An old old friend once summed his own fears about life after high school this way:
“We’re smart, Thomas. We can accomplish about anything we choose in life through sheer intellect. The only hard part is deciding what that something is going to be. What do we take up?”
Recently this difficulty in deciding upon a path has strongly manifested itself in my writing, in a particular story. I have begun it in both a serious voice and one that is undeniably Douglas Adams-esque. Neither attempt measured up to my expectations but that was only partially due to my indecision concerning voice. Now that I have (I’m hoping) solved the story’s non-voice shortcomings, what I have left is the choice of voices.
It’s taken me some six years after originally commiting myself to serious fiction writing to finally approach control over a professional, consistent voice. I finally hear my calmer self in my writing. Still, since my story ideas tend to vary widely — at least from my perspective — I find myself occasionally tempted into using that lingering Adams-like, voice.
Keep it or kill it?
[wavy flashback disintegration – wah wah wah]
During design school, I entertained the notion of becoming an illustrator/graphic designer but was urged by an instructor in very confident terms that I would be shooting myself in the foot by so splitting my focus. “Anything slash anything slashes your chances of success.” So I chose graphic design and never looked back. In the same way, is switching voice between stories good or a bad from a career marketing standpoint?
To assist in finding a solution, I read “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” by Julie Wildhaber from about two years ago for Grammar Girl in which she described voice in writing better than I’d ever heard before:
Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version.
Cool. Nice popular culture reference. Thank you.
Finally understanding what voice in writing is, I still was left to decide whether I should stick with the voice I’ve been honing or allow the funnier of the two voices to tell my story.
Enter “25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice” at terribleminds.com, specifically #19 of the article, The Banshee’s Scream, copied here in part:
Voice matters. Voice is important. But at the end of the day, if it takes your story and drowns it in a hot stockpot of scalding soup, then you’ve done yourself a disservice. In the Great Cosmic Chain Of Telling Bad-Ass Motherfucking Stories, voice is subservient to story, not vice versa.
Again, cool. Sounds like an argument for fuck the dilemma. Tell the story how I want. But wait, maybe it’s saying tell the story based on what you’re wanting to say, who you’re wanting to say it to. Maybe there are even other unknown considerations.
A bell went off. That list from “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” — things to think about when developing one’s voice:
What you want to communicate about yourself or, if you’re writing for a business, about the company’s brand. If you asked your readers to describe your copy with a few adjectives, which words would you want them to choose?
The purpose of what you’re writing. Should your voice be different for an obituary than for a movie review? Do you want to inform, entertain, or motivate readers to take action?
Your target audience. Are you writing for kids, professional investors, soccer fans from around the world?
I get that Wildhaber was referring more to non-fiction, but I think the same holds true for fiction. A fiction writer still has an audience in mind when he writes. When I wrote my recent nose sex story, I knew I wasn’t writing to retirement-aged Floridians, or Mrs. Rose’s kindergarten class. I was writing for readers who appreciate the very very weird, aren’t offended by murder and sex and who appreciate more literary writing — he said with crossed fingers.
I asked myself a couple questions based on Wildhaber’s list.
What do I want to communicate with the story? Futility even after resolution.
What is the story about? Eventual healing after a terrible prolonged loss.
Who do I want to reach? Readers who can tolerate a less-than-happy ending and readers who, again, can appreciate weird.
And just like that I realized I couldn’t afford the lighter voice. There was too much darkness, even in the lighter parts, always under the surface, driving the story forward. I just couldn’t see how the Adams voice could pull it off and retain that darkness.
There may come a day when a humorous middle-grade story draws me in. At that time, I’ll resurrect the Adams-esque voice, but for myt current story, I’ll keep with the voice that has been subliminally waving its red flag at me for weeks.
(And I’ll keep writing about my writing when I run into any creative blocks because doing so hasn’t failed me yet 🙂