Tag Archives: working review

Updates and a friendly warning

First, the warning, which may superficially look like running away with my tail between my legs. But it’s not. Please don’t be confused. If in doubt, consult a trained professional.

The warning is that June’s working review may not be on time. I say “may” because I am not even willing to commit to failing at this point. I’m running behind my (admittedly padded) schedule for HoC and the working review will, frankly, be the first thing to fall by the wayside.

I’m suffering from an extreme bout of “writing? sure, just a min–oh, shiny!” which has sort of slowed the pace at which I complete scenes to something like one scene every five years. And I’m still committed to finishing both parts of the finale before the first one goes up. Which means I tend to refuse to work on anything else, even when that means I work on nothing.

Meanwhile, the treadmill search was successful, insofar as I obtained a large box that promised to contain a treadmill. This was something of an overstatement of the facts. What it contained was the main body of a treadmill, weighing approximately sixteen TONS, assorted metal pipes and rods, and a vacuum-sealed sheet of more bolts, washers and screws than you can shake a hex wrench at. These had to be put together. Which hey, I expected. I’ve put together my share of Ikea furniture.

About three hours later, sweating in an overheating house and crouched on the floor while trying to lever up the treadmill body long enough to put a spacer between it and the framework, while simultaneously jamming a bolt through all three–framework, spacer, and body–without being able to see the hole in any one, I realized that treadmills are only meant to be assembled by teams of six. They should, for optimal results, pack heavy weather gear, oxygen tanks, and a first aid kit. Sherpas optional.

However! Upon completing the assembly (and taking a brief vacation to recover my wits and feeling in my hands), I tried it out.

Treadmills are amazing. Why didn’t anyone tell me?! While I will not go so far as to call using it “fun,” it is settled firmly in the more ambiguous category of “enjoyable.” I actually woke up early this morning and thought, hey, I can go use the treadmill again, joy! My life as reached a deeply weird and pathetic level. On the plus side, this level also promises to be healthier.

Working Review: Forest for the Trees

By way of explaining why I chose this month’s writing prompt, I must offer an awkward confession of personal behavior quirks: sometimes, I like to blindfold myself while I write. This is marginally less weird than it sounds. It works on the same principle as timed writing, which is that you don’t give yourself the opportunity to become distracted. I could, of course, sit at the computer in the dark for quite a long time. I have, in fact, been known to fall asleep in my office chair while engaged in a particularly intense bout of procrastination.

But with that blindfold (a bandana folded into a strip of appropriate width) over my eyes, I have a physical reminder that I have something important to do, a sensation to keep my mind on the task at hand. It also blocks out visual distractions, which are the first things on which my mind alights for diversion: oh, look, my bed needs making; goodness, look at the time, I’ve been here for at least an hour without a snack; gosh, that Solitaire icon looks lonely, I’ll just click on it this once. And it is staggeringly hard to edit myself when I can’t see the screen. The time lost to correcting typos afterward is well worth the burst of uninterrupted writing I achieve while blind.

Additionally, the subject of voluntary blindness is very much on my mind at the moment because of a story idea that is currently haunting me. Codenamed Blind Wolf, it centers on a person (this is an idea in progress, so please forgive the lack of gender certainty, as I have yet to finalize much of anything about it) whose gaze causes the things this person sees to warp and become monstrous. For this person’s own safety as much as for that of the greater population, blindfolding it becomes necessary to keep the power under control. The how and why of the story are beyond the scope of this article and are also far from fully developed, but suffice to say that the experience of being abruptly blind is currently of great interest to me.

Given all this, it should be no surprise that this month’s prompt caught my fancy. The book is Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises From Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis, and the article is John Smolens’s “Be the Tree.” (Tangentially, this title always makes me think of the Saturday morning commercial from something like the Arbor Day Foundation, in which a young girl says, with great conviction, “If you just get out there and see that tree, you can actually be that tree.” I really hope she continues to believe in this statement, as it will mean she grows up to be a delightfully unusual young woman.)

Smolens describes his variation on found object studies, in which pairs of students explore an outdoor location. One student wears a blindfold and explores rocks, trees, puddles, etc. under the guidance of their partner, who silently directs them to targets. After everyone has had a chance, they return to the classroom to write about the experience. According to Smolens, students often write these piece from the perspective of the object they explored, hence the title of the article.

