The past couple months have been dry ones for writing here. When I do sit down to work, I edit existing work, like the House of Cats episodes written in November. So I have felt hungry for new words. I turned to Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen, another of the writing books languishing, unread, in my house. And with this week’s working review only in the back of my mind, I stumbled on a great chapter on voice.
Yolen describes the misleading emphasis given to “finding one’s voice” in writing courses, “as if the damn thing is lost somewhere (99).” She focuses instead on the voice of a specific story, the style it demands, and downplays the idea of the author’s true voice. I’m not sure I completely agree with Yolen’s argument, as I understand it, of the voice of each story being radically different. But her demonstration of different voices was fantastic.
Yolen briefly describes six different voices she has pulled specifically from the fantasy genre (fantasy here including the related subsets of horror, historical, and young adult) and two more general fiction voices. It was the focus on fantasy that caught my attention. She runs the same basic idea — a barbarian (literal or figurative) and a/the queen have tea together — through each of the voices, changing the story and the tone as she does so. Having found great success in the similar exercise I demonstrated here on archetypes, I thought I would try my hand at this as well, though I am cutting it down to three voices. My basic idea will be: a dog and a child meet at a crossroads.
Schoolboy Voice: think Harry Potter
Mary put one small foot in front of the other, arms out to her sides, balancing like a tightrope walker in the rut left by wagon wheels in the road. She swung the empty basket from hand to hand, thinking of the cakes she would fill it with in town. She reached the crossroads just as the sun got hot enough for Mary to take off her little cloak. In the field beyond the faded guide post, which no longer pointed in any direction, a wild dog pounced on something in the grass. He came up with his mouth full of something, which squeaked and writhed for a moment, then crunch crunch gulp, he ate it.
Mary looked down the right hand road then down the left hand road. “I think,” she said with reasonable certainty, “Avaigne is down the right hand road.” And she started in that direction.
“What business do you have in Dorsie?” A voice asked behind her.
“None. I am off to Avaigne,” Mary said as she turned.
The wild dog, his black lips wet and red, shook his head sadly. “That is not the way to Avaigne,” he said.
“I have never met a talking dog before,” Mary said. “Are there very many that can?”
Again the dog shook his head sadly and sighed like his heart might break. He must be very upset about something, Mary thought, to make so many mournful expressions and sigh so loudly. “Very few indeed,” he said. “If you would like, I will take you to Avaigne.”
“Only if you are quite certain you know the way,” Mary said even as she turned to follow him down the left hand road. “I thought for sure it was the right hand road.”
Dark Angel Voice: horror that sneaks up and spirits away your soul
Mary met the dog at the crossroads. She did not notice him at first. She swept her gaze down the right hand road then down the left hand road. As her eye moved over the signpost, she saw a flash of black. When she looked again, the dog was there. “You startled me, doggie,” Mary said and patted him on the head. “I am off to Avaigne.”
She turned to go down the right hand path. Then a shadow of doubt crept into her mind. She felt, quite unexpectedly, she did not want to take the right hand path. Perhaps she had remembered wrong. The path did not look inviting. No, she decided, she had been mistaken; the happy streets of Avaigne must wait along the left hand path.
Mary followed the left hand path. She looked up as the path ducked under a great oak tree and saw a crow perched in its branches, cawing loudly. Mary had no reason to look behind her as she walked, so she did not see the crow drop, stone dead, into her footprints. Nor did she see the dog stop to sniff the body before swallowing it in one huge gulp. The dog licked his lips and burped, a crow’s caw exploding past his teeth, and padded after Mary.
Dave Broder Voice: reportage
On Monday morning, the dog reached the halfway point of his commute, traveling from his home in Hampshire to Dorsie, where he works as local scamp and village idiot, and met up with a child at the crossroads to Dorsie and Avaigne. The child needed direction to Avaigne. The lie that followed would change both their lives, but for the moment, the dog just thought he had found the assistant he needed.
What a mess. I really struggled with this. I think part of the problem was that, when I did the archetype exercise, there was not existing samples to imitate; in this exercise, I felt constrained by Yolen’s examples and could not seem to find my way into a fiction of my own. I had to cut the list down to a sampling of what she did, as the full list would have made me crazy.
My schoolboy voice came out more Alice in Wonderland than Harry Potter, but I liked the wide-eyed confidence of Mary in it. And the dog made me think of the mock turtle for some reason. The Dave Broder was the first one I wrote, just to get an idea of what my mini story would be, and I remembered that I have always been hopeless with journalism. Deliberately thinking of the story in terms of who-what-when-where-why seemed to ruin it for me. My mind refused to provide anything else to flesh out the scene. The dark angel voice was the one that finally flowed for me. I’ve never written horror before; I don’t think I have read any since grade school and those books of 13 More Terrifying Tales. But it was fun!
I think of voice as being something that comes from the writer: give five writers the same events and they will each write it in their own distinct voice. But when it comes to a single writer’s voice changing from story to story, I never gave it much thought. It was just something that happened, a variation on a theme. I need to try my hand at more genres and more voices and deliberately search for the voice of the story, as Yolen suggests. I think I have been missing out on something here.