Voice

There’s this thing that writers talk about called “voice”.

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It seems like jargon. It sounds (hah!) to non-writers like we’re trying to put distance and arcane-ness and mystery between “us” (the writers) and you  (the readers/non-writers), and sometimes in conversation it really does sound so nebulous and obscure that one could be led to believe that we’re just trying to keep non-writers out of the witch’s coven here.

But voice is a real thing. A lot of readers do notice it, consciously or not, because they will get a little ways into a novel and put it down saying “It doesn’t really ‘get’ to me” or “It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing” or maybe just “It’s boring” – even when that first chapter contains an execution, an armed robbery, and a major building collapse.

It isn’t a lack of action, obviously, because there are books where literally nothing of any sizable note happens in the first three chapters, and yet readers are so hooked that they skip dinner in order to keep on reading.

Voice is hard to describe.

It’s partly the way the author writes – a kind of version of “style”, I guess, but not exactly, because a writer could write one way in one book, and quite differently in another book, but still be writing in their own way.

(Margaret Atwood does this handily. Try comparing The Handmaid’s Tale with, say, Lady Oracle, and you can see how different the “voice” is and yet…still recognizably Atwood and no one else.)

Yeah. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

“Voice” is two things, really.

First, there’s a kind of internal and shifting “voice” that can be (should be, imho) unique to each character within a book: the way in which a character speaks, acts, views the world. Someone who is over-educated and pompous sounds and feels different on the page than the lonely peasant charcoal burner does.

It’s really tricky to do this without reducing everyone to caricatures, of course: believe me, you do NOT want to write someone as if they have an “accent” that you yourself do not naturally possess.

Nothing kills the suspension of disbelief faster than things like that. If you are not black and/or were not raised in a ghetto in an American city, don’t even try to reproduce that dialect on the printed page. I don’t care how much rap music you listened to when you were fifteen – it will come across as inaccurate, phony, and immature.

Case In Point: I got exactly twelve pages into “The Help” before I threw that book across the room (metaphorically, of course. In my upbringing, mistreating books was considered a violation of human decency. It just wasn’t done.) While the author may have been very familiar with the way people really did sound in 1950s’ of the American South, it does not transfer well into print – it has the condescension of the privileged that was, judging from the reviews, the very opposite of what the writer intended.

Be gentle when you try to show differences of class or race or educational levels. Be careful and light-handed. Give the reader the benefit of the doubt here: assume their ability to “get” the differences without three neon signs and a fireworks display.

 

On the other hand, Voice is also how a particular author writes in a more holistic way: the kinds of language they use, the way they describe things in the sense of “ornate/detailed” versus “spare/subtle”, whether or not they rely on dialogue or action, or are more even-handed, things like that.

There’s the authorial voice that just describes everything in common and cliché’d phrases: “auburn haired”, “tall tree”, “snow-capped mountains”.

There’s the overly creative authorial voice that has to gild the lily at every opportunity: no one ever just says or is things. The characters protest, they exclaim, they whimper – and everyone has ebon-dark eyes like fathomless pools, and sit on loveseats richly upholstered in magnificent blue-and-gold brocaded silk imported from a little-known village on the Yangste.

And while none of these extremes would be inherently “wrong” in and of themselves, they aren’t individual enough to merit the term “voice”, because almost anyone who has made it through four years of standard high school English courses could probably produce this stuff reasonably well, if they really wanted to.

Voice is when you move past those things, when you develop a way of communicating that is both clear and your own, where the sound of the words begins to resonate inside the reader’s mind.

And even if an author changes a lot of superficial style/voice from novel to novel , their fans can tell who it is that’s writing. (When an author teams up with another author, a lot of readers get upset. Why? Because if the voice changes as a result of that partnership, the reader isn’t getting what they paid for. This is a REALLY good reason Regency fans should stop trying to write sequels to Pride and Prejudice. Trust me: it never works.)

Voice is pretty hard to pin down, and all I can say is that a writer who isn’t at least marginally aware of what voice is, and has not read widely to see the possibilities, well, they may write serviceable prose, readable and inoffensive, but they won’t have a voice that readers will recognize and love just for itself.

 

So pay attention to a writer’s voice, or the lack thereof.

It’s what makes you love one author and feel distinctly “meh” about another. Naming no names, but there are quite a few well-known and bestselling authors who really have no voice at all. The prose is basic, the words are simple, the plots are headline with-it, and the characters so stereotyped that quite often, the reader never remembers the authors’ names, even though they buy each one as it is released.

Writer or Reader: Don’t be those guys.

A Disordered Life

I have an anxiety problem.

