A Writer’s Voice
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
I have this quotation on a sign next to my computer to remind me to relax when I write. It’s an ongoing struggle for me to keep my tone less formal and more conversational; finding my writing “voice” has been one of the most difficult challenges for me as I blog and finish my novel.
I’ve also thought about Elmore Leonard’s words many times this week because of a heated discussion I have been having with another author. She and I have very different ideas about voice and grammar.
Her grammar is perfect. Beyond reproach. Her profile page is a testament to her own intelligence; it is a thesis that proves to the world just exactly how impressed she is by her own grasp of the English language and every possible twist and turn that language can take. Her work is enough to make Messrs. Strunk and White weep with shame at their own failings when compared to her. Reading her perfect words, I imagined that I saw my poor, pathetic college Harbrace bow its red cover in disgrace and slink away to hide behind my dusty Roget’s.
Her exemplary use of the comma is a thing of beauty, a shining beacon of wisdom that leaves a mere mortal like me shivering in her cold and lonely shadow.
Unfortunately, her stories are as dry and lifeless as the English textbook she should be writing. Nothing happens. Her characters do nothing. Nothing, that is, but sit around having grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated conversations.
One of her stories, for example, is the sad tale of a woman suffering from insomnia. It opens with the following paragraph:
She hadn’t slept for three days. Tonight, she took the warm bath, brushed her hair the hundred strokes, drank the hot caffeine-free chai laced with valerian and camomile to no effect. Still unable to sleep, she meditated on the states of the Union:
This is followed by a list of the fifty states. After which, since the protagonist is still awake, the author lists the fifty states again in the order in which they attained statehood. When the poor sleepless woman is still awake at this point, the author lists all fifty states a third time, this time with their capitals. Near the end of the list, our hapless heroine finally drifts off out of sheer boredom, much like the reader.
This is not a good story. A good story needs more. It has to make me care. Tell me why the character can’t sleep. Is she worried about losing her house? Does she have a big presentation at work tomorrow? Maybe her husband is having an affair; maybe she is the cheater and her guilt is keeping her awake. And what are the consequences of a sleepless night? Maybe she is a cover model who has to be flawless for a shoot tomorrow. Perhaps she has to perform surgery at five a.m. What if she has to appear in court and fight for custody of her seventeen children?
Make me care. Make it matter. Because right now, I don’t give a rat’s patoot whether the character sleeps or not. All I want to do is climb into the story, stuff an Ambien down her throat and tell her to go the hell to sleep.
A good writer has a responsibility to tell the best story he or she can tell. And it goes without saying that he or she absolutely must have a grasp of the basics of language. Punctuation, spelling, sentence structure – all are important, of course. But so are things like conflict, climax and denouement. And let’s not forget about voice. The writer’s voice must shine through or the work will be flat and without impact.
Saying that grammar is the only thing that matters is like saying, “There is a comma splice on page 136 of To Kill a Mockingbird; therefore the book is worthless” or “I found a sentence fragment on page 301 of Gone With The Wind, so the entire novel is unreadable.”
I am not suggesting that it’s okay to gloss over things like period placement or the use of quotation marks. And so help me, I’d like to slap every writer who says “he thought to himself” or uses the non-word “irregardless”. There are some aspects of punctuation and grammar that simply cannot be ignored.
But a story, first and foremost, must entertain. Not lecture. And to entertain, it must pull the reader in and make him forget that he is reading. Reading a story should feel like sitting around a campfire, watching a storyteller spin a yarn.
When I’m reading, I don’t want to think, “Gee, that was a superb use of a semicolon!” I want to think, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” I want to reach for a tissue because the story has made me cry. I want to reach for my husband because a well-written sex scene has gotten me all hot and bothered. I want to feel something, be changed or moved in some small way by the experience.
I don’t want to feel smarter. I want to feel entertained.
Without an author’s voice, a story is nothing more than a collection of information. Sentences. Impeccable punctuation. Characters moving from one place to another and speaking to each other with proper grammar.
Screw that. Give me a good, heart-breaking tale told with the strong, confident voice of a writer who cares more about the story than about outshining Strunk & White. Give me DuMaurier, Vonnegut, Adams. Let me share a laugh with Janet Evanovich or fight off a few Stephen King-induced nightmares.
And maybe, someday, if I do this right, my voice can make a few people laugh or cry or feel, too.