Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ides of March Official Post

Today is the first day of the ancient Roman New Year, so happy new year, kids! That is all I have to say about that. Okay, don't turn your back on folks named Brutus, either. Which reminds me of this joke:

Brutus walks into a bar. He says to the bartender, "I'll have a martinum."

The bartender says, "Do you mean a martini?

Brutus says, "If I'd wanted a double, I'd have said so!"

Oh, that one just slays me every time. Latin jokes are hi-sterical. And now enough of this ides of March stuff.

Today, I think, I want to talk about voice. My last novel was written in a sort of mashup of the styles of Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Herman Melleville and the King James Bible. Which was a lot of fun and, I think, appropriate for the story I was telling, but it was exhausting to maintain and a few steps removed from my sort of normal prose voice, which is similar to but not as chatty as the way I'm writing this very minute.

The book I wrote before the last one had a sort of modernized Elizabethan English prose style, based as it was on Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Again, that voice was appropriate for the tale but it wasn't my voice. It was me doing a voice, doing an impression of Shakespeare, kind of.

The next book I write (and it could be any one of three novels at this point; I haven't truly decided) is going to be in a modern American prose voice, by which I really likely mean a mid-20th century prose voice similar to Hemingway or Chandler or O'Connor, or possibly what I really mean is the writing will be similar to mid-20th century translations of 19th-century Russian novels, because I think that's really where my sort of bedrock, basic writing style comes from. Or not. I'm not actually certain about that.

My point, however, is that the next time I seriously pick up a pen to write, I'm not going to be attempting to create any historical mood or sense of place with the prose style. I did that for two or three books and I'm tired of it. Now I just want to write in a clear, elegant manner. It's true that none of the three ideas for novels I'm considering is actually set in 2011 (one's in 1914, one's in 1923 and one's in 1790), but my current approach is to be a guy in 2011 writing about previous time periods, not to have the narrative seem to really "live in" those time periods. That may be a mistake, but we'll see. Since I don't consider myself to be a writer of historical fiction, I don't think that it matters. The tale and the telling are the things, not any sort of nod to ideas of history.

But right now I'm in that sort of fumbling about in the dark stage before I've actually committed to writing a specific novel. It's like being in heavy fog. Yesterday at lunch I sat and wrote out a rough outline of one possible book. It was not very good, frankly. I realized that I don't know enough about the ending in order to start writing. Though, truth to tell, I might not let that stop me this time. I might just throw all of my rules for rational writing to the wind and just grab a pen and see what happens. After all, I lean most strongly toward writing not a novel but a novella right now, and not even something that would be for publication. I'm possibly burned out from the last couple of years of writing Serious Literature and maybe, I think, I might want to just have some fun and write something frivolous and possibly not even very good. We'll see. Yesterday Domey mentioned that he's not really writing with an eye to publication right now and he's happier with his work than he's been in a long time. I am envious, so I might follow his example.


  1. I've got a mystery novel set in 1921, and tried to do what Lindsey Davis does in her Falco detective series, which is set in ancient Rome yet written in a modern style with enough antique flavor to work.

    Well, I got back two puzzling comments from separate editors when the mystery novel was on submission. The first said, "This sounds too old-fashioned." The second said, "This sounds too contemporary."

    Argh. So I sent it to a writer pal who sent back some sensible comments about consistency of the style. Clearly it was neither one thing nor the other, and during the next rewrite I worked hard on making the voice consistent, and then things started to fall into place.

    -Alexandra MacKenzie

  2. Alex, I really think that consistency is what's most important with voice. Although in my last novel the tone shifts and becomes more dense and serious around the climax, it still seems to be all of a piece to me. Mostly I think I'm not going to worry about voice in whatever I write next. I think I'm going to concentrate on clarity of prose and sense-based imagery. We'll see where that gets me.

  3. Consistency is becoming more and more important to me as I write. It seems like a fairly unimportant component to a story, but I think it makes a huge difference, even in terms of simply keeping a reader properly suspended in disbelief.

