Tagged: voice

Friday Writing Experiment No. 56: Fanmail


Inspired by Joanna Rakoff typing replies to fanmail for J.D. Salinger, described in My Salinger Year (and my own review), do one of the following:

* Write a letter to a writer whose work has left an everlasting impression upon you.

* Write a letter to one of your readers.

* Write a fan letter to yourself.

* Reply to fanmail sent to you.

* Write a letter in which you give advice back to yourself on writing (or any other matter) in the manner of a worldwise author with a fanbase.

If you really want to get into the spirit of Joanna Rakoff’s book, type your letter on a typewriter, or pen it on Hello Kitty stationery (or paper of your own craziness/choosing).

Friday Writing Experiment No. 53: Breaking Up Is Never Easy, You Know

Okay, so I was going to stop weekly writing experiments, but in fact I had decided to do them every now and then as the whim takes me and inspiration strikes. And lo! So soon.

The spur and inspiration: my brilliant friend Bhanu Kapil, and her brilliant blog, which this week included a post of her break-up letter to Jacques Derrida.

Dear Derrida: I waited for you behind the pillar at the Rijksmuseum in 1988.  Do you recall? We drank cocoa in the cafe. You showed me how to breathe.  I was wearing a lambs wool jumper. You were wearing a mauve silk shirt unbuttoned to your mid chest. Though it was cold. It was winter. I break up with how much I longed for you at that time of my life. I break up with the desire to be seen. Hey. Are you reading this?  Death: a letterbox. You are so beautiful. I sank to my knees. I am sorry I did not understand your poetry at the time and judged it so harshly. Goodbye for now. Goodbye forever. Love: you know who I am.

I reckon that break-up letters are great for writing. You tap into something profound. You latch on to details, and then latch the writing on to those details. Your voice is powerful and direct in its address. Your writing is laden with purpose. Go for it!

For this week’s writing experiment: Write a break-up letter. True, fictional, personal, political (Scotland didn’t write one after all yesterday).

(The writing of this post is not responsible for any ensuing divorces. It is amazing what can surface in writing experiments.)

(And additional thanks to Ella Longpre, who once gave me a brass heart, which afterwards I realised made me the Tin Man. If I only had a heart … And he had one all along.)

(PS I should stop judging poetry I don’t understand so harshly too.)


Tell Me A Story


Among the many manuscripts that I read for people who’re at the start of their fiction-writing careers (and also among many contemporary novels I read as well), I think one of the most significant weaknesses that I encounter is the lack of a narrative voice. Lack of a narrator, even. Nothing excites me more in writing than being told a story, so give me a storyteller, please.

There are probably several reasons for this lack. One, I think, is that emphasis on showing rather than telling that is ardently promoted in mondo creative writing. With good reason, of course. Too much inferior writing is clunky in how it plonks information our way. If we are simply told the vicar is cruel, we’ll take that in as a piece of data, and there is a chance we won’t really absorb it that deeply, or feel it: that information is delivered as something for the mind, and it can easily go in one ear and out the other. It is, perhaps, a less engaging and maybe even a lazy form of telling us something.

We’re probably going to be drawn much more experientially into a scene that shows how the vicar who is kind to his congregation is cruel to his children. It could show us his cruelty through the things that he does (action – the beating with a knotted pillowcase, the locking in the attic) and through the things that he says (dialogue – ‘You are your mother’s son!’ ‘You’re going to burn in a lake of fire!’). I think of such writing as dramatising: action and dialogue create a dramatic scene that brings a human point to life. It’s not only delivering an item of information about the vicar, but embodying it in a way that excites our passions and feelings about him.

But showing can be overdone. A lot of (unpublished) (or self-published) writing in the thriller, fantasy and science fiction genres emphasises foreground action in such a way that it reads more like film or tv than a novel. Of course, action is important in these forms, but such writing often relies heavily on closeups of characters running around at a madcap pace or talking to each other in info dumps: it can feel like an overwrought script for Dr Who. Though cinematic qualities can be super for bringing a world to life, especially through visual detail, prose fiction has many other things available to it that screenwriting cannot use, in particular the narrator (voiceovers are often frowned upon in the screenwriting world, I am told).

An excess of foreground action can also affect the pace, as events start to blur into each other. A narrator can take charge, punctuating and controlling the momentum of an unfolding story.

