>The Light and the Dark

>I’ve touched on voice before. At least I think I have. To me voice is an utterly baffling thing. Maybe it is for everyone, I don’t know.

Years ago, a friend who was – then – a beginning writer was on a panel with Dave Weber and managed to ask what words or sentences would make him as a beginner.

Dave Weber’s answer is that you can do pretty much what you want and as long as you have a voice you will carry it through. He is of course right. I’m not going to name names, because the last thing I need is bestsellers upset at me, but we all know people who consistently hit the bestseller lists and who have such clear and obvious “beginner” defects as puerile characters, insufficient research, undeveloped background or incoherent plots. Now, I will confess I don’t know any bestseller who has all of those, but I do know those who have at least two. And it doesn’t matter. In fact, both of them are people I read regularly. Why? Because the flaws will be obvious once I put the book down. But I don’t think of them until I’m done with the book.

I think one of the main components of voice is what one of my teachers, back in pre-history, called “authorial confidence.” What the heck is authorial confidence? Well, it’s the certainty that you know what you’re talking about, the absolute conviction that you’re telling it like it is. A lot of this is internal and hard to fake. It’s a matter of “if you don’t believe it yourself, how can other people believe it?”

As some of you know, I’ve been taking art for about a year, partly to use a different side of brain/rest from writing. I’ve found the process is very similar in many ways and that what can be said for authorial voice can be said for color.

When I first started using color I was very timid about it. Perhaps because I started drawing first in charcoal and you really have to be careful not to overwhelm a face with lines or dark spots, unless the person you’re drawing is about a hundred. So when I started drawing, first in pastel, then in colored pencils (I think I actually do something called colored-pencil-painting, as in, when I’m done, you’re not sure what medium I used and there’s a lot of layering, highlighting and texturing going on, but anyway, that’s something else. I use colored pencils for the same reason I used to do crossstitch in hardanger, because you have to concentrate on each small area which sort of gives your brain time to rest from bigger things. ) I tried to be subtle. The result is that all my people looked waxy-pale and there were no shadows or depth.

At a bookstore signing (not my own) I ended up talking to local artist Laura Givens and – after seeing my drawings – she said my problem is that I was afraid of color and contrast. At the time it struck me as silly, but I had heard from my teachers that lack of contrast is one of the mistakes of the beginning artist, so I was willing to give it a try. I started emphasizing shadows and lines much, much more strongly. At first it felt wrong and strange, but as I took breaks and looked at those pictures again, I came to realize those were the “good” ones. (“Good” because I’m still very much a learner.)

So if there is one voice component that identifies one as a beginner I’d say it is a flatness, a “sameness” and an almost painful attempt at being “correct” and uniform. In my experience this is not how most people – even beginners – write. It’s just that most beginners write their first draft then go over it not with the idea of “how do I heighten contrast?” Or “How do I show this emotion?” or even “Can I make this description more vivid?”

No, in the beginner’s mind, while editing, there is only one thought “Oh, my LORD, I’m embarrassing myself.” With this in mind, anything that sticks out, anything that – more often than not – reveals the inner author and therefore feels truthful and strong, will be “polished” out.

Of course I’m speaking from experience at a whole other level as I only very recently have managed NOT to edit out emotion or embarrassing situations.

So, what is the cure for this? I don’t know. Perhaps when you edit you can edit while pretending this is someone else’s. Or perhaps you just need to keep in your mind that to make a picture, you need the angry greys as well as the pretty pale pink. Perhaps you can give it to a trusted reader, and ask them to highlight the parts they liked or felt best, then compare it to your finished draft and see if you edited most of those out.

Or perhaps you just need to hold a feather and tell yourself that you can indeed fly.
Whatever you do, however you do it, don’t be afraid of your own voice. Ultimately, it’s yours, and no one can tell you that you got it all wrong.


  1. >Interesting comment on light and shade. I paint wargame miniatures and have taught several children the techniques. The key is to focus on shade and to exaggerate. You try to mimic the visial impact of the real thing, not copy it.John

  2. >Exactly. And I think some of that goes on in writing as well. My husband says for most characters to appear “quirky” on the page they have to be such that, were they real, they would be locked up. Looking at my favorite books, he’s probably right.And voice is the confidence to carry it.

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