Author, Voice, Writing

Author, author, speak to me!

I cried last night … twice. Reading the final chapters of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, did me in. The story was just that real to me. Throughout the book I experienced love and heartbreak, beauty and horror, fear and exultation because Hosseini is an excellent writer. And yet, not everyone agrees with me.

Engrossed reader.Have you ever experienced the shock of looking at the reviews of a book you loved and seeing that some readers hated it? Although more than 350,000 readers rated Hosseini’s book four or five stars at Goodreads, a shocking number gave it only one. Considering that the background of this novel is war-torn Afghanistan, I suppose some of those low ratings could be politically motivated. But what about the others?

I’ve loved all three of Hosseini’s novels. That’s not because I love reading stories set in Afghanistan or stories about the effects of war on people’s lives. So why is he one of my favorite authors? Why is Anne Tyler? Or Stephen King? Or Maeve Binchy?

Voice. It’s the author’s voice.

Often I open a novel that either a professional reviewer or a friend has assured me I’ll love, and I simply can’t read it. It’s not the subject, not the setting, not the quality of the writing that fails to excite me—it’s the author’s voice. That voice is not one I’m attuned to, which is neither my fault nor the author’s. And certainly, that alone is no cause for me to say it’s a terrible book.

The voices of the writers I prefer don’t all sound the same. I study them, copying whole pages by hand trying to understand what makes them sing for me. Word choice, syntax, tone, rhythm, etc. are all elements of writing style, but I think writers can have similar styles and yet the voice is different. There’s something more that defines voice. It’s an element lying below all the rest. Something that breathes life into the words. Something, I think, that can’t be learned.

Naturally, I wonder about my own writer’s voice. It’s still trying to struggle out of its chrysalis. I hope it’s on its way to being pure and honest and alive. Because then, someday, readers will count my voice among their favorites.

Linda

Characters, Doubt, Fiction, Novel, Voice, Writing

My decision to quit writing

Last week, I had lunch with two other writers and came home totally depressed. I don’t blame them. They didn’t do or say anything directly to bottom me out. As I listened to them speak, I realized I felt disconnected from their world. That night I told my husband I’d decided to quit writing. He told me to sleep on it.

For four days I didn’t write a word, not even a blog post. Instead, I read. And I played a lot of games on Facebook. At first, that felt weird. I was anxious. By the end of the second day, I relaxed. It felt right not to be writing. I could just walk away. Let it go.

On the third day, I realized I’d returned to the way I’d told stories for most of my life— in my head. I continued with the story I’d been trying to force into a novel for months. It flowed without effort. I enjoyed it. But not until late on the fourth day did I actually “hear” the story, and when I did, I knew why I’d quit working on the version for publication.

Let’s back up a bit.

I’d been writing that novel in my head for months before I sat down to begin entering it into a Word file, so I wrote the first few chapters quickly. I opened with a short chapter in third person past tense  and then moved to first person present tense (FPPT) for the next chapters because that was the way I “heard” the main character’s voice. I would use three short third-past chapters spaced throughout the book, but the bulk would be in first-present.

Then I read that most current novels for the adult market are written in third-past, and a first person novel is hard to write well, and present tense is tiring or boring or some other negative for the reader. I questioned my wisdom. I revised. I changed all the chapters to the “best” person and tense. I pushed on.

I wrote a couple of chapters more, and then got distracted by other projects. I wrote another chapter of the novel, and then I worked on something more pressing. I wrote a paragraph or two for the novel, and then I got this great idea and worked it into a short story. I wrote a few words on the novel, and then … and then … and then I gave up on it.

I stopped writing the novel. I stopped writing. Period.

Why? Well, it seems if you stop listening to your character’s voice, eventually that character stops speaking to you. She says, “You don’t like the way I’m telling this story? Fine. Tell it without me.”

Silly me.

Do over. Stop being a sheep. Revise the revision. Start listening again. Write.

Advice, Craft, Fiction, Opinion, Tips, Voice, Words, Writing

Write what you know means …

When my granddaughter was not quite three, one of her favorite movies was Disney’s The Aristocrats, but for a while, no one realized she had redubbed it. Then, one day, we heard clearly her request to watch The Rest of the Cats.