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It’s not a self-diagnosed ailment. (Like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, I’ve been tested.)

It’s not “social anxiety”, either: it’s a kind of “state of terror and panic” that has almost no rhyme or reason. There’s no discernable trigger. There never is – it just happens. It’s never been tied to anything one could point to and say “Well, there’s your problem. Go fix that.”

It just is.

Most of the time, it’s a transitory state: a few hours or a day or two of being so filled with existential dread that all my available energy is spent just going through the motions of life.

Every once in a while, though, I get hit with something bigger than that. Days and days of it, and it never lets up.

These last three weeks have been the big stuff.

There’s no reason for it. There’s nothing in my life going wrong. There’s nothing happening that should frighten me unduly. I mean, okay, there’s a nutbar in the White House, and western civilization seems to be pouring itself willfully down the tubes, but frankly, it’s been doing that for years, and while we are closer to a complete and utter annihilation of the planet that we have been for a long time, having the hands of the nuclear destruction clock sitting at 30 seconds to midnight is not new to me: that’s where it was for most of my life. I’m used to that, and I’m old, too: death is coming for me sooner or later, no matter what.

No, this was a state of unreasoning panic that went on for days, and then the days turned into weeks, and while I still went to work, and made supper, and got the laundry corralled, it was all pretty hellish.

My stomach was either in knots or ravenously hungry (my body likes to medicate with food) and I had a slight but continual case of the tremors.

Not just sometimes. This was 24/7 – I’d sleep for a couple of hours having hideous dreams, wake up and lie in bed for a few hours feeling horrible, then sink into an exhausted coma for another couple of hours, and finally get up, go through my day with pretend smiles and loads of inconsequential chit-chat, only to fall into bed to do the whole thing all over again.

This time it went on for so long that I became kind of used to it, and it wasn’t until the other morning, when I woke up without it that I realized just how long I’d been coping with it for.

So if you’re struggling; if you feel like everything about your life is teetering on the edge of a cliff; if you feel slightly nauseous all the time; if you can feel yourself quaking inside:

I know that stuff. You aren’t alone. Just try and hang on, take some care for yourself, and if you need to reach out and there really is no one else, message me.

It’s not easy, but it’s who we are, and I will support you.

 

Why remakes and reboots and updating things don’t work

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I remember the very first Dr. Who episode I ever saw. It was in black and white and it was so extremely BBC amateur “these guys need to be employed so give them a nonexistent budget and let them do whatever” kids show stuff that I was instantly hooked.

It wasn’t meant for adults, particularly, although, judging from the scripts, no one at BBC was really paying attention to what the writers were doing, so there was a lot of hilariously adult stuff going on.

It became a cult hit in Britain almost from the start, although it didn’t make it to North America until much, much later.

Anyway, we used to watch it on tiny tvs run on sci-fi-like tubes of chemicals with the requisite bunny-ear antennae and some judiciously draped tinfoil, and it was considered really stupid by 90% of the potential audience and utterly amazing by the remaining 10%.

Then, around 1978, they did the same thing with “The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and that got about the same level of North American response.

 

Most people didn’t get the humour, and they didn’t understand why anyone would watch something that was so obviously cobbled together from plastic rubbish bags, papier-mache,  and oversized rubber bands. They were distracted by the grainy cinematography and the echoe-y hollowness of a substandard soundstage. They spotted breaks in continuity and outright script contradictions and were made uncomfortable by the sneaking suspicion that the writers weren’t just laughing at themselves, but at the audience, a little bit, too.

Why would anyone want to watch something so rough? Where was the polish? The easy suspension of disbelief? What was the moral lesson?

It was too much work for most people, but that was the point of the back-lot, no-frills, patchwork silliness. It required the viewer to put some effort into the thing – to really listen to it, to really watch it – and to not take themselves or the shows very seriously.

Like Rocky Horror Picture Show, these were cult things. They were group things, too – I rarely watched HHGtG or Dr. Who alone. You headed to a friend’s place, and watched them with a half-dozen other people. And Rocky Horror Picture Show was literally a public event – it was experienced in costume, in a real theatre, and we threw real rice and every single person in that theatre stood up and danced the damned Time-Warp because otherwise, what was the point?

Now people watch RHPS at home alone and think they “get it”.

Dr. Who? It has been repackaged as a slick Hollywood morality play, and everything is either expensively constructed or meticulously CG’d so as to provide a seamlessly streamed narrative that has no edges or gaps.

