The Art of Fiction: Your Voice, Your Vision
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.
"If you’re a human being who knows how to talk, you already have a unique voice." —Lenard-Cook
You’ve probably heard of authorial voice, about how a strong voice separates good fiction from great fiction. You’ve probably heard that you need to pay close attention to developing your own authorial voice if you’re going to get someone (that editor! that agent!) to pay attention.
Here’s good news: If you’re a human being who knows how to talk, you already have a unique voice. The trick—and it’s hardly even a trick—is learning how to translate that voice to the page. For the best of illustrations, let’s turn to a few of the masters.
“A dull dish made palatable”
Not only was E. B. White the author of the classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, he gave us the finest book ever written about writing in English, The Elements of Style. In a stunningly brief space, White spells out everything you’ll ever need to know about commas, punctuation, and all other matters of putting words on paper, including his own hallmarks, brevity and wit.
“Style,” White notes in The Elements of Style, is “the sound words make on paper,” and is best achieved “by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” Because we know that a writer like White considered his adjectives carefully, let’s look at the ones he uses here. Plainness. Simplicity. Orderliness. Sincerity. In other words (mine, that is), the best writing makes itself clear.
"You could do worse than spend a summer practicing Hemingway-esque (or Didion-esque) rhythms." —Lenard-Cook
Why such an emphasis on clarity? Because there’s often the temptation, especially when you’re just starting out with this writing thing, to embellish, to use the thesaurus, to use longer words than you might when you speak. Resist this temptation! Instead, look at how a master does it. Look, for example, at the first paragraph of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which begins, “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and plain to the mountains.” Joan Didion explored this seminal first paragraph in a November 1998 New Yorker article. Here’s part of her summary:
Four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words…Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one. Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.” There are four commas. The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas…but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and”…
Hemingway’s “liturgical cadence” is so familiar to most of us that even if I hadn’t told you that the above sentence was his you would have known by its rhythm. (Didion’s style is singular as well. I’d know her dependent clauses anywhere.) You could do worse than spend a summer practicing Hemingway-esque (or Didion-esque) rhythms. Many writers have done just this, copying Hemingway into their notebooks to feel how it is to arrange words as he does. Didion admits that she has. Robert Parker, author of the Spenser novels has done it, as did master short story writer Raymond Carver. I’m guilty, too, as are, I’m sure, thousands of others.
" Porter is reminding us that the way I tell a story and the way you tell a story will be very different . . . " —Lenard-Cook
But, you object, won’t such an exercise turn me into a Hemingway imitator, or worse, destroy my own fledgling voice? No and no. The best example here is an analogy: My husband Bob learned to play guitar by listening to Eric Clapton. He’d slow the record from 33-1/3 (Remember records? Remember 33-1/3?) to 16-2/3 and play along (and who but a musician would instinctively know that when you cut the speed in half, the key remains the same?). Bob played along with Clapton until Clapton’s licks became second nature. Then he turned the record off and began, as he puts it, “messing around myself.” His playing style now, thirty years later, is distinctly his own, but, he insists, owes everything to learning to play with the master first.
“The writer’s own special way.”
Katherine Anne Porter, whose Pale Horse, Pale Rider remains one of the finest short fiction works ever written (and who, if you’re a regular reader, you already know is one of my own masters) calls style “the writer’s own special way of telling a thing that makes it precisely his own and no one else’s.” Porter is reminding us that the way I tell a story and the way you tell a story will be very different, but that neither will make the story less interesting. They will simply make the story our own. I’ll likely use repetitive phrasing (one of the best things about teaching writing is that you learn to look at your own work more objectively), lots of parenthetical asides (see?), short declarative sentences to emphasize points. You, having practiced with Hemingway (or your own favorite master), will tell the story in your own particularly way. Really. I promise.
" Now, copy down a paragraph of that author’s words. As you do, imagine what it must have been like to write them (and to revise them). " —Lenard-Cook
So here’s your first assignment of the summer: Open up a book by your favorite author, arbitrarily, to any page, and then get a clean page of notebook paper (or, if it’s your preference, to a new document in your word processing program, although I think doing this exercise by hand is part of its magic). Now, copy down a paragraph of that author’s words. As you do, imagine what it must have been like to write them (and to revise them). Feel the author’s rhythm and movement (yes, it’s a lot like dancing). For just a moment, be Katherine Anne Porter, or Ernest Hemingway, or Alice Munro.
Next, turn to a new page, and without thinking about it, keep going. You can continue the story you just copied or go off in another direction. What will happen is that you’ll move from the master’s rhythm and movement into your own. It’s your voice and your rhythm. You just can’t help it. Have fun!
About Lisa Lenard-Cook In this column, Lisa Lenard-Cook talks about publishing, editing and writing. Her novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel and was a 2004 selection of both NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series and the Durango-La Plata Reads countywide reading program. Her latest novel, Coyote Morning (UNM Press, 2004), has been compared to work of Carol Shields and Sue Miller. Visit Lisa's website, www.lisalenardcook.com, for information about her books and more writing inspiration.