Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Defensive Writing And Your Unique Voice

From the age of fifteen to about twenty-eight, I was obsessed with the idea of originality, which to me translated as style (when I was painting) or voice (when I was writing). Now that I feel more confident as a writer, I worry less about being original--I just try to write what I want to write. The cool part is that, I think the less we try to be original, the more original we become.

Yesterday I talked about not trying, the idea that if you just relax and approach writing naturally, you will end up using your own voice. Today, I'm discussing something similar, but it is a distinct strategy in my mind. This is the idea of writing defensively, which is not as bad as it sounds.

It's hard to write a perfect paragraph, never mind using the perfect voice. Your first drafts might have too much telling, or not enough telling. It might have too much description, or not enough description, etc. As you revise, you try to balance these things out. You try to use language that doesn't sound too vague or too formal. You try to make the dialog sound more natural, or more funny, or more whatever. The idea is that you try to fix all these things that are broken with your earlier draft. You don't have time to worry about using any sort of voice; you're really just trying not to sound like a stupid loser. (My language seems to have become more crude. I blame it on writer Scott G. F. Bailey, who made me start my Tuesday morning with the word bitchcakes.)

Anyway, as you are just trying your best to cobble together that most primitive of competent stories, your unique voice naturally emerges as a consequence of trying not to do anything wrong. Everyone has their own idea of what is ideal. I have a concept of how much description I like in a story that may be different, even if just by 0.0002675% from the next writer. Given all the different elements that make up voice, the likelihood of any two people having the same combination of preferences for all of these elements is tiny, probably 0. (Ever notice how no two people give you the same critique?) Just fix what's broken and, voila, you have a voice!

So, I guess I see today's idea working with yesterday's idea this way: First, you start a story by trying to free yourself of all those other influences you admire. You don't try to copy anyone or build off of anyone. You just be yourself. Then, as you revise, you strive to fix all those things that you find wrong with your writing. As a result, you end up with that rare combination of technical elements that only you think is perfect. Thus, without trying to have a unique voice, you end up having a unique voice.

More and more I read about how important voice is to agents and publishers. I'm not sure if what I'm advocating is in line with them. For me, as someone who usually writes in third person, the voice I'm seeking is the narrator's voice, which more often than not is what I consider MY voice. I think a lot of times agents are looking for character voices, either from narrator characters or from the characters in the story, such as when something is told in first person. I think this sort of voice has an extra step in that the writer must be able to step into that character before speaking. But, once you are there, then I would guess that it's again a matter of relaxing and trying to write as naturally as possible from that different point of view. I've only done this a few times, but that has been my experience.


  1. Ironically enough, blogging helped me find my voice. Go back and look at my archives--most of my early posts are tentative, straight-forward...boring. But after I got comfortable with the idea of blogging and played around with it a bit, I think I've got to the point where my voice--my perspective and personality--shine through!

    Now, doing that same thing with a character in a novel...whole different story. But I think one reason why writers (or at least me) have so much trouble with early chapters of a novel is because that voice hasn't been developed yet.

  2. My blogging voice is very different than my narrative voice in my novel. Different characters have distinctly different voices, too.

    I look at creating a novel in two phases. First is writing, where I think true voice just flows. Then there's editing, where voice comes under scrutiny and formality battles with style.

    Here's a cool new blog called "Come In Character" where you can exercise different voices:

    The moderator asks basic questions (e.g. What do you yearn for? What are your obstacles?) and you post comments in the voice of one or more of your characters.

    It's a good exercise, and a lot of fun.

  3. Davin, I find that when I read someone like Lahiri, who has a very distinctive voice, in my opinion, no matter which character's point of view takes and whether she writes in the first or third person, there is something that sits well with me about that. I feel like I can relax, that I am in good hands, based on past experience.

    But to achieve that consistent voice, I think she creates space between herself and the character, and I think some of that flows to the reader as well.

    On the other hand, Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain would be a totally different story if Lahiri wrote it, and I think a lesser one--that voice was 100% Ennis Del Mar. There is no formal space between the reader and the character (and therefore the story). And I have to say that of the two styles, Proulx's drew me into the story more, evoked greater emotion.

