Finding Voice

Don’t just stand there. Let’s get to it. Strike a pose. There’s nothing to it.

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Copy—steal—abscond with striking characters you read out of magazines and newspapers. Vogue, for instance. Or that loud opinionated guy sitting behind you on the bus. Or that lisping girl working the register at Walmart who won’t bother to smile, not even at your funny jokes. Or your friend’s friend who says “literally” literally all the time. Yeah, that guy. Get that voice in your head and write. Pick someone you don’t like…even better. The best. In fact, the crucial point here is write someone you don’t like.

It’s a way to get out of a rut. Just try on a new character the way you would if you were at a thrift store looking for a cheap and clever Halloween costume. Don’t worry about the audience. Think: It’s a one night stand! What do I care? Don’t worry about getting it published. Just get in that persona as best you can.

I realized that I haven’t shared any of my fiction with you, so here’s something. This is an excerpt from a short story I wrote which was inspired by a newspaper article about a sign flipper (those guys who stand on the street corner in funny costumes to advertise for nearby businesses). It was his life story from drug dealer to prison to Christian:

I Saw the Sign

When I walked in Ginger said hi to me all normal like I hadn’t been missing in action a good chunk of her life. She took me out back for a smoke.

“When did you get out of jail, hm?” She thumped out one of her menthol GPCs from the soft pack. Tell you what. If I’m gonna buy a Generic Pack of Cigarettes, I’ll be getting the hard pack so at least I don’t have to smoke my chemicals all bent and broken. And not menthol either. But women like those menthols for some reason. She gave me one which I took cause my po ass was doing rollies.

“Didn’t you used to be all fancy smoking those Marlboros?” I said, popping one in my mouth. She lit it. I tried not to make a stank face at the mintyness of it.

“Used to. Now I’ve got my daddy’s inheritance.”

“Oh, you mean a whole lot of nothing?”

“Yeah,” she said, putting her hand on her spicy hip like those raccoon-eye bitches on MTV. That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but she wasn’t gonna lie. That she did inherit from me. “So answer me. When did you get out?”

“Couple days ago.” I started getting misty-eyed. “Haven’t seen you in a long time.” Here she was looking like a hoochie mama and I was remembering her picking a dandelion and handing it to me, her little diaper butt swishing around like a garbage bag full of leaves.

“I know.” Like she don’t give a flying fuck. She took that smoke in her lungs hard and didn’t seem to want to let go. Probably because it was her first break in a long while or something. Gotta let that nicotine get in the head and swish it around for awhile before spitting it out.

Damn alley kept farting out little pockets of nasty all up in the air. I was glad the smoke was covering it a little. Ginger pinched her nose. “Pee-ew,” she said. “That’s narsty! Did you do that?”

I smiled. There was my little girl. Come back to dad. “Me? Hell no. I thought that was you.”
She was almost smiling.

She stopped almost smiling, remembering she hated my fucking guts. “You keeping out of trouble?” I asked her just to keep her talking about her and not me.

“What does it look like.”

“I see you’ve got yourself a legit job.” You know you got a legit job when you’re stuck smoking your cigarettes in a alley fearing for your life which you only get to smoke every so often so you have to suck it in like it’s your last.

“I’ve always got myself a legit job.”

“You know it. So how old are you now?” I asked only to see what she’d say and to move some air.

“So how long are you gonna stay out of trouble?” she asked, knowing my bullshitting game pretty well by now.

“I’m sleeping behind the church over by the university. Pastor up there’s got me a tent and I’m hooked up to the church’s electricity and got a little space heater. Pretty posh for a grubby fuck—sorry—guy, like me. How’s it going with you? Got yourself a man?” I was trying not to drop the F-bomb every five seconds because I knew I sounded like a low class motherfucker.

“Yeah.”

“What’s his name?”

“What difference does it make? By the time you remember his name I’ll have a new one anyway.”

“I can’t help it if my frain is bried, darling. Give your old man a break.”

“Norman,” she said.

Our cigarettes were done. She threw hers down like it was the most repulsive thing she ever touched. I squashed it out for her with my Converse. She headed back in.

“Spice girl?”

“What?”

“We’ll be seeing each other, right?”