Now, the exercise at the end of the article only asks you to write a 500 word passage using sensory detail, so long as it is not sight-based. I cannot imagine, however, how anyone could read his description of this truly excellent field trip and then just jump straight into writing without trying it out. I certainly cannot resist. So I will be spending some time today exploring my home, inside and out, while blindfolded and I will return with writing. (I would be happy to follow his advice to go somewhere unfamiliar, but since I lack the validation that comes from being part of a large group, I will not risk arrest or institutionalization by wandering around the nearest park while wearing a blindfold.)

I will do things a little out of order this time, as I would like to get my impressions of the physical exercise down before I move on to the written exercise. This was made possible by my mother, who graciously agreed to chaperone me while I explored. The weather is warm right now and while I am willing to do many things for my art, getting bitten by a rattlesnake in my backyard is not one of them. She took to the task with, if not enthusiasm, at least devotion and guided me through the backyard and the garden therein.

But first, I started inside the house. The first thing I really noticed was the wet sound of zucchini being grated into spaghetti sauce. It was, frankly, a revolting sound, but that might be my prejudice against zucchini coming through. The second thing I noticed was that all of my usual entertainment methods are at least partially visual: reading, video games, television. Knitting might have been possible, but sewing was right out. I languished.

Then my brain slowed down long enough to start noticing things. The fan in the kitchen rattles and the constant background noise it produces is infuriating when I try to focus in on something else. My parents, both in the house at the time, have vastly different styles of moving. I knew I could tell them apart by their footfalls, but that was when they were wearing boots and at a distance. Up close, I discovered that my mother stomps everywhere and moves with such force and energy, I can actually feel her passing as a wave of displaced air. Meanwhile, my father wears slippers in the house and shuffles, so it is impossible to track his movements. Then he holds still for so long that I forget where he is. When he moves again, I am startled to realize he is right beside me.

Hearing was useful, but smell did little to help me. I found that I could discern general changes in smell, such as the difference between the kitchen and the yard. But I did not navigate by smell, I did not experience any amazing food revelations (even good quality dark chocolate hardly smelled like anything) and I did not recognize my family by their scents. There is, however, a possibility that this can be attributed to the fact that the whole house smells vaguely of my dog and cat, thereby drowning out most other information more subtle than garlic or bleach.

Taste was largely irrelevant and I restrained myself from, say, tasting the pine tree in the yard to see what it was like. But I did find that, when I tried to get a drink of water, there was a moment of anticipation as the liquid hit my mouth wherein I wondered if I had chosen the right bottle. Would I get water or iced tea? Had my feeling around in the fridge and my memory of the layout betrayed me? Also, in the garden, I was treated to the taste of nasturtium nectar, surprising and sweet and flavorful. The last time I tried drinking nectar from the pipette of the flower, I got an ant instead. Ants are spicy and unpleasant, particularly alive. No thank you. But this flower was amazing.

Most of all, I experienced the world through touch. Open spaces (available outside but in short supply in my tiny home) made me nervous. I felt most comfortable when I could move from chair back to wall to door frame. Outside, my fingers brushed over each plant in turn. Unripe apples and furry peaches, the size of your thumb, seemed fragile and precious. Every time I touched them, I feared I would, in my clumsiness, knock them from the tree. Tree bark felt so sharp and thin, I expected it to cut my hands. And, predictably, I barked my knees against several flower pots on the way.

I am sure I looked quite the fool. Once I got my bearings, I could move with relative ease as I kept my left hand outstretched to search for obstacles and touch points and my head cocked as I tracked people by the sounds they made. I felt an initial discomfort and almost frantic need to match what I heard and felt to my mental picture of familiar places. But that passed and it all started to feel natural. I stopped noticing the play of light and dark beyond my eyelids and noticed air temperature instead. I stopped trying to think logically of what the small apple tree looked like and just let my hands follow the trunk and branches. I did not move as quickly, but I concentrated more. Yet my mind raced less. There was not a lot of room for random worries when I needed to concentrate on getting across the room.

