In which I am Vehement about Voice.
If there was one thing that came out of the UK Meet for me (and actually there were several) it was the importance of voice. Let me say that again, because I don’t think I used enough emphasis. It was the importance of an author’s VOICE. Aleks Voinov speaking on behalf of publishers everywhere, and Jenre, speaking on behalf of reviewers, both emphasized strongly how much, when they cracked open a new book, they were looking for a unique voice.
It’s all very mystical, and possibly vaguely amusing in an ironic kind of way. Because the internet and ‘how to write’ books appear unanimous that the way to good writing is an adherence to action verbs, and a willingness to pare down ones adjectives and adverbs to the absolute bare minimum. Cut, cut, cut, people say. Make your language transparent, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the story. You don’t want to throw out your reader’s suspension of disbelief every other sentence with a gorgeous phrase or a word they need to look up in the dictionary. Have good characters, have a story hook in the first paragraph, keep piling on the tension, break for a black point three quarters of the way through and set everything on its head at the half way point.
If this is advice on ‘voice,’ this is the advice to write like everyone else.
How can you write like everyone else and still have a unique voice? You can’t.
When I listen to this advice about paring down your words to the minimum, I think about the writers whose books I love and it applies to none of them. Tolkien, with his chapter-long descriptions of scenery and his insistence that you had to spell ‘dwarfs’ ‘dwarves’ because obviously it was formed on the same principle as ‘loaf’ and ‘loaves’. That if you spelled it differently, you denied it its history. Tolkien who taught me what a hythe was, and gave me the gift of finding out that ‘gore’ isn’t only blood, or a triangular panel in a skirt, but it’s also a spear-head shaped piece of land. Tolkien who never flinched from a right word just because nobody but him remembered what it meant.
Patrick O’Brian, with his rampant, laughing lists of 18th Century words, and his puns and his sometimes-roaring, sometimes sly delight in combinations of phrases that make you chortle.
China Mieville – oh Lord, I just finished reading ‘Kraken’. There’s another man who loves his words when they’re decked out in carnival costumes and on the trapeze:
“Subby Subby Subby,” whispered Goss. “Keep those little bells on your slippers as quiet as you can. Sparklehorse and Starpink have managed to creep out of Apple Palace past all the monkeyfish, but if we’re silent as tiny goblins we can surprise them and then all frolic off together in the Meadow of Happy Kites.”
You may not particularly like any of these writers but, lets face it, they are incredibly successful, critically acclaimed and widely regarded as being at the top of their respective genres. And none of them are writing stripped down transparent, zero-added-value prose. They all have VOICE (imagine that said in a Doctor DOOM tone. I know I do.)
It doesn’t mean that your voice as a writer should be like their voice. If you don’t like obscure words and you don’t feel strongly about how to decline ancient nouns, don’t rush to use them because you think you should. Voice is about being you, after all. But I find it comforting to think that so many writers who’ve said ‘fuck you’ to the transparent-prose-style-gurus, so many writers who’ve reveled in the language they’re using, dived in and splashed and played with words, should have reached so high and done so well with it.
Partly this pleases me because I like to see the internet pundits proved wrong. But mostly it pleases me because it gives back to every writer the chance to do what the hell they like with their own voice. Maybe you like stripped down prose, where a very few perfect descriptors give the effect of a splash of colour in a minimalist white house. Good for you – do that then. Ursula LeGuin does something like that, although she also makes sure the rhythm of her sentences sounds like poetry. I love her stuff, but don’t have the elegance to write like that myself. I’m just glad to know that I don’t have to try to. I’m free to discover whatever it is that I want to do with my words instead.
When I tell my words how high to jump, I want them to ask “d’you want me to be wearing the sparkly skirt with that?” Not to worry about how other writers do it. They’re my words, after all.
To quote Terry Pratchett (another top hatted master of the three ring word circus): “If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”
? Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies