Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On hearing voices

Ordinarily voice would mean to you the narrative tone residing in a story or essay, the genie of attitude in the bottle of the writer's intent and the characters' agendas. This time it means the voices the writer hears in his or her head after having let someone read a work.

You yourself have often added to the clamor heard by many a writer, often with the question "Surely you don't intend the story to begin here, do you?" At other times, you have asked "Why did you decide to tell this in first person?" Even though you are quite willing to throw yourself into a work by an author known or unknown to you, trustingly giving yourself over to the writer's artistry, it is likely for you at some point in your reading to pause for a moment to ratify the author's techniques as you did with your recent immersion in the Alaska-based mysteries of Stan Jones or the historical treasure afforded by Hilary Mantell in Wolf Hall, or to bookmark for yourself some aspect you would have preferred to have gone in other directions as in Louise Erdrich's most recent, Shadow Tag.

You have seen traces of the voices at work on clients, writers whose work you have editorially guided, shepherded, even championed. Marcy, for instance, had revised to a splendid edge a complex novel that involves three generations of love story, unconscionable racial intolerance, and a modern day run at salvation culminating in a disastrous boat race on the Mississippi River. A friend, colleague, in fact former client of yours, and now a self-styled marketing expert, encountered Marcy at a writers' conference workshop and put a voice into her head that has effectively prevented Marcy from even looking at the work for six months, much less starting something fresh. Jim, who dedicated his first published book to you, has another, ready to go. The son of perhaps your closest friend has just become an acquisitions editor for a new publishing venture. You spoke well of Jim's work to your friend, who asked to read it for his own enjoyment then came to conclude that his son might be interested in seeing it. Jim discovered that your friend attends a Wednesday writers' lunch. Jim informed you that he'd arranged to meet your friend there in order to give him the manuscript. "They will try to lure you into staying for lunch," you warned Jim. "Don't stay. Deliver the manuscript, then leave."
Later that night, you received an email from Jim. They don't like where my novel begins. They don't like the fact that the protagonist doesn't appear in the first chapter. They don't think the antagonist is antagonistic enough. "You stayed for lunch," you said. They put voices in his head. "They invited me to come again," Jim said. "The more you go, the more your novel will change," you said. "It will become like a modern wristwatch, loaded with gadgetry and complications. It will become more like a cell phone than a novel."

By the same calculus, as salaried editor for publishers, you have been assured by writers that their reading group loved a particular manuscript as it then stood, a fact that should trump your objections to it and your memorandum of necessary attention points. Further, as the consultant you now are, one of your clients, a writer of nonfiction books, produced a work that resulted in his being invited to appear on the Jon Stewart Show, where he was met with great warmth, only to be excoriated by a critic who accused him of being too anecdotal.

In a large sense, we humans are all of a piece with Macbeth, who certainly had an agenda, haunted by Banquo's ghost; we all hear voices--indeed, we crave voices. For many of us, the worst pain of all is the absolute absence of voices.

"I don't know, Mr. Modigliani. Your subjects all seem to have such long necks. Couldn't you find models with more normal necks?"

"Un, listen, Signor Picasso, you're kind of taking liberties with proportions and exaggerations."

"Really, Melville, we'd be more inclined to take your Moby-Dick story if you could cut twenty or thirty thousand words about whales."

There are built-in programs that cause us to see things as we see them and as well programs that want us to give some thought about pleasing others. It could be argued with some success that individuals who are in marketing positions are programed to think they not only know a particular market but can effectively predict it one hundred percent of the time, although this argument could be countered with the one stating that these individuals were merely expressing their own opinions, then producing documentation to support it.

How about some ground rules?

1. Hold your ground.
2. If someone makes a suggestion, say changing Flicka, of my friend fame, from a horse to a dog because more people have dogs than horses, thank that person kindly, then hold your ground.
3. If upon rereading your material you become morally convinced that Flicka would do better, as in provide a better, more nuanced and meaningful story,as a dog, then change Flicka from horse to dog.
4. If an editor says he or she will publish your story provided you change Flicka from a horse to a dog and you believe you can make a plausible dog of the character, it is okay to change, but if you are still convinced Flicka must be a horse, thank the editor and walk away. Your pal, Barnaby Conrad, wrote a novel called Matador, a fictionalized version of the last day of a bullfighter named Pacote, modeled closely on the last day of the real bull fighter Manuel Sanchez, known as Manolete. One film producer loved the story, wanted to acquire the screen rights provided Conrad would be willing to change the character of Pacote to a prize fighter. Conrad said no.
5. If your friends love your work, will you secretly wonder if they have any taste?
6. If your friends don't get your work,will you secretly wonder if they have any taste?
7. It is not so much about story or theme as it is about your enthusiasm and vision. Who'd a thunk another book on Henry VIII would sell? Hilary Mantel did and poured it on.
8. How do you get the voices of others out of your head? Try listening to the voices of your characters or themes.
9. Even with so-called formula fiction, the characters have to have enough of a voice to convince you they are real.
10. The Islam equivalent of the sabbath is Friday, the Jewish sabbath is Saturday, the Christian day is Sunday. Some Buddhist sects will ask you What's that? if you ask them if they believe in God. Who is right?
11. You have enough to listen to with your own voices and those of your characters. NPR is okay for news; Terri Gross, tempting as she is, remains a gamble.
12. Look where listening to outer voices got Joan; sold to the English and burned at the stake is what.

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