Writing Reality: Author Voice vs. Narrative Voice

07/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


You will probably have encountered the conundrum of defining your own Writer’s Voice at some point. This is the distinct signature of an author, stamped upon every written page, and can be viewed as being parallel to the auteur theory of the cinematic world, wherein a director (and quite often an actor or actress, too) will leave their indelible mark upon each film, regardless of genre. The Writer’s Voice is not to be confused with the Narrative Voice. The latter is the perspective through which the audience views a story / text.

If the plot is a road, then the narrative can be viewed as the person(s) walking down it, and it is through their sensory perceptions that the audience will “feel out” the way. Based upon the author’s cast and/or choices of narrative mode (first person/personal, third person/omnipresent, etc) the perspective may shift between chapters or even between paragraphs. This should be noticeable in the opinions given, the elements of life which are prioritized vs. what is overlooked; what is revealed to the audience vs. what is concealed, or is apparently unknown.

For example: I have been (at least) two people in this lifetime – the Anorexic Me, and the Healthy Me. The former, being in a constant state of starvation due to malnutrition and low bodyweight, was wound up in a constant state of nerves and adrenalin, with a distinct fear of losing control of any situation I happened to be in. What this translated to, was an avoidance of any scenario where food / restriction of movement might be involved – say, a crowded room at a party. Paradoxically, every sense would be on high alert, with sustenance the main focus, since the human body is fine-tuned for survival.

I would walk into that room and immediately zero in on any scrap of food / drink, with senses sight and smell in particular having a heightened stimulus effect on concentration. While distracted by this sensory overload, I would be unable to focus on anything else occurring in the room. I would pay little attention to, say, art on the walls, or my host’s choice of furnishings. The language of those around me, vocal and physical, would seem at once cloying and intimidating, even if they paid no attention to me whatsoever – their very presence in the room would be overwhelming, when all my body would be focused on was how to get at the food made available, while my mind (the anorexic part) sought to take me as far away from the situation as possible. Thus runs the paradox of sensory overload / self-denial and control. In this state, I would be unable to appreciate what could be important information passed around, and entertaining company. Since setting, dialogue, subtext etc, make up vital elements of the reading / writing experience, a narrative perspective seen through that Anorexic self would be something like tunnel vision.

Nowadays, in a more healthy state, I am able to notice and appreciate the wider scope of the world, and am constantly in awe of it; finding symbolism and figurative language in nature, listening between the lines of what is said around me in society. Essentially, walking out of the tunnel.

A term that seems to crop up a lot on social media, is “reader’s hangover”: a story creates such an impression on the audience, that to finish it and be forced to find other books to read, is some kind of mental torture. Nothing else will suffice. It’s the itch between the ears when a song becomes so addictive that it must be listened to on repeat, until the damn thing has finally lost its appeal. In childhood, I would simply go back to the beginning of a book, getting a little less pleasure the second or even third time around – because of course, the words (for all their appeal) were still too fresh in the mind. Peeling myself away, I’d let time pass so that the words might collect dust for a bit and blur in the memory, before the book could be pulled down off the shelf again.

Nowadays, I don’t order books according to alphabetical arrangement, but in terms of what their Author’s Voice means to me. The genre of each text might be very different from the ones either side of it, but the written style of the authors are remarkably similar. Whenever a case of “reader’s hangover” crops up, I tend to sift between the culprit’s “compatriots”, to stave off the itch. It’s also a refreshing way to deal with writer’s block.

Who are your Influences?

Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Joanne Harris. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter S Beagle. These are authors I will return to again and again. They are usually often found lumped together in book-stores and online, in the genre known as General Fiction.

Me, I prefer to know them as the “synaesthetic” authors. Their diction and syntax, have the knack of creating quite vibrant and refreshing colours/patterns in my mind. They are the writers with distinctive Voices, often using symbolism / a cross-over of sense-imagery in their diction, to illustrate a point.