She turned like she was gonna leave my miserable ass hanging, but then I heard, just barely, “K.” Almost like she’d rather be hocking a big fat loogie in my face.

This thing is long, so I’m not posting all of it.

I had the hardest time with this piece. A lot of people read it and they kept saying the voice was inconsistent. “Would he really say boobies instead of tits? How does he know about Freud? He sounds professorial here.” Ugh. just kept creeping in. Get out! I told myself. It required a lot of effort to keep this voice sustained, a million rewrites, but it was worthwhile for me to get into a mindset utterly different from my own. Cursing like a meth head felt uncomfortable. Purposely messing up the grammar felt even more uncomfortable. My character is not someone I want to meet. I really hate him, if you want to know the truth. But being able to jump into this mindset helped me to acquire skills I wouldn’t otherwise have. It required a lot more attention to detail: vernacular, syntax, punctuation. It’s part of growing as a writer.

They say you should have sympathetic characters. Maybe so. But if you take on a voice you really dislike and make your audience care about him or her, then you’re really doing something clever and great. Why not take on the challenge?

So if you don’t know what to write or you feel things are getting boring, maybe it’s time to get uncomfortable. Keep an open mind next time you’re at the doctor’s office thumbing through a stupid magazine or stuck at a dinner party with someone annoying. You never know.

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More Than a Book Review: Reclaiming Epicurus…and Random Encounters at the Bus Stop…and Delightful Epicurean Feasts

I met Luke Slattery by chance in Catania, Sicily, just outside the airport.

Being Sicily, buses were running late, and we were anxious and tired. Luke asked if we knew which bus to take to get to Siracusa. Apparently we didn’t look as lost as we were. Even though he had just come off a much longer flight from Australia and seemed equally discombobulated, we clung to him like children. Finally, an English speaker. We could all be lost together, and that felt much better.

We struck up a conversation on the bus ride and found out some interesting things about each other. When I told him I was working on a novel loosely based on Plato’s life, he went right into discussing Dionysius, Alcibiades, Dion…how the hell did he know about these people? Usually just the mention of Plato and people’s eyes glaze over, or they say, “Oh, the allegory of the cave.” Then he handed me his book and I understood. He was a classics scholar.

Both writers, we were here for the same reason—an ancient history adventure. One night while sitting out on my doorstep in Siracusa, I read his book. Yes, an entire book in one sitting. See, this is part of a Penguin series that’s meant to “fill a gap…short enough to be read in a single sitting—when you’re stuck on a train; in your lunch hour; between dinner and bedtime.” Perfect for a bit of vacation from vacation.

Luke argues in Reclaiming Epicurus that Epicurus provides a fresh “philosophy of the Garden” that speaks to contemporary questions of sustainability and consumerism, as well as how to live an ethical life in a Godless universe.

What you may not know about Epicurus:

A contemporary self-styled Epicurean is little more than a gastronomic fetishist: a foodie. The sage himself, by this measure, was certainly no Epicurean.”

“Plain dishes, Epicurus believed, ‘offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table.’”

“…while other ancient philosophers practiced an indifference towards grief—even at the loss of a favored child—Epicurus felt this attempt to cauterize ourselves from sorrow with a Stoic steeliness of heart was ultimately inhuman and ‘apathetic’.”

“Lucretius…On the Nature of Things, is our most ample source for the Epicurean view of a physical world structured around atoms and guided by entirely physical forces…”

“The Epicurean idea of a godless universe composed of natural elements that can be observed and studied is at once prescient and proto-scientific, and it gave succor to the early modern thinkers of the seventeenth century.”

“Indeed, despite its contemporary resonance, the complete philosophy of Epicureanism is often strange. Believing in the absolute authority of the senses, Epicurus considered the sun little bigger than an orange because it seemed that size to the naked eye.”

“‘For just as there is no use for a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of the body, so there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the sickness of the soul.’ That sickness, in Epicurean terms, is rampant desire.”

After many misfired emails, we found Luke by chance again, at a cafe by the Piazza del Duomo. He helped us find and negotiate for Sicilian marzipan, the very “Epicurean” desire of our friend back in the States, who had requested that we bring some back. Then we enjoyed a meal of seafood—seriously “Epicurean” for a Tucsonan desert rat such as myself…fresh, local and bathed in white wine—and delightful conversation, followed by a moonlit stroll through the Piazza, in the middle of which was St. Lucia Cathedral, built around and into the columns of the ancient Temple of Athena.

