Sunday, January 11, 2015

Voice: Vocal Cords and Chords

While vocal cords don’t literally deliver voice in fiction, they do symbolize the mechanism that lets what’s inside strike a chord with reader needs, beliefs, and expectations.

Chords—three or more harmonious notes heard as one—can impart pleasing complexity. Writers who can alternate between funny, poetic, and insightful often entertain more than those who only offer one thing.  A wide range adds complexity, as does leaving plenty of room for reader chords: for what their inference and imagination can add.

No finite boundary exists between your voice and what readers absorb, because no one approaches a novel without expectations and preconceptions.  This is so subtle that you can lose sight of the reader while writing.

Novels aren’t just author, narrator, characters. Readers participate, because each of them differs in optimism, vocabulary, tolerance for ambiguity, fondness for digression, loathing of short or long sentences, and so on. In Every Day, David Levithan reminds us that “The sound of the words as they’re said is always different from the sound they make when they’re heard, because the speaker hears some of the sound from the inside.”

Of course you need your gut to tell you what matters. But that’s not the whole story. Unless you’re journaling, your concern with reader response matters at least as much.

Tip: “Who Are You Writing For?” isn’t the main question. It’s the only one.

You can focus more on your readers by reading aloud or considering these questions:

~ Does a fondness for tautness or rhythm interfere with the accessibility of the prose?
Making syntax more important than the reader is self-indulgent.

~ Do you use the concept of “voice” to rationalize long-winded or awkward passages?
Making syntax more important than the reader is self-indulgent.

~ Do you provide the details that readers need—when they need them?
            Readers want details to serve the story rather than the author.

~ Do you use your fiction primarily to instruct or persuade?
            Learning along the way is great, but readers choose novels for pleasure.

~ Do you use your own emotions to deepen those of your characters or to grind axes?
            Writing fiction can be therapeutic, but that’s not its main purpose.

W.H. Auden put it really well: “All I have is a voice.” Indeed. But that voice is not only for self-expression but for reaching, touching, and perhaps transforming others. After all, as Zora Neale Hurston put it, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Unless your readers “hear” you, that’s a lot like silence.

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