Finding Your Voice (Part 3)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Finding Your Voice (Part 3.)
Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice

 

A.K.A.: First Person vs. Third Person. (It’s a bigger issue than me or him.)

Note: Various writing teachers/critics refer to narrative and authorial voice as an author’s Point of View (POV). However, as not to confuse an author’s own voice with the author’s characters’ voices, I shall refrain here from using POV, and simply refer to narrative or authorial voices as first person or third person, respectively.

The Narrative Perspective—linguistically speaking, deictic referencing—is a grammatical stew of who, when and where, essential information that will greatly influence the tone and tenor of your novel. Who is telling the story—you, the author, or one or more or your characters speaking through you? Might you also choose to impart an all-knowing, omniscient voice to further describe your characters? And when is your story told? (Now or then?) Where? (Here or there.) All relevant questions to ask yourself before you begin to write.

Your options? A list of common perspectives:

• First person/past tense (e.g.; narrator’s voice): I loved Paris.
• First person/present tense: I love Paris.
• Third person/past tense. (e.g.; authorial voice): She loved Paris.
• Third person/present tense: She loves Paris.
• Third person/omniscient/present conditional): She would one day find love in Paris.

Less relevant and not recommended (except as dialog or inner monologue):

• First person/future tense: I will love Paris.
• Second person/past tense: You loved Paris.
• Second person/present tense: You love Paris.
• Second person/future tense: You will love Paris.

Jay McInerney wrote the entirely of Bright Lights, Big City in 2nd person. The novel begins: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning…” This voice can sustain a novel—McInerney’s is a very good novel—but not easily and probably not without being regarded by your literary peers as ‘effusive.’ So, no, probably don’t use it.

Finding one’s own narrative perspective—that is writing a novel in first person (1P) vs. third person (3P)—is a bigger issue than simply writing “I am going to town” or “She went to town.” You’ll likely find that your sentence construction, your cadence—possibly your entire plot structure—significantly different, depending on which voice you choose. Visual cues will differ. Character depth will differ. Your character’s thought patterns will differ. Character motivations may differ in terms of your relying on dialog (two characters communicating) versus internal monologue (a character thinking unspoken thoughts to which the reader is privy). You may find your entire writing style shifting to some degree, to accommodate the voice you choose.

Also, when writing in 1P, using a narrative or narrator’s voice, you’re restricted to solely using the “I” character to impart knowledge to the reader. Mary may be thinking about killing me, but I don’t know that for certain. Only your principal character will reveal thoughts to the reader—an attribute that can be both incredibly illuminating and restricting. If you’re writing in 1P, you’re allowing the character to speak directly to the reader. For instance, Barbara Kingsolver begins her novel The Bean Trees:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there.”

However, should you, as author, choose to tell your story from your own perspective, you’re speaking in authorial voice. You’re writing in 3P, typically in either past or present tense. In the novel Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver begins:

“Her body moved with the frankness that comes with solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.

“If someone in this forest had been watching her—a man with a gun, for instance, hiding inside a copse of leafy beech trees—he would have noticed how quickly she moved up the path and how direly she scowled at the ground ahead of her feet.”

Using authorial voice, you have the added bonus of alternating with—should you choose—an omniscient voice. As omniscient narrator, you’re essentially a puppet-master looking down upon your characters and providing the reader with an objective overview of their lives. Interestingly, in Prodigal Summer (above), Ms. Kingsolver shifts to present tense to reflect her omniscient voice in the second line.

Remember the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town? (It’s been a staple in high schools for decades.) Mr. Wilder ingeniously offers his omniscient voice a living stage persona, a character unseen and unknown by the other actors. Early in Act I, the Stage Manager states: “Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street’s the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there.” The Stage Manager is not speaking to the actors. He’s speaking to the audience. The actors are oblivious to the Stage Manager’s presence.

