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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X-ray Reading: See Yourself Through to Good Writing

When I read Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-ray Reading, I felt like a time-traveler whisked back to the 1990s and my graduate lit classes.

Heady days those were in which little cliques of long-haired twentysomethings gathered in musty classrooms, sat in hard-backed wood desks and talked about books, or texts, as some of the literary theorists we studied called them. We parsed out Faulkner to digest the South’s racism. We dug deep into Lawrence and Woolf to understand gender inequalities.

In X-Ray Reading Clark, too, digs deep into literary classics like The Great Gatsby and Lolita. His purpose isn’t to parse out racism or gender inequality or discover some theory hidden in the words, sentences and paragraphs of classic texts. His purpose is to show—not tell—us where writers “learn their best moves.”

Note the word “where.” Instead of “where,” most books on writing and rhetoric concentrate on the “how” of writing. Thousands of such books line bookstore shelves. Of the making of writing books, there seems no end. You can reach for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language;” or you can reach way back to ancient Greece, to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, in part an answer to Plato’s disparaging of the art of public speaking — or writing for that matter — in works like Gorgias and Phaedrus.

Of course, you can open up Plato’s dialogues and see how his spokesman — old barefoot gadfly Socrates — ironically uses elements of rhetoric to dismember rhetoric. You can see, for instance, how Socrates does it: he gins-up plenty of examples (examples, as you well know, make for good evidence in supporting your arguments) he begs for absolute definitions. In turn, too, you can see Socrates placing great value on good writing when he tells his friend Callicles in Phaedrus, “Anyone may see there is no disgrace in the mere fact of writing. The disgrace comes when a man writes not well, but badly.”

Even Clark’s recent Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer is a how-to — one worth plucking from bookshelves to add to your writer’s toolkit. Clark’s no stranger to writing. A journalist and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, Clark’s written five books on writing and reading, including The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English and How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.

Whichever writing book you reach for, undoubtedly you’ll gather gems of great value like “Show, don’t tell,” or “Use the active voice.” But, where did the writers who dug up such shiny treasures learn them?

Reading, of course.

Not just any sort of reading, as Clark says.

They learn them from a technique I call X-ray reading. They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do. But in their reading, they see something more. It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.

This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text. There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us. Through a form of reverse engineering, a good phrase used by scholar Steven Pinker, they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page — effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain. These working parts are then stored in the writer’s toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box — rhetoric.

This kind of textual analysis is not new. In academia, it’s known as the New Criticism, its foundation close reading. Proponents of this critical style, like Cleanth Brooks, argued that only the text mattered. You understood a poem or work of prose only by peeling back every layer of the text, analyzing every word, letter, phrase, with no outside influence like historical context or god forbid the writer’s claimed intention (the intentional fallacy) to corrupt your analysis.

Francine Prose’s book from 2006 Reading Like a Writer is a fine example of this kind of reading, and like Clark, she shows how writers study writing peering closely at words and sentences, paragraphs and narration, character and dialogue, and details and gesture. Her book is primarily aimed at fiction writers.

Clark’s X-ray Reading delves into fiction, poetry and nonfiction, assessing the structure of Gatsby, the play of words on the tongue of Nabokov’s Lolita (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” It’s hard not hear that except in James Mason’s exquisite voice.), the meaning of the stopped clock in John Hershey’s classic nonfiction book on the dropping of the atomic bombs Hiroshima and breaking down the “cinematic slow-motion effect” of the opening passages of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. It’s nice to see nonfiction included, if only to see that nonfiction’s prose doesn’t have to cross the pedestrian cross walk of AP style or go over the lip of the black holes (is that drill down into?)  of academ-ese or business-ese and vanish in banality.

Clark also analyzes works of writers such as Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Joyce.

But, don’t worry if this all sounds like a boring literature class. Clark’s approach, as Tampa Bay Times reviewer Gregory McNamee notes, is “much more nuts and bolts than all that, and it seems just right: A beginning medical student learns anatomy through dissection down to the capillary level, and a beginning writer learns to conjure phrases such as Fitzgerald’s ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ by understanding from the ground up how sound and meaning combine.”

It’s a refreshing approach for a book on writing and reading. And, if anything, reading this book proves a great guide to reading in a way that makes books even more alive than usual. Which seems is a secondary purpose of Clark’s:

“One purpose of this book is to nudge you into reading some of the best literature ever written…Read. Enjoy. X-Ray. Write.”

