Monday, June 8, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have asked myself why I gravitate toward writers like Elmore Leonard, Dean Koontz and Laura Lippman, when other readers would rather lose themselves in a story by Susan Isaacs? The answer to this question, I believe, is found in the relationship that exists between writer and reader. That relationship, I also believe, is driven mainly by two things.

First, the relationship grows from a common bond in the selection of words and expressions. How often do you find yourself talking to someone with a certain flavor for describing things that puts you at ease? And certainly there are others who prickle the hairs along the back of your neck. Consider this: two guys describing the same set of events. The first one says, “I took a drive down to the corner convenience store and talked with a girl who works there and is not afraid to show everyone her cleavage. After that, I purchased a pack of cigarettes.” The second guy says, “I went down to the corner gas-n-go. You know, the place where that hot looking chick works, the one almost shows you her tetas? Anyways, I talked at her for a time, and then threw down some money and said to her, ‘Hey baby, give me a pack of smokes, will ya?'” True, it’s the same story, but each man has their own way of telling it. And I have no doubt that you would feel more comfortable talking with one, while after five minutes the other man would force you to think up an exit strategy.

On another level, this relationship is joined by a mutual perception of reality. The writer’s comes out in his tone, subject matter and characters. As an example, I once submitted an excerpt of a story to a writer’s group. Some liked it, others didn’t. One particular comment stuck with me. The reader didn’t like the woman in the story. To her, the woman represented something sleazy and cheap. Months later, a different person read the same piece and said it was exactly how some people are. In fact, he could name them. Clearly, my perception of reality—that men and women alike can be extremely sleazy in mind, body and soul—works for some, not so much for others.

Together, these two ideas are just scratching the surface of what is considered a writer’s voice. This is the heart of today’s posting.

Two weeks ago, I encountered an old voice that became new to me. Based on a friend’s recommendation, I decided to read a novel by John D. MacDonald. The book I selected, The Deep Blue Good-by, was the first Travis McGee novel, and it took me only a chapter to sit down in an easy chair with my feet propped up, ready to relax and go the distance. Here was a writer who knew how to describe things on my level. Between the front and back covers, he showed me a slice of reality that, while not getting my personal endorsement, fell within the scope of what I’ve come to accept about humanity.

I sent my friend an e-mail. Just getting into the first chapter now, I wrote, and really digging the voice of MacDonald’s writing. Let me give you a quick example, this from the second chapter. Travis McGee, the lead character, just walked a friend to her car. Previously, this friend made a blatant pass at him, and Travis declined, saying that was not the direction he wanted their friendship to go. Afterward, he paused to reflect:

I kicked the concrete pier and hurt my toes. These are the playmate years, and they are demonstrably fraudulent. The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhausting quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of very much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel. And the cute things they say, and their dainty little squeals of pleasure and release are as contrived as the embroidered initials on the guest towels. Only a woman of pride, complexity and emotional tension is genuinely worth the act of love, and there only two ways to get yourself one of them. Either you lie, and stain the relationship with your own sense of guile, or you accept the involvement, the emotional responsibility, the permanence she must by nature crave. I love you can only be said two ways.

To those who might decry Travis McGee—and by proxy, John D. MacDonald—as a chauvinist, you need only flip a few pages more to find this gem of a revelation. Later that evening, after Travis ventured out and found a one-night fling with a woman he didn’t even know, he noted the following:

When I was alone in darkness in my bed, I felt sad, ancient, listless and cheated. Molly Bea had been as personally involved as one of those rubber dollies sailors buy in Japanese ports.

Apparently, the door swings both ways. Even the men who fail to guard and treasure themselves aren’t worth very much to anyone else.

Personally, the question of whether a novel connects with me comes down to this: When I read, do I feel like I am in good hands with someone who knows how to tell me a story? It sounds selfish to write it that way, doesn’t it? However, if the personal side of it wasn’t true, then why do we have so many readers saying So-And-So author has good stuff while others say the writing wasn’t that great? In the case above, MacDonald’s voice came through for me. He used words to say things I would say. He painted a character portrait which I found believable and refreshing. Would he resonate with you? I don’t know. It’s worth it for you to find out, though.

So, why the focus on voice? you ask.