I don’t watch the new stuff. There’s no point to doing so because the new stuff has no relationship to what made the originals so engaging and so addictive. The only reasons most of people now are strung out on Dr. Who is because it is fashionable and trendy to be so, and also because the desertification of tv through reality shows has made even the thin thread of amusing narrative left in these things seem like oases.

I couldn’t find a full original Dr. Who from 1963, but HHGtG can be found on Youtube, and you should watch it. It’s a lot funnier, a lot more interesting, and ultimately satisfying than any updated, smoothly-paced, multi-million dollar version with recognizable and bankable “names” can ever be.

But find five or six friends to be with when you do this. Trust me. It’s a community thing.

It’s All Hard.

I’m hard on my clothes.

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No, seriously. I am. I wear things out – my jeans get ripped and threadbare, my favourite tee shirts have holes everywhere, and my sweaters have seen better days. There are rips in the pockets of my winter coat*, the linings of my jackets are all frayed, and my shoes have holes in them.

I’m hard on my computers – I work them to death. I’ve gone through three laptops in six years, and I fully expect this one to die sometime next winter. There’s a crack in my tablet screen, too.

I’m hard on people. I am critical, and judgemental, a lot – I try not to be, but in my heart of hearts, I know I don’t extend much internal courtesy when I think people are being idiots.** I keep working on that, but it’s, you know, — HARD.

I’m hard on writers, too. When I edit, I am snarky and blunt. I want them to be better, and I lack the gene that knows how to slide that editorial knife in with a dollup of sugar. I just say “This is crap – rewrite it.” and then I move on to the next authorial blunder. (In my defense, most of my authors improve a lot from the first book to the second, so this might be less of a fault than it looks like.)

But most of all, I am hard on myself. As a writer, as a friend, as a human being – I know that I fall short of my ideals every goddamned day, and I lay awake beating myself up over it pretty much every night.

To be honest, I don’t know anyone of any worth who doesn’t.

 

*My English winter coat. My Canadian winter coat is much tougher than I am.

**Did you know that our word “idiot” is from the Greek “idiotas” which referred to citizens who didn’t take politics and good governance seriously? True story.

More Stuff…

I have a newsletter.

Well, no, I don’t. What I have is an account with Mailchimp, and someday, when there is something to write about (like “I’m giving away Advanced Reading Copies!” or “This is the new cover art – what do you think?” or even “This short story is only going to be printed here!”) and assuming someone actually subscribes, I will issue a short newsletter.

This also assumes that I can figure out Mailchimp’s templates and make it all work, of course.

Meanwhile, you can sign up here:

http://wordpress.us15.list-manage2.com/subscribe?u=c8ecb40b229305b24375bac28&id=f8931fc912

(I tried to embed the link, but it just refuses to show up…sorry. Technology hates me.)

We Don’t Get No Respect

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“I know a guy who wrote a book about being a part-time vet in the fifties.”

“My mom’s writing a book about growing avocados in your windowsill.”

“We should team up. I have this great idea for a book about a guy who gets marooned on Venus. You could write it and we’ll split the profits.”

 

I guarantee you that every writer you know has heard variations of these. Because how hard can the writing part be? We all learned to write in grade school. Nothing to it.

 

“You don’t look like you’re working.”

 

“How much did you get done today?”

 

“Can you pick up my drycleaning while you’re at it?”

 

The trouble with writing is it doesn’t look like work.

Typing, for a start, is so indelibly connected to “things women do” that even when you are really bombing ahead and churning out the prose, people figure it’s something you can just pick up and put down – it’s not important, it’s not difficult (otherwise, secretaries wouldn’t be overwhelmingly female, amirite?) and it isn’t, in most people’s minds, connected to continuity and logic and all that.

So people feel free to interrupt you. They get miffed if you don’t respond with both immediacy and manners. They feel you should be able to concentrate on them.

I mean, it’s not like you were doing anything important, right?

And heaven forfend if you should be doing that other writerly thing that looks even less like writing: staring off into the near distance, trying to figure out if having your heroine have to climb a ten foot wall is do-able without a ladder, or if getting pickpocketed will hamper some plot twists further along.

It’s hard to explain to non-writers, even the non-writers who grasp, however dimly, that it’s a specific skill-set, and one they do not possess: it doesn’t look like “work” – there’s no sweat or power tools involved, and for most of us, there’s no actual real-estate devoted to it: you write in a café, or at the kitchen table, or, as in my case, on my laptop in bed.

Like art, and like music, it has been defined as a frill, as some kind of adult “play”, something one does “on the side”, for amusement.

 

It’s a funny thing, though.

Every tyrant, dictator, and fascist’s first act of repression is to round up and execute the artists, the musicians, and yes: the writers.