2011 Winter Fiction Panel discussion

Monday: Ideas and Voice

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message 1: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown | 11 comments Mod
First of all, thanks to everyone for joining the group. I think it's going to be a great week of discussion. And thank you, of course, to our four authors for taking time out of their schedules to chat with us all.

Today's topic, broadly speaking, is the dreaded "from where do you get your ideas?" Since we try to avoid the most cliched topics, I will put a little bit of a spin on it. At what point does the voice of a piece -- of the narration, of its characters -- start to take shape for you? Do you hear the voice of a character first or does it evolve as the story does? Have you ever begun a piece of fiction -- either a story or a novel -- and found after a few weeks or months of work, that the voice of the narration was wrong or out of place? Feel free to expand on the topic in whatever way you please.

message 2: by Mary (new)

Mary (glickman) | 16 comments Voice! My favorite subject! Maybe the only one I know anything about, so let me plunge right in. The best advice I ever received about writing and the only advice I ever dispense with confidence is: listen to the voice. The voice never lies. One has a sense of one’s plot and one has a sense of how to create suspense. The voice will tell you if you’re realizing those intimations of intellect or not. How many times do writers sit back and say: I know something’s wrong with that passage; I don’t know why. Well, it doesn’t matter why. If the voice is telling you it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Listen to the voice and you’ll know how to pace the writing, the suspense, the tension, the emotion. The voice is everything. The rest is all technicalities, craft. Sure, it can be very frustrating to work on a piece and find after a dozen pages of writing in the wrong direction your voice has dried up and gone flat. But that's why they call it work.

message 3: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Alther | 12 comments Very interesting comments, Mary. I agree that, for me, the voice of the narrative dictates the rest. Once you find it, it's like climbing up on a horse and riding it until it lathers up. But for me, a mental image usually comes first -- of people I don't know, doing things I don't understand. I start messing around trying to define what's going on, searching for the voice. Oftentimes, I do an entire draft in first person, and then realize it's not working and switch to third person, or vice versa. Or I switch from character to character trying to discover whose story it really is, or whether it belongs to several of them. So I guess what I'm saying is that writing for me is a process of exploring and discovering, involving lots of chaotic experimental drafts.

message 4: by Mary (new)

Mary (glickman) | 16 comments It sounds like torture, Lisa! I have to say I usually have a pretty good idea of a situation first, or a person, and that the beginning and end are nearly immediately apparent. I also am very reluctant to give up a direction and start fresh. It's probably just stubbornness. But I look at my discovery process as finding the filler between that beginning and end. Usually, I have the first sentence and the last clearly in mind from the git go.

message 5: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Alther | 12 comments That's why it takes me five years to write a novel! But it's not torture. I love it. If I already knew what I wanted to write, I'd be too bored to write it. Like you, Mary, I do know the opening and closing scene of a novel very quickly, so the task is to fill in the middle. It's just like anyone's life -- you know you get born and you know you die, but you don't know what happens in the meantime.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary (glickman) | 16 comments Ah, Lisa. You're so thoughtful you make me feel the idiot savant! In speaking of voice, though, you mention finding the voice of a particular piece. I think of voice as a constant throughout all one's writing; a something that doesn't change from piece to piece, although it may mature or deepen over time, but one that - to use a modern term - brands the writer instantly.

message 7: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Alther | 12 comments Ah, that's a very interesting distinction, Mary. I don't believe I've ever found a voice that's all mine. This may be my big problem in life! I took one of those tests on the internet in which you enter a paragraph of your prose and are told which past writer you most resemble. Depending on which of my novels the excerpt was taken from, I was told my writing most resembles that of Margaret Mitchell, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and several others! So I guess voice for me means the voices of my characters.

message 8: by Mary (new)

Mary (glickman) | 16 comments Fascinating! I find your work quite distinctive, but then oh what gift the Giftee gee us and all. Don't you think you've a music, a rhythm, a melody to your prose that's your's alone? One that when it strikes a false note, instantly tugs on a nerve of warning? Or are you saying your ear is more attuned to characterization through dialogue than other aspects? For me, the voice tells me what to reveal and what to hold back about character and that is as often in narrator as speech.

message 9: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Alther | 12 comments I do see the results of such a voice, as you've described it, in your novel, Mary. Home in the Morning has a very satisfying unity, despite all the varying characters and locales. But if I have such a guiding voice, it's pretty elusive, and my books are always threatening to fall apart at the seams. Hmmm, I need to think about this.

