Monday, December 15, 2008

Set that Book Down!

So how long should you give a new book before you set it down? I gave Gravity's Rainbow more than 700 pages ... actually finished the dang thing before I admitted that reading it was like singing while submerged in a bath of gelatin. Other books, I've tried a few times, pushed on for a while, then set them down. And I hate setting books down. It feels like I'm somehow letting the universe down.

This is an important question because editors and agents are PAID to set books down. Their job is to read only long enough for the switch to flip. Then they can set it down without guilt or remorse and move on. 

For me, the key difference between a book I finish and a book I set down is purely voice. I can slog through ridiculous plots and bad characters if I just love the voice. On the contrary, if I hate the voice, the most well-researched plot won't matter at all. I try hard not to invite bad voices into my head.

This voice question is always an issue. I think you can develop all kinds of skills as a writer -- you can improve your grammar, your plots, your structure. But you just can't fake a voice. I'm sorry. You can't. Don't try, because it's only painful. And, really, this is a pretty quick calculation. I can usually tell within about 5 pages if I like this author's voice, sometimes much faster. If Gravity's Rainbow wasn't so much fun on the page, I would have run screaming from the room. But it was fun, and funny, and mordant, and smart and weird. So even if I KNEW I wasn't "getting it," I kept reading it because Pynchon's wicked awesome on paper.

I've heard before that you can develop voice by mimicking other writers (not just reading them, because that's not going deep enough). I realize now that I did this a lot when I was a kid. My first stories in grade school were about an extraterrestrial dragonfly from a planet called ... Narnia. Then there were years of J.R.R. Tolkein, and then Hemingway and on and on. So did this help create a voice, or would I write the same either way? I often wonder, if you were writing in Sanskrit or Arab or Kalahari, would you have the same voice? Or is voice impossible to divorce from language? 

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I will always believe that voice is the difference between a great writer and everyone else ...


6 comments:

Zoe Winters said...

I don't know. And this could be my incredible ego, but it never occurred to me to think my voice wasn't fine as it was. I never tried to "write like other people." I've always just tried to write like I write.

Jude Hardin said...

Unfortunately, I've been forced to test the aerodynamic qualities of a couple of titles recently.

A strong voice is certainly a prerequisite for great writing, I think, and it's something that probably starts with a bit of raw talent and evolves over time with lots of reading and lots of writing.

LurkerMonkey said...

It's funny. Every time some industry type blogs or writes about voice, the comments are filled with anguished souls wondering what is this elusive voice, and how do I get it? Part of me thinks that if you even have to ask that question, you're screwed ... because even more of me believes that "voice" is another term for "you." Meaning that your voice on paper is an expression of who you are deep inside. It's the internal voice rocketing through your head all day long made real, and if you're a bitter, jealous or especially pervy person, this will come through loud and clear. Anyway, that's my theory, and I'm sticking to it. Except the pervy part. That's someone else.

LurkerMonkey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
spyscribbler said...

Voice is a muscle, I think. I try to be able to write like anyone. Sometimes I edit out my voice a bit. I don't know. Voice comes partly from breaking the rules, and I start feeling guilty for breaking them. Or I worry I break them too much.

I hate writing that sounds like an English teacher wrote it, where everything is perfectly correct. It just doesn't have any style.

Zoe Winters said...

LMAO, yeah I can't keep that pervy part a secret, anyone who can read subtext at all can see it in the romance, and it's on plain display in the erotica haha.