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Posts tagged ‘writing technique’

Where lie the borders between Voice and Style?

Where does voice end and style begin? And while we’re at it, what is the sound of one hand clapping? No, seriously, my question about voice and style is not meant to be a Zen koan but is completely sincere. I have heard and read plenty of people (many of whom have been reading, writing, editing, and publishing for longer than I have been alive) talk about voice and style as if they are identical, or as if they constitute an indelible stamp the artist places on each piece of work. And, as I ratchet up the momentum on a highly stylized WIP, it has me thinking about what constitutes a “narrative voice” and how it relates to a writer’s (or a story’s) “style”.

If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard/read that “it takes time for a writer to find their voice” I’d probably have…well, at least a couple of bucks. But here’s my underlying problem with this statement: it assumes that an artist only ever has one “mature” voice, that it is theirs and theirs alone, that it is so intrinsically tied to them as an individual that it permeates everything they ever produce. And much as I respect the folks who say that, I have to wonder: is not voice the most fundamental facet of writing that we as writers exert control over? And because it is wholly in our control, can’t we employ different voices for different stories and to different effects? When we write, don’t we employ different voices for exposition by different narrators and dialog by different characters?

A Working Definition of Narrative/Authorial Voice

Bear with me, because despite thinking about this for the last several months, I find this a pretty difficult concept to articulate: The way I see it, a narrative voice is to a story as individual brushstrokes are to a painting. Every one of us writes one word at a time. What sets my writing apart – both from that of other writers, and from work I have written before or will write after – is the words that I employ, and how I put them together. Each story – regardless of what it is about – is composed of words and punctuation marks, which together form sentences, which in turn assemble into paragraphs, which coalesce into scenes, chapters, acts, and after much heartache, hopefully a finished story. Narrative voice is the shorthand we use to describe patterns in word selection, punctuation, sentence construction, and rhetorical structure.

That’s it. But despite its superficial simplicity, this is an enormous tool in the writer’s hand. In fact, it is the only tool that as writers we have. Because at the end of the day, the only facets of the writing we have any control over are the words we choose to use, the order we put them in, the punctuation we delineate them with, and the structures that we build out of them. Every higher-order facet of our writing – the structure, the characters, the themes – are constructed by narrative voice. Which makes it, in my opinion, the most important part of the craft, the most visible, and the hardest to understand.

The Purpose and Tools of Voice

The patterns in our writing are above all else purposeful. We might have many goals in writing (Fast cars! Beautiful women! The love and adoration of thousands! Oh, wait…) but at the most basic, all writing means to move the reader. We might want to move the reader emotionally or intellectually, but we want some degree of engagement and response. And narrative voice is the tool through which we effect that manipulation.

This isn’t so different from spoken conversation. When we speak with someone, we use our words and the structure of our rhetoric to achieve certain goals: it might be to keep our conversant interested, to amuse them, to anger them, to convince them – the particular goal is immaterial, but it is always there. However, auditory communication has an advantage over the written word: through the use of facial expression, body language, or the timbre at which we speak, the spoken word communicates emotion and intent in a far more condensed and physiologically evocative manner than writing ever can.

Consider a shrill scream. When heard aloud, it communicates instantaneously the speaker’s (screamer’s) emotional state: frightened, surprised, or excited. It also communicates the intensity of their emotion, ranging from mild to extreme. And all of this in less time than it takes us to read this sentence. But even if we engage in the most crass onomatopoeia or in clumsy adverbial writing (“Chris screamed shrilly.”) we cannot possibly evoke the same response with the same economy. Instead of using timbre, volume, or body language we are reduced to using words, punctuation, and sentence structure.