– “Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn. ‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”

Syntax tends towards a simplistic construct – and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but in the free-flow of reading, found in an uncluttered sentence / clause. There are few stumbling blocks; you get the sense that each word has been carefully measured out and chosen for its unique ability to convey as much meaning when stood alone, as when strung alongside others.

– “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – pg 1, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

– “Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea, as the house was high up a hill; here the sun burned hot but the shadows were cold. Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers. There was only one room; it contained a stove, a teetering mirror on top of a marble table, and a brass bed big enough for three fat men.” – pg 9, House of Flowers, Truman Capote

These authors write about the nuances of life, picking out the seemingly mundane and turning it into a work of art: brown silt and river water, transmuted to gold by the evening sun. In cinematic terms, this would translate to a keen eye for subtext around dialogue, symbolism in misc-en-scene, body language of actors/actresses, the cinematographic choices of camera angles and filters, etc.

– “She held my hand impersonally, as a promise that she’d take care of me in a minute, and gave ear to two girls in twin yellow dresses who stopped at the foot of the steps.
‘Hello!’ they cried together. ‘Sorry you didn’t win.’
That was for the golf tournament. She had lost in the finals the week before.
‘You don’t know who we are,’ said one of the girls in yellow, ‘but we met you here about a month ago.’
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Complex and technical language are kept to a minimum, with the thesaurus apparently thrown aside – something I am training myself to do when searching for that one perfect word, which was actually stuck between my ears the whole time but had been dismissed, due to my belief that it was far too simple a choice. But why hamper the audience with a stumbling block? Why not string together a perfectly reasonable set of words, to create an image that is still original, still glowing with beautiful colours and pathos?

– “Elv had begun to whisper Arnelle stories to her sisters during the bad summer when she was eleven. It was hot that August; the grass had turned brown… all she’d wanted was to lock herself away with her sisters. They hid in their mother’s garden, beneath the trailing pea vines. The tomato plants were veiled by a glinting canopy of bottle-green leaves. The younger girls were eight and ten. They didn’t know there were demons on earth, and Elv didn’t have the heart to tell them. She brushed the leaves out of her sister’s hair. She would never let anyone hurt them. The worst had already happened, and she was still alive.” – pg 7, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman

These synaesthetic writers are at once easy to read, and rather mysterious; equivalent to the portrait of a woman with beautiful, regular features … and the smallest hint of a dark smile.

After years of battling with my Voice – trying on various guises, as is necessary to discover whose shoes you are most comfortable walking in – I know that it is alongside these “synaesthetic” authors I would prefer to be shelved, should I have the luck of being published. It is through their respective Voices – each one unique, and somehow familiar as candlelight – that I have stitched together the components of my own.

They are the mainstay influences, but this is not to say I would ever restrict my reading / writing habits to only their work. Going with the analogy of shoes, I would say that while the synaesthetic authors are the hiking boots and Converse, authors such as Dr. Hunter S Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk and John Wyndham are the kitten heels. I love their work, but couldn’t begin to emulate their styles. My feet just won’t fit, and the walking is precarious.

When writing became more than a hobby, it was an essential exercise in discovering Voice to write through as many authors as possible – the more distinctive, the better. It’s just as vital to write across a range of forms, to develop audience awareness and an eye for self-editing.

Writing across this “vocal range”, is not plagiarism. It’s not copy ‘n paste. It is simply defining who you wish to sit alongside, who you would deem your contemporaries and influences to be – taking snippets from their respective styles, and stitching them together to form your own. This doesn’t just aid your prospective target audience, when they seek out authors of a similar “flavour” and whose work they can’t help but return to again and again. It can also help a potential agent to find where you might fit into the literary market.

If a Voice does not sit comfortably, and you find your nerves are frayed from trying too hard to be someone you’re not, then the writing experience will be a tedious one indeed. The forced Voice may waver between works-in-progress, as of a mask slipping. I’ve walked away from stories, believing them to be impenetrable, and blaming my own ineffectiveness to get down the vital message; only to return some months later, when a particularly influential / distinctive author I had been reading at the time, was finally out of my head. Their style was pressing in on mine, and though enjoyable to read, it was not something I could hope to replicate as a writer.

