Vintage WD: It Starts With Voice - Writer's Digest

Vintage WD: It Starts With Voice

This WD article from 1993 offers an in-depth look at how a writer's voice makes or breaks their work and provides some tips that will help writers of all genres.
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Writer's Digest, June 1993

By Michael Orlofsky

FBF 20200925

Voice is your mind.

Increasingly, in contemporary fiction the energy of the narrative has been shifting from characterization to the author’s voice. Maybe the best part of fiction always has been the author’s voice, but that’s not the way I was taught to approach writing. I was taught to start with character.

I’m not sure that advice is sound anymore.

The search for “unique” characters can lead to monstrosities: Already this semester my creative writing students have turned stories about a mass murderer; a woman who beats and abandons her child; a woman who kills brother, lover, aunt and self; a man who remorsefully knifes an assailant to death; and a sociopath at a mall with an automatic weapon in his gym bag.

These are sweet, normal undergraduates. Finally, I issued a ban: no more dead bodies in workshop. I worry less about my students’ vision of society, however, than I do about their perception of themselves and about how their selves become fiction.

Maybe these stories are nighttime anxiety-dreams surfacing as daytime anxiety-fictions. Regardless, their authorial voices aren’t their own; they belong to prime time.

When teachers or editors or other readers say a character isn’t interesting, what they’re really saying is that the author isn’t interesting. Because character is the author, plus memory, plus imagination, plus observation.

What captures story readers is a sense that the voice of the author has authority.

When Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” I am of a mind to follow the author anywhere. No character has yet appeared; no plot line has begun. What captures me is Tolstoy’s voice—its wisdom, compassion, observance, control.

Reading the opening paragraphs of a story or novel, I search for signs of the author’s voice: Is she an authority? What descriptive words is she using? What comments is she making about her character? What unique observation is she putting into her character’s head?

I first read Ethan Canin’s story “The Emperor of the Air” in manuscript at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the voice in the opening paragraph is still one of the best I’ve heard:

Let me tell you who I am. I’m 69 years old, live in the same house I was raised in, and have been the high school biology and astronomy teacher in this town so long that I have taught the grandson of one of my former students. I wear my father’s wristwatch, which tells me it is past 4:30 in the morning, and thought I have thought otherwise, I now think that hope is the essence of all good men.

I don’t know when I began reading stories as architecture rather than as entertainment, but I believe it’s a deeper and truer participation with the author. It’s the difference between simply suspending my disbelief and saying, Okay, teach me something.

In many narratives, it’s difficult to distinguish between the protagonist and the voice telling the story. This is obvious in the first-person point of view, such as Canin’s. But in contemporary fiction there seems to be a voice behind first-person narrators, as well, and that voice is even stronger when used with third-person limited point-of-view. It’s the voice of the author.

Publishers constantly seek this voice. Listen to the advertising blurbs about Pam Houston’s first collection of stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness:

[Her] voice is something new in fiction … [she] has verve and perfect pitch … her prose [is] sharp and clean and full of sentences worth underlining … mastery of language that conveys both a quality of mind and a quality of situation.

The Nature of Voice

What do I mean by voice? It’s not exactly style, not exactly tone. It’s not intrusive, and in really well-written fiction you may not even notice it.

Voice is the controlling consciousness of the work.

Character and voice are symbiotic—each is crucial to the success of the story. Take away good characterization, and little remains but recipe-like; take away voice, and little remains but characters from Night of the Living Dead.

In Barthelme’s “The Emerald,” for example, the main characters are a witch and her offspring, a 7,035-carat talking emerald. What carries the narrative when a character has no belly button and possesses facets instead of flesh and blood? Barthelme’s voice. His controlling consciousness. The authority of that consciousness.

Poets have addressed the primacy of voice more frequently than fiction writers because in many cases poems don’t contain character. Peter Levi defines authorial voice as personal speech “conveying a full personality in all its ramifications, including even the brain and the view of the world.”

I like that: personality … even the brain and the view of the world.

Levi suggests that voice is the most compelling feature of poetry: “Those young poets who have yet to develop individual views or personalities stand small chance of detaining our attention.”

Voice is equally compelling in fiction—particularly in a postmodernist landscape of fragmented plots, ideologies and characterizations. What holds such narratives together? Voice.

To an extent, voice is the genius of an author, in both the ancient and modern senses: the spirit that constitutes the intellectual personality, and the vision that transcends. Genius cannot be taught. But the elements of voice can.

