Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Voice & Style

I've been wondering about voice for a while. Being a linguist, I know a lot about language, and teaching writing I've started to figure out what makes writing effective. But voice has always been unquantifiable. People say everyone has voice. What that means, I think, on a basic level, is that everyone has a certain set of words that are their go-to words, they have a certain idea of what makes a sentence flow. It often reflects the way they speak - where they put adverbs, whether they use lots of rhetorical questions. But there are three pits you can fall into with voice.

1) An inconsistent voice.
2) A sloppily executed voice
3) The wrong voice for the story.

If voice is something that everyone has naturally and everyone has only one, then how can there be a wrong voice? Am I saying that some people can't write certain types of books because they have the wrong voice? No.

 When we speak we frequently exploit varying registers. If you're speaking to your little brother, you're not going to speak to him in the same way you would speak to your boss, right? (Unless your little brother is your boss, in which case, I'm sorry.) And if you do speak to your boss in the same way you spoke to your little brother, you might get fired. These registers are basically systems of preferences. 

Little brother: Prefer 'hey you!' Imperative voice. Casual language. Slang. 'or else!' Short sentences. 

Boss: Prefer 'please' Subjunctives like 'would, could, might.' Formal language. No slang. 'do you think...?' Longer sentences.

 We can switch between them easily!

In writing, though, register becomes more complex and tentative. You don't have a person that you're directing it to, so it's harder to make choices. And often you're writing in a certain style.

Style in essay writing is a lot like register. You consider who your audience is. You ask, do we want to impress them or to befriend them? You write.

It's harder to figure out what's right for a novel. An MG voice isn't the same as an adult voice, but a comedic voice isn't the same as a mythic voice either. Choosing a style is not just choosing an audience, but figuring out the feel that you want your writing to have.

The problem comes when you actually try to write it. We all have registers for friends vs. teachers, but we don't necessarily have a particular register ready to address the emperor, or to talk to baby ducklings. We don't all have a gothic style at our fingertips, or even a comedic style. And if we can't control the style we're writing in, things start to fall apart.

When agents and editors say voice, what they mean is this:
Voice - The consistent and correct exploitation of a style.

The way your style will come out is directly linked to your experience of language. That's why reading a lot of the type of voice you want to master can be helpful. You learn and then you make generalizations. "Use long sentences." "Use creepy words like 'lacework' and 'groan.'" But unless you only read those books and words from the age of two and never speak to anyone else, you're not going to mimic it exactly. It's going to build another layer onto your own language. Your own language is the source, is the bricks. Your language will merge with this new style to create a voice.

But that's not enough to create Voice. It has to be consistent. Part of that is controlling the style (rather than letting the style control you). Part of that is controlling the perspective, making sure that you know who you're talking to and what your relative positions are (social positions, but also physical and temporal positions.) Languages take note of who is speaking, who they're speaking to, when they're speaking, when what they're speaking about occurred in relation to the speaking, and where they are in regards to the action, as well as tons of other things. Controlling the perspective (a lot of this goes into the POV) is part of controlling your style.

If you can't control the style we often end up with sloppy execution. Sloppy execution suggests not paying attention to the details. And there are a lot of details! Are you referring to your reader as 'you' or 'one?' Are you referring to your reader at all? Have you forgotten what perspective your narrator is relating the narrative from? Slipping in a modern slangy term into a historical, slipping in an old-fashioned word into a modern story. Using the same structures repetitively without any clear reason. Readers have to get used to writing styles. A sudden shift in syntax can be jarring. If you just got used to having post verbal parenthetical adverbs to suggest contrast, "John went, surprisingly, to the store." and then suddenly you shift to 'but' clauses instead, it's going to give the reader whiplash. "John went to the store, but it was unexpected."

