Seems like every other jerk with a computer wants to be J.D. freaking Salinger. I mean, a bad attitude isn’t a replacement for voice. You feel me?
Hold on! If I wrote a post like the above paragraph, I’d lose you, right? A writer must fit voice to the circumstances. Still—those sentences carry important meaning.
Voice is a big deal. When literary agents or editors provide wisdom, it’s pure gold, and I constantly read their appeals for voice. You want to get published?—Write with excellent voice.
Amping up attitude in a Salingeresque way can spoof a well-developed voice, but let’s face it, it’s often just attitude, which is easy, and can reduce the effects of a piece. It might read well for some, but it’s often little more than a caricature. Let Salinger be Salinger, and slip in attitude only when it’s natural to the character or story.
Voice is difficult. It’s one of the hardest and most rewarding things to develop as a writer, and I was painfully aware of it throughout my flash project.
So here’s part six of “things other than story ideas that drive my story writing.”
Part 6: Voice
Several years ago, a well-established professional critiqued one of my works, his comments audibly sputtering through the page: “Don’t these idiots know anything about narrative voice?”
Well. No. I mean, yes. Er… maybe.
I knew well enough that voice was extremely important, and I was already self-conscious about it. Now, though, the quest became paramount, and I galumphed off to find it like Don Quixote chasing Monty Python for the Holy Grail.
Most writing books, until recently, said very little about voice, other than mumbling something about word choice (yes, they mumbled) and exhorting the reader how important it was. To this day, the best advice came to me from one of Josip Novakovich’s fiction writing books, I don’t remember which.
Josip Novakovich suggested that aspiring writers learn voice by cutting their prose to the bone until their own voice came through. After polishing through to a personal voice, an author could build upon it to create others. I happened to read that around the time my brother Jake started an editing blog, which took excerpts from novice writers and applied an arsenal of tricks to cut as many words as possible.
Taking Novakovich’s advice to heart and picking up the methods at my brother’s website resulted in tighter and tighter writing, and before long the pieces I wrote… just… felt… right. The prose read easier, sounded clearer, and a certain character started to emerge from it. More than any other, this experience bolstered my confidence. I could write with the professionals.
I whole-heartedly recommend this approach to discovering your voice, but I would add a corollary: Polish it to the bone—then let it breathe just a little bit.
The voice in the rough drafts I posted will obviously improve with polish. However, there were times that it dominated the energy behind the story.
Slippy the Wibble is a bizarre-looking alien who came to earth with the diplomatic mission to figure out what the hell to do about the human race. You can find his stories by searching my “Flash Links in Order” page for “Wibble” and “Slippy.” Voice comes into play from two sides. Victor, whom Slippy chose to be his guide, is a simple man who narrates the stories in first-person with a folksy nonchalance. Slippy speaks intelligently with a terse, no-nonsense tone, and occasionally freaks out.
Something about that dynamic drove these stories. It allowed me to go any direction the voices carried me, ridiculous or serious. There’s something almost chaotic and exhilarating when voice propels a writer through a story, like you’re on a carnival ride and don’t quite know what to expect next.
I know—what a dork. But this brings up an aspect of voice. First-person singular combines the narrator’s voice with the main character’s and strikes the reader with amplified effect. It’s easier to write because the author doesn’t have to jockey between narrative and character voice, and it has greater impact. When a writing instructor brings up a great example of narrative voice, it’s very often in first-person singular. It seems like every breakout novel I read is first-person singular. Catcher in the Rye? First-person singular. Salinger! (Said in my best imitation of Seinfeld when he greets Newman.)
My take-away from that is not that it’s better to write in first-person singular. However, I believe it is a great way to practice your craft. Novakovich said you can build on the foundation of your own ultra-polished voice. Well, it’s my contention that you can build upon your well-developed first-person singular skills to produce more effective third-person voices.
First-person voice drove the flash “Day 335: Courier of the Apocalypse,” which starts with the line, “I am the shit.” How can you continue writing something like that without voice in charge? The rest of the flash is a sort of proof to his protege that he is, indeed, “the shit.” This flash exaggerates voice and doesn’t hold back.
Exaggeration can be effective in third person, as well. In “Day 259: Keeping it Real with the Cheswicks,” Chad is a west-coast ladies man—known in the rest of the world as a “flake.” I plopped him into a serious conversation about preternatural things with his girlfriend’s parents. I’m not sure I pulled it off, but I sure had fun writing it, and Chad’s reaction to these stiff know-it-alls amused me.
Exaggeration is even more common with characters, and there are times when their voices dominate the prose. I couldn’t possibly conclude a blog post on voice without mentioning my Peemeekadoos. Peemeekadoos are pixie-like creatures who love adventure, Nora Jones, and Hawaii 5-O. I made up their childlike voices on the fly in a burst of creative energy, and though I always had an objective in mind when writing these, their little voices carried me all the way through.
Much like the average instruction book on writing, I have meager advice on how to write stories with great voice. Sometimes it’s mimicry given shape by attitude and motivation, and other times it’s just instinct. I can only say that when you catch a great voice, more than anything else, it enhances the enjoyment of writing, and if it’s good—the publishers will love it.
Conclusion of the “things other than story ideas that drive story writing” series.
If character drives an author to write a story, there’s a good chance it will be a character-driven story, but it doesn’t have to be. Voice could energize a writer into an absurdity-driven story, or imagery could propel him into a character-driven one. My focus has been upon how style, esthetics, absurdity, emotion, character, or voice drives the writer to produce. Results may vary, especially after rewrites.
My hope is that writers can recognize and harness the energy from those drivers to create great stories. Did I miss anything? Probably. I thought about “theme” or “jokes,” but they seemed to belong to the “story idea” category, so I left them out. Style, Esthetics, Absurdity, Character, Emotion, and Voice seemed like a nice grouping to delimit the blog posts, but if you think of something compelling enough to add to the list, please feel free to mention it in the comments.
Sometimes a writer stumbles across a glorious combination of story and characters that drive him in all these ways. For such an example, I give you Nate, Jack, Tim, and Bradley—Four Dudes and a Universe. Every installment took the POV of one of the characters, and that particular character and his voice would drive the writing. The stories are packed full of imagery (esthetics) that invigorated my creativity. Need I mention absurdity? And the underlying friendships added emotion to the impetus of every story I wrote about them. Dare I hope that I’m getting close to my own style with these guys?
All of these elements drove me at different times through these stories. Is it any wonder they were my most prolific? Forty-six stories and 44,352 words. Links to all of them can be found here.
None of these things replace straight-forward story ideas, of course, but if the ideas aren’t driving you—don’t despair. There are other effective ways to create meaningful stories. Don’t resist them when they hit you. Accept them and see where they take you.