There are multiple levels at which these tools operate. When we write, the words we choose to use bring to the reader’s mind sounds. The phonemes and punctuation imbue our sentences with rhythm, which in turn contributes to pace and flow. They affect how caught up in the story we are. The words evoke images in the reader’s mind, which in turn color the text with emotional overtones. And they can invoke cultural touchstones, which add a further extra-textual layer of meaning to even the most prosaic sentences. Long, convoluted sentences with multiple clauses, often nested within one another, or recursively referring to initial clauses and thus extending their length, produce a certain set of effects. Syncopated sentences yield different results. The adjective “red” communicates one set of meanings, and “bloody” another.

These are the tools of the writer’s craft, and much as I love thinking about structure, and character, and pacing – at the end of the day, each of those higher-order tools is applied through the use of our narrative voice. And that is a voice dependent on the story we are telling.

The Narrator’s Voice and Not the Author’s

Most of us will write many stories over the course of our lives. Consider Anthony Burgess, who wrote the highly stylized A Clockwork Orange in the early ’60s where he employed highly stylized language, sentence construction, and neologistic vocabulary to achieve his narrative goals. At about the same time, he published The Wanting Seed which employed entirely different patterns of construction. To have written The Wanting Seed in the Nadsat argot of A Clockwork Orange would not have worked. And to have written A Clockwork Orange in the relatively accessible constructions of The Wanting Seed would have destroyed it just as well.

Burgess understood that the voice employed must above all service the narrative being told. The same holds true in the spoken word: if we had to tell a relative that a family member had died, would we present it in the form of a bouncy song? Probably not. The intent of the message, the goal of the communication, ultimately determines the narrative voice most appropriate. When we write, our job is not to find our “one voice” – but to master all voices, and to understand which vocal technique to apply when. Which, given the impossible flexibility of language, might be a Sisyphean task.

Some writers find a voice they are particularly comfortable with, and use it in story after story. Damon Runyon is a great example of this. His Broadway stories use a highly stylized narrative voice, communicated through a fictional first person narrator, with idiosyncratic speech patterns and word choices (including the extensive use of neologisms that have since entered the vernacular). But though he wrote many short stories, most were written in precisely this idiosyncratic voice. Is that the only voice Runyon used? Absolutely not. He also wrote perfectly “normal” newspaper articles for many years. But the stylized voice of his fictional narrator makes his prose instantly recognizable – and this is where his (consistent) narrative voice evolves into “style”.

The Difference Between Style and Voice

Voice is always contained. It is bounded by the covers of a book or by a given narrator within that book. And it is locked in the reader’s head, where we shape the voice in our own minds. I distinctly remember one of my favorite writers (who shall remain nameless) who uses words like a scalpel. He has written single sentences that brought me to tears. And so when I had the opportunity to go to a reading of his a couple of years ago, I jumped at the chance. And the story he read was a good one, utilizing the same flowing sentences and flawless word choices as I had come to expect. But he read in a horrendously thick Chicago accent completely at odds with the beautiful sentences he was using. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t fault him his accent (with the amount of time I’ve spent abroad, I’ve got heavy accents in several languages!), but this wonderful author’s speaking voice was completely at odds with the narrative voice I had built in my own head. It was a clash of expectations: I had naively expected the voice in my brain, and was confronted with a far different reality.

But if voice is internal to the narrator and the reader, then style is external: it is always comparative, as when we say someone writes “in the style of.” When we talk about a writer’s style we are talking about how a particular narrative voice they employed compares to narrative voices employed elsewhere. If they have written many stories employing similar narrative voices – as in Runyon’s case – we can say that they have a “distinctive style”. In this case, we are merely comparing them against themselves: the comparison is still there.

Compare for a moment the narrative voice employed in Steven Brust’s excellent The Phoenix Guards against the narrative voices employed in his To Reign in Hell. Two completely different books both by the same author, the former of which is in the style of Dumas, while the latter is wholly his own. Stylistically, the two books are very different. At the level of their prose, that difference boils down to their different narrative voices. And the difference in those voices is ultimately determined by their narrator.

