back into the narrator's head again.

    So mainly, for me, a lot of deep listening goes into voice.

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  22. Voice. . .voice. . . . .voice? The most puzzling component of good writing, and the most sought after. I finally said, "What the heck", and started writing from my heart. And lo and behold--a well known agent wrote me a letter saying I have it. What do I have? No clue. And now I worry if I have it for my second project, my writing stilted, my fingers gripped by fear.
    Please, please (down on my knees), help us poor writers out.
    But. . .in the meantime, a list of what not to's would be wonderful. Maybe even better than a discussion on the elusive voice.

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  23. Sorry it took so long to post, I had to look up "vertiginous". (Ah, a variation of vertigo! I hadn't read that one before. Easy!)

    I think voice arised first and foremost from culture and homelife, then region, education, and job experience. All affect voice strongly. So a reasonable starting point for any talk on voice - to me - would be to start with character. Highlight these aspects of character and hopefully the rest of your talk will follow. ... Because I have NO IDEA where to go next!
    As a convenient side effect, I think the above list also offers an entry point into describing a person's character. How old is your character? Oh, she's an 18-year-old african-american army recruit from the Georgia coast. Hmm...what do you think she would sound like?

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  24. Ugh! I didn't think my grammar was THAT bad. Every time I prepare a comment I always seem to write in the wrong tense and have to change it afterwards. (Maybe that's MY natural voice...) Oh well, I can't edit so here's my apology.

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  25. Concerning third person voice, here is my question. What are the do's and don'ts when revealing the thoughts of more than one character? (ie. more than one POV) Some authors do it beautifully and seemlessly, while others seem choppy or just plain confusing.

    Definitely could use the Tics to Avoid list!

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  26. As I was reading Twilight after Summit released trailers for the movie, I galloped through the first two thirds of the book saying impatiently to myself, “I thought there were supposed to be BAD vampires!”
    Once the relationship was cemented between our ersatz hero and heroine, suddenly bad vampires abounded and conflict was conveniently restored.
    It went against everything I’d learned about writing. Add to that the liberal use of adverbs and the nauseating descriptions of Edward’s gorgeous face and I should have thrown the book across the room. But I did not. In fact, I’ll admit that I’ve read (and own) all four.
    Bella’s intentional characterization as a tabula rasa is most interesting to me. She’s the Everygirl. My teenage daughter, for example, remarked to me that Bella reminds her of herself. Every female teenage reader feels the same. By giving Bella no distinct likes or dislikes apart from clumsiness and feeling awkward and new at school, every reader can better imagine themselves in Bella’s sneakers.

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  27. "...Prose Tics That Annoy Me..."

    Yes, please.

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  28. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I could not "get into" Twilight at all. Yes, I am old and past the 'falling in love' stage, and am happily and romantically married, so that might play a role. But vampires are dead! How can you fall in love with a dead body? So I had trouble suspending belief. And I couldn't put aside my aesthetic expectations of a book, that the sentences should be a joy to read, because of pleasing construction. Each sentence, whether dialogue or description, was the equivalent for my inner ear of the stabs in her feet the original (not the Disney verson) Little Mermaid felt as she walked on land. I put it back on the shelf when we were in the bookstore perusing, disgusted and dismayed that this book has set the standards in bestsellers.

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