For various reasons, I’ve come to question my own voice and whether it resonates with readers. What do readers see when they find one of my stories? Is my language, tone and world view something that engages them or turns them off, and are readers willing to go on a long journey with me? As many of you know, reading a piece of flash fiction doesn’t require much energy when compared to a novel. And because of that, I ask whether or not my voice is something that will put readers at ease, like a friend they could sit with for hours? Will they stay with me or quickly think about exit strategies?

As I keep working toward writing and actually completing a novel, the connection to my reader is becoming more and more critical. Often, I wonder if I have the right stuff. Only time will tell.


  1. Great post, Stephen. I agree that the writer's voice plays a big part in keeping me interested in a story. Fortunately people like different things, so no matter what voice we aspiring authors develop there should be readers who it appeals to. Even so, I think we all have doubts as to whether we write well enough to be successful in getting published.

    I just finished a Dean Koontz book, Odd Hours. I loved it. Even though I'm not normally a fan of first person, Odd Thomas tells his story so well that I overlook everything else. As you said, the voice resonates with me.


  2. Very thoughtful post, Stephen. The story itself is as important as how the story is told. Your examples were a good way to illustrate this. I know you hang around the critique forums and have seen all grades of writing. Sometimes you'll find a story that is technically well executed but has all of the passion of a voice message. On the flip side, you'll read one you can barely get through because the writer doesn't seem to know the difference between "there" and "their" and yet there is this charm to the storytelling that keeps you involved.

    A story's voice is so hard to pin down because, really, how do you define what works and doesn't other than say "this sounds right." Harder still is trying to "speak" to the reader in a voice that is not your own. It's like trying to imitate Sam Elliot when you normally sound like Jerry Seinfeld.

    McDonald is great and even when he takes a step up on his soapbox (sandbox with Travis), he's a compelling read.


  3. Super post, so thoughtful as all of your posts often are.

    Voice. It is a subjective thing when it comes to likes and dislikes. As a writer, you can learn grammar and dialogue and setting a scene and spelling, but the one thing you CAN'T learn is voice. You have it or you don't. Certainly you can emulate voice and study voice - and you should by reading those authors whose voice makes you tingle - but the only way to 'get voice' is to write - and write and write and write.

    Peace, Linda

  4. Nice post. Voice is something we .... well it's sorta like finding people we like. That is why there are so many ways of telling a story and why so many stories are in print. Some folks like the nuts and bolts straight to the point and others like the florishes and embellishments.

  5. Thanks to all of you who stopped by.

    Carol: I haven't read any of the Odd Thomas series, though everyone who has talked with me about it say it is worth reading. One of these days, I'll have to add them to my library.

    John: I think trying to speak to the reader in a voice not your own is where many writers lose their way, which is sad because it always comes off as contrived.

    Linda: You're abosolutely correct. The only way to develop your voice is to study what works and then to write and write and write.

    Paige: Finding people you like... That sums it up for me, too.

  6. Good post, Stephen. Agree with what others have said, and you are so right when you say trying to speak to readers in a voice not your own is what trips writers up. It all boils down to, "Be true to yourself".

  7. Jon,

    Thanks for stopping by again. Your words came back to me this morning as I drove to work. I was thinking about all of the stories in the EU contest and how some writers just have a gift for artistic language. At that moment, I started to fall into despair, but then I remembered what you wrote and chided myself for feeling so low. Be true to yourself, I thought. Those writers have their voice, and it works for them. I have my own voice, and it works for me. If I try to push myself toward their writing style, then I'll end up as a cheap knock-off.

    And thanks again to John Towler for the Sam Elliott/Jerry Seinfeld analogy. I needed both of your comments this morning.

  8. Sorry I'm coming late to the game. I'm behind on EVERYTHING this month.

    Ah, voice. I think voice is what drove the Twilight Series to such great success. The voice was consistent and compelling, even though...well, don't get me started.

    I can think of a few authors who have such powerful writing voices that they hook me in with their first sentence. Fitzgerald, for the dancing lightness of his prose. (How did he EVER do that???) Toni Morrison, for her sheer authority and power. Her words carry weight. The voice commands you to listen. That power is what separates those masters from us peons.

    Good post, buddy. Thanks for sharing.