Now, I don't post enough on here to be familiar to most of you. But today's thread got me popping, so I wanted to give out a little info on myself, dovetailed with additional thoughts on that mythic beast called Voice.
I'm not a schooled man. I've got a HS degree and a dirty little pile of random college credits -- no paper to show for it -- and all recent formal edumacation has been of the U.S. Army variety.
I'm a Reserve Warrant Officer after the better part of ten years in the Service, and I tend to walk and talk in that vein, whether I am in uniform or not. Thus I have a low tolerance for what I perceive as pretension, and I have an equally low tolerance for people who perceive themselves as Special Cases. Or as I like to think of them, "'Speshul' Cases."
This makes me too candid and abrasive for some folk, so I've got no illusions that everyone is gonna want to give me a hug all the time. More like, bust me in the teeth.
But I promise to try and be a good boy -- Mom didn't raise me to be utterly without manners. So my apologies to the group if I have once again ruffled a few feathers.
Anyway, I tend to take a very vocational approach to what someone I admire once called, "Litrachure." It's not medicine, it's not engineering, it's not high math. It's not curing cancer and it's not saving the whales. It's sticking one word after another on a page, and I tend to think that most people get wrapped too far around the axle over Deep Meaning in that process. Writers, critics, editors, professors, everybody.
Which is not to say that there isn't meaning in words. Lots of fiction has tremendous meaning. I just don't truck much with the philosophy that we, as writers, should expend a huge amount of time trying to inject it into our work, otherwise our work isn't legit. As if setting out to do meaning -- on purpose -- actually works? I suspect most attempts at this largely fail, and those that don't fail and reach print can read as too heavy-handed, pretentious, contrived, or otherwise organized such that the enjoyment of the thing gets drowned in the "message" of the thing.
Therefore I don't know that Voice -- as a quality of modern fiction -- has much to do with anything, other than an author's unconscious slowly leaking through the cracks in the so-called Fourth Wall. The words will pick up a lyrical style and quality all their own, dependent entirely on where the instincts of the writer take him or her. It's not a function of will. It's a function of seat-of-the-pants.
Sometimes it'll take you down a blind alley. We've all seen that happen to our own work, and it's damned frustrating when it does. But then there are also times when that seat-of-the-pants feeling will take off on its own -- and your characters along with it -- and suddenly those stop being puppet dummies in that story and they come alive. They do and say things totally contrary to what you planned, and you just have to run with it as they jump and scurry out of your plot framework and suddenly you're staring at an entirely different story than you thought you had.
And man, isn't that fun when that happens? Or, at least, I think it's fun. It used to happen a lot more for me when I was much, much younger -- before I let the Overthink get me.
The Overthink was death on my writing. Instant, total death. The Overthink is what I suspect happens to most of us when we stop being hobby writers and try to Get Serious, only we begin to treat fiction like it's gottdamned open-heart surgery, when in reality it's just mowing the grass. The Overthink makes us agonize over every little word, little sentence, makes us re-write our stories half a dozen, a dozen, or more times. The Overthink is the opposite of Voice because it's a cerebral 'editing' thing.
The Overthink almost killed my authorial ambition and it totally killed my wordcount. I was so twisted around about plot mechanics and pacing and tempo and layered message and all the pieces of the puzzle, I forgot the whole point of the puzzle was to put it all together and make something beautiful. One, whole thing. Not the parts. The whole.
I'm working my way back now, trying to re-learn the fun of the Voice groove. One. Word. After. Another. Like laying bricks. Mortar. Brick. Mortar. Brick. Mortar. Brick. Don't think about it too much. Lay it down and let it go. It's not pomo philo. It's not deep. It's just work. Work that needs doin'.
Like laying out there on the sand waiting for the targets to come up. 20 rounds of .223 in the magazine. Ready on the left. Ready on the right. Center is ready. Move your safety selector from safe to semi, and watch your lane. Silhouettes coming up, knock 'em down. Traverse and elevate by feel, as much as by thought. Barely touch the trigger. Snap, snap, snap, the .223 gently kicks. Yah miss a few, just keep your breathing pattern and don't stop firing. Change the magazine when the tower tells you to. It doesn't have to be perfect. You don't have to have all 40. Just 23. As soon as you start to think about it too much, you're totally screwed, and will miss everything that's given to you. Zing, zang, zoom.
