Thursday, July 26, 2007

Voice in fiction

Both Nancy Pickard and Patti Abbott recently talked about voice in fiction on their blogs. A Robert B. Parker paragraph is generally easy to spot as is one by Raymond Carver. Strong clear voices.

A few reviewers have said that I have "a" voice but I don't think so. I think I instinctively adapt my style and choice of words to the story at hand. A few months back I went through the galleys of two volumes of my Collected Stories and if there's "a" voice there I must have missed it. I don't know if not having "a" voice is good or bad but the fact is that I can't do much about it. I hate precious mannered self-conscious writing that strains for voice and effect and that's the only way I could ever get a singular literary voice.

Patti also spoke about how reading certain writers while you're working on your own stuff can be disastrous. I agree. There are people I stay away from when I'm really going at it. Raymond Chandler's style rubs off on me instantly as does anything by William Faulkner, Derek Raymond, Elmore Leonard to name just three of a hundred.

On the other hand I keep certain writers on a shelf above my desk. When I'm stuck on any spect of the page in front of me, I pull down a particular book and read a dozen or so pages. Sometimes I'm looking for guidance on how to get into or out of a scene and Ed McBain is always helpful; sometimes my words have started to sprawl and I need help with both precision and concision and Margaret Millar never fails me; and for atmosphere there's Woolrich, Matheson, Koontz, King and a fantastic horror novel called Kane by Doug Borton--to name just five of several hundred.

I know there are fiction writers who don't read fiction because they're bored with it and/or they're afraid they'll be too influenced by somebody else's stories. Fair enough. But not for me. Reading has always been an inextricable part of writing for me.

All of this plays into voice, of course. If you believe as I do, that voice is there to serve the story rather than the other way around. Not everybody seems to agree with that.


Anonymous said...

Ed, Heaps of sense here, which is not what you always get when writers write about writing. Count me as one who does agree with your final comment. The story's the thing, especially in a shorter genre novel -- or a short story, of course -- where every word must count. Today we do see some flabby blockbusters with writing editors wouldn't have tolerated in previous times.

pattinase (abbott) said...

In the midst of the five writing workshops I took ten years ago, the professor told us that a consistent "voice" was only a problem for beginning writers. I disagree. I am especially influenced by strong first person narratives (i.e. Vicki Hendricks). Suddenly my protagonist will take on characteristics I couldn't quite invent. Better to stick to reading non-fiction, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

I try not to have any "voice" at all, but to be anonymous so that the reader's attention never wavers from the story. If I have any voice, it lies in areas I can't help, such as tastes. Jack London is a writer without voice; everything is written as lucidly and plainly as possible, which is why his stories are classics accessible to generation after generation. Authors who stress "voice" have a way of dating their stories, so that what seems trendy and hip at the time they are written creates puzzlement or annoyance a few decades later.

Richard Wheeler

pattinase (abbott) said...

Now this is an interesting notion. Can you write so factually or plainly that the book appears to have written itself or been written by the equivalent of a court recorder? Is style separate from voice? Maybe so.

Thanks for the book, Ed. It's on the top of the tbr.