For the written exercise, I’m going to use the story fragment I have in mind at the moment. The Blind Wolf story will involve travel and hiding out in strange places, so it is a good framework in which to have someone explore an unfamiliar space. Though I am reserving all judgments for the project, I will have to choose a gender for the sake of this passage or we will all be tearing our hair out as I try to contort myself around neutral sentences. So, for simplicity’s sake, it is a woman who is blindfolded and exploring an interior space more or less at her leisure and while she cannot see at the moment, she is previously familiar with modern housing.

Steel chilled her fingers. Knobs and handles lined up in her mind with kitchen. Eventually, her fingers skittered over the edge of the counter and into the basin of a sink. That boded ill, because questing hands should not be left unattended in the presence of knives. A leap of faith through empty space brought her hand to the edge of a doorway. No actual door there though, she discovered as she ran her hands around the edges in search of hinges.

Beyond the door, there was nothing to hold onto, so she stretched out her left foot and swept it along the ground. A soft shushing noise told her the kitchen tile yielded to carpet beyond that point. She stepped forward to where her left foot was. Another sweep and another step brought her to something solid that thunked, hollow and wooden, when her foot connected with it. She had to reach down to find it. Polished smooth and slightly greasy. She brought her fingers to her nose: wood polish.

She kept her hand on the edge of the end table and skirted around it. Right where she expected it, her other hand touched cool leather with deep wrinkles worked into it at the sides. Her hand made it rotate side to side. She pulled back on it and it gave with a rough metal sound. A leather recliner, next to an end table, told her she had found a living room.

She made her way to the front of the recliner and dropped to her knees. A living room might have a television and, if it did, the recliner would face it. On her knees, she inched forward, hand outstretched. Up close, the carpet smelled strongly of dog. Her nails pinged against glass. She followed the curve it formed and felt plastic, warmer and more yielding than glass, surrounding it. An old television with — she brought her hand down the side and toward the middle, where little nubs lined up — push button controls on the front panel.

Now she had to guess, so she pressed the first button on the right and waited. Nothing happened. Don’t assume the power is still off, she thought. Find the volume first. Her fingers skipped over two buttons, which she hoped were channel up and down controls, and pressed the fourth one along. Slowly, as she held the button down, sound rose. The speakers vibrated near her hand and the hair on the back of it stood up as the screen picked up a charge.

She turned the volume down to the ideal point for listening at close range. Then she settled back onto her butt to listen as a man’s voice announced the weather report. She braced her hands behind her on the floor. The carpet was thick enough to sink her fingers into it, but scratchy. Her palm came away with long, coarse dog hairs stuck to it. Over the sound of the weatherman, she heard an electronic ding from a microwave. Good. She was starving.

Working Review: Our Daily Toast

This time, I am headed over to Toasted Cheese, which is a literary journal, writers’ forum, and writing prompt provider. They have a fantastic monthly calendar, which provides prompts for each day. March particularly impressed me because every Saturday was a genre challenge and anyone who encourages writers to experiment with many genres deserves a pat on the back. Unfortunately, April does not include Saturday genre challenges; I suppose it would be difficult to find enough different genres to do it every month.

The nice thing about these calendars, as opposed to a book of writing prompts or other collections of them, is that it really encourages writing as a daily habit. I know for me, especially now when I am juggling House of Cats and a list of anthologies for which I want to write, writing often turns into something about deadlines and quotas. If I don’t have a deadline hanging over my head, I don’t want to write at all. I start to think, I’ve put in my time for the day, the week, the month, now leave me alone.

But ironically, the discipline of a daily habit makes writing less about what you have to do and more about the joy of storytelling. Because even if I say I must write each day, there are no rules and no demands about subject or, heck, even quality. This is writing as play, as an adult’s recess, as indulgence.

Tuesday’s prompt is “Bangles and Beads: she was obsessed with making jewelry.” But I feel like I should be giving you a bit more than just hi, here’s a site, here’s a snippet, good night. So let me break down for you my process of developing an idea when presented with a prompt.