Word Choice

After nouns, the most important parts of speech in fiction are verbs and adjectives. Using more active verbs and more descriptive adjectives is the most direct way to improve the authority of your voice.

Here’s Hemingway’s description of vultures in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”: “… the huge, filthy birds sat, their naked heads sunk in the hunched feathers. A fourth planed down, to run quick-legged and then waddle slowly toward the others.”

The passage is unusually descriptive for Hemingway—from the beginning of his baroque period, some critics have quipped—but it strikes an incredibly visual impression, one that rises to symbol.

Tip: Instead of using Roget’s Thesaurus to hunt for synonyms to fix flat verbs and adjectives, try different sources, such as Foster’s A Shakespeare Word-Book or Bartlett’s Concordance to Shakespeare. The problem with Roget is that it’s denotative rather than connotative: Synonyms for the adjective fiery are igneous, empyreal and ignescent. Not much use in revising “fiery crash,” are they?

The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is his genius for connotation—the shadings of meaning. In King Lear, the words nature, natural and unnatural occur at least three dozen times (I counted), each used with a slightly different shading. As a matter of fact, in English we claim at least 500,000 words in active usage; in all of his plays, however, Shakespeare needed only 29,066 words. He relied on connotation.

Tip: Don’t try to change every verb and adjective into a hot-house flower because the prose will become too dense, too purple, too metaphorical and, paradoxically, too vague. Save the exquisite verb or adjective for just the right spot.

Schemes and Tropes

Don’t bail out on me just because schemes and tropes sound too old-fashioned for the hip fiction you want to write. We use these techniques everyday in our speech, and they are the stock in trade of advertising. A scheme is simply a deviation from ordinary word or sentence arrangement, such as parallelism or alliteration, while a trope is a deviation from ordinary word usage or meaning—a figure of speech. Simile and metaphor are tropes, as are understatement, the rhetorical question, irony, oxymoron and onomatopoeia (vroom).

Modern writers use the classical figures of speech all the time. A great example is William Gass’s long story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” which employs a scheme of repetition in the title, followed by trope after scheme after trope in the opening paragraphs:

You can reach us by crossing a creek. In the spring the lawns are green, the forsythia is singing, and even the railroad that guts the town has straight bright rails which hum when the train is coming, and the train itself has a welcome horning sound.

Down the back streets the asphalt crumbles into gravel. There’s Westbrook’s, with the geraniums, Horsefalls, Mott’s. The sidewalk shatters. Gravel dust rises like breath behind the wagons. And I am in retirement from love.

Tip: Pick up a copy of Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (3 ed., Oxford Univ. Press) because it lists, explains and illustrates many schemes and tropes. It’s one of those books that belong on every serious writer’s shelf. It may sound like a stuffy read, but Corbett is entertaining and enlightening.

Tip: Take risks with your prose style, and more than likely you’ll discover schemes and tropes on your own that have been around for millennia.

Literary Genres

The poet E.D. Snodgrass observed that “Homer said it all.” Here at the end of the 20 century, many critics and a few writers argue that all possible literary genres have been explored, leaving a literature of exhaustion.

By natural inclination I disagree. It seems awfully shortsighted to assume that we as a planet-civilization have used up our imaginative birthright.

Be that as it may, many old literary genres have been reworked to suit modern literary tastes—from parables and family memoirs to slice-of-lifes and bodice-rippers. Surely the bildungsroman (rite of passage), the epistolary (letters), and the picaresque (roque) novels are forms as valuable today as when The Sorrows of Young Werther, Pamela, and Moll Flanders appeared.

Your voice will have more authority by incorporating a tried-and-true form because you will be tapping into the deep cultural currents that gave rise to the form in the first place. Again, the greatest example of this kind of borrowing is Shakespeare: Hamlet is based on something called the Ur-Hamlet—an old-time revenge tragedy—while The Tempest was derived from the travel literature popular during the Elizabethan period.

Tip: The late novelists and teacher John Gardner suggested “genre-crossing” as a means of creating novelty in literature. He said Donald Barthelme’s incredible fictional creations were based on research questionnaires, horror shows, cartoons, fairy tales, even psychiatrists‘ transcripts.

Look at the success of Star Wars, for example, as a space-age western.

Tip: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford Univ. Press) and Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms (Penguin) are wide-ranging assemblages of genres, with definitions and examples.

Imitation

The ancient strategy of imitating the masters to improve one’s speaking and writing continued and flourished during the Renaissance and has only recently been frowned on. By consciously imitating other authors, however, you can learn the limitations of their voices and discover new aspects of your own.

