Some of you have heard the story of how I came to see the importance of voice in writing (though this post is about more than that.)
As I’ve noted before, I am almost painfully dim when it comes to learning how to write or to improving my writing. Part of this might be because it’s a true “vocation” in the non-religious sense. It’s not just that I always wanted to be a writer, it’s that my particular set of skills and temperament seem geared towards it, and that I decided I’d be a professional writer very early in life. I think because of that, I write half by instinct and half by guess, and can miss VAST CHUNKS of craft without noticing. (I mean, consider I spent most of my young – and otherwise – life reading, and that I didn’t hit upon the concept of “scenes” until I found it in an how to book. If I had to take the character from the living room to the dining room, instead of saying “he walked to the dining room” and cutting to the next interaction, I dragged him over the floor inch by inch, describing the carpet. I thought I had to.) Which is also why I’m an OBSESSIVE student of writing and get advice from the oddest places, from Tennyson poems to song lyrics.
So, I figured out voice mattered (and what it was) when listening to Dave Weber at a panel at either Liberty Con or Constellation. On the panel was one of my fledgelings, whose name is withheld to protect the neurotic (which most new writers are. Oh, yeah, most old writers too.) This particular fledgeling has found a self-torture method that is more effective than cats of nine tails if less efficient. Fledgeling finds how-to-write advice on line, and then believes it. All of it. Because most of the advice on line is not from experienced writers but from newbies, the end results can range from the amusing to the terrifying. (And why would an extremely talented person do that, you ask? Well, DUH… er… writer.)
The latest bizarre advice was not to use (I think – hard to remember) the words “as” or “for” because they were – supposedly – the mark of a beginner and would trigger immediate rejection. (I don’t remember the words exactly, but seriously, they were that common.) Dave Weber listened to my “child”’s disquisition on this matter, looking increasingly puzzled (I was too, out in the audience) and then grabbed the mike and said “I don’t know if that’s true. I know I use those words. But even if it were true, what I’ve found is that if you tell the story convincingly and with confidence in your own voice, all such things will be forgiven.”
See, I’d had people tell me before “voice, you iz doing it wrong” – yes, all my editors are Lolcats. (No. I don’t mean it. It’s a joke. For heaven’s sake, Toni W., don’t aim there. Don’t aim there. I type with those!) – but no one had explained what voice was. And books on how to find your voice were worse than useless. One of them advised removing all adjectives and adverbs and all “not strictly needed” description and stage setting. As far as that goes, it’s not a bad style necessarily, though a bit outdated and reading a little like a stage play.
Weber’s comment made it all clear. It’s the confidence of the voice and – if I may say so – the appropriateness to the story. (Something I only found later.)
The best way to put this in perspective is to think of someone telling a joke at a party. Even if they get the wording a little wrong, and it was three sheep and an Anglican Bishop instead of two goats and a Catholic Monk, it doesn’t matter, provided they do the right expressions, put in the right pacing, and make you SURE they know how they’re telling the story, and even that the story is funny. (Seriously. Some people just by the tone of voice and bullying through can make you laugh even if they forget the punchline.) OTOH is there anything more nerve wracking than the person who stands there and goes “and then he says, are you horny or… No, wait. It was he says the hornier you are. Then… No.” Or even someone who delivers the absolutely perfect line in an apologetic tone and cringes? (Unless that’s appropriate.)
Of course it’s a little different to think of this in terms of stage performance when all you have are the words on the page, but I’ve found it DOES help to think of it in the same way I would when telling stories at a party.
I’m a bizarre mix of introvert and extrovert and tests swing one way or the other depending on the time of day and mood I take them in. But I do trend more towards the introvert. So being on panels or speaking in public, or telling a joke at a party, make me almost physically ill. The only way I could meet the demands of being a writer in the age when you have to self-publicize, was to put on a persona and pretend I was big and strong and brave and ENJOYED these interactions (weirdly, I do enjoy them while ‘in persona’) and I’ve found putting on the same mind set while writing works best.