    Happy New Year, Scott! I like the joke. I'll probably try to retell it at some point and mess it up.

    In my writing, I've always felt like my struggle has been to find my own voice. By that I mean that when I write a sentence and can tell that it came from another writer, I often delete it and write it again. I don't really believe that any voice is original, so what I replace this original sentence is probably also a copy of other writers. But I feel like my approach is more accurate to the scenes I'm trying to create. In other words, I try to find words for the scene instead of finding a language for the words.

  4. The only time I've tried to use voice to set a deliberate tone or mood was in a novella called The Back Porch. It's not a fantasy or SF, but it does have an ending that requires a serious suspension of disbelief. I needed the reader to accept that ending when the time came, without turning the story into fantasy, so I used what I hoped (and still hope) was a voice slightly tuned toward the sorts of voice you find in fantasies, along with a number of things that could be seen when read as simple metaphor, but were actually there to convince you, on a subliminal level, that this was a magical world. This is a world where sunlight is a liquid that drips from a girl's hair, a world where hair comes alive in a boy's hand and grips his soul, a world where the fibers of a shirt or a pair of pants can grow into the palm of your hand. It's a world where the end not only makes sense, but is inevitable.

    I think I succeeded, but I can't stand to read it now. The voice is so foreign to me that I want, on some level, to rewrite it, although I'm convinced it would ruin it.

  5. Levi, That's really interesting. Your story sounds cool!

  6. Levi, I think I understand what you mean. A lot of fairy tales, for example, have a similar voice, a "fairy tale voice," if you will, which I think signals the reader that anything at all can happen, and that we should in fact expect magical things to come. Professor Kate Bernheimer, editor of a number of folk/fairy tale books, says that a fairy tale is a story with "a fairy tale feel" and I think "feel" and "voice" are closely related things.

    Domey, you know I don't really believe in the "writer's unique voice" but I do agree that we're all looking for (or should be) the most accurate or natural way of saying what we're trying to say.

  7. I like the idea of consistency. As I like to say over and over, I don't write genres, I write stories. I've seen that no matter what I'm writing, it all has a similar feel because I'm not thinking "GENRE", if that makes sense. I only think of genre when the book is finished and I want to do something with it.

    Also, I'm not sure it's best to ever "write with an eye to publication." My best stuff has come when I gave up and thought, "Oh, it'll be shelved or I'll self-publish it anyway, so it can be whatever and however I want."

  8. Domey and Scott;



  9. Levi, thank you. In your comment, I assumed the novella was unfinished. I will plan to buy it tonight when I get home! It does really sound interesting.

  10. I have always wondered the best way to do that. Do I use old English dialogue and hurt my readability? Or should I be authentic? It's such a difficult choice! I wish you good luck.

  11. "Authentic" is such a lovely word, isn't it?

    I'm just saying.

  12. McKenzie, I think that we owe our greatest allegiance to the story, so the voice should help tell that story and not get in the way of it. Which, for me, means that I used enough of the dialects in question to give a flavor of the time, but not so much that it became a different language than English. In both cases, I found myself during revisions modernizing the language when it sounded too clunky (which equated to "too authentic" in a literal sense). One of my writer pals has been telling me about Regency English and the expectations of readers of Regency romances. I couldn't survive in that strict a genre.

    I am also toying with the idea of metafictional footnotes to my new book. We'll see.

  13. Domey: Yeah, it means "genuine," and it can go both ways here and be authentic whatever you do, as long as you believe in it.

  14. Scott, I realized I was possibly reading that word in a different way than it was intended. I meant authentic authentic, not authentic authentic.

    Six words for some brains.

  15. Oh, you mean authentic. I see.


  16. I just wrote a blog post about voice on Monday. One of my WIPs is set in 1900 and the voice reflects this, along with the character, who is an egotistical wealthy snob.

    In another novel I'm working on, I am trying a minimalistic thing. No tell whatsoever, only show, you know.

    Writing for fun and not for publication is what I always do! Great post.

  17. bwaahahahahahahahah

    A double.



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