Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Voice of the Coffee-House and Your Stories

Without even thinking about it, you reached a state in your evolution as a writer when you were no longer writing to everyone but to a much narrower group, still without many facial or demographic characteristics, more along the lines of mystery readers or science fiction readers or adventure readers, or readers of contemporary event. This was because you were thinking these would be interesting landscapes to be writing in and why shouldn't readers in these fields like your material? You had ample reason to find out why readers in any field might not stand in line to pick up publications in which your work appeared. Indeed, you had equally ample reason to find out why you began to get the distinct feeling that readers had expectations, one of which was that the writer make the metaphoric equivalent of eye contact with them as they tell their stories.

By the time you more or less blundered into working on the other side of the desk, the publisher side, you'd begun to learn something about reader tolerance as in how much of anyone's writing was a reader willing to take? This insight came to you as the result of 1) many, many long letters, sent to you simply because of the accident by which you were able to sign your letters as Shelly Lowenkopf, editor, and 2) by the amount of time you were spending in the writing of letters. Thanks to a remarkable secretary named Peggy, you quickly reached the plateau where ninety-five percent of your letters did not take more than one page and a good sixty percent of these did not take more than one paragraph. Even though you were dictating many of these letters to Peggy, you were also seeing some image of the recipient in your mind's eye, which gave you the added impetus to address all your writing to someone. You could easily delete the address, Dear Whomever, and the complementary close, Yours, or Cordially, or Sincerely after the first draft. It seemed appropriate to write stories and chapters of novels to or at a person, particularly someone you knew well enough to be fond of or in love with or respectful of.

This was as close as you were able to come at the time to articulating voice, which includes authorial intent and state of mind, leavened by authorial feeling in general and specificity. If I don't like you, I'm not going to be casually informative, certainly not overtly respectful, perhaps even a bit snarky or ironic. Depending on how much I like you, I'm going to be informal, confidential, up front, conspiratorial, with the occasional tease tossed in.

By now, much as you like writing to a particular person, especially for the conveyed sense of intimacy and informality, you appear to have come full circle. The circle is easy enough to explain. You are writing for yourself, to yourself, at yourself. You are also going public with it, leaving it out there so that anyone who wishes may eavesdrop. There are likely to be many who will in effect switch to other channels, to other authors, to other voices, to other genera other than those in which you write. At one time, you may have been snarky about that, but as things stand today, you are not snarky when you find a book that does not speak to you.

You get a certain reinforcement of your approach by spending some hours per week in a coffee shop, not merely enjoying the coffee but being aware of the background voices and conversations and their effect on you. A favored game is trying to settle down to writing, then seeing how long you can remain absorbed before some particularly unattractive voice arrests your attention, wrenches you from your absorption. Male or female? Low, high-pitched, squeaky, idiosyncratic with such filler words as I mean or you know? Imparting the manic sense of self-importance or perhaps even at the other end of the spectrum, self-pity?

These coffee shop voices are supplements to the voices you do not want for your front-rank characters--unless, of course, you want to start them off with the albatross of being someone who will have to undergo some change. These coffee-shop people are all perfectly delightful, reasonable sorts who bear you no ill will and may scarcely recognize you. It is not their fault that their speech mannerisms tend to irritate you or put you off. But the same thing is true of the professionally trained voice, say the radio disc jockey or the commentators on the various music stations which draw your interest. So the calculus does revolve about you in the area of pure voice. Your coffee-shop people have an age range from about early teens on through seventies and eighties, the occasional pre-teen dragged in by a parent or grandparent. Some of them have voices you'd cheerfully listen to. You can't tell from looking. The individuals at every age who seem most visually pleasing to you may check out to have voices that need WD-40 or 3-in-1 Oil. They all inform the catalogue you keep in your head of how you want your work to sound and how you do not, under any circumstances, want it to sound; how, alas, it most certainly sounded at one tie before you were aware.

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