Friday, August 22, 2008

An Author's Fingerprints

I ask because I don't know the answer. How much author voice is too much?

I know the strengths and weaknesses of my own. I also strive for deep point of view with each viewpoint character. I'm careful to select consistent vocabulary and tweak dialogue to match the character's perspective and background. But if someone were to dump my pages in a sacrificial pile in the middle of a room with a dozen others, the cadence and word choice and description would give me away every time.

One scene contains the deep viewpoint of a less-than-educated Dutch immigrant in the 1880s American frontier. Another, a gritty cop from the present day. I've invested hours exploring the language they'd have used, the patterns of speech, distinctive words and phrases to set them apart. I've calibrated metaphors to their experiences and history. But somehow, when I read it aloud, the song is the same. The notes are me.

Is this something to strive for or suppress?

Despite the playfulness that trickles into my blog posts, my earnest writing is dark, introspective, dense. I come from the school of writing that believes not everyone desires to read a four hundred page novel at the speed of a bullet, like a quick fix of an illicit drug with no lasting impact. When did consuming a novel become a race? Are we thirsting for such quick gratification that we can't wade in a bit and look around?

Sure, I worry about pacing and stringing conflict with the right level of tension-probably more than most-but when a note hits just right in a symphony, it should be appreciated-a blink, a tear, even a second glance to wade into its perfection. The unfolding text is, after all, one reason readers still choose to pick up a book before watching the same story on screen. For one moment during the novel's course, let me savor a new detail of the human condition. An image as breathtaking as the sunset I forget to indulge in each day.

Probably separate topics for two different days, but they both speak to a writer's desire to sneak into a room, lay out a puzzle and tiptoe away into the background. The question is: How much of the author's fingerprints on the pieces is too much?

And since Sherry outlined the perfect song for her hero's struggle, I give you mine.


Charles Gramlich said...

That's a tough question and maybe impossible to answer without a very careful examination of your work. And maybe each person would judge it differently then. I wonder if a writer can truly judge this well themselves, though. I recognize everything I do as mine but I don't know if others would do so.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I am fascinated by this. You raise some interesting points. Have you ever been told that someone can hear you? I mean, a friend will read your work and comment: "I could hear your voice." When someone says that to me I don't know if that person is influenced because they know me or because I am overwhelming my work, not stepping back enough as a writer.

Kim Lenox said...

I guess it depends on if we have a good fingerprint. :)

For example ... I love Stephen King's fingerprint. Sometimes I don't love his story, but ... I just love his voice, and his ability to touch upon the emotions and questions that are important to me.

My own fingerprint? It's a bit smudgy still, so I try to limit its weaknesses where I can.

I have had friends/family read my work who say, "When I read it, all I heard was your voice in my head." Which can be kind of weird when it's your 87 year old uncle, and you're talking about a romance novel. Wink!

Pam said...

Keep in mind when you re-read your own work, you don't hear your voice because it's yours. It's like Jayne Ann Krentz said--you can't hear your own accent, but other people can.

I think you should strive for voice. Too little voice is a death knell in writing, and writing is all about that little extra over-the-top, so if the voice is a little amped up, I think it's a good thing. Plus, I hear editors say they'd rather have somebody they can pull back rather than need to turn it up, so I say keep writing like you're writing!

Melanie Atkins said...

I agree with Pam. And no, I don't think you leave too much of yourself in your writing. It's fab...and getting better everyday, I'm sure.

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Marilyn Brant said...

I love this question, and though I have no logical reasons I can list for my answer, my wholehearted emotional reaction is for the author to keep and honor every bit of that natural voice.

Which is not saying to avoid revision (as much as I'd like to do that today :). But a writer can rid a manuscript of weasel words, lazy plotting and cliched phrases while still structuring a sentence or a scene in a distinctive way.

As a reader, I seek the "sound" I want to hear in my head when I pick up a specific author. I'm looking for THAT more often than I'm looking for a type of story or even an entire genre. It's like having a taste for a certain spice, not necessarily a certain cuisine. Italian might narrow it down, but I want oregano not allspice tonight... And I want to be able to find that on my shelf without working too hard at it.

Sandra Ferguson said...

I wish I knew the 'intelligent' answer to this question. I know after people read Harm's Way they could hear my voice in the characters -- especially Victoria's. That said, is it impossible to remove 'us, as writers' from the tone of the characters? The words come from our internal muse, and how could we possibly separate that?

Don't know, L.A. Wish I was good enough to accomplish that task.

L.A. Mitchell said...

What a fantastic discussion. I knew if I brought it to the talents I surround myself with, the answer would come through with more focus :)

Maybe the best question of all is: Why fight it? It is what it is. As long as the writer is bringing truth to the characters, the rest will fall into place.

Sherry Davis said...

Great. Thanks, LA. Now I'm thinking about it. All the time!

No, really, this is a great conversation. I'm just not certain there's a right answer. I loved Marilyn's comments, though.

Smart people. All of you.