Another example—and advantage—of writing in 3P is switching freely between authorial voice (shown in italics below) and omniscient voice (in bold italics):

As Jonathan stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, he felt a sudden sting on his shoulder. Christ, he hated mosquitoes. He considered them nothing more than tiny, insufferable vampires, sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dared enter their blistering realm. Little did Jonathan know that this insect would infect him with a lethal strain of malaria that would, without an antidote, inexorably dissolve his brain into a soggy beef broth.

It can be a good way to build drama.

If you write in 1P, do realize that we, your readers, won’t know (until Jonathan himself tells us) that his brain is turning to mush. If Jonathan doesn’t know, we don’t know either. However, there exists subtle methods to invoke a similar sort of faux omniscient information. No, you’re not using omniscient voice. You’re cheating by creating a useful backstory. Or hearsay. Or conversations with convenient strangers. Thus:

As I stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, I felt a sudden sting on my shoulder. Christ, I hated mosquitoes. They’re insufferable buggers, little more than tiny vampires sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dares enter their blistering realm. Years ago, while camped in Tupana, I’d heard horror stories about a rare killer mosquito hiding in this part of the Amazon. It was a new breed of insect whose sting would slowly dissolve a human brain into a soggy beef broth. I hoped to God one of those little lethal bastards wouldn’t find me, as the nearest medical facility, and the nearest antidote, awaited me in Manaus, a good fifty miles away.

Different voice? Sure, and likely a different style, subliminal or not. For instance, I didn’t intend to alter the above translation (3P/1P), but each voice demands nuance and subtlety. It’s not as simple as switching from him to me. Your novel will be quite literally built around the specific voice you use.

So… not sure which voice to use? Might I suggest allowing yourself a few pages to toy with different perspectives? Write a scene in 3P and then rewrite those same pages in 1P. Try past tense. Try present tense. Does a particular voice call to you? Do you feel yourself able to better express yourself more articulately using a particular voice? Personally, I find this exercise to be one of the more enjoyable guilty pleasures of beginning a new book.
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Finding Your Voice (Part 2)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Finding Your Voice (Part 2): Do your characters speak to you?

This one gets a little deep, so buckle in. To briefly recap: finding your writer’s voice is a combination of discovering your personality as a writer (See: Finding Your Voice. Part 1) and finding your characters’ fictional personalities. And the best way to discover those fictive voices? Listen.

So, basically, Rule #13 is: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories. (And in doing so, you’ll discover your voice.)

Crazy, right? It’s a little like channeling Elvis.

As a fiction editor, I can discern—usually within a page or two—whether I’m listening to the writer speak or if I’m listening to the characters tell their own story. And I don’t want the writer’s version of what’s going down, I want the characters revealing themselves. You? You’re just the conduit.

Not that your characters should completely dominate their own fates. The writer’s job is all about forward momentum. Herd these people inside your head—some who may be obstinate, others cranky, some loving, others lazy—incessantly forward. Push that plot dramatically onward. You’re creating a road map from here-to-there, filled with tension and pathos (or emotion or zany humor) and profundity (or frivolity). And each character has an obligation to remain in the confines of the parameters you set.

How do you know that your characters are speaking their minds? Here’s a test. Visualize this hypothetical novel: You’re writing a happy/sad tale about four friends, all very different people from a variety of backgrounds, and each trying to live a life to its fullest.

It’s what I call The Lobster Bisque Variant. Picture these four characters sitting in a restaurant, enjoying the moment. Juan’s a middle-aged Hispanic blue-collar pipe-fitter, Andrea’s a 35-year old airline pilot, Zane is a young black Broadway dancer and Rosanna’s an old Italian grandmother. A waiter comes by and—visualize, in turn, four variations of the following incident—accidentally spills a bowl of lobster bisque in each of their laps. Juan gets the lapful in Version #1, Andrea gets souped in Version #2… and so on. Now, as a writer, describe their reactions.