Styles don't have to be dramatic. You might say, simply, I'm going to write in a colloquial style, as if I were telling this story to a friend. But which friend, when, for what purpose? All of these things go into your voice. Every day, we speak in many registers. We have the ability to write in many styles. But we choose register based on context. Choosing a style is conscious - and often, a whole lot more fun. But pulling off the style - that's voice.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Thursday, September 13, 2012

My Unedited Bookshelves

N.B. One bookshelf is never enough.  Of course I use them for lots of other things as well. :D

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Apologies for Ranting

So here's the thing, politics makes me unhappy, especially because when any politician speaks, and I mean ANY politician, I can't help but think "where are your sources?  Why am I supposed to believe you when you're not an expert on this?  You don't have a PhD, you haven't done any empirical work, you've decided that there is 'a way to solve this problem' without asking what the problem actually is."  These are all signs of bad scholarship, and it doesn't matter how wonderful your theory is, if your methodology is flawed: bad data, incomplete data, non-realistic approach to the question, no research into related issues, etc; your solution is going to be flawed.

But when the issue turns to women's health, I get scared.  The reason is simple.  When do we think it is reasonable to make decisions for other people?  Generally, there are two cases, when we think that they are not mentally competent enough to make decisions for themselves, and when we think that they are a threat to our society.  For example - dotty old people and children often need other people to make decisions for them, and we want those people to be trustworthy so that they don't abuse the fact that they have power over these people, because, essentially, these people are no longer citizens, they no longer have the rights and protections due to citizens.  Terrorists, murderers, pyramid schemers, they fall under the other definition.  They are actively attempting to destroy our social stability.  (Most of the time people of one party think that members of the opposing party also fall under this definition: 'lefty pinko commie,' 'militant right-wing fascist.' etc.)  But under which definition do women fall?

When we make decisions for other people, take away their choices - whether to buy health insurance or to decide what to do with their own bodies - we are saying that they are not competent enough to make decisions for themselves.  It's a slippery slope.  Telling someone that their decision is wrong is not the same as taking away their right to make decisions for themselves.  Everyone makes mistakes, and some of those have dire consequences, but have we banned SUVs because it's easy to run over children in them?  Or skiing because you're lucky to get out of it with only two broken legs?

In a lot of YA dystopians the main idea is that someone else makes decisions for you, like whether or not you can love, or other odd things, but where it gets scary is not when they whole society is being controlled like this, but when one subset of the society is being told that they are not smart enough to make decisions for themselves.  That's when things turn bad quickly.  Us and them, chains and ovens.  So be careful when you think it's alright to tell someone else that they don't get to choose.  Be careful that it doesn't end up turning around and biting you in the butt.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Literary Theory is like Magic

When I think about literary theory it's a natural step for me to think about magic.  (When I think about philosophy, I think about science fiction.)  And that's because literary theory is the study of the sublime.  When I read great theorists, like Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach and Roman Jakobson, I can feel the wonder that they have, and how they're struggling so hard to answer the great question: Why is art - verbal, visual, musical - wonderful?  What is the great gift that it gives us?

Now these people work with the idea of language.  And language has two intersecting ways of building meaning.  There's narrative (syntax) which describes events and happenings and progress, and there's metaphor (semantics), the symbolism and meaning internal to each word and phrase.

I was reading Steven Rendall on Benjamin yesterday - for fun, and because I'm going to teach Benjamin in the coming semester and I should probably know a little more than my students do - and he was explaining Benjamin's attitude toward translation and toward quotation.  There was a lot of crazy complicated stuff, but what stuck out to me was the idea that quotation, in its strict word-for-word accuracy, brings the whole text that it's referencing into view.  And at the same time it strips the words from their context and offers them up as something universal, context free, unprosaic.  It gives them a claim to being truth - not contextual accuracy, but divine truth.

And every word in every language also has a claim to divine truth, because they can be used again and again, and still retain a core meaning, a function of communication - 'translatability' perhaps.  Isn't the fact that words have this quality of allowing for communication a wondrous thing?

In linguistics we're very against the divine wondrousness of language.  We like qualities like arbitratiness and recursiveness and compositionality.  We say no - words don't have any real meaning.  Their meaning is given by convention.  But what is convention?  Convention is the power of community.  And community is like the ocean.  Members of the community, you and I, are plankton.  We are alive.  We have agency.  But we are inside this huge and powerful creature, and we are tossed by its waves and directed by its moods.  But unlike plankton, we create community.  We are the origin of power and the victim of it.  (Judith Butler figured this one out.  Hardcore.)