    So it's almost like I would say I admire Lahiri's craft, but I was putty in Annie Proulx's hands.

    As an author, which reaction would you rather have?

  4. My problem is not so much finding my voice as it is keeping my voice active. It always falls back to passive which is definitely not a good thing.

    And the dreaded author intrusion! I fear it and I know that it moves into my writing more often than not. But I can't seem to stop it, all I an do is backspace it out of my story when it emerges.

  5. "More and more I read about how important voice is to agents and publishers. I'm not sure if what I'm advocating is in line with them."

    You know, I have to confess that I'm never really sure what agents mean when they talk about "voice." I don't know if it's any different than "style." But I think that you're right about finding your unique voice/style, and that one must simply write as well as one can, and our own reading histories and aesthetic senses will give us a voice unlike anyone else.

    What I think agents and publishers want is simply writing that grabs them, writing that stands out from the thousands of manuscripts they see each year. As my agent says, he wants to miss his subway stop on the way home, so caught up is he in the writing. Again, I don't know if "voice" is something we can really deliberately develop; we should just concentrate on writing as beautifully, writing as well, as we can.

  6. "Oh, bitchcakes!"
    --Dauphin of France, Henry V, Act 3, Scene 2, Wm. Shakespeare

  7. I think Scott's right. Agents want writing that grabs them. That's what they're looking for!

    I think this can work with the layers I have mentioned before in my blog. I think the character's voice comes out in my initial draft and then my voice comes out as I edit.

  8. :) I've run across a couple of people who have read what I've blogged and said that "THAT's not the Penny I know!" when I used curse words or grumbled about something. I think I must edit who I really am according to who I'm talking to in real life but not in my blog. I've decided that I'm just going to be me without thinking about it--It's giving me a headache.
    BUT- It IS easier to get away with my own authentic voice through a character of mine since I nobody faults a character for being crass-

  9. beth, I can see how blogging could be a big help. If nothing else, it's making me write in a new frame of mind multiple times a week.

    Rick, Thanks for that cool link! I wouldn't have guessed there'd be something like that out in the cyberspace. I agree with your comments on voice before and during revision.

    Jennifer, That's an interesting question. I read Brokeback Mountain, but it's not as fresh in my mind as Lahiri's last collection. I'm currently reading Lolita, and boy does the narrator have a strong voice! For me it comes down to the type of story I'm writing. I like epics, stories about a lot of characters, and for that, I tend to use a more distant voice only because I feel like it gives me a bigger canvas. I do write stories about just one character, and for those I tend to choose a closer POV and a more colorful voice.

    Robyn, I've read some great books where the author intrudes. I don't think intrusion on its own is a problem as long as you do it well. Of course, if you are trying to be the invisible author--which I personally like--then, yes, keep from intruding.

    Scott, I think agents want writing that grabs them, but I do think that voice, in their terms is its own thing. Your book, for example, has a very developed voice, one that you must have been very conscious of while you were writing. It gives the manuscript an additional layer of color that adds to that attention grabbing quality. Many popular books have a strong voice--Everything Is Illuminated, A Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night, The Gargoyle.

    Lady Glamis, Yes, this definitely goes along with your editing in layers. I love the way you put that last sentence!

    Pen Pen, that's really interesting that writing through a character actually lets you be yourself more. I had a teacher who once said something like, "Saying you write fiction allows you to go to the party in your underwear." I think I just killed that quote, but if you squint at it, you might get the point.

  10. Davin,

    You're right. A writer needs to do his or her best, then the voice and much else will fall into place.

    I will soon shake my fist at Profane Scott for you.

  11. Justus,
    Shake it hard. Make sure he knows you mean business.

  12. I was discussing my writing with a very trusted (writerly) friend who I have great respect for, and she suggested that I not write so defensively.

    As you suggest it seems BAD to hear that. I'll admit I still don't really understand what it means. I got excited reading this thinking I'd learn more (about that) but was nicely surprised at the whole general idea of a writer's voice, as apparently I don't really know what that is either haha

    If anyone wouldn't mind expanding on the concept or writing defensively? I'd really like to hammer this out in my mind.

    Great post, I'll be coming back for more no doubt.



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