While our feast may have been Epicurean, and our friendship most certainly, I wonder about the philosophy. Does the meaning of human life come down to the perfect moderation of desire?

OR: If I could literally eat nonstop (I really like potato chips and, dare I admit, that crazy awful nacho shit from the convenience store) and gain pleasure from doing so without gaining 500 pounds and being miserable in my obesity, and without throwing up; in other words, with zero negative consequences, should I then do so and be contented that this is what it’s all about?

That’s an open question. Ball in your court. It’s actually a complicated idea if you think about it.

By the way, I could have made the same analogy with sex, but I decided to keep things on this side of wholesome.

Writer’s Checklist

REVISED! I’ve now included descriptions of each bullet point.

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I have the following things posted on a bulletin board near my desk when I write:

THINGS TO CONSIDER

  • Voice...This comes first. Don’t proceed until you nail it. POV can always be changed later.
  • POV (point of view)…TIP: write in 1st if it helps you get close to the narrator, then switch to 3rd if you need to. It’s really easy to make the switch. Don’t forget about omniscient, which can be done, despite what they say. I really like Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections for a good illustration of how this can work. People keep saying to avoid Om. because it’s “God-like.” Well I say nonsense.
  • Tense…Keep this consistent. In my opinion, present tense can grow tiresome unless you know what you’re doing.
  • Dialogue…This will stand out no matter what, so make sure your characters are saying something revealing and important. I tend to err on the side of realism, but realism can be boring. You want your dialogue to be better than real. Indirect dialogue can be a good way to speed things up. When cleverly done, it can be more effective than direct dialogue.
  • Pacing…Are you revealing too much too soon? Are you wearing the patience of your reader by being too mysterious? Does the scene seem to jump around too fast? (Rarely do writers make the mistake of including too many details. Go for the details. You can cut them later.) SLOW DOWN TIME. It’s always the best way to err.
  • Symbols (objective correlative)…Sometimes you might not even know they’re there. They might have slipped in through your subconscious. A second pair of eyes might reveal interesting things you can play up later. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.
  • Mood…I often forget this. Connect to the reader by picking the right adjectives to lend emotional context. Don’t go for the description that’s closest at hand. Find the one that nails it.
  • Tone…Consider whether you want the tone to contrast or correspond to the protagonist’s emotions. Contrast can be really interesting. I wrote a short story about a high school kid who is far above average in intelligence, but he’s dealing with difficult stuff and he’s not mature enough to deal with it just yet. The tone is very academic and articulate. But when the character speaks, out comes this typical high school dialogue, which never fails to embarrass him, pulling him further into isolation and distress.
  • Relevant details…First draft, write ’em all down. Then pick through the crap and retrieve the one thing that ties it all together. One really apt detail has more impact than a thousand lousy ones.
  • Inner thoughts/outer behavior…Similar to the point I made about tone. We don’t always reveal our thoughts. Sometimes we only think we aren’t revealing our thoughts, but we’re really transparent to everyone around us. Sometimes we know we’re revealing our thoughts through our behavior although we put on a pretense to hide them (say, I really want my husband to buy me flowers and I keep mentioning flowers and how so-and-so bought them for his wife). Same goes for characters. It’s a complicated matter that requires a good deal of thought, based on the context of your writing.
  • Real world/narrator’s biases…This is also super complex. The narrator is always biased, but sometimes he/she can be reliable. If you choose to have an unreliable narrator, the reader should be able to guess the truth that’s off the page. Unless, of course, you don’t want that. Rare cases where you wouldn’t want that. But I’ve seen it.
  • Narrative arc…Why are we reading? We want to see the character change. Make sure this happens with each POV character, otherwise, why are we going into his/her POV?
  • Syntax…Complicated matter again. If the character is a simpleton, more than likely you’ll write short simple sentences. If your character is an intellectual, sometimes long complex sentences with many clauses are the way to go. But there’s more to syntax than sentence length. Can’t go into it here. Consider whether your character is a native speaker, what generation he/she grew up in, where he/she grew up, etc.
