Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Because I didn’t have clue one for a post this morning, I went trolling some of my favorite blogs looking for inspiration. The Passive Voice sent me over to Jane Friedman, another favorite. The question presented that caught my interest was which comes first: finding your voice or finding your topic?

According to Friedman, a number of MFA programs as well as other programs (workshops, etc.), the current trend is to tell writers they need to find their “voice” before they even know what they are going to write about. To say Friedman takes exception to this is probably putting it mildly. Her comment pretty much says it all.

How can you know what your tone will be when you don’t yet know what your topic is?

Where exactly do we think voice comes from if not from subject?

What I didn’t expect was that this would have me recalling a conversation I had last week with my alpha reader. I’d just finished adding a couple of thousand words to Skeletons in the Closet in prep for taking it wide and had sent it to him for a quick check to make sure I hadn’t gone off the rails. Fortunately, he confirmed I managed to do what I aimed for–tying it more closely with the rest of the Eerie Side of the Tracks books. But he made the comment that the tone or voice of the book was so different from the rest of the series.

And he’s right. When I sat down to write Skeletons, I did so with the idea of testing myself. I don’t normally write with humor in mind. I did so with it. At the time, I didn’t expect Mossy Creek to become a fixture in my writing. Instead, I needed a change of pace for myself as a writer, one where I wasn’t taking my characters into the dark places I normally did.

I had a blast writing that sort of story. But here’s the thing, I may have chosen the tone of the book before I sat down to write it but not the voice. Oh hell no, I didn’t choose the voice before I knew the story. Even though I pretty much pantsed the story, I still knew the basic plot before I started writing. And that is when the “voice” appeared.

All my life, my mama’s tried to raise me to be a proper lady. No, that’s not quite right. She’s tried to raise me to be a proper Southern lady, full of refinement and grace, dressed in lace and delicate pastels. To hear her talk, it’s been a futile effort that has caused her more than her fair share of gray hair. While the gray hair might be an exaggeration—thanks to Mama’s regular visits to Miss Wanda’s salon—the rest is not.

It doesn’t pain me at all to say she’s right, especially where the lace and pastels are concerned. That is a lost cause. You see, I’m more of a jeans and tee shirt sort of gal. I’ll choose a pair of running shoes or boots any day over high heels designed solely as torture devices for the women who wear them.

Even so, Mama has somehow managed to get me to say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir”. For the most part, I’m respectful of my elders, even when they don’t deserve it. I even wear clean underwear when I leave the house—usually without any extraneous holes in them—because Mama is convinced some rampaging bus will find me and strike me down, necessitating a trip to the emergency room.

That said, I have no doubt that it’s her life’s dream such a trip will actually happen. You see, in her world, a visit to the ER has only one possible outcome. The handsome, rich and oh-so-conveniently single doctor who saves my life will fall madly in love with me and immediately propose marriage. We’ll have a storybook wedding, a house in the country with a white picket fence and a passel of oh-so-perfect kids. What Mama forgets is that in a bus vs. me battle, the bus will always win. So, unless the doctor is also a re-animator, he will be falling for a corpse and, well, ewwww!

I’ll be honest. If I’d told myself going into the planning stages of the story that this was the voice I’d be working with, I’d never have written it. There is no way my brain would have been able to grasp how to do it. But, once I knew what the basic plot was going to be–oh, I didn’t know the full plot and only knew the basic three steps of getting from Point A to Point Z–the voice was perfect. Southern, a bit country but that changes from time to time depending on Lexie’s emotional state. 

Now consider if I’d chosen a more serious “voice” ahead of time, not knowing what the plot would be or where the character was going. It wouldn’t have worked. The story that came out would have been much different–and much darker–than what Skeletons is. 

So why are so many pushing this sort of voice over context idea?

I can think of one explanation: most of these programs and workshops, etc., are aimed at traditional publishing as the end goal. So they hear or read how publishers are looking for books that feature characters who have “X” sort of personality or background or outlook. So they want their participants to craft those sorts of characters because that’s what publishers are looking for.

But, as Friedman says, how can you know what the tone or voice will be if you don’t know the subject or topic?

Lexi’s voice wouldn’t work for the hard-working, dedicated, no-nonsense coroner who is chasing down clues to help bring down a serial killer. Nor would Morgan’s voice in Fire Striker work for something like Skeletons. (Note, the excerpt below is how “Morgan” dictated the rough draft to me. It is very rough and will be smoothed out, changed some, etc., before publication. But The voice is there–and I knew the genre/sub-genres/basic plot before one word went onto paper.)

Three days ago, my handlers appeared at the door to my cell and asked what I wanted for my birthday. Not that they cared. It was yet another way to torment me. A reminder of the years, I’m not sure how many, that had passed since I entered this hellish existence thanks to my parents. When I didn’t rise to the guards’ bait, denying them the chance to “discipline” me again, they gave up and left, closing the heavy door behind them. Since then, I’d been left alone, my meals appearing through a slot in the door, just as they always did.

