Thursday, March 08, 2007

Discovering Your Voice

So I've been thinking....

I know. Never a good start.

Character is starting to fascinate me once again. I was looking through some of my favorite books today and wondering why it is that I'm so caught up in them that I will reread them for years. For example, I was looking at David Eddings. Yeah, I know--all of you purists will boo. But this is how I look at him.

First off, he has a masterful way of developing a character. His earliest works, specifically The Belgariad series, was wonderful. I was a young teenaged reader, coming into 'adult' fantasy from the breeding grounds of C.S. Lewis and Alexander. The first Eddings book I bought? "Queen of Sorcery." Why? The cover and the fact that I thought it was about a female protagonist. Back in those days, there was very little fantasy written for or from the viewpoint of a woman. The book hooked me. The characters were instantly credible, breathing and walking on the pages while I read. What makes that so spectacular? It was the second book in the series. I had to go back and buy the first book after I finished the Belgariad entirely.

There's a lot to be said about an author whose characters are so vivid that they can bring a picky reader (and even then I was) into the middle of a series and keep them there--and I was a loyal Eddings reader through four series, thank you very much. I mean, Garion was such a lout, his aunt was such a know-it-all (and a woman of extreme power, thank god! One of the first ones I ever read about in fantasy) and then there were the rogues Belgarath and Silk. He even managed to give Ce'Nedra some charm.

There are flaws I see now that I didn't see then. But still, I have first edition Eddings books on my shelves and I still read them occasionally to remind myself of the magic I encountered in his stories--a magic that eventually lead me to write.

Besides, a man who finds a way to use the word defenestration in speculative fiction and it DOESN'T get edited out is my hero.

With this in mind, I looked at a few other old favorites. Tolkien wasn't a huge character-builder, but when it comes to world development? Whew! He has no peer.
Madeline L'Engle's work is still extremely fast-paced for me; her work just slips from the page like a well-greased slice of bacon. Marion Zimmer Bradley is another along the lines of Mary Stewart--prodigious research and the ability to enjoy taking risks. Newer favorites? J.K. Rowling has a masterful touch with plot progression and the ability to let her literature age with her characters--absolutely brilliant. I read the first Harry Potter book under protest and now I'm hooked. Jacqueline Carey is with imagery the way Degas was with paint. Her Kushiel's series is so realistic that it exists for me.


Oh dear. Did I digress? I did.

It's all intertwined. What one author lacks, another one makes up for. An author I'm reading a lot of right now is Gore Vidal. His historical fiction is meticulously researched, his characters are beautifully drawn, his descriptions are lush. It's actually quite sickening.

What I'm driving at is this: every writer should be able to look at their work and determine what his/her strengths are. I started a list today, looking at the edits for Asphodel, and added questions to each section for my own use.

1. Character development. Are they two-dimensional or fully-fleshed out? Cardboard or living?

2. Description. Does your story read like a movie (translation: can you 'see' the scenes in your head as they play out?)

3. Plot progression. Is there natural build in the action? Is each step up in the plot a logical progression from the one before it?

4. Dialogue. (this I stole from theatre work and I think dialogue is one of my stronger points as a result) Here, too, are natural builds and plateaus. Does your character's reactions make sense? Can you keep the players straight? Are the emotional responses honest ones or dramatic ones?

5.Emotional Veracity. Can you believe how this character feels? Is the intimation of emotional moments easily grasped by the reader?

6. World building. How real is your world? Is there a viable political, social, monetary, religious, geographical, and historical system in play?

No one expects us to 'compete' with the greats. We're expected to find our own path as writers and develop what comes most naturally to us. But I think it's pretty important to think about these issues and similar ones when embarking on any fiction writing at all.

You hear a lot of people in the business talk about your *voice* as a writer. What most people don't realize is that inexperienced writers don't really HAVE a voice. What they have is a mish-mash of the writers they most admire. Unfortunately, most younger writers don't admire the true greats of literature: no Dickens, no Austen, no Bronte, no Hemingway, no Faulkner. The greatest practitioners of the written word in the last two centuries are almost out of favor with young readers and writers alike. Why sugar coat it? If your *voice* is going to be an imitation of other writers, why not emulate the best? Do I think that young writers can read Faulkner and instantly have his way with words and his beauty of imagery?

Hell, no.

To be quite honest, although I own Faulkner and read him frequently, he's not my favorite. But, as a writer myself I can appreciate his ability to turn a phrase with succinct incisions and pray to the muses to find that ability in myself.

So, my new goal, one that I am implementing in edits, is to refine my own voice. In order to do that, I must be willing to look at my entire product and scrutinize my own flaws very carefully. Although I can build one hell of a world, I can't give it the justice that it demands. Although I can create some fairly interesting characters, I'm not that good at adding those little idiosyncracies that make them real. So now I have to go back and find a way to bring more of myself--and less of Eddings or L'Engle into them.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery--but not in the arts. In the arts, any art, innovation is the only route for a serious artist to take. Despite all indications in the industry to the contrary, that means that all of us who are writers must strive daily to find our own voices.