Writing that shows too much still needs to tell us things (e.g., about characters’ back stories), and trapped in its mode of ceaseless showing it often breaks for those ruminations we call interior monologues. And all too often, sentences that begin something like ‘She remembered when …’ are red flags that this reader’s attention is about to drift … Couldn’t a good old-fashioned invisible narrator recount a bit of what I call narrative summary as a simple way to convey this back story, instead of these rememberings?

An example of narrative summary from one of the great short stories, Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

Yes, there’s telling there, but it’s elegantly done: those eccentric and revealing names of both people and places, the rhythm of Annie Proulx’s prose (which I dare to say amounts to poetry), the simple truths of these lives. It also comes after a couple of paragraphs of what amounts to prologue that presents some evocative and curiosity-pricking showing of Ennis in the present day (and present tense). And most of all, this narrative summary is efficient, and engaging.

And sometimes showing is simply too subtle, particularly with literary fiction. Katharine Viner summed this up finely in an article she wrote a few years back on judging the Orange Prize:

There were two particularly low points. One was when I had a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses, often at the University of Iowa. They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. At one point, I rang a friend and shouted at her, “I wish some of these bloody writers would write about Iraq!” Or anywhere with a bit of politics or meaning.

Since then, in classes I’ve referred to that excess of subtlety as the Dishwasher Syndrome. You see it in a lot of what might be called ‘workshop fiction’ – carefully chilled prose, often written by sensible graduates in English literature, that is totally free of both error and soul.

So: perhaps we could gain from a bit more subjectivity in our narrating, please? Andrew Lownie’s blog this week included a feature on what editors want, where Mark Richards, editorial director at John Murray, says:

can we bring back the third-person narrator? I read a lot of novels where there’s a lot of statement – about what’s happening or what a character’s thinking – and not a lot of texture to that statement; no sense of the novel itself having an opinion on the events it relates. Perhaps it’s the long reach of Hemingway, but whatever it is, the effect is often deadly – it’s forgoing one of the great generators of irony and comedy in novels.

He also says: ‘I really think novels should be in the third person, unless there’s a very good reason for them not to be. Too many debut novelists, it seems to me, think that the first person is easier than the third. It’s not: it’s significantly more difficult to tell a story when the narrator is within that story, and doesn’t have the advantage of omniscience.’

There are plenty of good reasons to use first-person, of course; the ingenious plotting of a novel such as Fingersmith is achieved through extremely deft use of point of view, which works its magic through first-person narration in a way where third- would not succeed as grandly. The bigger issue might be that many debut novelists are maybe too ambitious, and probably as yet lack the expertise to pull off the first-person with aplomb, though we can certainly find plenty of successful cases, once we start looking. Fingersmith was Sarah Waters’ third novel, but her first, Tipping The Velvet, has a super first line, launching its first-person narration: ‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’

Think of all those great first lines spoken by narrators, first- and third-person: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ ‘Call me Ishmael.’ ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ ‘The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived.’

And, of course, ‘Once upon a time.’ That sense of narrating is perhaps nowhere stronger than it is in fairy tales and folk stories, where storytelling maintains its roots in the oral tradition, and where that notion of a speaker talking to a listener is paramount. That direct form of speaking can be such a strong way to address a reader, too.

There’s much more that could be said about narrators. The importance of trusting the natural speaking voice as the foundation of your voice in writing (writers don’t need to find a voice; they already have one). Varying the ‘psychic distance’ (a term used by John Gardner to describe ‘the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story’, and which is discussed in an excellent blog post by Emma Darwin). Focalisation (as an alternative to thinking about point of view). The narrative stance of a piece of writing. Unreliable narrators. ‘In Search Of The Perfect POV’ describes one writer’s search for a suitable narrator. And another time I want to revisit showing vs telling, too, because good showing should not be neglected either. Good stories lie in that careful balance of showing (dramatic scene) and telling (narrative summary).

But for now it is enough to say that a narrator invites the reader in. Third-person or first-, narration grabs us, holds our attention by telling us a story. Importantly, it can give your voice – your writing – some personality. Ask yourself whether your story can gain from having a stronger narrator.

And maybe have a go at this writing experiment.