The Narrator’s Voice

If there is a question about how a narrative voice should be a constructed, always look to the narrator. The narrator is a fictional construct in the story: the narrator is not the author. What would the narrator notice? How would they communicate it? The narrator – even if they are unnamed, omniscient, and outside of the action of the story – is always present, and always separate from the author. When we write, we put the words in the narrator’s mouth. They are a character like any other, even if a transparent one. Our job when we write is to consider the words we make the narrator say, and choose the words that are best able to achieve our narrative goals. Every narrator we create may well have a different voice, particularly suited to the needs of the specific story they tell.

Samuel Delany, in his excellent essay “About 5,570 Words”, says: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.” The art and craft of writing lies in making the right corrections. And those choices constitute a story’s narrative voice.

REVIEW: Second Sight by Cheryl Klein

Second Sight by Cheryl Klein Title: Second Sight
Author: Cheryl Klein
Pub Date: March 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A strong reference compilation on writing from an experienced children's book editor.

Several years ago, The Professor (my fiancée) introduced me to children’s book editor Cheryl Klein’s blog, where I discovered several years’ worth of thoughtful, analytical, and insightful talks she has given on the craft of writing and its intersection with the craft of editing. Having found her thoughts interesting, I was excited to learn that Klein is now releasing a self-published, crowd-funded (via Kickstarter) book on writing entitled Second Sight. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a review copy not too long ago, and found it be challenging, insightful, and professional in all the right ways. This is a book for people seriously interested in writing as both a craft and a career: people looking for touchy-feely encouragement or platitudes on the “writing life” need not apply.

From my perspective, this is high praise. What I look for in books on writing is a serious discussion of the techniques used to construct effective, powerful, and publishable fiction. Whenever I read a new book on writing, I am always comparing it to the books on my “Writing on Writing Shelf,” which is primarily stocked with classics like E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand’s (very different) The Art of Fiction, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Klein’s Second Sight is like these excellent books in many ways.

Second Sight demands a modicum of pre-existing knowledge. Someone still struggling to grasp the basics of writing (figuring out what a plot is, understanding the difference between point of view and voice, etc.) will likely find this book intimidating. An intermediate writer (as I like to consider myself) – who has been working at the craft for several years, who has a finished (though not yet published) novel or two under their belt, and who is looking for helpful ways to think about technique – will derive a lot of value from this book.

Like Forster, Gardner, and Rand, Klein flits effortlessly between the high-concept philosophy of writing (the nature of fiction, the nature of art) and the gritty reality of constructing a working novel (building point, character, plot, and voice). It is clear in reading this book that Klein has thought long and hard about what constitutes good writing, and what criteria to apply when judging the written word. However, unlike E.M. Forster, or John Gardner, (and certainly unlike Ayn Rand) Second Sight is far less didactic.

Reading Le Guin’s, Forster’s, or Gardner’s works on writing, I am often reminded of looking at a skyscraper. In Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, he takes 192 pages to walk us through the six pillars on which all novels rest. Each chapter builds on those that precede it to concisely outline the author’s vision of The Novel, like one floor resting atop another. This kind of writing on writing provides immense value, but it is by its very nature broad: it speaks in generalities from a hundred stories above the ground, glossing over many challenging aspects of writing. But if reading Forster is like looking at a finished skyscraper, reading Klein is like looking over an architect’s shoulder.

When I finish classic books on writing, I am often left with a feeling of “Whoa,” as my perception of The Novel has changed. Reading Klein cover to cover doesn’t produce that response. Instead, each chapter of Klein’s book leaves me with a smaller sense of “Neat!” that shifts my thinking on a particular facet of the craft. I wouldn’t be able to swallow a book like this in one or two sittings. In the two or three months that I’ve had my review copy, I’ve found that I would read a chapter or two, put it aside, and then return to it repeatedly when running into tough spots in my own writing. And that is its primary value: as a helpful tool for the dedicated writer struggling with the minutia of craft.