If your results are:

Version 1/Juan: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 2/Andrea: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 3/Zane: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 4/Rosanna: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”

…then, guess what? You’re not listening to your characters, to the nuance of their unique personalities. You’re listening to yourself, confined to your own theoretical reaction. Ultimately, your characters may become little more than mini-you’s, clones of your boxed-in subconscious, and cookie-cutters of each other. Most readers will quickly detect such similarity, such ambiguity, and most likely find them (and eventually your story) flat and unappealing.

However, by discovering their various reactions to a wet lap can help determine each character’s emotional core. If you like what you hear, then continue (metaphorically, of course) to pour bisque in their laps every so often, careful to interpret and maintain the integrity of their distinct voices. 

When they speak to you, through you (and, believe me, they will) be aware of their cadence and vocabulary and motivation. A great novel, after all, isn’t about plot—it’s about people.

And so… voice? It’s partly your storytelling ability. And partly about each character’s unique emotional energy. Strip away voice and whatever’s left—however realistic, however meticulously constructed—feels dry, lifeless, vacant. He did this, she did that. I went here. I went there. A house on Main Street. It rained. John loved Mary.

Instead, allow your characters to reveal the passion that burns inside their souls. Give them sufficient room, sufficient stage time, to become real to both you and your readers.
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Midwest Book Review: The Evolutionary Testament of Co-Creation is “an impressive and unique contribution to Christian Metaphysics”


Small Press Bookwatch has reviewed Barbara Marx Hubbard’s latest book, available now from Muse Harbor Publishing:

 

An impressive and unique contribution to Christian Metaphysics, The Evolutionary Testament of Co-Creation: The Promise Will Be Kept is an informative, absorbing, and inherently fascinating read that is highly recommended, especially for the non-specialist general reader with an interest in an iconoclastic and gnostic approach to Christian Studies.

 

midwest-book-reviewSmall Press Bookwatch is a publication of the Midwest Book Review, which was established in 1976 as an organization committed to promoting literacy, library usage, and small press publishing.

 

 

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Finding Your Voice (Part 1)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Finding Your Voice (Part 1)

I firmly believe that finding one’s fictive voice is among the most important—yet nebulous—foundations of crafting a successful novel. Those of us who dare presume how to instruct writers usually have a vague interpretation of what establishes any specific voice. I’ve heard such sage wisdom range from the technically ambiguous; “It’s an individual writing style, one of diction, syntax, punctuation and dialogue…” to the similarly oblique; “It’s uniquely your own writing.”

So, yes—one’s voice can be an imprecise stew of indeterminable ingredients. My best guess (and this isn’t a rule, merely an intuition) is: Voice = the writer’s style (personality) + character personality. Voice is that delicate balance of your wordplay, your wit, your clarity, combined with your characters’ various personas—their wordplay (e.g.; dialog), their wit, their clarity.

Meaning that most great writers don’t write alone. (See Finding Your Voice Part 2: Do Your Characters Speak to You?)

Although for the moment, let’s concentrate on your perceptions.

One’s writing’s style might be construed as a blending of those ‘left-brain’ (mechanical) attributes, such as a conversational sentence structure, engaging vocabulary, practiced cadence and word flow, coupled with ‘right-brain’ (creative) linguistic skills that ensures the reader understands and interprets exactly the vision you’ve intended. Every word you choose to include in a novel—and every word you choose to omit—every thought, every perception, every nuance, will be unlike any other writers’. Think of your style as your literary fingerprint.

Equally as important, you must be able to preserve that singular style; a similar cadence, syntax, and cohesive ambient integrity, throughout the entire story. Stylistically speaking, if you begin your literary journey poised on the back of a snarling lion, you don’t want to end on the back of a bleating lamb. Maintaining your stylistic integrity from the first page to the last is integral.

Perhaps there is a rule at play here, at least about a writer’s stylistic intent. So Rule #9: A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. That’s a writer’s style.