But the weird thing is that, through that persona, I can actually show myself. Pratchett, in one of his books gives a younger person the advice that she should just be herself as hard as she can (I think that’s in one of the Tiffany Aching’s, but I’m sorry, I’ve only had one – admittedly large – cup of tea and my brain hasn’t come online yet.) And that’s what I find myself becoming, both on the page and in public. Through the false front of confidence, I can show the truth of who I am.
And this brings us to the part where this isn’t just for writers. My blog yesterday was, to an extent, about preference falsification and how it can lead to what amounts to a conspiracy of lies. You fear to disagree with those that are considered the “cool kids” and therefore what others hear is reinforced and leads to a unified – and totally wrong – image of the world setting in. (In most cases this is relatively harmless. When it touches on things such as how the genders interact or, say, economics, what we think we know can kill us. As a species, and often as individuals.)
When I lived in a college area – waggles hand – give or take ten years ago, I used to go for walks and cross paths with the college girls all slim and fashionable and, well… young, while I was staring forty in the face. And I remember thinking “I’d love to have my twenty year old body back, but I wouldn’t want the mind back for all the tea in China.” This was not because I wasn’t as smart at thirty as I was at forty (for a given definition of smart. Shut up you, and stop giggling. Also, pointing is rude.) It was because at thirty I was still afraid that if I opened my mouth and disagreed with people, people would hate me. Yes, at forty I was afraid they’d fire me (or never hire me again) but I no longer cared if they liked me or not. Frankly, if I judged them on their opinions (no, I don’t for a lot of people. I think they haven’t examined where those would lead) I wouldn’t like a lot of them. (It’s not defensible to support communism. No, I don’t care. It just isn’t. That whole thing about the press reporting selectively? Yeah. If they’d reported on communism as they did on fascism, it would be about as acceptable in social circles. It might have killed less than a hundred million people – though the quibbling is on the margins of the numbers – but it is still a disgusting, blood-stained doctrine based on envy, which, carried to its ends, leads to feudalism and oppression AND economic stagnation And if you think it would work perfectly this time, you’d better show me what species you intend on using for this, because it doesn’t work with humans. It can’t be tried in its “perfect” form because humans aren’t perfect. If they were, a system wouldn’t be needed.)
And you know what, I’ve found that in writing and in life, keeping your opinions and… your SELF under wraps distorts who you are. It is that distortion and hesitancy that makes the writing come across as lacking in flavor. And as for the life… Well, I’m not recommending any of you go out and mouth off and do yourself out of your job or home. But I AM recommending that when absolutely needed you don’t keep your mouth shut and you don’t falsify preference.
Will it cost you? Oh, heck yes. You pay for everything in life, be it in money or not. (And that’s another reason communism doesn’t work. You can’t abolish cost. To be alive is to work for a living and if you don’t, someone is doing it for you.) Usually what you don’t pay for in money is far more hideously expensive.
I’m sure since I started talking (has it only been a little over a year? Really?) it’s cost me. But here’s the thing – it was costing me before. It was costing me in stress and emotional twisting. And it wasn’t getting me all that far, possibly because it wasn’t my “true voice.”
But what, you’ll say, if you’re wrong? What if the things you believe aren’t true? Well, if you’re wrong be wrong on your own. Make your own mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes, anyway – yours or someone else’s. Which would you rather make?
I guarantee if you write long enough you’ll come to look at one or more of your books as “Good Lord, I wrote that? What was I thinking? Didn’t I know a thing about history?” And I guarantee if you live long enough you’ll live to laugh at one or more of your opinions.
But when your grandkids ask if you were really an unrestrained gold-standardist, Reformed, do you want to tell them “Yeah, this is why I thought it was a good idea at the time,” or “No, but I had to say that to get published?” I know which one I’d prefer.
So, go forth and live – and write – out loud. What’s the worst that can happen? Yeah, you could die for it. But isn’t it better than living for nothing?