And I was fine with it. You learn to be after so long. Just as you learn ways to occupy your mind or risk going insane. Not that I was exactly sane any longer, if I’d ever been. But I didn’t doubt I was saner than those who guarded me and who took such pleasure in reminding me I would never again be free.

Damn them and damn my parents.

I lay on my cot, eyes closed, mind replaying my latest plan for vengeance should I somehow manage to get out of this hellhole, when the sounds of the outer door opening penetrated the silence of my cell. I turned my head, waiting. There’d been a time when I would instantly stand when it sounded like someone might be at the cell door. But I learned, usually the hard way, to stay where I was. I’d take my cue from them. It was safer that way.

Besides, it wasn’t like I could leave the cell without their permission. Even if I somehow managed to overpower the guards, I was stuck here thanks to the “doctor”. Maybe a year after my arrival, he added another layer of what he called defenses to everything else he had done to me. This time, he implanted a small capsule at the base of my skull. Then he gave me a demonstration of what would happen if I tried to leave my cell before being given permission.

God, I still had nightmares about the demonstration. Two guards held me between them. A third stood behind me and forced me to look straight ahead. Until that moment, I didn’t know another cell was located directly across the hall from mine. The doctor stood in the corridor and used a security panel to open the cell’s doors. First the outer door slid open. Then the secondary door, nothing but bars with a lock plate, opened. I swallowed hard as the doctor coaxed the person, a man near my father’s age, to come outside. From the blank look in the man’s eyes to the way tremors shook his entire body, his terror filled the area. But he obeyed. One slow step after another, he moved toward the door. Just before stepping into the corridor, he looked at the doctor, his eyes pleading. He knew what was about to happen and could do nothing to stop it. That haunts me as much, if not more, than what happened next. The doctor retreated down the corridor as the man took his first step out of his cell. He never took another. I watched, forgetting to breathe, as he stiffened a split-second before his head exploded.

I pissed myself and vomited as bits of brain matter and blood and bone struck me. By the time I had myself under control, the doctor was back. His message went straight to the point. That would happen to me if I ever tried to leave the cell before the signal keyed to my implant was deactivated. I got the message, not that I haven’t considered more than once using the implant to end my time here.

Can you imagine how that passage would change–and how it would change the rest of the book–if I’d chosen something like Lexie’s voice before I started writing? 

That doesn’t mean you can’t choose your voice before you know what you’re going to write. Everyone’s writing process is different. Where I object is when someone says this way or that way is the one best way to do something. Find what works for you and perfect it. But, in doing so, make sure you are taking into account what works in the genre and sub-genre you’re writing in. After all, your audience and potential audience are the real judges of your work, not someone giving you a grade or someone taking your money to teach you their “right” way of doing things.

Now for a bit of promo. Sorry, but I’m a writer with cats who want some more catnip and a dog who never thinks he has enough food.

Victory from Ashes (Honor & Duty 7) is now available for preorder. 

victory test base image 2War is hell. No battle plan survives the opening salvo. When the enemy is set on the total destruction of your homeworld, how far will you go to protect it and those you love?

This war has already cost Col. Ashlyn Shaw too much. She has lost friends and family to an enemy that doesn’t know the meaning of honor. Marines under her command have died doing their duty. Her enemies at home conspired and brought her up on charges, sending her and members of her command to the Tarsus military penal colony. But they didn’t win then and she won’t let them win now. She is a Marine, a Devil Dog, and they can’t take that away from her.

Ashlyn is determined to do all she can to protect her homeworld and end the war. She will lead her Marines against the enemy, knowing that if they fail, Fuercon will fall. But will it be enough and will those who have conspired behind the scenes to destroy her and all she stands for finally be brought to justice?

Duty and honor. Corps and family. That is what matters. It is all that matters.

Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

26 thoughts on “Putting the Cart Before the Horse

  1. Is it bad that the minute I read “Southern lady” my mind instantly started reading in the appropriate accent? Must have watched too much Gone With the Wind when I was a kid (Thanks, Mom!)…

    1. LOL. It’s not bad. I have a confession to make. I hear it in that accent as well. So think of what I have to suffer through when I am writing her character. VBG

  2. Not only is every writer different every book is different. While I’m not, yet, a professional, books come from different places. Some, for me start as a scene or a character or even a mood. On the other hand I’m a hard core pantser.

    1. Exactly! Each of my books is different that way. The closest I have come recently to being a true pantser with little to no planning is Morgan’s story. But even there, I had a general idea of where the story was going and what the feel of it was before I sat down to start writing.

  3. There is something like voice in short, non-fiction, writing.

    I’m terrible at selecting the most effective way to reach an audience, and sometimes only bad at implementing those ways.

  4. Yeah, I read that piece too and it prompted me to leave a comment. There are only really two rules in life. Do what works, don’t do what doesn’t. The trick is learning what does and doesn’t work, and the article was typical of back seat driving by someone who thinks they know how things work, but really doesn’t.