My grandfather, Ric Masten, was a poet.  In a poem, he wrote about the voice of the hive.  There was no queen who directed things.  It was community, the buzzing and the closeness and the interconnectedness of the beehive that created this voice and gave the bees their instructions.  And this was what he believed God was.  That it was the feeling of not being alone.  Of being inside the ocean - for better or worse.

If language and divinity originate from the same source, isn't conventionality itself a divine quality?  If I can say a word and refer to something real and you can hear that word and refer to the same real thing - that's pretty amazing - that we can transfer a real thing between us.  Conventionality is caused by the fact of community.  And like all magic, it is raw power, not good nor evil, but inescapable.  It fills the world.  It creates the world.  And with wit and skill we wield it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Look! Look! I have a nonfiction bookshelf on goodreads now!

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland
didn't like it it was ok liked it (my current rating) really liked it it was amazing
Jul 26, 2012[edit]
Jul 26, 2012
The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction
didn't like it it was ok liked it really liked it it was amazing (my current rating)
Jun 25, 2012[edit]
Jun 25, 2012
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
didn't like it it was ok liked it really liked it it was amazing (my current rating)
Jun 14, 2012[edit]
Jun 14, 2012
Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the Sources
didn't like it it was ok liked it really liked it it was amazing
not set[edit]
Jun 03, 2012
Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior
didn't like it it was ok liked it really liked it it was amazing (my current rating)
not set[edit]
Jun 01, 2012
What Life Was Like Among Druids and High Kings: Celtic Ireland, AD 400-1200 (What Life Was Like)
didn't like it it was ok liked it really liked it (my current rating) it was amazing
May 31, 2012[edit]
Jun 01, 2012
The Life and Death of a Druid Prince
didn't like it it was ok liked it really liked it (my current rating) it was amazing
May 15, 2012[edit]
May 15, 2012

So, it kind of looks like there's a theme, doesn't it?  Celts, random, random, Celts, Miss Manners, Celts, Celts.  And I suppose we must say there is.  A lot of the Celtic stuff has to do with my schoolwork, but though the Saxons, Vikings and Celts definitely pushed me down an interesting academic route, none of these were read for school (except maybe Hughes - and honestly, I haven't finished it yet, but over all, it's the best and the most reputable.).

I have an odd relationship with non-fiction.  I respect it immensely.  But I don't seek it out.  I tend to read articles and short academic pieces for school, rather than books.  On occasion I have trolled the depths of Jstor for something to read when I was bored.  But so many academic articles are embroiled in some disciplinary debate that many aren't accessible to the common reader (especially linguistics.  Linguistics gets so knotted up that it's impossible for anyone who isn't familiar with the subfield at the relevant moment to parse.)  But books directed toward the Average Reader can also get irritating.  Saxons, Vikings and Celts was not only written to the Average Reader, it took it upon itself to address them, and relate personal anecdotes to them, and congratulate them for making it so far into the book.  Note that I felt it was addressing 'them,' not me.  The author seemed to be a charming and friendly guy, who I would enjoy very much getting ice cream at Conti's with and talking about the implications of his research to linguistics.  But he wasn't writing to me.

It reminded me a little of movies like Shrek.  Sometimes a great movie will come out and it will pay careful attention to it's audience, making sure it's interesting to the little tyke and their parents.  But different aspects will be interesting for either one.  And then there are movies like Ratattouille, where the whole story is interesting for everyone.  And that's the sort of non fiction I want to read.  I want it to be explained clearly enough so that if I'm a novice, I can figure it out, and yet I want it to not skimp on ideas.  Take me to the farthest reaches of the research.  If you make sure the climb isn't too steep, I can keep up with you!

Hughes does this.  And honestly her topic is not ever going to hit the bestseller list.  But I never feel lost while reading her book, and yet I never feel patronized either.  She's telling me this because it might be useful to me.  That's what I want to hear.

And perhaps, that's how I should try to write as well.