Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Matter of Voice


I’m back into Jamieson’s Folly again, after a rocky start.

I started reworking the beginning last Friday and, from the start, it was an uphill climb. First, beginnings are just damn hard for me. But it was more than that. I felt pressured to produce something respectable for my Tuesday night workshop. So I spent a whopping one day analyzing themes and picking one to focus the opening on. By Saturday, I was running with it.

Running at the mouth is more like it.

See, the problem is that I need downtime. I’m a slow thinker. Not that I’m dumb. I’m just a person who needs time to reflect. And a four day deadline to rewrite the beginning of a novel doesn’t cut it for a slow thinker. So I did what the most desperate writers do—I overwrote. I threw in descriptions, adjectives, adverbs and similes. Writer padding that makes us look like we know what we’re doing.

I didn’t.

I rushed the piece, printed it off (even the printing gods tried to thwart me by running out of ink) and took it to class on Tuesday. I apologized, handed out copies and read it. And the class shocked the hell out of me by raving over how fantastic it was. Vivid, beautiful, poetic, amazing. One of my fellow writers even called it brilliant.

You think I’d be satisfied with that kind of praise, but it left me empty. Something still stuck in my craw. The piece wasn’t right. I knew it was off. I sifted through the copies everyone had marked, looking for some kind of clue. I got miscellaneous nits that all seemed to point in different directions—someone thought the pacing felt a little slow, another didn’t feel clued in to the narrator. One person didn’t realize my narrator was a man until halfway through the first page, someone else commented on the beautiful but overly-abundant descriptions. I tried to make sense of the remarks, but no one seemed to echo the same sentiments. It was a hodge podge that I could have dismissed.

I asked my husband. He read the piece.

“I don’t know. It just feels off,” he told me.

I thought about it overnight and the next day. I let it sit, let my thoughts germinate. At four this morning (I wake up and think about my writing a lot, as you may have noticed.), it came to me in a predawn flash:


I’d overwritten the crap out of the thing and it felt like that for a reason. Twenty-two year old guys don’t spend a paragraph contriving gorgeous verbal pictures of dusk in a canyon. They don’t. My husband’s thirty-something, “I don’t know. It just feels off” says it all. Guys are brief. They say stuff. They shut up.

I wrote the same thing with Nick’s new voice. His real voice. And it really works.

I’ve given the problem thought since and come up with some type of explanation. Usually I write from character as a starting point. Voice is natural then, inherent to the inspiration. But because I wrote Folly during NaNoWriMo and move far forward every day, I chose instead to write from a loosely outlined plot. Nick as a character had never fully developed in my mind and it showed in every word.

I’m taking the new piece to class next Tuesday. I’m anxious to hear the reactions to the massive change. I expect some won’t like, at least the devotees of poetry, but I’m thrilled with it and that’s what really matters.


Stephen said...

I tried to leave you a comment this weekend, but it didn't work. So much for trying to do something on the internet via a BlackBerry.

Voice. I agree with you that finding the right voice can be a challenge. For me, it is most difficult when I'm writing from the POV of the opposite sex. When I try it, especially in the first person POV, it usually comes off sounding like the thump on a hard piece of plastic: dull. As such, I have to ask my wife questions how a woman feels about such and such. In fact, I asked her one of those questions last night, and her response was, "Are you writing another story?" I guess I'm transparent.

As part of this topic, I think in third person POV you can write more from your own voice. Only when you are sharing the character's thoughts should you clearly use language from the voice of the character. In the first person POV, however, which is how Folly is written, you should definitely use the voice of the character. Even the narrative should come off sounding like the character's dialogue.

As an example, I went to the grocery store last night and stopped by the books and mags section. To kill just a few minutes, I picked up a copy of No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and read the first chapter, which was First Person POV. The narrative ran along like the Sheriff was sitting in a chair, telling the reader the story. The sentences were short and choppy, all written with poor grammar, to catch the rhythm and feel of the Sheriff's dialect and education. It was only narrative, and yet it was written like dialogue. I'll probably buy this book some day, just because I was so impressed by how McCarthy handled the character and the POV.

In your situation, you need to carefully keep the tone of Nick, but you also need to use language that shows his education and background. The question is, I guess, did his education affect his background. Going to an Ivy League school, for example, may not take the South out of a Texas boy. He may still say "Nu-cyoo-lar" instead of "Nu-clee-ar."

Greta said...

All food for thought, Stephen. This voice thing is such a tricky thing to tackle. And I know it can make or break a book for a reader. I can't tell you how many stories have hooked me, just because the voice felt so dead-on. I won't name names, but I always felt a certain mutual acquaintance of ours struggled with voice more than anything in his writing.

My concern with the first rewrite was that it made Nick sound stuffy and a little pretentious. And I don't see Nick that way. Yes, he comes from an affluent background and yes, he's well-educated, but he views those things with a certain degree of disdain. He's a man who keeps things to himself. Going on and on about something isn't his way.

I did take the second version and the class preferred it almost unanimously (19 / 1) I'm hammering at the next scene as best I can, considering I've lost 90% of my writing time. But now I'm up against another unexpected hurdle: I need to draw a map of the Folly and lay out all the various sections. Luckily, my husband's excited to help with that part.