message 10: by Mary (new)

Mary (glickman) | 16 comments Thank you for that, Lisa. I try. I don't mean to say my voice isn't hoarse some mornings or even infuriatingly mute. Those are the days it's best to fuggedaboutit and get some fresh air. And your books may threaten all they wish, but it's obvious you don't fold to their bullying! In the end, I wonder if we all don't work exactly the same and merely conceive of the process differently.

message 11: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Alther | 12 comments It may be a question of temperament. Some writers write four hours or two pages or whatever, every day, come rain or come shine. Others, like me, binge, doing nothing but writing, eating, and sleeping for a couple of weeks, whenever we get the urge. But the important thing is for each writer to discover what works for him- or herself. As you say, Mary, the end products of different methods are usually quite similar. I'd love to hear what other writers in this group think about Voice, though?

message 12: by Susan (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments This is one of my favorite topics, actually, and the one I spend the most time talking about with my Creative Writing students. Voice. You can't really teach it, but you can explore it, refine it, celebrate it, and be grateful, as Mary said, when you're given the gift of a distinctive voice that appears in your head and says, "Hey, I have a story. Do you want to be the dummy part of the ventriloquist act?" (Although that isn't the only way the voice works for me! Sometimes I get to be the smart part too!)

For me, and Take One Candle is my seventh novel, each book has begun with a particular voice, sometimes part of a story I overheard at a family reunion or even on a bus, sometimes a voice speaking out from a book of old photographs by Eudora Welty or WPA naratives. With Sorrow's Kitchen, it was a six-foot tall very dark-skinned woman who used to walk in my boyfriend's neighborhood and collect wasp nests from under the eaves of houses, so she could fish with the larvae at the Salton Sea with his grandparents. I imagined her voice - and she rarely spoke.
With Take One Candle, it was a line I overheard spoken while I was in my mother-in-law's kitchen with a group of older women. "She only got one child?" "Take but one candle light a room."
I always feel incredibly lucky to continue hearing the voice at night, while I'm working.

message 13: by Mary (last edited Feb 07, 2011 08:52AM) (new)

Mary (glickman) | 16 comments Interesting, Susan. But it sounds as if, like Lisa, you're talking about a character's voice not the Voice of your prose, those distinctive rhythms and melodies of narrative. I just finished writing my eighth novel (although six of the prior seven live in limbo)and I have characters whose speech is little like anything I've written in the past (sort of) and yet the voice of the piece is something I've whittled away at for 40 years trying to achieve. I'm talking about trying to achieve (and I'm not sure how successful I am except in my own head)a quality to one's prose that's similar to the quality of Mozart's music. Hear a few bars and you instantly know who wrote the music.

message 14: by Faith (new)

Faith | 2 comments Hi. My question is for Ms. Minot. I am a huge fan. I have read Monkeys, Lust and Other Stories, and 4 A.M. I recently discovered you were involved with Stealing Beauty, one of my favorite movies. In addition, Rapture is one of my favorite books. I own three copies. One is hardcover and two are paperback. I have read one of the paperback copies so much the spine has split. Plus, I have passed on the name of the title to countless friends and said, "I wish I had written that." There is something mesmerizing and enveloping about the tale. The striking simplicity of the language is one of its greatest strengths I think. If you were willing to discuss your process, I would like to know what it was like to write Rapture, including how you conceived of it and any moments of difficulty and/or ease you had in its execution. Thank you ahead of time for any information you are willing to provide.

message 15: by Susan Minot (new)

Susan Minot Minot (susan_minot) | 5 comments Faith wrote: "Hi. My question is for Ms. Minot. I am a huge fan. I have read Monkeys, Lust and Other Stories, and 4 A.M. I recently discovered you were involved with Stealing Beauty, one of my favorite movie..."

Dear Faith,
Thank you for your very kind words. (Forgive me, fellow panelists, for only catching up now. I am a cyber-idiot.)
You ask about Rapture. It was originally conceived of as a very short short story, which I thought would be about three pages. (The novella does only take place in about 9-11 minutes real time....if if that matters.) Sometimes thinking of a smaller terrain an easier way to enter into a subject, if you think it is only going to be a small sliver to inspect. Needless to say, it expanded. When the world of what was going on the two characters' mind became the focus, then time lost its limits, and I found the pages streaming. I wrote a first draft and then, as is usually the case, spent the next 70 percent of my time editing and working to make the final version.

message 16: by Susan Minot (new)

Susan Minot Minot (susan_minot) | 5 comments Perhaps we should differentiate between susans...Patrick, is there any way to make me Susan M as opposed to Susan S?

message 17: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown | 11 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "Perhaps we should differentiate between susans...Patrick, is there any way to make me Susan M as opposed to Susan S?"

I just tried something on your account that might differentiate it. Let's see what happens when you make your next post.

message 18: by Susan Minot (new)

Susan Minot Minot (susan_minot) | 5 comments Thank you. Trying now.

message 19: by Susan Minot (new)

Susan Minot Minot (susan_minot) | 5 comments I guess I could always put Minot at the end....

message 20: by Faith (new)

Faith | 2 comments Thank you, Ms. Minot. May I also ask how you went about selecting which stories to include in Lust and Other Stories and which ones to leave out, assuming you left out any? Was there a thread that tied the keepers together, i.e., similar voice, concepts, etc, in your mind?

message 21: by Linda (new)

Linda (violetblue) | 1 comments I am writing my first novel. I need all the help I can get.
Regarding my book: I am thinking of having three different people tell the story from their point of view as the story (which takes place over three generations) unfolds.

The story would be told by characters in present time about a tragedy that happened twenty years ago, and how the tragedy continues to affect their lives today.

Is that too ambitious for a first timer? Feedback please.

message 22: by Susan (new)

Susan Straight | 6 comments In response to Mary - yes, you're right, there are the voices of the characters and then what we as writers bring in terms of voice. But in reading a favorite novel again last week - Ernest Gaines' "Of Love and Dust" - I thought about how much the first-person voice influences this aspect of fiction. Then, I think, the character takes over in many ways. But third-person, in which I love to work, lets the writer have more influence with imagery, description, etc.

Then there's dialogue!

Susan M - I wish I could figure out how to get my picture in the profile. That might help. But I failed. Kind of epically.

Linda - Not too ambitious! I think the three points of view might be what you need if the event affected them all, if it occurred so far in the past, and if the voices are distinct. I love how Pat Barker does this in "The Century's Daughter."

message 23: by Mary (new)

Mary (glickman) | 16 comments Linda - Ambitious, yes, but too much? I agree with Susan, absolutely not. You'll learn a lot in the trying and you may accomplish the job brilliantly. And something - dare I say your voice? - is demanding you do it, so grasp that something and soldier on. There's only one way to learn to write and that's to write. And none of us stop learning.

Susan S. - I love the third person, too. I've tried first,found it confining, and wound up with a novel rife with monologue to circumvent its limitations. What I wonder about is the handful of works done in the second person. Why would a writer subject herself to that peculiar stricture? It must be like having a wire around the neck. A wire with barbs.

Patrick - I think I'm having difficulty being alerted to new posts here. Having to go look for them rather than having them appear in my email as happened yesterday morning.

message 24: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Alther | 12 comments

I just found this post from Whynert in the topics section and couldn't figure out where to answer it, so I decided to post it here. That's a great piece, Susan M.! You manage to say so much in so few words.
One of the problems in writing about sex is that so many different experiences get lumped together under that one label Sex. There's playful sex, angry sex, quasi-spiritual sex, sex as sport, sex as duty, sex as domination, etc. Just as the Inuit supposedly have several dozen words for Snow,I think we need a new vocabulary for Sex. (The French probably already have one.) In any case, a character's attitude toward sex can be used to characterize him or her just as much as any other behavior. Since it's such a powerful drive, it's probably a more important marker than most behaviors. When I began writing in the 1960's, I felt I'd read only the male side of sexuality in fiction. Even the female characters driven by passion had been written by men. So part of what I was trying to do with my fiction was to define what the female version really was. A lot of it turned out to be comedy. Experiencing their own capacity for passion killed Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. But I wanted my characters to laugh about it and live, which is what I and most of my friends were doing.

message 25: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown | 11 comments Mod
Lisa wrote: "

I just found this post from Whynert in the topics section and couldn't figure out where to answer it, so I decided to post it here. That's a great piece, Susan M.! You manage to say so much in ..."

Good call. I'm actually starting another topic about sex, so feel free to comment in that thread.

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