You might also want to take a look at this related post: A Book Is Not A Film.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 25: Voice 4: Other Voices


So, after writing experiments that look at listening (overheard dialogue), tone (emotion), and personal passions and purpose, which all in some way or other are about writing instinctively and easily, let’s bring some of these things together and also extend ourselves slightly by tasking ourselves on adapting our voices for speakers other than ourselves – fictional creations.

I’ve recently read a couple of things that made me think about ventriloquists. From my dictionary:

ventriloquist |vɛnˈtrɪləkwɪst|noun  a person, especially an entertainer, who can make their voice appear to come from somewhere else, typically a dummy of a person or animal.

One of these was Laird Hunt’s novel Kind One. Because it contains the sort of story that needs to be experienced directly, I’m not going to say anything about the book other than (1) it uses voices or personas for characters to great effect, and (2) you should get hold of a copy and read it for yourself as soon as you can, as it’s really really good (the judges who shortlisted it for a PEN/Faulkner award clearly agreed). Here’s a sample from close to the start:

Once I lived in a place where demons dwelled. I was one of them. I am old and I was young then, but truth is this was not so long ago, time just took the shackle it had on me and gave it a twist. I live in Indiana now, if you can call these days I spend in this house living. I might as well be hobbled. A thing that lurches across the earth. One bright morning of the world I was in Kentucky. I remember it all. The citizens of the ring of hell I have already planted my flag in do not forget.

Note the seeds of a story, a character already taking form in a particular setting and situation, and the quality of perceptions of that character as they are embodied in sentence structure and word choices. And how all that comes together in the VOICE. Laird is a long way from the reality of that character, but he’s creating a voice that’s coming from that somewhere else (though this character certainly isn’t a dummy!).

So this week task yourself on making your voice appear from someone else. Think about a character you can bring to life, putting him or her in a setting or situation that offers the seeds of a story, then as you start to write in first-person point of view be aware of the sentence structures and word choices that character’s voice uses. Embody that character, be that character, be that voice. Then write for a page, writing something that gets you started on something longer, perhaps.

If you need a prompt or a variation, root out of your library a piece of writing in first-person POV, and then type up a paragraph or two and keep on writing in that voice, but taking the story and character (the content) in your own direction. This has to be your own original creation, after all – no cheating! In fact, once you’ve finished, cut the original copied-out paragraph or two and be sure what remains is all your own.

Finally, a disclaimer: I know Laird. But a good book is a good book. Go and read it!

Friday Writing Experiment No. 24: Voice 3: Passion and Purpose

This week I read a remarkable post on The Deportee’s Wife, which is the blog of Giselle Stern Hernández, whom I know from Naropa.

Once you’ve read it for yourself, I imagine you too will agree that this is very powerful.

As a piece of writing, it engages with issues that are literally a matter of life and death: medical matters, health insurance, immigration, things that many of us take for granted and are lucky not to worry about. Politicians talk about such things, and make careers out of them. Meanwhile, other people have to live the consequences.

Forgive me for doing the editor’s version of ambulance chasing and looking beyond the content here, but I also read this to understand its form, and to see how and why a powerful piece of writing is created. There’s pacing. The paragraphs are well structured. Words are well chosen, unfussy, and purposeful. Complexities are introduced and explained with great clarity. People are brought to life. A story is forged. And we really care about the outcome.

Above all her other gifts, Giselle has an incredible voice – a voice with fire, with force, a voice that wants to change the world. I’ve been doing these writing experiments about voice, and nothing perhaps gives a voice more strength than passion and purpose.

This is important stuff. This isn’t fiction. This is real life. Even if you are writing fiction, it probably needs to contain real life too.

What do you care about? Where are your passions? What is your purpose?

This week, write about something you care about. Something vital, urgent. Dig deep (or maybe it’s already at the surface). Above all, let that vital matter fuel your voice, and really let it take control of you and your writing. No filters, no censors. Just say what must be said, and understand how that instinctively gets channelled into your voice, and out on to a page. Write, write, write until you stop.

Meanwhile, deep-felt thanks to Giselle for sharing her story, and an ever deeper wish that these matters are resolved, and soon. It’s really hard to know what to say here, without sounding trite, or worrying about saying the wrong thing. Really, we call ourselves writers, but sometimes words fail.

However, we muster ourselves, because words can be translated into action, and words are the things that will change the world. Viva Giselle!