Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Choral Interlude



The winds that blows ceaselessly through the forests of the blogsphere carry many voices. Every now and then the chorus swells loud enough so that our straining ears can distinguish a few words of the refrain.
That harmonic then diminishes andante to distant mumble and some new lyric carried forward allegro.
A recent yodel concerned "voice."
A writer must have a "voice."
Er...yes. Certainly. A "voice." To be heard.
So, just what is Voice?
What we used to call "style?"
The writer's choice of individual words? Personal vocabulary?
The particular or peculiar construction of his sentences? Clever tricks with verbs and punctuation?
His choice of imagery and description?
His thematic perspective ?
His tempo of dialogue, description, action and exposition?
Some combination of the above that doesn't make an agent or editor reach for their luger?
"Yaw," you say, "maybe. We know it when we see/hear it."

I mentioned I had dragged down and subsequently re-read a clutch of old crime/adventure novels featuring the Saint by Leslie Charteris. Some of the books were early thirties paperbacks, others were published several decades later. The contrast startled me.
The later plots were less crude, more deftly constructed.
The prose had shed its charming extravagance of visual imagery, the deliberate elegant variations, the amused, invitational omniscient interjections.
The characters had become less caricatures and more viably realistic.
And dull.
Even the Saint himself had developed with Bond-like smoothness.
In short, the Saint had become a cliche of himself.
Undistinguished. Bleah.
I feel that Charteris had lost his "voice."

Usually our ear is not perfect enough to adequately recognize our own "voice." We may assault the ears of other in ways much different than we think and must depend on them to categorize our dulcet tones.
How has your "voice" been described?

29 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

How has my voice been described? Annoying and shrill - but that was my husband talking...

Seriously, no critique partner. I'm about to get feedback on a ms by an author. Maybe she'll say something about that.

Savannah Jordan said...

When people speak of my writing, it is always how clear and poignant of an image I create in their minds, never about my 'voice.' The only one to speak of 'voice' is my agent and the fact that she believes I have found it. Now if she could just tell me what it is!

Bernita said...

Sure, Sandra, sure.
When's the wake?

It will be interesting if she touches on that, out of curiosity if nothing else -seeing how "voice" seems to be one of the noms du jour.

Sometimes when they speak of "voice" they simply mean the writing is clear and assured. Other times they use the term to define a certain stylistic individuality. Nice when they add a few adjectival arpeggios to it.
Nice terms, Savannah,effect of the cause.

Rick said...

Voice is one of those lit terms, along with theme, that I never quite get. I know what style and plot are, but not voice and theme. (I have the vague idea that theme is plot minus all the plot specifics, but voice?)

So, since I can't answer the question, I'll just repeat the most interesting bit of praise I've gotten, from a British (specifically Cornish) friend who said "I've figured out why this is good: Catherine is not American."

Is that related to voice? I've no idea!

Dennie McDonald said...

hmm... that's a good question. I don't know. I'm not sure that anyone has ever told me that. well, once I was accused of being too male-bashing - can't imagine that one, not me. But I don't know that that is voice so much as the content of the story that was read

Ric said...

Bernita was nice enough to send me a note - gentle, sweet, and decent.

Of course, that was before she knew me very well.

Voice is tricky. It comes through as an overall tone, a sense of comfort with the writer. Some writers you just never get comfortable with... Pynchon comes to mind. Others have that certain something that keeps you coming back for more...Stephen King, in my case.

My experience has been that my shorter pieces, columns, letters, carry more of my 'voice' than my novels. Not sure why, but it is a challenge to translate from short to a full length piece.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Hey doll,
You got a very honourable mention in Grumpy Old Bookman today.
Something about Leslie Charteris.
His voice?

Carla said...

Rick - yes, I think that would come under the category of 'voice', and I understand just what your Cornish friend meant. British and American sound unmistakably different to me, though I couldn't come up with a definition.
Is 'voice' just a fashionable term for what used to be called style?

Rick said...

Carla, I almost suspect that voice is just the fashionable term for style, but I sense a slight additional connotation without quite being able to put a finger on it.

Bernita said...

Rick, to me theme is something overreaching like "history repeats" which the plot expostulates(!) and sub-themes or minor themes may be included as well.
Interesting comment!

I'd say it was subject, Dennie, unless she was quantifying or qualifying a feminist voice. BTW, what t'hell is a "feminist voice?"
Your blog voice may be different from your narrative voice too.

And that was before I realized how sly you were, Ric. That's what I get for being honest and sincere.They'll use it against you.Care to sing tenor?
But it's true that some "voices" change according to subject and purpose, and different rules and expectations can restrict it.

Ivan! Thank you for the notice! And very, very kind of him! To me it was style they share, a leisured, humorous, delight-in-language style that invites one to share.

That's what I suspect, Carla. But you're on key to my ear about a national style. One seems more deliberately aggressive, the other more laid-back.Interesting.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yea...snort, snort...I fall into the male bashing catagory also.

My personal voice is loud and boisterous (imagine that!) but I don't know about my written voice.

I think it takes repeated exposure to someone's written word before you notice, I think???

