Friday, August 27, 2010

Finding One's Voice

One of the things that draws me to the work of a particular author is his or her "voice"--a style or a unique manner of expression that distinguishes that writer's work from other people's fiction. It seems to me that most romance readers are mostly interested in the story and the characters, but for me, a great deal of the enjoyment in reading comes from the clever, effective, or unusual use of language.

I recently finished my fourth book by the amazing Jonathan Lethem. Two of those books (Amnesia Moon and Gun, With Occasional Music) I'd categorize as science fiction. One (Motherless Brooklyn) is an offbeat thriller. The novel I just finished (You Don't Love Me Yet) probably would be considered an unconventional romance with a hearty dose of satire. Despite the variety of genres, all Lethem's books share some stylistic characteristics.

Lethem is a master of the surprising phrase, the original image. Consider the following, for example:

As she roused herself from the cubicle Lucinda felt a sweet nostalgic stirring of affection, almost like green shoots of horniness under the pavement of her hangover.

Or how about:

Traffic buzzed past on Sunset and Fountain, isolating Tang's like a reef in time. Elderly chess opponents in vintage suits nudged pawns across squares at their booths, under clicking, humming fluorescent fixtures, as though installed there by some miraculous hand that had plucked them from a 1930's Vienna kaffeehaus.

I love authors who have such precise control of their words -- even though they make me jealous!

Another recent discovery with an extremely distinctive voice is erotica author Charlotte Stein. Her voice is a breathless, messy first person that stumbles over itself in its eagerness, propelled by love or lust.

His leg brushes mine, and it's terrible but I like it. I think about last week in the cinema, watching pinkly sweet bodies pretend to enjoy each other on the screen, the screen then fading to black just as it got to the really good bits. And him whispering through the darkness at me: Do you want to make our own good bits up?
I did. I do. But then he asked me to touch myself and I couldn't do it. I told him so, too, and he laughed. Though he hadn't laughed at all when I told him that I'd never touched myself. Not ever.
The look on his face! As though a grown woman who never masturbated was the equivalent of a straight man never looking at a big pair of tits. That shocked, slightly condescending expression made me say some spiteful things to him, but none of them landed. Or, at least, he never made me feel bad for saying them.
(From Things That Make Me Give In)

Another favorite of mine is Sarah Waters, author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. Most of her novels have historical settings; she has a talent for bringing her pasts to life, with language that is simultaneously rich and precise.

Sometimes I wonder about my own voice. I deliberately strive for variety in my work. Sometimes I write in first person, sometimes in third. Although the majority of my characters are well educated (many excessively so!), I've tried my hand at writing people from lower social levels--a city stripper with a high school education, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, a Thai bar girl. Are there some common features in my writing that distinguish it from the work of other authors?

Well--I tend to spend a lot of my effort on my setting. I try to bring the time and place where my characters interact into strong focus. In fact, I normally have a less detailed visualization of the characters themselves than I do of their surroundings.

What else? I guess I'd have to say that my sex scenes are distinguished by an emphasis on the characters' emotional reactions, as opposed to their physical actions. In general, reviewers tend to praise those scenes as intense and engaging--but I'd guess that at least half my sentences describe what the characters think, feel and imagine, as opposed to what they do with or to each other.

I don't know. It's difficult, possibly impossible, to analyze one's own style. I do hope that what I write stands out from the crowd, from a stylistic perspective. Because I believe that I'm not the only reader for whom the manner of expression is as important as the matter.


Tom Olbert said...

Great excerpts, great insights. I like reading scenes that artfully depict setting too, mostly in the poetic style (I grew up reading Bradbury.) I've always envied writers who can really bring the reader into a given place and make it come alive for them, focusing on all its wonderful subtleties.

One of the first rules of writing that I learned is that what happens isn't important; it's how the point-of-view character reacts to it that counts.

Tom Olbert

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Tom,

Thanks for dropping by. I like your insight. Sometimes I think I get too wrapped up in trying to make the events of the story work. That's happening now - I'm working on a scifi novel and I find myself getting lost in the details. Your reminder is timely!


Janice Seagraves said...

Oh, I don't know I think its the characters in the story that really matter.

I've though about my own voice. Then in a yahoo group I'm on, someone posted a link to a site that suggests who your writer voice sounds like, after you submit a chapter of course. I found I sound like J.K. Rowlings.

Funny, I hadn't thought so.


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