She didn’t know the meaning of the word aristocrats, so she heard words she did know. That’s a frame of reference. It’s what we all use every minute of our lives. The brain uses frame of reference when it receives sensations to filter and identify each correctly.

In that same sense, we all filter what we read against our experiences. Does it match, enhance, or refute what we already know? Even when researching a new topic, we have to fit it into our particular frame of reference to make sense of it. That’s also the way we write.

If we write about a certain time, say the summer of 1965, our first response is to fit that into our frame: I was ten years old or that’s the year we moved to Idaho or that’s when Grandpa took up skydiving. We can learn what happened in the greater world that year, but that information will be added to, mixed with, or colored by what we already know about that year in our egocentric world.

And, like my granddaughter, if we’re true to our frame, we use the language of that point of view. We use words that are common to us, the ones that flow naturally from our lips, the ones we don’t have to look up in a dictionary or borrow from a thesaurus.

But, but, but what about writing fiction? Does this mean we can only write about characters like ourselves? Of course, not. As fiction writers we have the privilege of being many selves. We just have to discover and stay within the frame of reference for each character. Only then will our characters ring true.

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Characters, Craft, Fiction, Novel, Voice, Writing

This is the scary part

Yesterday, I forced myself to get serious about writing my next novel. (Yes, I was sick. Blame it on the caffeine in the chai I drank.) I’ve been making the preparations for this novel for months, even writing out several scenes. But this time, actually getting down that first chapter is tougher.

I’m struggling with voice, which is part of the problem. I know I haven’t locked into it yet for this main character, so my inner editor lurks in the background whispering, You’re going to have to rewrite all this, you know. Since I’m not a “shitty first draft” person, it’s difficult to ignore that voice and push myself to write on.

This character is a challenge in two ways. I know who she is as an adult because she was a second-tier character in my last novel, but this one starts with her at age twelve, so she hasn’t developed that adult personality yet. This maturing of a character is not something I’ve tried before. Also, this is the first time I’ve attempted to write a novel in first person.

Structure is another challenge. This novel will consist of three parts, portraying three different stages of her life. I will bracket each section with present tense narrative, while writing the majority of the book in past tense. Numerous times already, I’ve caught myself writing in present what should be in past tense. That’s weird because I normally write in past tense, though in third person, so maybe it’s the first person that’s throwing me off.

I deliberately chose these challenges to hone my craft, but this unfamiliar territory makes me uneasy. I’m getting quivers of fear I can’t pull it off this time, but I keep putting one word in front of the other. What else can I do?

Your turn: What are the writing challenges you’ve faced recently?

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Advice, Characters, Dialogue, Fiction, Narrative, Tips, Voice, Writing

Whose voice is that?

Yesterday, a friend posted a link on Twitter to an article by Kurt Vonnegut (a fellow native of Indianapolis) titled “How to Write With Style” and in it he gave seven tips to improve your writing. The one that stuck out the most to me was #5 Sound like yourself. He says about writing voice:

The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Sometimes that voice creeps into my writing—when I’m trying too hard, when I’m pushing to write this scene right now, no matter what.

Vonnegut says:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.

A writer I admire, Frank McCourt, died this past Sunday, and I’ve spent some time this week listening to interviews with him as well as re-reading bits of Angela’s Ashes. He wrote exactly as he spoke. Of course, he wrote memoir, though he was working on a novel, last I heard. I hope it was finished; I’d love to see how he wrote fiction.

To me, it seems easy to write my blog posts in my own voice … though I don’t write it exactly the way I speak. I’m appalled at the grammatical errors I hear come out of my mouth. But I do write the way I think.

[Hmmm … is it normal to speak differently than you think? Tell me you do the same! Please.]

Meryl Streep is one of the actors I admire. She’s praised for her command of the accents she uses for the characters she plays. I have to be a Meryl when I write dialogue. I have to speak for many people, and each has to sound like themselves, but ultimately, it’s my interpretation of their voices. It’s me acting a part.

But it’s my narrative I have to guard. I have to banish that “cultivated Englishman” and let my own “person from Indianapolis” shine through.

How are you doing with voice?