Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXI

Unless someone close to you has specifically pointed it out, chances are you have not fully articulated to yourself the connection between voices heard in rooms and voices emerging from reading material.

It is a truth universally recognized that in any large room filled with people, there is at least one person whose speaking voice will cause you in some way to come unglued.

You may have first recognized this potential in faculty meetings, or while merely trying to slurp down enough coffee and croissant to secure your waking state.  The phenomenon is also likely to emerge in rest rooms, doctors' office waiting rooms, or ticket lines for motion pictures or sporting events.

The irritating quality of the voice may be various, a rasping nasality, a locution characterized by a tendency to honk, or that most common culprit, the disagreeable timbre reminiscent of hardwood being sawed.  Squeaks and repetitions of some phrase such as you know, you know what I mean?, like, and drill, baby, drill are also contestants.  The overwhelming fact is:  you know an irritating voice when you hear it, to the point that the mere mention here of irritating voice evokes in your inner iPod sufficient response to set your jaw on clench mode, perhaps even your brow to furl in abject disapproval.

Some writers may already have a similar effect on you, explaining why the very mention of them and their work sends you into default negativity.  Thus do I introduce for your consideration the need to transfer the voice you hear as you compose into the material that lands on the page.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you haven't read enough or, worse, you haven't read with that investigative focus it is easy to confuse with plagiarism.

I expect to hear from some of you that you are not a hearing person; when you compose you are describing pictures you see of your characters and scenery and emotional landscape doing a ballet before your eyes.  No problem if this is the case.  What you do next is read your work aloud after you believe it is completed.  What you get is your voice--the attitude and effect your work is likely to have on readers fortunate enough to have the opportunity to read your work.

What's that you say; you don't like the way your voice sounds?  Okay, back to the reading gig, searching your search for voices that please you, reach you on some emotional level to the point where you can even venture an opinion why you like the voice.  Notice how that writer mixes sentence length for effect.  Notice how that writer will use short, clipped sentences in tense, action-heavy moments as opposed to thinking things through in leisurely form the way remarkable Jack Benny did when, being accosted by a mugger with a gun who demanded "Your money or your life," responded with an agonizing pause to the point where the mugger said, "Well? (intending the meaning to be What shall it be?), followed by Jack Benny's classic, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."  Nor is it any accident that Mr. Benny's personal Achilles' Heel was another comedian with a reputation for splendid timing, George Burns.  Voice is timing, pacing, the orchestration of your text to the emotion you wish your text to convey.

And don't tell me you had no idea you were supposed to imbue every scene you write with a dominant emotion.  I don't write letters to young, middle-aged, or geezer writers who have no awareness of that.  I mean seriously, if you wonder why your manuscripts come back unread or with some ominous mark and the notation "I stopped reading here," it is because the reader had struggled to that point feeling nothing but relief at having reached it in order to bail out.

But I digress.  This is about voice, about you sounding like you.  I know it is tempting to want to sound like writers whose names you find on bestseller lists, but stop and think about it for a moment:  They got onto those lists because they not only had a story to tell, they had a particular voice in which to tell it.

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