Jan 17, 2011

The Dangers of "Perfection"

We’ve all had the experience of a story sounding great in our heads, but then it loses something when we try to put it on paper. That’s because in your head you’re telling the story to yourself in your speaking voice. When you write it down you’re suddenly trying to sound like a writer. You search through the thesaurus for the perfect word--a word you’d never use in normal conversation. (Hint: If you have to look it up, it’s [ahem] probably not part of your natural voice.)

Suddenly in that process of writing down what’s in your head, you’ve lost your voice and you’ve adapted the voice of someone else. Someone you consider to be a writer, perhaps. Or maybe you’ve just started using the voice you think your writing should have.

For many writers, the voice they consider their “real voice” -- the one that shows up when they first start writing -- is the least unique of their voices, and so it’s the one that least reflects who they are.

What we get instead is a generic, homogenized voice of clichés, of advertising, or popular culture. It is a voice without color or tone. Left unattended it becomes interchangeable with the next writer’s voice...

Once, several years ago when I was serving as president of my local Romance Writers of America chapter, I agreed to judge about twenty contests in exchange for getting other published authors to judge our chapter’s contest. I read so many contest entries that year, I swore I’d never judge another one. (A vow I’ve since broken.)

After reading several entries a night for nearly two weeks, something began to concern me. Nearly every entry I picked up was written in almost the same voice as the one before it and the one that came afterward. Sentence structure, word choices, and even plot were nearly identical. The more I read, the more I realized that there was nothing in any of those entries to set it apart from the rest. Unless there’s something to set your work apart from the pack, why would an editor buy it?

Like I said, even the plots were the same. Out of 10 entries I read over the course of a couple of days, eight were about women who got temporary jobs working for the hottest guy they’d ever met. Eight out of 10! Those odds aren't good at all.

The conflicts were all nearly identical, as well. Sometimes the job was working as a nanny for the hero’s children, and sometimes it wasn’t, but the hero was always torn between his lust for his employee and the rule (whether written in a manual somewhere or his own personal rule) against fraternizing with employees.

At the time, I was teaching a class that included weekly critiques, so I decided to try an experiment. Each of us wrote 10 pages and submitted those pages to class for critique. Instead of letting the others know who wrote them, we left all identifying markers off. We mailed the pages to my daughter and let her distribute them to each of us so that nobody involved with the class knew who wrote what. The goal was to see if others could identify our work by voice alone.

Keep in mind that we'd been working together for three or four years at that time, and we’d all read a lot of pages written by the others.

Those early efforts weren’t all that successful. Some of us could tell, and some of us couldn’t. In the years since, we’ve all worked hard at letting our individual voices ring true in our work, and the last time we did “Mystery Pages,” I think we had just two wrong guesses out of 36.

There is no color to the generic voice. There is no attitude. There’s no sense of humor. There is no uniqueness of phrasing. There’s no climate. No sense of place. No hint of background.

Peter Elbow, author of What Do We Mean When We Talk About Voice in Texts? said, “Writing with no voice is dead, mechanical, faceless, without sound. It may be logically organized; it may even be a work of genius. But, it is as though the words came out of a mixer rather than a person.”

He goes on to say, “Because they stop so often in mid-sentence and ponder, worry or change their minds about which word to use or which direction to go in, their writing lacks voice.”

Aspiring writers who haven't yet found their voice write with one purpose, to give someone else what they think that person wants.

Depending on who you’re trying to reach, you may be trying to sound scholarly and profound, witty and exciting, young and fresh, dark and brooding -- whatever you think the editor of the line you’re targeting may be looking for.

Voice is one of the hardest things to critique and judge in a contest because it’s hard to say to someone you don’t know well (or at all) that their voice isn’t ringing true. But it’s the first thing that hits me when I start reading someone’s work. I know immediately if the author is talking to me and telling me a story, or if she’s trying to sound like a writer. There’s an immediate and noticeable difference between generic voice and true voice, even if you’ve never met the author.

When we listen to someone talking, we hear the way their voice rises, where the stress falls, where the pauses are. We also hear inflection, which often indicates attitude.

Years ago, a weatherman on my local TV channel had a specific speech cadence that drove me crazy because his voice always dropped and paused mid-sentence. Then he rushed over the periods at the end of the sentence as if they didn’t exist. His sentences didn’t run from capital to period, they ran from middle to middle.

If I were writing dialogue and trying to make you hear the rhythm of his speech, I’d write something like this:

“Highs today will be in the mid-fifties but lows tomorrow. Will only reach into the twenties that should bring. Some much-needed precipitation to the area. On Sunday we should see. Clear skies and warmer temperatures...” and so on.

The music and rhythm of a person’s speech helps us to follow and remember what they say and who they are. The music of speech is the pattern of pitch changes: down up/down up. Rhythm deals with stress (soft/loud) and length—duration (short/long).

If you don’t hear this already when you listen to people talk, spend some time listening to the speech patterns of strangers so you can hear the music of their speech. I think this is one of the reasons Southern writers are often so popular. The music of their speech patterns often fill their books with rich melody.

When we read, we need similar sound cues—cues that can only be provided by the writer’s sentence patterns and punctuation. But in the generic, homogenized, safe voice, there are no patterns. There is no music or rhythm.

If you want to find your voice, let your words sing on the page.

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