First of all, my best brainstorming occurs in the shower. The combination of quiet solitude and the automatic movements of washing leave my brain free to tinker with ideas. The shower is where I conquer all my worse blocks and develop ideas from nothing. I break down the elements of the prompt and ask questions about each one. So:

Jewelry: who makes jewelry? –> women, craftsmen, metalworkers, children (I am envisioning the macaroni necklaces I foisted on my mother as a child)

What can they make it out of? –> metal, gems and stones, rope, wood, macaroni, found objects, glass, beads, pearls (found objects and pearls are speaking to me at the moment)

Why do they make it? –> to wear, to sell, to pass the time, to preserve objects, to repurpose objects

From this, I’ve got bored children using found objects to make their own jewelry and pass the time.

Obsessed: what sort of person obsesses? –> perfectionist, hyper focused, avoidance of other issues

Under what circumstances does obsession develop? –> has little else to occupy mind, stressful situations, way to block out unpleasant realities

From this, I’ve got someone in difficult circumstance who can’t do anything to change them, but who needs to focus their attention on something to cope with that stress.

After that, I get to the part that I can’t explain or map out. Once I’ve picked out the details in the prompt and found variations and interpretations that speak to me, my right brain really kicks in and starts putting the tinker toys into new and attractive configurations. I get an image, usually, or a character or a bit of plot. The parts stick together into something that resembles story. Right now, it is the idea of a child in a new land, maybe even a new planet, entertaining herself while her mother works, and the image of a necklace made out of a huge and luminous pearl-like object, which floats above the child’s head in zero gravity while she tries to sleep.

Once I have that kernel of an idea, I can start to develop. POV character is the child. I’ll need a theme if it’s going to be much more than a vignette. Number of words to shoot for and number of scenes I can get out of that based on my average words per scene. Lines describing each scene. A sentence describing the core of the story.

Joanna washes her cereal bowl in a sink with running water, which is a nice change from buckets pulled up from wells or rivers. The bio crisis planets are usually more advanced than the famine planets. Their cottage is right on the beach, so it makes no difference to her if Dr. Claudia Shipman spends the day treating the local livestock — something like a llama and something like the mega rabbits on XMV-671 — for the virus that is killing nine out of every ten. Joanna can amuse herself. If she gets bored of playing by the water, she can go inside, where there are books to read and half-strung necklaces to finish and math lessons to not do.

In the tide pools, Joanna finds a strand of seaweed caught on a colony of anemone-like creatures. She teases it loose from their waving fingers and retreats to the dry sand with it. Where each leaf attaches to the vine, there is a pearl, a bud, a buoy and when the sun has baked some of the water from the vine, these pearls float in the air. The ends of the vine drag in the sand. Looking through its parabola, Joanna sees a knot of tall children scuffing towards her through the sand. She plucks the vine from the air and retreats to the house. She locks the door behind her.

When Joanna lets Dr. Shipman in, she stinks of sick animal. There is mud up to her knees and the mostly washed off remnants of blood on her arms. “Why did you lock the door?”

Joanna shrugs and goes back to the little kitchen table, where she has a thick sewing needle stabbed through the stem of one of the pearls. Its skin is thick and hard like bark. She uses a pair of rusty forceps to pull the needle the rest of the way through. Dr. Shipman goes into the tiny water closet. The water turns on. Joanna slips the needle from the thread and puts it safely away. She holds up the two ends of thread. In the middle, the pearl bobs. Joanna opens her box of beads. She slides a blue stone onto the thread and takes it off again. She tries faceted glass and polished stones. The pearl sags with their weight and floats free again when she takes them off.

The water shuts off. Dr. Shipman sits down at the table wearing the battered flannel robe. “Hey, kiddo, what did you find?” Joanna only thinks of her as “mom” when she wears it. The rest of the time, she calls her Dr. Shipman like everyone else on every planet they visit.

Joanna tries red and orange and yellow beads, all down the list of colors she has neatly organized, and takes every one off again. “Found it on the beach,” she says.

“That’s called moon tree. The floaters are filled with lighter-than-air gasses. That’s how the plant floats high enough to get sunlight underwater.” She goes to fix dinner when Joanna just keeps working.

Over chicken and rice MREs, Dr. Shipman says, “It looks like we’ll be here for a few more weeks.”

Joanna pushes her fork through her food. “Fine.” At eye level, the pearl drifts, the ends of thread looped around her off hand.

Dr. Shipman lets out a loud sigh. “Do you want to go to classes at the school?”