—Todd


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The Glue of Truthiness

Doing some self-directed training at work made me think about our current controversy over alternative facts. And that, in turn, made me think about an insight from fictional detective Harry Bosch in the novel The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. As Bosch pieces together the clues to a cop’s murder, he recalls something he was told early in his career: you can have all the facts you want, but facts mean nothing without figuring out the glue holding them together.

That’s a great insight on Bosch/Connelly’s part (Connelly was an L.A. Times crime reporter before turning to fiction). What is the glue that holds the facts together? If you investigate deeper, you piece together the meaning, the truth.

Of course, we all have deep convictions we often hold onto no matter the contrary evidence. We are all also guilty of reacting to contrary evidence by clinging even stronger to our convictions. Or we cherry-pick stuff that supports our convictions.

But, what if we dig deeper? Will we find the facts and their truths are as flimsily held together by edible Elmer’s paste as a kindergartener’s art project? Or will we discover a solid bond held together with Krazy Glue?

I love questions like this. It’s one of the reasons I love fiction and believe fiction is truthier than nonfiction. Of course, it’s usually also much more entertaining. And that’s a fact!

— 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

 

Entering the Dark Republic: a review of D.L. Young’s Soledad

So, when I received my copy of D.L. Young’s debut novel, Soledad, it was right around the time the U.K. took leave of the European Union.

After that vote, there were some half-serious memes on social media calling for Texas’ exit from the U.S. As ridiculous as that sounds, as yahoo-ish as that sounds, there are not a few here in the state who wouldn’t relish the chance to revive in their minds the glory days of the Republic of Texas. There is/was, for instance, the notorious Republic of Texas movement in the 1990s, led by the now imprisoned Richard Lance McLaren, which claimed, among other grievances, the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845.

Historically, Texas, as early as September 1836, just a few months after becoming a republic, sought annexation, but the Van Buren Administration wasn’t keen on it, fearing, in part, war with Mexico.  The U.S.’s westward expansion, and fears of British expansion and economic growth, prompted President John Tyler to promote Texas annexation in 1844, although that push, with much U.S. prompting, didn’t pass until 1845.

In the 90s, Secession appealed to a certain element rife with conspiracy and government hatred, in particular after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

“The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans,” Joe Nick Patoski wrote for Texas Monthly, while covering the McLaren standoff,  “and a movement was born.”

Most in the area of McLaren’s property at Davis Mountain Resort, Patoski reports, didn’t like McLaren much. Some offered to shoot him themselves if the DPS didn’t, others planned margarita parties if and when he was pronounced dead.

McLaren’s supporters, however, echoed his rhetoric, including a street preacher, W.N. Otwell, as Patoski reports, who said, “‘He’s the one who’s done the research,’ [Otwell] said. ‘We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.’”

McLaren was and is still imprisoned in Amarillo, after a 1997 standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that standoff, two hostages were taken on McLaren’s property at the Davis Mountains Resort.

This strand of apocalyptic thinking is all too common among the ahistorical Secessionist types — with its nascent Tea-Party rhetoric too chillingly trumpeted in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers, and its a strand of thinking Young carries forward in speculative excellence with his Soledad.

Young’s is a dystopian vision, a hellish republic divided against itself; it’s a what if of what Texas could be if these Secessionists succeeded, and an extended metaphor of what I fear the U.S. could become should the trumpeters take the stage this November.

Ostensibly, the novel tells the story of a “reader” Soledad Paz, a slave, whose drug-enhanced psychic abilities allow her to inform the brigand-businessman Flaco Guzman whether those who would do business with him are lying to him. Liars, of course, get shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the West Texas desert, a “meal for coyotes and vultures, like all the others who try to pull one over on the great and powerful Guzman.”

But the novel takes us beyond the already balkanizing republic, beyond a Mad-Max-esque adventure — spoiler alert: Soledad escapes into a wilderness of hate — and like Soledad herself, stares at our collective souls, sees things we can’t even see ourselves because we’re too blind or too wrapped up in rhetoric to see.

For me, the most chilling section of the novel is the set piece in Waco, when Soledad and those who have helped her escape Guzman, get captured by Christian fundamentalists who make current Islamic terrorists look like black-pajamaed Boy Scouts, “the thousands of well-armed zealots who don’t like strangers” and “have a special hate for outsiders, anyone who’s not a baptized, Bible-carrying, true believing Fundie.”

These are the kind of people who weave the divine into every detail of history, much like the McLaren bunch, much like the conservative evangelicals blowing their shofars for Trump or Cruz and lamenting the loss of God in their fantasy Christian nation. The uber-patriots wrapped in flags, an AR-15 in one hand and a Bible in the other. They spew the wrath of God, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. They shout down opposition and claim persecution at the slightest slight.

In the novel, this group commits one of the most chilling atrocities, one we’ve seen or heard about, the kind of thing we associate with Islamic terrorists: a woman buried up to her neck and stoned to death for being a heathen (a Catholic in this case). Young depicts this stoning with ferocious detail, as if it’s something he actually witnessed.

One fortunate thing about Young’s dystopic vision, is that as Margaret Atwood has noted, “[W]ithin each dystopia [is] a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.”

Of course, as Atwood says, in each utopia there is a concealed dystopia, and perhaps Soledad will, instead, reach for some sensible middle ground, and not try to make things perfect, only better.

— Todd

Review: The Inexplicables

Usually, I try not to read a book that’s in the middle of a series before I’ve read all the books before it, but with Cherie Priest’s The Inexplicables, I made an exception. (It’s the fourth volume in her so far five-volume Clockwork Century series.) I was lured in by the cover, the intriguing portrait of a punkish redhead wearing a gas mask (yes, I bought a book for its cover). I also was lured by the back-cover synopsis. How could a book about narcotics, toxic walled cities, undead and other monsters be bad?

And, I wasn’t wrong. Sometimes you can judge a book by it’s cover. The Inexplicables delivers everything it claims in its cover synopsis: a rousing adventure in altered 1880s toxic, walled Seattle, a place where walking dead rotters roam the streets, the opiate sap is a fix for its residents and something inexplicable and hairy chases after young orphans. Or at least one orphan, Rector “Wreck’em” Sherman, the drug-addled redhead who seeks his fortune and maybe his next fix within the walled city.

His leap into adulthood includes an encounter with a monster, known in the beginning, as The Inexplicable, an oversized humanoid creature on the loose inside the city walls. In Rector’s quest to find his way in this bizarre world, he hooks up with an even stranger cast that includes an Indian princess and an airship crew.

For much of the book, the adventure hinges on Rector and gang trying to find The Inexplicable. They are interrupted in a secondary task, trying to stop a band of outsiders from blowing up the city. To me, this subplot tends to take over and the search for the monster takes a disappointing side quest. I wanted to know more about the creature, once it’s discovered

Still, it’s a fun read, and a nice introduction not only to Priest, but for me to steampunk, an SF genre I had mostly avoided, other than admiring steampunkish costumes at cons. Priest uses a lush, vivid prose to make this world come to life and I’m looking forward to working my way back to the first novel in the series, Boneshaker. She also manages to work in references to previous books in the series without distractions. A nice technique for those writing series.

— Todd

Review: Scalzi locks readers in with ‘Lock In’

In this near-future thriller, John Scalzi blends his fast-paced science fiction with suspense to yield a vivid world in which a portion of the human population is locked inside itself as a result of an insidious disease, known as Haden’s syndrome.

Technology has advanced enough — primarily through research for a disease cure  — those who suffer with the disease can live virtually by integrating their consciousness into other willing (mostly) human “Integrators” or hooking into androids known as “threeps” (yes, it is an allusion to that android).

Newly minted FBI agent Chris Shane (a Haden’s victim) partners with veteran Leslie Vann and the two wind up investigating Haden-related murder, following a suspect who might have been integrated with a Haden. The investigation is pretty standard, or as standard as the world Scalzi presents, given the murder suspect lives inside another human being, but only temporarily.

While transferring human conscious is a standard SF trope — one that Scalzi explores in his Old Man’s War series as well — Scalzi does a bang-up job making the technology plausible, especially a consciousness transfer into an android. With the novel, like all good SF, or all good fiction for that matter, Scalzi puts forth the questions of “What is human? What is it to be human?” Are the threeps human? They only seem to come to life when a human consciousness occupies them. Are you fully human if you allow another consciousness to temporarily possess your mind?

Although not quite as mindbending as his Hugo-winning Redshirts, Lock In supplies you with a good mystery story wrapped in the questions of future technologies.

— Todd

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