  • Dialect…Use sparingly. Sum times die ‘lect cun be annoyin’.
  • Authenticity…It’s good to take a step back and think about whether or not your character resembles other famous ones. If he/she is too much like everyone else, or like a famous one (cough, cough, Holden Caufield, cough) then maybe it’s time to rethink things.
  • Puzzles to solve…More than just a plot twist to anticipate. Little questions to keep the reader engaged. Why does this character keep noticing yellow things, for instance. What is the significance of this color? I have actual logic puzzles in my novel, so that’s a bit more literal. Doesn’t have to be, though.
  • Setting…Setting should be character revealing. Two people see the same room differently. Mood comes into play here.
  • Consistency…My hobgoblin. I use other people to call me out. I have no choice. Kevin Sterne just pointed out something my entire writer’s group failed to notice—I had my protagonist drinking coffee then suddenly he’s putting away his dinner tray. Where the hell did that come from? It came from the fact that I, the author, didn’t give a shit about the dinner tray and it probably needs to be cut. But sometimes these little things will get on your reader’s nerves and they’ll stop reading. I just suck at this, so I have lots of people read my work.
  • Climax…Lots of little peaks before you get here, but this one should explode. I’ve also heard that the plot diagram has changed since I was in school. It’s no longer an upside down “V”,  but instead more like this.
  • Relevance of each scene…This should be self-explanatory. Don’t cut anything until you’ve finished your first draft. You never know.
  • Description of character… Avoid “looking in the mirror” descriptions. I say this, but I have one. I broke this rule, but I did it deliberately. In any case, this one’s a hard one for me. I really don’t like hearing too much description of a character because it can seem unnatural. Make it seem natural, whatever you do. If you have one character describing another, make sure the description is revealing of the person telling as much as or more than the person being described.
  • Theme…Go back to your symbols, the mood, the voice, etc. to make sure they’re all adding up to what you want your theme/s to be. Sorry, not much advice I can give you about this in a few sentences.
  • Development of characters, changes…Make sure they change.
  • Plot and its relation to subplot…don’t let the subplot take over. Don’t let it fall away either.
  • Hero’s journey (see Joseph Campbell), archetypes…What I said earlier about authenticity is important to keep in mind here. It’s great to have an archetype so long as you make sure the character remains unique.
  • Satisfying conclusion…Don’t be vague. It’s really not that cool.
  • Wrapping up loose ends…Sometimes we aren’t trying to be vague. We’ve just forgotten that thing at the beginning hundreds of pages ago. Don’t let anything hang loose just because it makes sense in that scene. It has to be played out. Just because you forgot it doesn’t mean your reader did.
  • Expectations and set ups…If you start out writing a horror and switch genres to romance, things can get weird. Maybe you want that, but be sensitive to your reader. Don’t make this too much of a shift or things can get irritating. Also, consider the format. If you’re writing in several POVs in a certain alternating pattern, and then you suddenly shift halfway through to some new pattern, the reader will think there’s a great deal of importance in that fact. There had better be.

 

The last one is handwritten, added much later. Take Risks…I think this is one of the most important things to remember. We often filter ourselves before the words make it to the page. We think, “What if my husband/wife/mother/father/sister/brother/BF/lover read this?” Or we think, “This is really dark. What if people think I’m a freak?” These thoughts are impossible to shut out. The best way I’ve found to deal with them is to act like no one will read what you’re about to write. Just write it. Later you can decide whether or not it would be immoral/painful to publish. In any case, you’ve got to write it. So what if you’re a freak. You probably are. Nobody has to know. It’s just you and the words.

If you do decide to publish your freakiest piece, more than likely your readers won’t be able to put it down. Because truth be told, we’re all freaks.

A little anecdote. In my writing class a year or so ago someone submitted a story in which a young woman touches her asshole and sniffs it in pleasure. When I looked to see who had written it, it was this sweet older lady. I loved that detail. Everyone in the class loved that detail. We were shocked and amazed that she had the courage to write it. Then we slowly started submitting our sex scenes…very slowly, but she got the ball rolling.

Some new ones (see comments):

  • Observe
  • Five senses

Any others you’d like to share?