“No, thank you. I’ll do my lessons here.” When the table is cleared, Joanna just knots the ends of the thread behind her neck. In bed, with the two moons shining through her window, Joanna catches the pearl in her mouth. It tastes of sea water. She lets it go and a third moon rises over her planet. It is a moon she can carry with her when she leaves in two weeks or two months, whenever this assignment ends and the next one comes in.

I think I must have been reading something written in present tense because I did not notice until the second section that I had started writing in it. I’m a strictly past tense sort of person usually. I feel pretty strongly that I would like to finish this story some time. It hits a whole bunch of my favorite things: new worlds; awkward childhoods and parent-child relationships; animals and medicine; crafts; weird flora and fauna; rural settings; and issues of loneliness and independence.

I did not in fact go through all the development I described earlier, since I knew I would not be doing the full story within the confines of this article. So I can see that I don’t have enough overt conflict driving the story forward. I’m still just drifting in the area of “mood,” which is fine for practice, but makes for deadly dull fiction. But it is exactly what I imagined when I first started thinking about someone obsessed with making jewelry.

This is the first time I have written science fiction, though I admit I have taken the soft science approach. Which is another fringe benefit of following these calendar challenges: if you write long enough and often enough, it is my belief that, to keep from boring yourself, you will eventually have to branch into new genres. This, as I mention, can only be a good thing.

Working Review: Little Sister Troubles

Sometimes life dumps useful things in your lap. Over on Shousetsu Bang*Bang, for which I was furiously writing a story last week, an announcement went up about the new moderator over at Petitte Soeur, which specializes in timed challenges for slash (gay) original fiction, who had revived the languishing community. I had not heard of the community prior to that and the low submission numbers they get suggest that some publicity would not be refused. With new challenges going up each Sunday, I thought it would be a great subject for a Working Review.

I’m a big believer in the value of a judiciously applied timer to one’s writing. I live by Write or Die, in which the surprisingly compelling threat of a red screen and an obnoxious noise keeps me typing until I hit a time or word count goal. But I’m usually looking at a single scene averaging 600 words written over twenty minutes. Petitte Soeur raises the bar rather higher than that. The time limits vary, though there have been a number of 60 to 90 minute challenges lately, but the majority of the submissions are small but complete stories. When the challenge time gets down to twenty minutes, as it is this week, some on-the-run brilliance is called for to write something coherent, let alone satisfying.

This week’s challenge is twenty minutes on the subject of “culture shock.” Culture shock is a great issue to have in fiction because, no matter how agreeable the characters want to be, conflict will have to arise. It can be the inner conflict of someone who is trying to blend in and act natural in an unfamiliar setting. It can be the conflict between the native character and the outsider, who may seem like a disrespectful bungler in a solemn situation or an awkward wet towel in a joyous one. It can even be conflict of a higher order, in which the newcomer faces the possibility of censure or even harm from a cultural authority if he does the wrong thing at the wrong time.

We’re All Family Here

Charlie tightened his grip on the box of chocolates as Indigo turned the doorknob. It will be fine, he told himself again. The rumors were just lies about an eccentric family. He braced himself, however. After all, you did not date someone named Indigo and expect to be introduced to June Cleaver the first time you met the family.

Indigo grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him in. A good thing, because Charlie could feel himself starting to backpedal. “Mom, I’m home,” Indigo called, as though he had just been out buying a carton of milk, not in another state for school. The house thronged with people, all of them talking at top volume.

The woman who emerged from the crowd had paint smears on her face and hands. She wrapped her arms around Indigo without using her hands. “I’m in the middle of a project,” she said as she neatly pivoted to embrace Charlie as well. The box of chocolates crunched in his hands.

“Where’s everyone else?” Indigo asked. Charlie could not imagine how there could be more people in the house.

“In the den, but don’t go in there,” she said with a fondly embarrassed shake of her head. “They’ve had a spell go off on them. It’s a disaster.”

Charlie could not help but crane his head in the direction she nodded. Though a doorway, he could see men and women scrambling around a circle gone hazy with incense smoke. The rumors were true. They really were–

“Witches,” he said.

Indigo’s mother smiled. “Every last one of us. Well, except Aunt Margaret, but she’s an odd one anyway.”