In blog entries, there is more chance of achieving an authentic Voice. You’re not trying to keep in character, and are not fretting about plot / narrative. Emotions and ideas are allowed to free-fall. Think back to the blog entries you may have rattled off – the sticky details of childhood life, the golden-hue moments of nostalgia, covered in dust motes, or tears. How easily did these outpourings come, when you were perhaps half-cut at 3am and coming off the rush of a night out or the viewing of a film which had touched your mind; the attached feelings you then just couldn’t keep to yourself, and were forced to offload in a blog entry before you forgot what it all meant?

Think about how that writing experience was, how every image seemed to slot into place – how when, reading it back to yourself in the early afternoon (waking to a faceful of old makeup, wine-stained lips and a head like Vesuvius) you’d felt the strange tang of seeing yourself outside yourself, and wondered where on earth had all this came from? How could it be that this was so easy, when (if you’re anything like me) trying to drag out fictional work can be akin to being prepared for the canopic jars in Ancient Egypt?

Those blog entries hold the Voice that is yours alone, when you weren’t trying to be someone you’re not; you were too excited and pissed to think about anything but getting the message across to your audience. YOUR perspective, YOUR experiences, YOUR views – all of which can be tweaked and filtered according to characterization and narrative perspective, and indeed, the same holds true for anyone in your reality who might have struck an influential spark, and deserves a place in your narrative.

Look at your voice on social media. This is you, taking part in written discourse in what may be a near-immediate environment. How do you instinctively respond to people when they speak to you? What language do you use to pitch ideas and thoughts? Are you pretty stark in delivery, or prone to using imaginative subtext? When I’m writing a blog entry, that Voice is pretty much what you’d get in real life. That’s my choice of delivery. The trick is to keep the trend going, when it comes to writing fiction – admittedly, something of a task, particularly when a multiple-member cast gets involved.

Finding your Voice is putting that stamp on your work. It is defining who you are, where you stand among other writers, how you might relate to them or indeed, be set apart. Crucially, it allows any audience member who might read your work, to come to know what to expect from you in the future.

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3 Comments

  1. Joanne Blaikie said,

    I’ve got to say I’ve found author voice really hard in terms of writing in my WIP. I’m not sure I have one and when I do find it I get hung up on whether it should be different. :/ I have no such problems as you say in my blog posts. I hear me. I just write as me. But fiction, especially writing fiction for the younger generation, feels more difficult. It feels easier to get in wrong and hen I read my WIP I’m not sure I hear a distinct voice as such.

    When I write a short story for adults which I’ve begun to delve into more I haven’t found voice such an issue. I just write. It is perhaps because I don’t read as much as I should so the influences don’t crowd me. But I totally get the point about when you do read something which really sings to you you subconsciously try to emulate it. After I’d read Morrissey’s autobiography my diary entries took on a completely different tone for a few days! Really weird!

    Anyway, excellent post. Thank you.

  2. Paula Reed Nancarrow said,

    I don’t write fiction; I still with memoir because there are already enough fictions there, and because the reason I write is to do dialogue with them. Early on you note that a writer’s voice should be consistent across genres. What I am unsure about these days is whether blogging is a separate genre at all – or if it is merely a platform for other genres. Might be worth a little more exploring. Thanks for a challenging post, Rachel…

  3. interesting articles and links of the week | lucas thorn said,

    […] Writing Reality: Author Voice vs. Narrative Voice This intriguing article by Rachael Spellman (Raishimi) really got me thinking. Sure, I had to delve into my brain to remind myself of some terms I haven’t used since Uni, but the essential discussion regarding finding your voice reminded me of the work which went into trying to find “Nysta” in my novels. I really struggled for that and wrote so many rewrites until I was happy. The battle of narrative and author voice for me was a big one, as I had to find the trust in myself to not try imitating what I thought was a bland and unprogressive fantasy voice. […]

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