In the eighties, I was selling tile in Woodland Hills, and I was writing short stories that I showed few people. I felt naked in the stories. I knew they were good but they needed more of something. I didn’t know what “more” was, so I took a huge leap. I joined a graduate writing program at USC.
My first fiction class was with a virtual orator, Shelly Lowenkopf, whose references to so many novels left me in awe, and I drank up his ideas. One of my peers in that class was Tom Philo, who had started before I did, and Professor Lowenkopf was reading passages from Philo’s thesis novel. That gave me hope that I, too, could write as masterfully someday.
White Whisker Books has just published Lowenkopf’s The Fiction Writer’s Handbook (click here to buy). Author Tom Philo read this book immediately, and wrote, “There are far too many excellent bits in the book to single out any for excellence. I found myself returning to several, though, and those are the ones that mean the most to me. The four that come to mind are You, Voice, Vision, and Revision.”
Thus, what follows are these four terms from Lowenkopf’s intructive book.
The unique persona of the writer; the experiences, opinions, tastes, and prejudices of the writer; the attitudes, curiosities, and fears of the writer emerging through portrayal of character, theme, and resolution of stories. The totality of the resident writer within as it emerges in the writer's stories.
Each writer brings to story a particular set of sensitivities, sensory awareness, and attitude in the same way each actor puts his own stamp on a role. Could we imagine James Dean playing Hamlet? Could we imagine Norman Mailer capturing the angst and wrench of “Brokeback Mountain”? Similarly, could we imagine Mel Brooks doing Lear or Dustin Hoffman doing Rocky Balboa?
The question for the writer on any given story is Why you? This question is not by any means in the sense of How dare you? but rather What do you bring to the story that gives it the ridges and whorls of your own writer fingerprint?
Would you bring Mel Brooks's antic humor to Lear or would you bring his incredible sadness over the loss of his wife, Anne Bancroft? Possibly a hint of both? What could make Dustin Hoffman want to do Rocky Balboa? What could possibly have possessed Philip Seymour Hoffman, a large man, to take on the portrayal of Truman Capote, an elfin presence?
There are no right answers as long as there are, indeed, answers, specific answers reflecting the reasons you were drawn into writing and find resonance in it—revenge, envy, proprietary power, exuberance at being alive, wanting to share a vision, wanting to take down a vision.
Look at it this way: In the beginning, your focus is primarily internal, finding the voice from which you write, getting words down on paper and learning to craft them into an intriguing whole. Later, that focus extends outward, to finding agency representation, then publication. After a few publications you will, if fortunate, be compared to other writers, living and dead. But then the focus will change once more, unless you take steps to prevent it, to where you are labeled with the dreaded d-word, derivative.
When you are seen as deriving all your energy, voice and theme from other writers—or, possibly, even your own early work—you will have either lost the you that drew you into writing or settled into a certain comfortable niche as writer, becoming lazy about the work that will allow you to mature. You will have become not a voice but a shrewd compiler of collage, bits and snippets pulled from elsewhere, arranged in some generic formula, a quick read while being stranded in an airport, but afterward a candidate for remainder dump bins, thrift store bargain shelves, and the “free reading” pile at coffee shops. You’ll have learned what some of the tools are, even how to use some of them, but you will not have listened to the genie in the bottle that is you, waiting to be let forth.
The resident sound made by a narrative text when being read; the pitch and timbre of the author's emotional tone; an intended or revealed-through-betrayal attitude resident in text; the DNA of an author's agenda.
An author seeks and is said to have found voice when a clear tone beyond style and content can be found in all the material that writer produces.
Virtuoso musicians are recognized by the manner in which they produce tone, either through an instrument or in vocal rendition. Actors convey voice through their movements, manipulation of time, or projection of attitude. Writers also express voice, which hints at attitude and the degree of emotional involvement with the matter at hand. Voice begins to appear, then deepen in a writer in direct proportion to the writer's honesty in dealing with interests, passions, and philosophy. The writer who has found voice has recognized vital interior forces and concerns.
Voice may be discovered in accidental encounters where the writer dramatizes specific personal concerns that seem, at first, to appear from nowhere. It is the direct result of passions. Voice is the result of caring for someone or something, or recognizing a portion of the writing self as though it were a long lost friend or relative. readers need not agree with a writer’s particular passions or politics to recognize the qualities of that writer’s voice.
Often conflated or confused with style, voice is the personality of the writer resident in text. As a young writer develops voice, it can be instructive and rewarding to read aloud from your own work as well as the work of others, to be willing to work harder and think deeper when that voice sounds false or off—and revise and edit toward truth and clarity. It can be instructive to note that the great jazz musician Sidney Bechet was proficient on the clarinet, but his taking up the soprano saxophone secured his distinctive voice and led to his remarkable discoveries as a musician.
Although there is no substitute for story, voice is a major vehicle for expression in all narrative.
Examples of contemporary writers whose work reflects an identifiable—even unmistakable—voice: Ernest Hemingway, Deborah Eisenberg, Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich, and Daniel Woodrell. Nor would you have difficulty picking out Alice Munro.
The writer's outlook; a philosophical map of a particular segment of humanity; an attitude toward a system or condition of behavior; an emotional assessment of life and its denizens; the way a writer looks at material.