The primary meat of this book is framed by practicalities. It opens with a series of brief philosophical musings on the nature of good writing, and then dives right into the process of finding a publisher. That fact alone should tell you that this isn’t a book for someone who has never written anything. However, those early chapters are beautiful for their simple, straightforward discussion of the publishing process. The annotated query letters (one “from hell” and one which “gets it right”) are excellent, providing real-world lessons that can be applied by anyone intending to pitch editors or agents.

The middle of the book consists of independent chapters on various aspects of writing. The subjects range from a working definition of young adult literature, to techniques for constructing picture books, to the relationship between plot and emotion. There are commonalities across all of these sections, but they are not structured – and should not be read – as laying out a dialectical argument. Instead, they are insightful musings on varied aspects of writing, which may be relevant to some readers some of the time…but not to everyone, and not always.

It is only as she approaches the end of the “meaty” section that Klein veers into a Forster-esque mode of outlining a “theory of the novel.” Captured in a sixty-four page quartet of chapters (with their own introduction), Klein discusses what she considers the pillars on which a novel rests: point, character, plot, and voice. While these chapters are insightful and valuable, they represent the book’s one structural weakness: up to this point, the chapters all provided valuable insight without relying on the other chapters. Diving into the quartet on page 186, with its concomitant shift in structure and tone, struck me as inconsistent with the rest of the book’s structure. Without a doubt, the quartet deserves a place in this book, and I understand the difficulty Klein likely had in figuring out how to get it to fit. However, I suspect it could have benefited from either an alternative placement (perhaps earlier in the book, amidst the more “philosophical” chapters), or a better lead-in. But despite the inconsistency in structure and approach, the quartet – and the other independent chapters – still provide great value.

The last third of the book returns us to the brutal reality of revising a finished work. Her chapter on twenty-five revision techniques is immensely practical, the type of bare bones heavy lifting that every author should do, but that nobody likes to think or talk about. This section is immediately applicable to anyone who has finished a written work (of any length), and is now embarking on the revision process. The concrete advice given here clearly stems from years of editing books as a career. No shortcuts are given, no platitudes are offered: writing is hard work, and Klein lays out a series of techniques to produce higher quality work.

Second Sight is unlike most of my writing library. In general, that library consists of books that either try to lay out an all-encompassing theoretical framework (Forster, Gardner, Rand), analyze critical genre theory (Mendelsohn, Clute, Suvin), or exhaustively detail a particular facet of writing (Card, Kress, Propp). Some of the books in my library are well worn: the books I return to frequently as I think about my own writing. Since getting my review copy of Second Sight, it has never left my desk. It doesn’t answer the question of “What is The Novel?” but it does answer the question “What goes into an effective novel?” And for someone working on writing new works while revising what they have already written, I suspect this is the most important question.

NOTE: As I mention above, Second Sight is a self-published book, and can be ordered from Cheryl Klein’s web site at: Also, be sure to check out her great blog.

An Approach to Re-writing a First Novel

Several months ago, I wrote about my perspective on the differences between writing a novel and writing a short story. Now, several months later I’m knee-deep in re-writing that first draft of the novel, and so I thought it might be neat to follow up on my earlier comments:

Distance Buys Perspective

Writing a novel is an intensely personal investment, made over an extended period of time. It can take months or years of our cogitation, sweat, and emotional turmoil. It’s never far from our minds. We lie awake in bed thinking about how to do certain things with it (at least I do). By the time we write “The End” we’re relieved and rightly proud of our creation. And – I at least – wanted to dive right into re-writing it.

But that’s not wise. Because after we’ve just finished writing the book, it’s still up at the forefront of our minds. The characters names roll off our tongues, and we could recite the events of the plot backwards and blindfolded. Even if we can’t recite the text from memory, we still know what the sentences should say. At this point, we’re too close to it for effective revision. Where the story has narrative pot-holes – missing plot points, pacing issues, clumsy writing – our minds fill them in, gloss over them, because we know how it should work. It’s like having beer-goggles on: our minds won’t let us see the reality.

