On Writing: Voice

giphyVoice and narrative, according to Terry McDonell in The Accidental Life, supersede pretty much everything a piece of writing offers to make it good — even word count.

As a magazine editor, who edited Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison, among others McDonell used word counts placed at the top of a manuscript page to “evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece.” Invariably, the writers he worked with would send features in either way over or way under the word count.

“None of this matters if the piece is good — and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length.”

But, what is this elusive Roadrunner of a thing writers chase after called voice?

It’s the sum of every writing strategy you use to makes you sound like you on the page, according Roy Peter Clark. It’s the distinct word choices and punctuation and rhythms and everything else that gives plagiarists fits when they try to pass your writing off as their own.

“Voice is a word critics often use in discussing narrative,” writes Ursula LeGuin in Steering the Craft. “It’s always metaphorical, since what’s written is voiceless. Often it signifies the authenticity of the writing (writing in your own voice; catching the true voice of a kind person; and so on).”

Certain voices are very distinct, easy to recognize:

We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window. The grain was just beginning to ripen and the fields were full of poppies. The pastureland was green, and there were fine trees, and sometimes big rivers and chateaux off in the trees.

That’s Hemingway, of course, from The Sun Also Rises. What’s always made Hemingway’s prose distinct to me was the repetition of “and”— the conjunction’s got rhythm.

What would just that first sentence sound like if punctuated with commas as we’re taught?

“We ate the sandwiches, drank the Chablis, and watched the country out of the window.”

It’s still vivid and descriptive, clearly the eye of a good writer giving us concrete details of a train ride, but something seems lost. Those “ands” make it Hemingway.

Another distinct word choice is “fine” referring to “trees”. It gives the trees an aesthetic quality. Hemingway does this often with words like “fine” and “good,” to the point of parody. In fact, parodists often throw in a lot of “fines” and “goods” in their parodies of his style.

Here’s another favorite voice of mine:

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, goodlooking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children — actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun.

That’s Susan Orlean, from her feature “Show Dogs,” collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. With this lede, it’s the commas that give the sentences punch, when the sentences are long enough to warrant commas.

But, what makes it distinctive is its surprise and humor. “If I were a bitch” jumps at you, makes you want to read more. It takes you a moment to realize Orlean is talking about a dog, one that by the end of the paragraph, you’re in love with, too. The surprise of “bitch” in the first sentence is sweetened and softened with “He almost never drools.” There, if not before, you can hear Orlean’s smile, a bit of a “gotcha!”

The use of subjunctive in the first sentence also stands out. It seems like a useful strategy to get the reader inside your frame mind, and into the world of the piece, if not overused. Orlean opens her classic piece “The American Man, Age Ten” with the subjunctive as well:

“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”

What an interesting twist at the end of the sentence, to go from speculating about marrying someone to marrying someone who wants to have matching superhero notebooks. We’ve gone from adult speculation about the world and right into the world of a 10-year-old boy in turn of a phrase.

Of course, by voice, some writers mean writing in a certain point-of-view, especially in fiction, when you’re telling a story from a character that isn’t you, or is just a shadow of you, even if you’re writing a roman `a clef.

Nonfiction writers use this kind of voice, too. Ian Frazier, for instance, parodies the language of a legal brief in his hilarious essay “Coyote v. Acme,” in which hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote sues the Acme Company, whose tricks and traps never trap the Roadrunner and leave Wile E. maimed, mangled, and otherwise bodily harmed.

My client, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, a resident of Arizona and contiguous states, does hereby bring suit for damages against the Acme Company, manufacturer and retail distributor of assorted merchandise, incorporated in Delaware and doing business in every state, district, and territory.

Sounds legit to me. That’s what voice does. It even gives a fake legal brief a sense of humor and makes it seem real.

So, work on your voice, until you can sing with authority and authenticity.

— Todd

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Recommended Reading: Audiobooks

downloadAs a child, who didn’t like being read to? While I don’t think audiobooks make up for discovering in the sound of your dad’s voice language and reading and its nascent joys, they certainly can be boon companions on long commutes or while washing dishes. How long was my last commute, you ask? To work and back again, I listened to all of Dune in about two weeks. All. Of. Dune. (Counting appendices and cartographic notes, my paperback version is 535 pages of dense 10-point type. In other words, it’s a long book.)

It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to appreciate the companionship of audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to many more. On YouTube, I found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, read by The Hitch himself. Oh, to envy that voice, sneering, snarky and cigarette-and-whiskey-smoked slamming it to the deity.

I followed that up — also on YouTube — with Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion.

Of course, most writers don’t read their own audiobooks, though I wouldn’t have minded hearing Terry McDonell reading his memoir The Accidental Life. The version I downloaded from Audible is narrated by Jason Culp and runs 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Though McDonell doesn’t narrate the audiobook, it’s nonetheless a great listen, part reflection on nearly 40 years as editor of magazines including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, as well as a reflection of McDonell’s interactions with the writers who wrote for them: Hunter Thompson, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Salter and Peter Mathiesson, to name a few.

It’s also in part an instructive book about editing and writing and the often rocky relationship between the two crafts.

It’s the kind of book (I’m reading the hardback now) that makes you nostalgic for the days when editors and writers held a bit of the public’s imagination, even if it wasn’t necessarily for writing — the writers McDonell spent time with partied like rock stars with drugs, booze and even women, or men, depending on one’s preferences. It also, without demonizing it too much, reveals how much the writing life has changed because of the Internet and technology — there’s lower pay, for sure, in a trade that’s already hazardous to your cash flow. The real problem, as it always seems it has been, is the suits. McDonell takes a peek at that part of the life, too.

Currently, I’m giving a listen to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Wright narrates the introduction but the rest of the book is read by Morton Sellers.