Still unsure as to what might constitute your own personal style? I don’t believe a writer chooses a style so much as it chooses you. Where to start? Sit down and begin writing with no particular destination in mind. No plot or direction or goal. You’re not starting a novel or a short story; don’t concern yourself with a beginning or end. You’re writing an abstract, a throw-away, and with no other purpose than to vomit words on paper for the sheer pleasure of doing so. You’re not worried about an audience or criticism or feedback—you’re simply attempting to please, even bedazzle, yourself. And when you begin to do so, maybe you’ve also found the beginnings of your style.

There is, within each of us, a deep and secret place where plots are bred and characters born. I’m not sure where it lingers—but I do know that when it wants me, it finds me. It exists in every writer. And as soon as your characters peek out from this hidden place, you’ll know it. You’ll soon begin to trust those voices and… ah, but that’s what Part 2 is all about.

But first, a secret. Most editors, agents, publishers and thinking readers are able to determine a novel’s worth in the first four or five pages. Sometimes in the first four or five lines. When I read a manuscript, these are the fundamental, stylistic attributes I hope to discover in a book. (And, yes, I look in this particular order):

  1. Great dialog.
  2. Clearly defined yet sufficiently complex characters (those who are uttering such insanely great dialog*).
  3. Continuity and sequencing from paragraph to paragraph. Meaning that each new paragraph is a puzzle piece that fits seamlessly with the last. Your segues are properly energized (not summarized) and information flows without the slightest confusion (unless intentional) to the reader.
  4. Continuity and sequencing from scene to scene. Each new scene—whether a continuation of the previous scene or an entirely new environment—is properly developed. Meaning sufficient scene/character setting is necessary: Where am I? Who’s nearby? How do I feel? What’s happening or about to happen? Yes, all a part of a writer’s style.
  5. Plot.

Yup. When delving into a new manuscript, your plot is the least of my concerns. Some structure must exist, of course. Getting the reader here-to-there in a cohesive, entertaining, electrifying manner is important. But during those first few pages, electrify me (and subsequent readers) with your joie de vie, with a total awareness of your characters’ complexities, cognizant of how they speak and engage and energetically carry themselves from page to page. That’s how you get me to read your book. I’d vastly prefer two amazing characters, speaking dazzling dialog in a dark room for 300 pages than all the zombies, vampires and rogue Vultarian robots gathered together in a single book to annihilate mankind. (And lose, of course.)

– – – – –

* Please do not confuse Shakespearean eloquence or elocution as a substitute for “great” dialog. To me, great dialog is real dialog. If “Huh?” is the quintessential response to a poignantly asked question, relevant to the character and to the moment at hand, that’s what I want to hear.
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Barbara Marx Hubbard

012-front-thumbI have been blessed to know Barbara Marx Hubbard for nearly a decade now. Barbara has been mentor, teacher and friend to me over the years, and I feel so grateful that this brilliant, caring woman has been willing to play such a pivotal role in my spiritual evolution. I first met Barbara after I participated in a program called, “Gateway to Conscious Evolution,” a guided group-study program that offered the participants an empowered pathway to self-realization based on a blend of modern scientific understandings and ancient philosophical/spiritual realizations that Barbara had been gathering and weaving for many years. The Gateway program helped propel me through my own inner fears, self-limiting behaviors and life-negating beliefs by inspiring me to do the deep inner work that had been calling out to me—but that I’d been avoiding—for many years. I credit my spiritual awakening and journey into self-actualization in no small part to the tools and foundational support I received from Barbara’s teachings.

Of all the spiritual philosopher/teachers I’ve met, Barbara is perhaps the most gracious, open and exuberant of the bunch. Driven by her unending passion for life and deeply attuned to her personal mission, she continues to be a dynamic force for change well into her 80s. She coined the phrase “conscious evolution” several decades ago as a way of describing the quantum shift that appears to be occurring in human consciousness today, and has been promoting the concept of conscious evolution ever since.