Perhaps there are some authors who can 'think' their way through a story or a novel at a totally 10,000 foot, detached level. I am pretty sure I am not one of them. I am pretty sure that I'm more like Stephen King -- in mode, at least -- in that I kind of have to have a situation, throw some people into it, and the rest just has to emerge on its own. If I try to organize and drive the thing too much, the characters always find a way out of that framework anyway. Or the story just goes to a dead-drop stop because I've strangled the cast to death with my tyrannical stage directing.
Again, cutting the grass. Make sure you got gas, pull the cord, work the lever, and push. Down one side of the yard, back up the other. Doesn't have to be perfect, and you don't have to think about it so much. Just do. One. Strip. At. A. Time.
Not sure I have much else to say on the issue, beyond that. Already afraid I probably said too much. As my wife can tell you -- she of 16 years happy, hard-working matrimony -- I've got a brevity deficit. Get me going on something, and I won't stop before I've put the room to sleep.
Anyone else relate to the seat-of-the-pants experience?
Some people really do feel that they write better with a seat-of-the-pants approach.
Others feel that the more they know about the process, the better control they have over it.
And you can find how-to-write books to support either method.
It's like the discussion about whether to outline or not. Some excellent writers tell great stories using outlines. Others excellent writers tell great stories without going anywhere near outlines.
All I can say is that you have to find out what works for you, and go with it. If it keeps working for you, that's great. It can be different for every story, though, so please be open to the idea that you might have to try different approaches depending on the story you want to tell.
It can also be very different for every writer, so don't think that just because someone else succeeds using their favorite method that you have to do it that way, too.
Anyone else relate to the seat-of-the-pants experience?
Hi Brad. Absolutely. My last three stories have been seat of the pants and a wholly enjoyable process.
I think what needs to be made clear though is The Overthink isn't a pejorative synonym for The Think, which is a beginning writer learning his or her craft. When Jimmy Wannabe is just starting out, he needs to learn to write clearly, because all his communication up to this point has been verbal, with a very short feedback loop and the ability to instantly correct and clarify. Learning, for example, how to avoid ambiguity or distracting a reader is something that he does need to spend time on. Realising that he uses reflexive pronouns, passive voice and telling in every other sentence is going to help him for a long time.
The best antidote I can imagine for staying balanced - staying on The Think side of The Overthink - is reading. In volume, and from a mix of genres and eras. Get a feel for other voices. Learn to identify showing and telling. Pick up on foreshadowing and plot inversions and crises and inciting incidents. Work out why they broke the chapter here and not there. Critique people's work whenever you've time, so that you're formally stating those observations for your own benefit (and hopefully theirs, but I'm being selfish here).
And then, when you write, tune that part of the brain down to a dull murmur, and speak onto the page.
Lastly, I read on DWS's blog recently what I thought was good advice to someone in this stage of the process: Dare to be bad. Because you'll never to learn to write if you're not writing.
Seriously, I think I'm going to print out your post and tape it above my monitor. The Overthink has me bleeding from the ears and this is just what I needed to hear tonight. Zing, zang, zoom.
I am a seat of the pants type writer. I figure I want to get the story written. I will put up sign posts as to where I want to go, but let the story run. I have always figured I can go back and "fix" the story later.
I have always had the opinion that anybody can edit a story to finished quality, but only the author can tell the story.
I figured that I can get something on paper, something to look at, something written, by letting the keyboard run. Then I sit down and work my way through it with a more controlled mind, correcting the sentences, tense, syntax, improving the story.
In my unpublished opinion, this could be a way to get the freshness of the seat of the pants with the control of THINK.
Of course, it works only if you have the skills to do the THINK work.
Voice happens when you relax and write and forget silly little sentence structure issues.
Besides story is more important than voice.
So, I seem to find myself in the paradoxical position where my voice is found in the outline, but my plot is found in the writing. I'm hoping as I write more, I'll settle into one or the other.
Anyone else relate to the seat-of-the-pants experience?
*Waves hand frantically* Me, me.
I've had my characters run off and do something totally unexpected. I've had them stand stock still and refuse to move because I was trying to force them to do something that they wouldn't do. I've had characters I never planned on show up and become important in the story.
The last two times I wrote anything resembling an outline, I then proceeded to completely ignore it while I was writing. I definitely prefer to write seat-of-the-pants. Characters, a starting point, a pretty good idea of where we're going and then let's see what happens. It's more fun, too.
I'm not entirely sure about this, but I think, maybe, when you're in love with the way the words sound in your head--that may be a warning sign.
I should probably note that my interest and ambitions is pretty much contained in the area storytelling, and I would say journeyman aptly describes my attitude.
Maybe I'm kind of a waffler, but when I'm putting stuff down for the first time I strive for the wide open subconscious flow you describe, with varying degrees of success, but I do try to put on my thinking cap when it's time to take the mess I've made and turning it into something coherent and entertaining. Also with varying degrees of success.
In revision, I tend to keep away from ever thinking consciously about voice and theme and the other advanced concepts that have come up in the profession of dissecting literature. And I admit I haven't mastered what they mean. My sense is that a hunter wandering through the woods pouring his thoughts into what the taxedermist is going to do or think probably is not going to be the best hunter.
In revision, I do think of the bare-bones story elements, plot, characterization, dramatic elements, etc. Things I would liken to a hunter thinking about the nature and behavior of his quarry, the environment, weather, his weapon, etc.
That's about all I can manage without analysis paralysis setting in.
I believe a great story survives on the merits of it's core elements through the different eras and movements, even though it's style/execution might become "outdated" over time. Many people know and enjoy Romeo and Juliet. Among them many, if not most, don't know what literary movement, etc., it is bucketed in. They know the caracters, the wants, the obstacles, the conflict, the emotion, and the resolution.
Those things, for me at least, arise most readily in the seat of the pants mode you describe.
A last note, please don't take this as a disparaging of literature and literary scholarship. It seems like a fascinating topic, but one that I have never had the motivation to pursue.
My view on VOICE:
Voice, to me, isn't as much in the overall prose as the characters. Can you plan that? Hell yes. If you don't plan it in advance, you HAVE to think about it when it comes up--if not, all your characters will have the same voice. And, while narrative voice comes naturally, your pov characters' diverities of voice will only lend credibility to themselves and a more complete immersion.
I wouldn't kick myself in the rear for not prethinking a theme or various allegories, but voice, to me, is how I immerse in my POV characters. Sometimes I can't write without getting into my POV's voice.
My writing METHOD:
Do I outline? More and more often, I do. I want more rounded characters--which is so much easier for me if I have their histories and quirks at a glance--and to be sure I'm able to ratchet up tension. Do I do a forty page chapter outline? No. I don't feel that much is necessary for me--yet. But, I want a clear premise at the top (short and sweet, like one or two sentences), a list of characters and their histories and quirks and relationships to other characters, a plot (series of events which take place) so I can add to the conflicts in the weaker spots. This doesn't rob the writing for me, it gives me a map of actions, reasons, and displays the tools and pallet I have available to create the best picture I can.
I used to write without a plan, but i found myself not knowing where to go next. Then, I started writing with an end in sight, and followed my characters there--but I always found boring spots that dragged along. Then, I started a loose outline (more of a detailed plot), but found myself always seeking to tweak it. As I develop my outlining skills, I find that it is still writing, I'm just learning about my characters and milieu before an extensive draft. My first draft, then becomes a more organized process--I know where I'm going and a few points which need to be achieved in each chapter. I wait for the editing pass to perfect the prose (though I try to write it as clearly as I can the first time through).
I hope this helps someone.
And then we get the revisions. For this, I have an excel file open, with a bunch of tabs where I record everything specific about the character and story that could cause me trouble (for example, Bob is 15, two years ago he did X, also 2 years ago he did y- uhoh, y has to come atleast a year after X, need to change that). I almost feel like my initial draft is more of a super detailed summary.
For voice, I kinda agree with InarticulateBabbler. I am hoping that each POV character's chapters feel very different from each other. But at the same time, I am working on being more accepting of my voice. My husband dislikes my style (not passive voice issues or anything, just more sentence length kind of things) and for a while, I would try to eliminate that (not just because of him, but also because I thought having my voice show up too much was wrong). But recently I read a blog that talked about how every story out there has in some way been told before. Ultimately, what the writer brings, what makes the story work, is the writer's voice. And so, I like short sentences. I like certain kinds of descriptions. It fits with the character I am using, sets a mood and pace that appeals to me and so that is ok. That is what will make people read my books hopefully.
Of course, in my novel, my main POV character is the complete opposite of the other POV characters, so I need to make sure my voice reflects that.
I used a totally different voice for "In This City" (published at Fantasy Magazine) than I did for "St Saviour And The Devil's Dandy" (bought by Flashing Swords but they've now folded so it's free to wander around the submissions queues again). I use a different voice for each of the two switching narrators of "The Vulkodlaki". I don't want all my work to sound the same. I DO want all my LINKED work to sound similar. So I use the same voice for all my Yi Qin work (and most of the other Land of Wind and Ghosts stories). In order to do that, I have to consciously think about how the voice and the rhythms work
I am sure that, underneath that, I still have an authorial, sub/un-conscious voice, in that there are always going to be OME similarities that can be drawn from all my pieces, and some voices I can NOT function in (I love reading Roger Zelazny; I don't believe I will ever write remotely like Roger Zelazny. I don't have the same way of making my work sound casual and careless while being chock-full of poetry (I sometimes wish I did, but it just isn't "me").
Overthink is definitely the enemy of some aspects of writing. One of the lessons I still haven't managed to internalise and accept is the "it's OK for first drafts to be clunky" lesson. I know even pro writers who say this, and yet I still consider myself "blocked" if my prose is clumsy - many' the time I write a setence, erase it, write it again slightly differently, write another, go back and chnge the first sentence, delete the second, rewrite it... instead of letting the first sentence stay clumsy and carrying on through the scene to actually move forward with the story. I'll be a much more productive writer if I can kick the crap out of my Overthinking "internal Editor" at first draft stage.
So I had basic scenes defined, my characters sort of built and a world. From that point, I wrote 105,000 words. The world didn't change, but the scenes were left behind as the story unfolded in front of me. New characters popped up and additional significances appeared.
Earlier in the summer I wrote the draft of another novel that was pretty well scripted. I could only manage 60,000 words and I felt myself significantly more restrained. I ended up tacking on a beginning section and an ending section and am still working on making the transitions smooth.
As I triangulate, I find that a rough outline and a pre-built world with a list of characters and their traits are the best start and then I let the Muse take over. Sort of a semi-seat of the pants method.
Once I've completed a free writing phase, I then unleash the inner editor, who does more than just copyediting for mechanical style. He looks deep for correlations and missed connections, figurative language that's at the edges of perception, and so on. I've found from practice that I unconsciously implement aspects from my subconscious processing that are there at the edges of perception and then notice them and then unravel what I've been doing so it has reproducible usages.
I came by that approach from writing creative nonfiction, which I've been successful with. It was a natural course to adapt it for fiction.
Today, while copyediting a medical malpractice transcript, I came across a voice aspect that floored me. Known as Pressure of Speech;
quote:Another voice to add to my repertoire and decant into the subconscious fermenter.
Pressure of speech is a tendency to speak rapidly and frenziedly, as if motivated by an urgency not apparent to the listener. The speech produced, sometimes called pressured speech, is difficult to interrupt and may be too fast or too tangential for the listener to understand--it is an example of cluttered speech. It is a hallmark of mania and is often seen in bipolar patients during manic periods. People with schizophrenia, as well as anyone experiencing extreme anxiety, [or stimulant intoxication*] may also exhibit pressure of speech. Pressure of speech usually refers to the improperly verbalized speech which is a feature of hypomanic and manic illness. Wikipedia: Pressure of Speech http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pressure_of_speech *inclusion mine.
