by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
"The term narrative voice does not refer to the author's style." —Lenard-Cook
Language. It's a writer's most valued and valuable tool. And according to Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, it's something we pick up as naturally as walking, whether Cantonese or Mandarin if we're a Chinese child, English if we're American. So getting language onto paper should be just as simple, right?
Well, it is and it isn't. What separates writing that sounds as if the author were simply taking dictation is the art behind his fiction, because he's learned how to say a thing. The reason good writing sounds as if you're eavesdropping is because the best writers have done the eavesdropping for you, picked the best parts, and then translated them onto the page. Let's take a look at their translation toolbox.
The Ladder of Abstraction
Linguist S. I. Hayakawa's original Ladder of Abstraction was a political model which illustrated how the more non-specific the language used is the more capable it is of obfuscation. Huh? Okay, I cheated: That sentence was written intentionally high on the Ladder, using big words, circuitous constructions, and plenty of dependent clauses; this sentence is somewhere in the middle.
Down here at the bottom of the Ladder, we use direct, concrete language that says, simply, exactly what we mean to say. (In the classroom, I draw a ladder on the board, complete with a stick figure cow named Elsie at the bottom and her stock market indicator at the top.) My point with all this is that the simplest words will make the strongest connection with your reader.
Did you think you had to know lots of big words to be a successful writer? Well, you do. But that doesn't mean you should use them. I get very angry when I come across a word I don't know in a fiction, partly because I already know lots of words (and partly because I'm quick-tempered). But worse, here's what happens next: If I decide to look up the word, I put down the book, which in my world of teaching writers to write is a big no-no. I always tell my students that the test of a successful novel is whether the reader takes it with her to the bathroom. If she can put it down, you've lost her. This includes putting it down because she's looking up a word. In short, keep it simple-and write a book that goes where (and when) your reader goes.
". . . all decisions about narrative voice, . . . will determine how your reader connects with your speaker" —Lenard-Cook
The Thesaurus School of Language
It follows from the above that using the thesaurus to find a bigger, better word might not always be your best choice. Why say "tired," you might think, when you can use "fatigued," or—hey, check this one out!—"lassitude"? Here's my answer to that question, in the form of two sentences. Pick the one that works best for you.
Tired but determined, Gretchen pushed herself on to the next ridge.
Beginning to feel overcome by an overwhelming lassitude, Gretchen nonetheless with resolute tenacity propelled herself toward the tantalizing convexity above her.
Yes, I had a lot of fun using my thesaurus to write that second sentence. But if you think it's a better sentence, imagine reading a book full of such sentences. You'd soon be as overcome by lassitude, as poor Gretchen surely is by now.
Word-processing programs' thesauri are so easily accessible that it can be hard to resist their siren call. Do I use mine? Yes, I do, in two specific and very distinct ways:
If I find I've used the same noticeable word more than twice within a few pages, I'll look for an alternative for one of the uses. But—and here's the important thing—if there's nothing that works as well, I'll leave the word I've used, because using a word whose meaning isn't precisely what I mean is far worse than dual usage. As I get older, I sometimes can't find the right word at all. I'll know it sounds like "obsess," for example, but means something else. What I'll do then is type in the word I think sounds close, using a different color font (or, if I'm writing in a notebook, I'll circle the word). If the right word doesn't come to me when I read through that new section the next morning (and often, thankfully, it does), I'll use the thesaurus to get closer to it. Usually, one of the alternate words will be closer and I'll click on that. Then I'll click on one still closer. I've found that this scavenger hunt eventually yields the word I'm seeking.
". . . consider narrative voice in a different way." —Lenard-Cook
To Euphemize or Not to Euphemize
One of my all-time favorite Monty Python sketches is the one about the parrot. You know, the one where the guy walks into the pet shop and says, "I'd like to buy a parrot," and the other guy says, "I have one right here," and points to a parrot that is obviously dead. "That parrot's dead," says the first guy. "Oh, no," says the second. "He's just pushing up daisies," and then, later, "He's at rest," and, "He's late" and "at peace" and "buying the big one."
In English, our most Puritanical of languages, no two topics have more euphemisms at their disposal than death and sex. Whether someone has passed on, gone to meet his maker, left us, or is still with us in our hearts, he's nonetheless, like that parrot, dead, dead, dead. And whether you're making the two-humped beast, love, or whoopee, it's still sex, sex, sex. Euphemisms may be considered polite elisions in certain circles, but in writing they're just another way of not saying what you mean. My advice: Say what you mean, and call that corpse what it is: dead.
"Nah, chile, you doan wahn be doon dat," said Mammy. Poor Mammy! Not only is she a stereotype and a cliché, now I've put dialect in her long-suffering mouth. Mark Twain may have gotten away with it, but I would argue that the dialect in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the book's main difficulties. A far better way to show dialect is in properly spelled words, carefully positioned. Here's my Mammy: "Now, child. You don't want be doing that." You can hear her just as well as the first Mammy, can't you? And this time, you weren't slowed down by the colloquial spelling.
Next month, we'll take a look at dialogue, the way our characters speak to each other
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and was a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.