As you may recall, this past semester I taught a class called “Voice in Modern Fiction” at Johns Hopkins, and thanks to my carefully-selected reading list (oops—who put all those really long books on there?), I, as much as (more than?) the students, spent the semester thinking about the important role of voice in fiction. I don’t know that I can articulate all my grand conclusions (you’ll have to take the class for that), but I did emerge from the experience with a new way of looking at my own work and some new—not always positive—thoughts about my own use of voice in fiction. Perhaps one doesn’t need a whole class to come to this point, but, honestly, of all the important aspects of good fiction, voice may surpass them all. As I told the class, every story there is has been told already (i.e. boy meets girl), so the magic has to be in the telling.
Here’s how I wrapped up the class, with this little “go forth” speech, which, frankly, was mostly for my own ears as I embark on my summer focused on writing:
This is my last plug for thinking about voice in your own work. In the workshop setting, it’s often easier and more convenient to focus on the simpler things, the basics: is the story’s pacing good, are the characters interesting, are there effective details? Every teacher has his/her own little areas they like to promote. As a teacher, you often feel that if you can just get everyone to listen to you on your two or three things, you’ve made headway.
But at a certain point, once the basics are taken care of, that’s when you as writers need to think about moving beyond those building blocks, and think more deeply about the choices you make as a writer: how the story is being told, how the point of view affects the novel you’re writing, how to make your story stand out. No one in a workshop—and no teacher, or few teachers—will read something and simply say, “This isn’t very interesting,” but honestly, that’s exactly what the problem is with a lot of stories and books. They’re just not interesting.
The reason no one will say that is because there’s no easy way to fix that problem: be a more interesting person? There may be plot and/or character issues that can be teased out and brought forward or writing that can be improved, but truly, even after those basics are fixed, often the problem is one of a lack of voice, a lack of compelling you-must-read-this-ness that good voice can bring to your work. There’s competency, but there’s no “there” there.
As we’ve seen in our reading, great voice will help you overcome a lot of flaws. Of course the idea is to write work without any flaws whatsoever, but we know that’s impossible. And, as we’ve seen, voice means more than merely a gimmick like second person—you can’t simply throw the second person into any story and expect suddenly to have a great “voice.” But if you are able to find great material—and do the work and make the choices that lead you to the perfect voice with which to tell it—you are thousands of steps ahead of the rest of them, the people who are spinning their wheels, working really hard at creating nice, competent work that meets all the requirements on some teacher’s checklist…so end up writing work that never really gets up and sings.
Of all the tools a writer has, voice may be the only one that’s absolutely impossible to explain and teach in a “how to” fashion. Like “more cowbell”—you know it when you see it, but you can’t say why. It’s the one element that seems the most mysterious—and therefore, in a life and world filled with mystery, the most essential.
[If you’re interested, here’s the reading list from the class.]