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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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

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