    1. I’ll be honest, I read about half the article and had what I needed for this post, so I focused on it instead of the rest of the article. But I tend to do that with a lot of articles these days because they are too much “do as I say, not necessarily how I do”. I hope my posts don’t come around that way. I don’t want them to because I don’t know what my muse is going to make me do from one book to the next. . . so I know first-hand the rules are merely suggestions at best. shrug

  5. In my experience, voice just… appears, along with the story. It’s the brain-audible expression of what’s actually in there, not something artificially applied or pasted on top. If you don’t like the voice, you’ll have to write a different story.

  6. I used to participate at The Passive Voice until he started requiring an account and login to make a comment.

      1. A while ago, in fact. (It was causing problems for regular commenters, even those with logins.) Actually, I just used my WP login, it being a WP blog, although private server.

        1. It still won’t take my WP log-in, but that’s not unusual. I think having an old WP account is the problem for me.

  7. I didn’t read the Jane Friedman article, just the PV summary, so maybe I missed some nuances, but it looked like it was “MFA programs” talking about this, and my guess is that most of the people in these programs aren’t interested in writing something like “Skeletons in the Closet.” These are people who, to quote a particularly caustic critic, want to write something that is basically a 300 page blurb for the author bio on the dust jacket. In that case, yes, “voice” may be the most important thing. The goal isn’t to tell a story, Heaven forbid, or convey information: it’s to create a few quotable passages that the NYT reviewers can put in their pieces, and that unfortunate high school English students can someday be forced to analyze.

  8. *laughs* I know it’s probably not what they meant, but my first thought was:
    “I spent years trying to learn how to NOT use my voice, so I could write characters!”

    One of my English teachers (the good one) commented that I was the best student he’d ever had who didn’t try to pass off her work as someone else’s, and that it’d be obvious if I had because my “voice” was so strong.

    Even in MMOs, if I roll a new character, my FC-members can tell who it is rather quickly.

    Could it be one of those “good advice gone feral” things, where the thing they actually tell you to do has little or negative to do with what the original and reasonably good advice was?

    1. Quite possibly. The closest I’ve heard to this is “Write YOUR books not someone else’s” basically meaning don’t try to be Charles Dickens or Larry Correia. Write your stories. Because being a knock off of someone else rarely works. (Caveat to acknowledge that some people are excellent mimics and actually enjoy being mimics… but they seem to be the exceptions judging by the burnout rate.)

  9. When writing, I have many voices in my head. From invited characters and gate crashers both.

    I know that’s not what they mean, but what they call “voice,” I call “tone.”

  10. I’ve noticed that my blue-collar fantasy requires a more formal voice than does urban fantasy. I suspect part of that is because the society is more stratified, so a lot of the characters’ interactions are more formal, even people like stone cutters and salt boilers. Medieval informal would probably also need a serious language warning, because it was, ah, earthy, with a lot more casual violence than modern readers would tolerate. I certainly did not sit down and say, “OK, I need to do this in a more formal speech and writing pattern with older vocabulary because I have not done one of those recently.” 🙂

  11. You can start a story with an idea so abstract that you have a hard time find a voice because you need to invent the proper characters and plot.

    You can also start with a voice.

  12. “So why are so many pushing this sort of voice over context idea?”

    Fashion? It’s easier to talk about something abstract like “voice” than it is to understand why horses are not like cars. Particularly when all the author knows about is taxis. Or ubers, these days.

    As with most things about writing, I have no idea what my “voice” is. I didn’t plan it. I wrote down what the characters were doing and saying, connected it with some details about technology and history or whatever else was needful, and book happened. Presumable there is a Voice in there somewhere. Probably a 12 year old boy yelling “THIS IS SO COOL!!!” about the magnets in the plasma gun the Good Guy is about to shoot at the Bad Guy. My inner 12 year old has a lot of fun with the writing. ~:D

  13. I believe my exact remark was that the work in question had a more whimsical and tongue in cheek flavor about it than the other Mossy Creek books. Still and all a lovely story and benefitted from the added words.

    1. LOL. You’re right on all counts. Which is why I needed to find a way to weave some threads into the original to tie it back to the rest of the series. And thanks for your work to help me do so. I really do appreciate it.

  14. When my younger brother thinks about writer advice, he goes and checks their Amazon pages, to find out if they’ve published anything — and to see if they have any decent reviews from readers.

    This isn’t exactly fair, but it’s not exactly unfair, either.

  15. I just caught up with the author on a new (to me) series and I don’t want to read anything else he has written.

    The writing structure is unusual, not to criticize unduly. It fits the story. My concern, however unfounded, is the author writes in this manner naturally, not affecting it for dramatic value. Reading extensively in that style may well change my own, as strange as both may be at the current time. As for emulating it, that is a task I cannot accomplish. A cadence exists that suggests another native language. English speakers can be quirky, in that way, so it is not certain.

    That’s the best I can do off the top of my head. It’s not *wrong*, but it’s strange. Here’s a short sample that captures it well, I think:

    For some reason everyone sobered then and seemed dark, as if that, him losing out on a title, was the worst portion of it. Not him saying bluntly that he intended to murder people for having joined the wrong group. They were assassins, so it was probably that which caused them not to be too concerned that way.

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