Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Voice in the Author’s Head

Elizabeth Zelvin

In my alternate persona as a therapist, I was trained to ask, when a client claimed he (or she) kept hearing voices, “Do the voices come from inside or outside your head?” If the voices came from outside, chances were the client had a thought disorder, such as schizophrenia. (Obviously, I got my training well before the cell phone era began.) So I wasn’t too terribly freaked out when, having developed my series protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, I began to hear his voice at odd moments on the inside of my head. The more I wrote about Bruce (four novels and four short stories so far, though not all are published yet), the more distinctive his voice became.

I’ve just opened at random the notebook I keep on my night table, along with a self-illuminating pen, to write down those middle-of-the-night thoughts. Here’s the first entry that caught my eye.

Bruce: X’s supercilious expression would have looked good on a camel.

I don’t know who X is. I’ve never transcribed the line to a computer file or used it in a manuscript. But it sure is something I know that Bruce would say.

Now, here’s a passage that never made it into Death Will Help You Leave Him, the book that will come out in the fall. I forgot about it once I’d written it down in the middle of the night. Bruce and his ex-wife Laura are breaking into her boyfriend’s apartment. Bruce has been complaining that Laura has no sense of irony.

I hoped we weren’t going to end up in jail over this little expedition.

“What’s the sense of giving up jumping turnstiles if you have me breaking into apartments?”

“You pay the fare now? Oh, Bruce, that’s funny.” Laura’s deep laugh rang out.

Okay, so she did have a sense of irony.

Are you beginning to get the hang of Bruce? He sure doesn’t sound like me—and to me, that’s the miracle of “voice” in fiction. Here are some lines from that scene that did make it into the book. They’re climbing up the fire escape to get into the apartment.

I needed a smoke. A guy’s gotta do something with the anxiety. Prayers to my Higher Power for guidance in breaking and entering didn’t seem quite appropriate.

A little later on, he says, “I don’t recommend breaking and entering sober.”

Fellow author Susan Froetschel described the process very well in an interview on Poe's Deadly Daughters a while back. She said: “The conversation comes naturally, just spills out, and I often must use a heavy hand to cut the dialogue. And as the story unfolds, the characters can surprise even me with what they say and do. Once I get to know them, their reactions just pop into my head.”

That’s it precisely. Recently I revised a manuscript that I hope will become the third book in the series. Bruce and his friends Barbara and Jimmy are at an elegant party in the Hamptons. Barbara can get a little too earnest about recovery, and as a world-class codependent, she can always think of a way to fix or improve someone else. Jimmy has been in AA a long time and takes its principles and slogans very seriously. Bruce, on the other hand, tends to maintain a certain level of skepticism.

It had been a while since I’d read over the first draft of this manuscript. I couldn’t quite remember how the scene went, but, pen in hand, I read this passage at the bottom of a page.

“He couldn’t shake hands,” Barbara said, “because he had a bottle of Veuve Cliquot in one hand and a flute in the other. And now he’s moved on to whiskey. I don’t suppose you or Jimmy could twelve-step him?”

“The program is for those who want it, not for those who need it,” Jimmy said as he came up behind us. “Attraction, not promotion.”

I read those AA catch phrases (completely in character for Jimmy at that moment), and I thought, I know exactly what Bruce would say: “Yeah, yeah.”

I turned the page, and there was the next line, in Bruce’s narrative voice:

Yeah, yeah.

As Susan Froetschel puts it, his reaction popped into my head, as it had when I wrote the first draft. In this case, it wasn’t clever or complicated, but I’m absolutely sure it’s what Bruce would have said in the circumstances. And in revision, what she says about cutting the dialogue, heavily if necessary, is true for me too. In the first draft, I need to pour it all out without censoring myself. Not every writer works this way, but many do. In revision, I have to “kill my darlings.” It’s taken me a long time to learn not to cling to every well-turned phrase. But it’s become a lot easier since I learned to recognize Bruce’s voice. No matter how much I loved a line when I wrote it, if it’s Not Bruce, I cut it.


Sandra Parshall said...

When we don't hear the character's voice in a scene, the scene is virtually certain to fall flat. I'm always startled when a critiquer reads something of mine and says, "That doesn't sound like Tom" or "That doesn't sound like Rachel." The writer isn't the only one who can hear a character's voice.

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Liz! I just love it when my character' voices are so strong they seem to need me only to "transcribe" their conversation. Makes the pages fly by!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Liz, I hear voices, watch movies, have fights...whew...I'm not spacey although people think I am. I'm just really busy with the stories happening in my poor little brain.

Therese said...

Great post! I think you've summed it up very well. Once we get to know our characters, they don't really need us, unless maybe to witness and record their conversations. It's a great feeling to sit down at the computer and realize your characters have taken over!

Chris Roerden said...

I love hearing writers talk about how your characters' voices become so individualized that you know what they would and wouldn't say. I especially enjoy it when I've read those voices, as with your characters, Liz, and Sandy's. (I've Meredith's and Joanna's books on my nightstand but haven't met your voices yet.)

Because one's own characters are so real to an author (and, we hope, become that to readers, too), each character provides the next best thing to a real flesh-and-blood model for revising dialogue that stays "in character."

The kind of voice that's so hard to define and talk about is the author's own voice, independent of the characters. When it's distinctive, it seems to simply flow, unplanned. There's no model for it, except as critics have attempted to isolate specific factors (think Hemingway parodies). So exploring the topic of a writer's voice takes a whole other vocabulary to discuss--which is what I've been researching. Unfortunately, books that attempt to get at that kind of voice are so generalized and nonspecific that they are damn boring.


Sandra Parshall said...

Chris wrote:
>>The kind of voice that's so hard to define and talk about is the author's own voice, independent of the characters. <<

And the writer may not be able to "hear" it! I could swear that I have no recognizable style, no particular voice -- I just tell the reader what the characters are doing and saying, with little attempt at embellishment. So I'm always startled when anyone mentions my "voice" or my style. I'm happy to hear that you're studying this aspect of writing. If anyone can figure it out, you can.