[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited January 15, 2010).]
And no, Betsy, I wasn't offended. Flattered, perhaps, but certainly not offended. Glad I was able to help you get un-stuck in your process, as it were.
I've got follow-up commentary, based on the day's feedback, but it might have to wait until the weekend.
Writers often can't identify it. If they're too aware of it, I think they fall victim to what you talk about as Overthink, totally agree on that concept. Even just working on a piece for too long threatens the voice of the piece. But most writers don't even know what it is about their work that is likable, that represents their unique voice, that makes their work distinct from others'. It's choices of words, it's style of sentence structure, it's paragraph length, and thematic elements, and all kinds of things put together.
I've made an amateur study of it in my in-person writer's group. We did a writing exercise once where we all free-wrote from the same trigger phrase for about 5 minutes using identical paper. When done, one of the group members read aloud all the contributions (about 8) and we had to guess who had written which piece. Several of our group have similar styles of sarcasm, similar vocabularies, similar voices, and theirs were often mixed up with each other, but not with the other writers. (Yes, I'm either a geek, really good at this, or I rigged the exercise - I guessed everyone correctly. To me their voices on paper are as distinctive as their speaking voices. The oral storyteller uses round words and a certain kind of description, the sci fi geek writes the best dialogue regardless of setting, the group leader consistently has a love triangle, and he writes in a clipped sardonic way, the brit uses words that are twice the length of everyone else, etc.) Regardless of my personal triumph in figuring out everyone's writing, it was a powerful lesson to me in the solidity of a writer's voice, and how unaware this group of writers were about what the qualities of voice were and how distinct they could be (everyone else had similar results of 2-3 correct out of the 8 or so participants.)
I feel like voice is what comes out when you're in your writing "zone" (akin to that psychological concept of "flow") - the more we can get ourselves into the writing zone, the better our work is, or at least the more illustrative of our personal voice it is. Not everyone's voice will be appealing to every other reader, which I think we have to be aware of when giving feedback in F&F. But going back to the idea of getting ourselves into the writing zone - I think it takes different things to different writers to get there. For some, it's an extensive and directive outline with details out the yin yang, so they can feel freedom to write the story, now that they know exactly what the story is and who is in it. For others, that would choke their voice to nothingness, it would be too restrictive. They may reach their writing zone best by freewriting, with only a general idea of where they are headed. They may be entirely successful in going back later to "fix" any problem areas that result from freewriting.
For me, it's somewhere in between, though the farther along the writing journey I get the more I appreciate and respect the role good planning/outlining/knowing where I'm going has in helping me reach my writing zone.
The chicken was crossing the road and then stopped to think about the direction he was going then a truck ran him over.
I'm sure that overthink has killed more writing careers than anything else.
For me the actual writing is seat of the pants, I write like I play the piano, I just hit the keys and hope it sounds good.
Thanks for this, Brad.
I cannot move on from a scene until it feels right. Every sentence doesn't have to be perfect, but it has to overall capture the character arc and emotion needed in the scene. If I don't get the characters to the right place(emotionally), I cannot take them to the next place. This makes me think a lot.
This handicap keeps me from being a seat of the pants writer. I envy those who can. It looks like a fun wild ride, but then I have never really had a wild side.
And Brad-- I shut off my browser last night, dug out my notes, and have almost finished the short story that had me stuck. This story absolutely hates me, but I've just about got it beat now. Not bad for one day. Take that, Overthink.
I've tried "writing by the seat of my pants" and I've found, unless I have a clear idea of how it's all going to end, that, sooner or later, I lose the thread and abandon it. Just a couple of years ago, I had a novel go over one hundred thousand words and then abort on me when I had no idea what was going on in it or how it would end.
Even with stuff where I know how it's going to go, I'll sometimes get to the end, and on rewriting realize I left things out, bits of business I had firmly in mind when I started but just never wrote down. Sometimes I stick them in during the revision, but sometimes they don't go.