I’m about 6 hours into the 17 and one-half hour audio and it’s absorbing. Just the biography of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and the way the science-fiction writer evolved his philosophy into a cult and elevated it to a religion through a variety of means is gripping. Hubbard’s methods are common to cult leaders: coercion, charisma, abuse, outlandish punishments, isolation from family and friends, demands for absolute loyalty, demands for money and attempts to falsify and discredit accounts of ex-followers and critics through a variety of means, including threats and lawsuits.

There’s much to be said, even listening to the first few hours, about the dangers of the cult of personality that seems to take a grip on us daily. Strong, charismatic personalities pull us away from natural skepticism, working on our flaws and insecurities; they rarely seem to work on our strengths. We can see it in other figures: Jim Jones, David Koresh, even Hitler and our current president. They dismantle hearts and minds, even whole countries. Cults rarely come to good ends — unless they manage to become normative, slip into the mainstream, as religions — they usually end in Kool-Aid and conflagrations.

Scientology seems to have a disturbingly far reach: though Hubbard ranted against psychology, I think back to several of the self-help books I’ve read over the years by psychologists, and their advice seems strangely like that in Hubbard’s Dianetics; I think, too, of the paranoiac rantings of talk-radio host Alex Jones — a science-fiction fan — whose rantings can be followed at Prison Planet (Hubbard theorized Earth was a prison planet). How many people has Jones riled up with his rants (our president appeared on his show. How much the president’s rhetoric seems like Jones’.) Was Jones influenced by Hubbard or Scientology in any way?

Listening to Wright’s book has made me uncomfortable about contributing a little to one wing of Hubbard’s empire: The Writer’s of the Future contest. And yet, as a writing contest, it gives beginning science-fiction and fantasy writers a chance at a wider audience. It’s launched some good writer’s careers. I’ve had friends published in it, and I have received accolades from the contest. Am I caught in an argument that I hate: learn more about a particular writer and it taints that writer’s work. Does it really? Can I still love Junot Diaz’s fiction, for instance, though he’s been MeToo-ed?

Those are probably questions for another post.

For this one, I especially have to recommend the latter two audiobooks for your reading and listening pleasure.

— Todd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

Lesson learned

I think I learned a beginning writer’s lesson: Always read the submission guidelines thoroughly.

I submitted a short story Friday morning and about an hour later received a message that I hadn’t formatted my submission correctly. I was frustrated not only by the message, but by the complicated process of editing the submission so it would conform to the publication’s format.

Part of the frustration I felt was that the manuscript I submitted was already set up in a normally acceptable format from William Shunn. The requested format wasn’t too much of a deviation — an elimination of all references to the author’s name, supposedly for a more objective consideration of the story. But, then reading the guidelines further, the editor mentions not to use Courier. Times New Roman was preferred.

This seemed very absurd, overly picky. But I changed the font.

After resubmitting, my frustration subsided. I kept thinking about students I’ve had in the past who couldn’t get formatting. I was feeling like those students must have. And I wonder, too, if not submitting the story correctly had something to do with the quick rejection — received today.

Did it reflect on my professionalism not submitting correctly?

— Todd

ConDFW: Escape from the Slush Pile

banner-1200x2881This post will be brief. I’ve been busy with a move that has interrupted writing (excuses, excuses) but wanted to post some helpful advice I received at ConDFW this past weekend from western romance writer Sabine Starr during the panel Escape from the Slush Pile:

  1. Polish
  2. Polish
  3. Polish

One way to get out of the slush, she said, was to send editors your highest quality product.

Will try to get more posts on the convention up later this week. Went to some great panels on developing your career as a writer and met some great people. Stuff I want to share with you.

Let the Tale Tell the Tale

Sodiviner's script, like many of my scribbler friends, in November I started a story-a-week project that resulted in me finishing two stories and getting them into slush piles (and one rejection; sent that story right back out.) I finished a third story the third week that is in the hands of my beta reader.

I started a fourth story in the fourth week. That story is still being written. It’s moving past story length into the territory of novelette or possibly novella. In some way this is discouraging because it doesn’t fit at all into the goal of writing a story a week, much less a story a month.

Still, I am determined to finish it, whatever its length, and found encouragement to carry on after reading an essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who wrote “But most of all these writers [referring to writers such as George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis and Robert Reed] are spectacular storytellers. They tell long stories and short stories and medium length stories and short punchy stories. They let the tale determine its own length, and they continually add to an already rich field.”

Not to say I am a spectacular storyteller by any means, but I am determined to finish this story and let the tale determine its length. Is it a good story. I hope so. I know I’m enjoying writing it. And I look forward to its outcome, whenever that comes.

Fonts, Page Design and Publishing

I was just reading Rudy Rucker’s blog post today about his efforts to find the right font for his forthcoming self-published novel The Big Aha, and was Free Fontsstirred by this paragraph about fonts,  page design and reading:

Getting back to my rant about font design—one bad thing that that can happen is, I think, that a book or (more often) a web page might be designed by someone who doesn’t actually read.. They want to be different and cool and hardcore and they don’t actually like text. So—they go with 9 point Arial beige type on a brown background.

I wonder if this is true about web designers or other non-text-oriented types. Many of the commercial clients I write for aren’t text- or design-oriented, until I try to diverge from their preferred Calibri text, and write a document that fits with the product being sold. I’ve had email flame wars with my clients over fonts; I actually like bolder serif fonts for the main body of the text, but sans serif fonts seem preferred for online reading, and my clients presume the final documents will be read online and not printed out.

Are, generally speaking, most people reading business documents, or for that matter other online content, not readers? Does font matter to you? Do you consider the nature of readability over legibility? What do you prefer, serif or sans-serif fonts?

Is the sans-serif font of this page readable?

—Todd