Which is why all of the smart advice out there tells us to wait. To put the book away. File it in a drawer, forget about it for a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, work on something else and then come back to it. Coincidentally, Kay Kenyon – one of my favorite science fiction authors – just posted about this exact issue. Unsurprisingly, I agree with her with all of my heart. But, like avoiding sweets and getting regular exercise, it’s not easy.

Letting it settle is one of the hardest aspects of writing a novel that I’ve discovered. While waiting to go back to my first novel, I took the time to write a second novel (okay, technically a graphic novel – but I figure it counts). Even though I intellectually know that I need to leave that graphic novel aside and let it settle, I still want to dive right into it and do the re-write. Which, much as I am loathe to admit it, is probably proof that I’m still too emotionally and intellectually close to it for proper revision. But it really makes sense to resist the temptation, because it lets us spot weaknesses that otherwise we would miss.

The Re-writing Attitude

Getting ready to re-write my first novel has been a mix of trepidation and hubris. On the one hand, I’m worried that as I take another look at it I’ll discover that it sucks. Then my ego kicks in and says “What are you talking about, the book is great, it can’t possibly suck.” Of course, that ego is a thin veneer over my own insecurities (which, of course, I quash). Which is why I found it helpful to keep the following statement in mind as I sit down to re-write:

Most first novels don’t get published. It’s okay if it sucks: we re-write to make it better.

Ask a bunch of authors how many books they wrote before they ever got an agent, or before they ever sold one to a major house. The number will surprise you. I’ve regularly heard debut authors talk about having five, six, seven finished novels (sometimes entire series!) in their drawers at home. That’s because writing a novel is a skill, and it is a skill that takes time to hone. Writing short stories can help with some of the craft, but it takes a different set of skills to write a great novel. In many ways, I think of it like playing a sport: how many games did Babe Ruth have to play before he could hit a homerun in the major leagues? How many pick-up basketball games did Michael Jordan play before setting foot on an NBA court?

It’s alright if the first draft of a novel sucks. That’s why it is the first draft. Because, if we’re serious about writing, we’ll produce a second draft that will be stronger than the first. And if need be, we’ll write a third draft that’s even better than the second. And at some point, perhaps, the finished product might be polished enough for publication. And if it isn’t, well then the skills we’ve picked up and practiced will help us write our next book, which will be better than our first. At least that’s the theory.

The Process of Re-writing

The Professor – my fiancée who edits YA books for a living – gave me some really good advice on the re-writing process. Of course, being male and knowing better, I promptly ignored her excellent advice and it bit me in the ass. Her advice on the process of re-writing:

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

When I initially picked up my first draft and started to read it, I did it with pen in hand. I dove in and attacked clumsy sentences, poor word choices, weak verbs. In the trade, this is called a line-edit and apparently it’s a classic first-time novelist mistake. The point of the re-write isn’t to fix the little flaws that have crept into the work. The point of the re-write is to spot the BIG structural weaknesses. If we’re bogged down in the minutiae of the sentences, we’ll never see the yawning pacing chasm or the gaping plot hole. We won’t see the forest for the trees.

I realized this about mid-way through my book. I had a niggling concern about a structural issue (the pacing), and it just wouldn’t leave me alone. But I couldn’t diagnose the problem effectively, because by jumping right into the sentences, I had gotten in too deep, too quickly. So I had to put it down again, walk away from it again, and then approach it a different way.

My second time around, I followed The Professor’s advice, and read it just as a first time reader would. I read through it – cover to cover – without a pen in hand. I was reading it like I hoped a typical reader (or an agent, or an editor) would. I was paying attention to my response to the text, to see where my interest flagged, where the story got my heart racing. I wanted to find where the book worked well, and where it lost me. Sure, I still saw the occasional weak sentence. But I resisted the (often difficult) temptation to pounce and fix it. Instead, I tried to figure out if the bones of the story worked.