Along with voice, vision is a significant, transformational factor in determining how a writer views circumstances, turns them into dramatic situations, and populates them with distinctive characters. Writers may have a cynical outlook or one that is preternatural in its optimism. There is no right or wrong choice, only the need for honesty. A writer who is notable for technique but no vision will produce work that has the same effect as the floats in the Rose Parade, or piñatas used for holiday or party celebrations, or paper cups intended for single use. The technique will trump the story—and while being amazed by the technique, the reader will mourn the loss of drama.
Regardless of the size or nature of the landscape, the ripened writer will see it with all its quirks and dents, will know if the undersides of the bureau drawers have been painted or varnished, will be aware if there are any recycled parts within it, and will have taken pains to see that everything is in smooth working order. Whether the setting is a colony on Mars, a girl's school above Mill Valley in northern California, or a patch of backyard garden, the landscape will seem important to the reader because of the way it and the characters he has connected to it are regarded by the writer.
Writers variously think the world is going to hell in a hand basket, is a venue for unparalleled chaos, spawns mediocrity, is a splendid opportunity for growth and progress. To the extent they are capable of dramatizing these views, they achieve readerships and, as a consequence of that, exert some influence on what their readers believe. To the extent that writers cannot dramatize these feelings, they push their readers back from direct engagement and end up lecturing their readers rather than entertaining and challenging them.
Pick a handful of writers—say five—who entertain you. Compare these with a group of writers who cannot seem to get beyond the merest semblance of plot and whose characters are as stiff and uncomfortable as though they were first-time visitors at a family gathering of an intended lover. Compare the differences between the two groups of writers. Notice the difference in the physicality of the characters from writers you enjoy, the way their characters react to one another, produce chemistry, produce a tangible feel of a particular vision. Study, for example, Louise Erdrich's memorable first novel, Love Medicine—which will perhaps distract you away from the intent of this exercise thanks to Erdrich's evocations of her characters, but which will give you a full, vivid sense of her overall vision as well as the dramatic energy within her scenes.
Vision and voice—what a writer sees and how the writer relates it.
These questions will help you focus on your vision:
Who are you?
How do you see the world?
Is the world you are creating a safe place? Safer than the world of reality?
If you were writing fantasy, what element would you bring to your fantasy landscape from the world of reality?
What is the prize in your story? How does attaining this prize support or enhance how you see the world? How your character sees the world?
If you had to divide humanity into two opposing approaches, which pair would you choose? Winners and Losers? Givers and Takers? Old and Young? Inner-directed and other- directed?
In your world, are there happy endings or morose ones?
What is the biggest fear held by your protagonist? Your minor characters? Are these your fears as well? How are these fears manifested in your vision of the world?
The systematic review and examination of raw thematic material; a process of searching for the optimal form and deployment of a story (also applies to nonfiction). A final and emphatic editorial vision of a project, reflecting as nearly as possible a unified editorial tone, vibrant characters with uneasy choices, and a satisfying, plausible resolution.
Writers have been advised from time immemorial by instructors, patrons, literary agents, and editors to revise a recently completed work. Often those same advisors have an inchoate vision of what they mean by the term “revision,” adding an entire layer of confusion to a process that can be a joy.
Thus three important revision rules for writers at the outset:
1) Unless a literary agent or editor offers a specific quid pro quo offer to represent or publish the work if specified revisions are made, their suggestions are not worth the emails they’re written on.
2) Unless the advisor can articulate a specific list of revisions, his suggestions are not as valuable as your own vision of the work.
3) If the revision suggestions do not resonate as appropriate, ignore them unless you have had three or more similar notes from different-but-informed sources.
These are the basic questions that a writer undertaking revision should ask him/herself:
1) Is the work complete? A significant way to determine this is to set the work aside for between one day and a week—or even longer if time permits, then return to read it afresh, hopeful of not discovering any “How could I have forgotten that?” moments. Then, of course, put in the “that.”
2) Does it begin in the right place? Always a tricky call, especially if the present opening circumstances were the cause for the work congealing as an idea to pursue. Reread the work for the specific target of finding another place where there is a greater sense of opening velocity and character involvement. Stories need not be set in strict chronology; a perfect place for the beginning may be the penultimate or even final scene. Remember, beginnings are not places where much in the way of background is set forth; beginnings are more likely to be eighty percent movement and twenty percent description. Quirky, interesting people doing quirky interesting things make the most engaging beginnings.
3) Does the reader have someone to root for? Sure, the manuscript has a protagonist, but is the protagonist invested enough in his or her agenda to make readers want to become emotionally involved as the characters tread their paths? American readers, for instance, would not seem likely fans of Mr. Stevens, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. After all, what's the big deal about wanting to be a butler?
But of course, Mr. Stevens didn't want to be an ordinary butler. And who among us could not root for Fast Eddie Felson, a kid who wanted to be a pool hustler—and not just any pool hustler?
Thinking about the dramatic strengths of Carrie Bradshaw and her ultimate goals in Candace Bushnell’s Sex in the City, we begin to have an emotional stake in her happiness in the modern ambience of that story. Even as we root for Carrie to experience sexual freedoms and fulfillment, we can root for Samuel Richardson’s servant girl, the eponymous Pamela, to retain her chastity in her own dramatic venture where the son of the lord of the manor is trying to seduce her for his momentary sexual pleasure.
(Note: There are twenty-six points that are in this term—too much to include in a blog. However, it you want to learn more about Lowenkopf's book, click here.)
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