The evolutionary shift of which Barbara speaks—from a narrow, ego-based and self-conscious perspective to an expanded, essence-based and whole-conscious perspective on life—may prove to be the key to our species’ ability to thrive into the future. The steady and growing emergence of this perspective within humanity offers us a radical new way of looking at the world, and helps us contextualize ourselves within the cosmos in a more loving and life-affirming way. That we appear to have a conscious ability to either embrace or reject this enhanced perspective points to our capacity, as self-aware and sentient life forms, to choose to experience ourselves as fully interconnected and engaged in a harmonious flow of life, or to remain entrenched in the belief that we are somehow separate from life and all else around us, thus possess a life we can “lose.”

Having explored the belief that we are separate from life—and from God—for many thousands of years, and having tested the theory that life is something we possess rather than the inherent truth of who and what we are, we’ve gained great wisdom. It’s time now for us to acknowledge the understandings we’ve gained through our intrepid exploration of self-aware consciousness, and to step boldly into a brand new human experiment. The question we now need to answer? What sort of world might we build if we embrace the realization that we are each integral living aspects of a vast, eternal, infinitely creative, intelligent, compassionate and purposeful living system? What sort of experience might we have if we choose to honor the fact that we are of God, in God and forever and always God…no matter what?

God, in this enhanced vision, refers to the whole of the universe, the life force, the implicate order, the zero point field, the Tao, the Great Spirit, Allah, or whatever other name we might wish to attribute to the infinite energy field out of which all things arise, and to which they all eventually return. It points to the fact that we are more than material star-stuff—we are in fact God-stuff, having a temporary human experience. To move through the world carrying this vision of ourselves as opposed to our earlier worldview that we were somehow cast off by God as flawed, problematic and disobedient “bad actors” changes everything. It’s like waking up to the realization that when a baby bird gets shoved out of its nest it’s not because the fledgling is considered unworthy by its parents, but because the fledgling has been deemed by its parents to be ready and able to advance on its own and become the best version of itself that it can become. What beauty lies in that perspective, and what freedom we gain to create and explore without shame, or guilt, or fear! What joy we feel when we relinquish our former self-limiting, hostile beliefs about who and what we are, and instead grant ourselves permission to test our capacities and push further into the universe with curiosity and wonder, confident that we will find some way to relate with whatever strange beings or worlds we may discover because we grasp that whatever we encounter will be made from the exact same God-stuff as we ourselves are made.

This reverent perspective and deep sense of connectedness changes everything. It encourages us to walk through the world with grace and ease. It also invites us to trust in the higher process of cosmic unfolding; to meet life with openness; to be courageous if we encounter something unknown; to be compassionate if we notice that others are suffering; to be kind in all of our daily interactions; to be patient while we learn more about our world and as others learn more about us, and to extend peace as our default mode of connecting with other aspects of this unified living flow.

What might our world look like once a majority of human beings view the world through the lens of interconnectedness rather than continued separation? Who can yet say? But what seems likely is that whatever eventually emerges will be something other than human in the classic definition, because the human condition that defines us today cannot support this expanded level of awareness about who we are and the universe we are within. Just as early hominids became homo sapiens sapiens, so too will homo sapiens sapiens eventually become homo universalis—similar to us today, yet evolved in a way that the difference will be obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Barbara’s mission in life has been to point the way toward this Great Turning, this cosmic birth of a new species, by encouraging each of us to birth this shift within ourselves.

I give thanks to Barbara Marx Hubbard for her decades of dedication to this evolutionary transformation of our species, as well as her willingness to shine such a bright and compassionate spotlight on this vital inner process. I honor her for inspiring countless others like me to take a similar journey into themselves that Barbara herself made back when she first discovered her holy life’s mission, so that we too could realize the truth about who we are, and what we are in.

 

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