Here’s what I found (in ascending order of importance):

  1. The events of the plot – at a general level – work reasonably well.
  2. The world-building seems reasonably solid, with compelling settings and believable (and interesting) factions/characters.
  3. The themes of the book can be emotionally and philosophically interesting.
  4. I lost interest around the 25% mark, and didn’t have interest until the last 5% of the book.

That last one is really important: reading through the book, it fundamentally failed the “So what?” test. That failure was evident in the way that the book slowed down and lost the reader’s interest. That, however, is just an observation: a fact. It told me nothing about why it lost the reader’s interest. In thinking it through, and discussing it with The Professor (who was awesome enough to take a look and give me a professional’s opinion on where I dropped the ball), the major failing’s cause was the protagonist’s motivation. It didn’t ring true, it didn’t work, and as a result, the reader just didn’t care.

Responding to a Major Flaw

That’s a major, major super-mega-important flaw. Characters are their motivations, and so if the hero’s motivation isn’t compelling…well, the story’s missing its fuel. That’s also not a quick fix. That’s not something that can be addressed by “sticking it in” as an editorial after-thought. To get that kind of motivation right, it needs to be ever-present throughout the story, from the first sentence all the way through to the last. And it should have really started with a question I’d failed to ask myself at the onset: why is my hero the hero?

The answer – if I’m being honest with myself – is that in the case of this novel, his was a convenient perspective and I wrote the opening chapters with a nifty voice that I happened to like. Alas, that’s not enough of a reason. So back to the drawing board. I took a look at the story, rotating it in my mind and considering all of the characters’ motivations and trying to determine how I could find/develop a more compelling hero. As I did this, I found the answer staring me in the face: the book had a major character, who did have motivation, and who was compelling…he just wasn’t the original focus. The solution (perhaps) would be to make that character, or someone like that character the hero.

Of course, this would mean re-writing the whole book. I wouldn’t be able to keep the eighty-three odd thousand words I’d written over the course of five months. I’d have to junk it, and basically start from scratch. That is not an easy call to make. It took a lot of work to write those words, and some of those words were (I think) pretty good. But I faced two basic choices: I could either trash the whole novel, or I could take another stab at it by writing it all over again from a different perspective. Rather than throwing in the towel, I decided to (literally) re-write it.

My reasoning was pretty straightforward: the bones of the plot, the world-building, the themes, they were all solid. I had gotten them right once, I could get them right again. It was my hero/narrator characterization which had failed. I’d written a book once, right? Surely I could do it again. So I decided to re-write it. This also gave me the opportunity to re-imagine what kind of motivation I wanted to give my (now-different) hero, and to play with the components of the plot to add more tension and raise the stakes. It’s an opportunity to take another stab at the whole project, and make the whole thing that much stronger.

Looking to the Future

And so now that’s what I’m doing. It’s early days yet. I’ve got a revised outline in place, and I’ve re-written the first couple of chapters. I’m thinking that maybe, as I get further along in the re-write, I might be able to re-use some select passages from my earlier draft. But I’m not certain of that. If I can, great. If not, no big loss. The actual process of writing the book is going smoother (and it seems faster) than on the first go-around. That’s probably because I’ve been living with these characters and this world in my head for almost a year now. It also suggests to me that I’m on a better track: the experience is reminiscent of writing the graphic novel I finished a couple of weeks ago, which has much simpler motivation (it might have other issues, but the motivation at least should be pretty solid).

I don’t know if this re-write will make the book good enough to vie for representation and publication. I’m hopeful, but if it ends up not being good enough…well, that’s alright, too. Because the process has taught me a lot about myself as a writer and about some of the skills that are essential for writing long-form work. And so even if this first novel ends up collecting dust in a drawer, I’ll still say it was damn well worth it.

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