Tip: Imitate Hemingway’s dialogue, and then send your version to the annual Hemingway Short Story Competition (Box 4045, Key West, Florida 33041; send SASE for rules and entry form). You’ll discover Hemingway’s genius for compacting psychological tension into a few words of spoken dialogue. Use what you learn from the Hemingway exercise—but replace his knowledge with your knowledge, replace his vision with your vision.

WD Editor's Note: You can now submit your short stories through the competition's website.

Do the same with Faulkner’s exposition, William Least Heat Moon’s description, with Pynchon’s humor.

Research

Knowledge is power.

In a highly compartmentalized society, can a writer be expected to know a region he has not visited, know a dialect not his own, know the jargon of a specialized trade or profession such as carpentry or law?

You can write about anything you want to.

Flannery O’Connor said the problem with the South wasn’t that it was alienated from the rest of the country, but that it was getting more and more like the rest of the country.

That’s the paradox of American culture! We seem to be both homogeneous but separate (ethically, religiously, socially, economically). To bridge that gap, to satisfy the reader’s need for authenticity, you can research to learn about particular places, occupations, histories. Tom Wolf urges writers to report the “status details” of people in “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.”

Status details are founded in 19-century realism; descriptions of rooms, clothing, habits of speech and deportment. Balzac wrote: “Tell me what you possess, and I will tell you what you think.”

Although more than 100 years old, this kind of materialistic determinism appears frequently in contemporary fiction—in fact, it may be a hallmark of it.

Joy Williams in her story “Health” writes about a 12 year old’s tanning session, but along the way she describes a truck carrying a load of busted TV sets, and one of the models has a bullet hole in the center of the screen. In quick succession, Williams mentions plastic-lidded cups that fit into dashboard-mounted brackets, a song on the radio (“Tainted Love”), and plastic junk along the beaches at Padre Island, Texas.

Further, I’d like to see the old chestnut “write about what you know” abolished. I find it a touch insulting. Just because my students live in the rural deep south doesn’t mean they can’t write convincingly about pizza parlors in Chicago.

Emile Zola’s Germinal is the best novel about coal miners I’ve read, but Zola didn’t know borscht about mining until he lived for several weeks among miners in northern France.

Writing only about what you know undercuts the most energetic of contemporary genres, science fiction.

Tip: Your story’s setting can be anywhere, but you have to do your homework. This semester a student opened a story set in Cleveland. The description of Lake Erie just before the storm was great, and the details of Euclid Park were believable, down to the stone riprap along the shore. But the student blew it a few lines further down when she mentioned the Super Bowl Champion Browns.

Tip: Use the library. Many larger libraries carry phone books from cities around the country. These are great sources of character names, authentic businesses and stores, maps, even brief histories of the area.

Fodor’s travel guides (McKay/Random House) will give you abundant local color about places you’ve never been to, or better yet, will refresh your memory of places you have visited.

Experience

I want my students to become keener observers of their culture and their roles in it. John Gardner noted that a writer’s authority consists of two elements: humanness, and the writer’s trust in his or her aesthetic judgements and instincts.

But it is more than that: Authority involves your values and your vision.

Hemingway altered the writing of fiction in this century. As the critic Arnold Gingrich said, “Hemingway not only worked out a new way of setting things down but, far more important, he worked out a new way of looking at things before setting them down.”

Tip: Listen. What are people saying on the street? In cafés? In committee meetings? Jot down the sentences that strike you. I heard this one from a woman with heavy makeup in a store in Pottsville, Pennsylvania: “I was born in the 5 & 10—that’s why I’m so cheap.” It’s a good line, but what is the woman saying about herself? Seems there’s a fair amount of pain underneath the jocularity.

Tip: Travel. Travel anywhere—to the town down the road or the Bighorns in Wyoming. There are few solitary geniuses like Emily Dickinson (although I’m certain quiet Emily got around more than her legend suggests). Think of the loss to American literature if Melville never had signed aboard the Acushnet bound for the South Seas?

Travel forces you to examine your values, ideas and sensibilities against other people’s. Maybe the trip to Moscow won’t result in a story—but you’ll understand firsthand what conflict is, what fear is, and what the soul of a people is.

Tip: Finally, read widely because you’ll learn that it’s OK to do anything you like. You must read widely and deeply, and when you do, you’ll know how good your writing can be.

Harness your voice with this collection of digital resources.

Harness your voice with this collection of digital resources.