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

So that's how Grumpy does it!
I really enjoy his writing; straighforward and clear. He does have a way of sort of backing into things.

Makes me chuckle a little. I was once pals with a Joan Bowman, a terrific writer for the Calgary Herald. Anyway, she went to get a job with the Globe and Mail and they told her she was too zippy a writer. "Zippy writers get shat upon around here. We kind of back into things." And they would, if you are old enough to remember the old broadsheet Globe and Mail. Almost turgid.
Can you be too good a writer for the Globe and Mail?
Jaysus, they even printed something with my name on it. A personal memoir, no less. What's the world coming to?
Zippy Lood King

Bernita said...

Bonnie, I have seen you quietly and delicately take apart a presumption with clarity and precision, with stiletto prose so clean they didn't even realize they were bleeding.It read like a leopard stalking. Other stuff I haven't read enough of but there is an undercurrent of joyous laughter in it all.

Be that as it may, Ivan, I think you overwhelmed them with your allusiveness. The Globe can be a sucker for that.

Sela Carsen said...

I have no idea. The word "snarky fun" appears frequently, however.

On my way to check the Grumpy Old Bookman now.

Bernita said...

Sela, that was once described as wit and humor.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I haven't killed him yet Bernita! Or do you mean I should be watching out because of what I said on my blog comments? Hmmm, maybe.

Yes, it will be interesting if she touches on voice, because that is the current catchphrase. I expect to see books about finding your voice soon.

But without laringitis, I haven't really lost it so I don't know I need to shell out the cash...

(Methinks my voice is a wee bit snarky, acerbic. A cynic with a dark mind. But I occasionally do sweet. In small doses.)

Bernita said...

Nope. Just a comment on his lack of diplomacy.

You could add a dry expectation that your readers better not be idiots - or they will be sorry. Any way, I certainly enjoy it.

Erik Ivan James said...

I think about writing voice as being the manner in which one tells the story.

Think about a campfire with each person seated around it taking their turn at telling a tale. Some will have the voice tones, expressions, mannerisms, story embellishments, etc., that will draw all around the fire into the story. The listeners will feel and picture the happenings within the tale as it is being told and, in some limited form, play their own part within the story. Others of the tale-tellers will only be able to focus the listeners on the words that are being spoken. It is the former that is first, and last, invited to tell a tale at the next campfire.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Voice is what makes the work unique to the author. The music.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Wow...me...all that~blush~!

Can I use that for a book blurb when I get published...LOL

It sometimes amazes me as to how we see ourselves and then how other people see us....I like your mirror better....Does it come with spectral presence that talks back?? I've got a few questions!

Bernita said...

Nice analogy, Erik. Thank you.
Ok, Mindy, key of C.

Gabriele C. said...

Well, my voice has been described as "wistful and elegant" which is something I really like. And when I once posted a snippet in FM chat and asked whether it was sufficiently gritty, someone said it was "lyrically gritty" - so I'd say lyrical is another quality of my voice.

On good writing days, I can feel my voice flow. On bad days - better don't get me started. ;-)

Bernita said...

Gabriele, what a perfectly lovely description! Those are evocative terms!

Tsavo Leone said...

I suppose the coment that crops up most concerning my writing style is that it's "...just enough to..." (suck me in, make me want to know more, etc.), though I do view that as being different to my voice.

To me, a writer's voice is more about the words they use, the phrasing, etc. much as Bernita herself mentions. To that end, my writing voice is very similar to my spoken voice, only with the benefit of ProTools and a graphic equaliser. Yep, I write the way I speak and vice versa.

A writer's style is something different to their voice in my humble opinion, a (sub?)conscious decision about what to reveal and when, and what not to reveal and why.

Or, to put it another way: I always remember Stephen King talking about one of his stories, and how he had passed it on to another writer for a read-through: The writer passed it back to King and said "It needs to go for another beat," to which King replied "Yeah, that's what I thought too."

References have been made to music here too. Taking that on a stage further, what kind of music are you making? From reading some of her posts (and I commented to this effect at the time) I imagine Bernita to be creating a fusion of Gregorian chants and Gospel choir singing, with a healthy helping of sly Monty Python "Always look on the bright side of life" asides carefully placed along the way. As for me? Well, I've never been good at describing something I'm so close to but I'd have to venture that it's got weight (i.e. it's heavy), it's got groove, and it's got melody: kind of like Faith No More if Mike Patton had been female... actually, imagine an all-female Faith No More...

Okay, now you're all scratching your heads, I think I'd better leave...

Bernita said...

Tsavo, are you describing "voice" or suspense?

And I think I have been flattered out of my friggin' mind. Would that be "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", Tsavo or "Let My People Go - in Plain Song?

Tsavo Leone said...

I'd say that suspense is part of my writing style, not my voice. Perhaps for me it's as much a case of voice informs style as the other way around.

As for "Swing Low..." I used the examples based purely on my own internal imagery: Joyous and soulful voices tinged with a slight ethereal melancholy and/or dread, in turn offset by a whimsical irreverance... but in literary form.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Tsavo.

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