Charlie stood staring for so long, Indigo finally took the slightly battered box of chocolate from his hands, tossed it on the nearest piece of furniture, and steered Charlie down a hallway to his bedroom.

“Is it always like that?” Charlie asked when the door shut behind them.

“Oh, no,” Indigo said with that wicked tilt to his mouth. “This is a quiet day.”

Charlie groaned. “I would have died if I had to grow up here.”

Indigo pulled him in close with a hand on either wrist. “Because it’s so much healthier to live in that funeral parlor you called home.” The press of his lips to Charlie’s was a welcome reminder of the peaceful life Charlie was used to. Maybe it had been a mistake to spend the holidays with Indigo’s clan.

“I think there was at least one naked woman in that room,” Charlie insisted. He could feel his heartbeat slow as he relaxed into Indigo’s loose hold on his waist. “I’m never going to make it through a week here.”

“I can get you a hotel room if it’s too much,” Indigo said and Charlie had to kiss him again because he had that kicked puppy look on his face. Because he had begged Charlie to meet his family, pride and affection obvious in his face, but he would ruin his own holidays if it meant keeping Charlie happy. Because Indigo loved him and compared to that, it really didn’t matter what the ladies in their hometown said about the family.

Indigo met the kiss with enthusiasm and snuck a hand under Charlie’s shirt. Charlie had barely noticed the room, curiosity about Indigo’s life forgotten in the weirdness, but he was fairly certain there was a bed somewhere at his back. He took one step back before something exploded over by the door.

It was, he realized though the burst of sour panic, a girl’s voice, the loudest he had ever heard. “IT’S TIME FOR DINNER,” she bellowed from the doorway.

Charlie sprang away from Indigo. Oh, god, what had she seen? Would she tell? Could they bully or bribe her into silence? He slowly realized Indigo was calling his name with increasing force. He blinked and got his eyes to focus on Indigo, who smiled weakly.

Indigo stroked a hand down his arm and went to the door, pushing his giggling sister out of the way. “Ma, Phoenix won’t leave me alone so I can make out with Charlie,” he shouted down the hall. “Make her go away.”

His mother’s voice drifted back up the hall. “Phoenix, don’t bother your brother. You boys have fun. Your dinner will be in the oven when you feel like it.”

Charlie let out a gust of held breath when Indigo closed the door again. Indigo pulled him to the bed before he could collapse, all his muscles going limp with relief at once. Indigo curled around him. “See? I told you, everything is okay here. Just trust me.”

Charlie nodded and if he shook a little in Indigo’s arms, that was okay here too

I will cop to needing a few extra minutes to round out the ending, but I was at least close to the limit. The scene flew once I finally got up the courage to start writing. I found the prospect of this exercise terribly intimidating the longer I thought about it. It seemed so easy to fail. I was convinced that, despite having a strong sense of how much work I can get done in a given amount of time, I would blow through my twenty minutes and have three sentences to show for it.

I ended up condensing what had been three scenes into two. I was trying to stretch the incident to get a sense of story out of such a little scrap, but it collapsed back on itself. Even so, I got the emotional flips that I wanted, from tentative optimism to shock and from even worse shock to comfort.

More than anything, I had trouble monitoring how many words and minutes I had gone through and judging when I needed to move on to the next section. I took much longer on the setup than I intended, which meant I had only a few lines in which to create a sense of what Charlie found so out of the ordinary. And with the clock already over the limit, I had to pitch myself over the ending and get the hell out of there.

I think there is something great for both writers who excel at improvisation and those who, like me, keep a rather tighter hold on the reins. It is, of course, aimed at those who can or want to write on the fly. But I think for the obsessive planners among us, it’s a great test of how well you know your system. If you know how many words you’re likely to put into a scene and how long it takes you, you can plan out a story that should fall into place as soon as you start that clock. I came close and it felt good to hit those marks and get the immediate feedback of yes, I know what I’m doing.

As an aside, Indigo’s family is inspired by one I encountered while traveling by train several years ago. The names have not been changed to protect the unsuspecting, because the names were what stuck with me all this time. I had been waiting for a chance to use that loud and unusual family, though I have no reason to believe they had any inclination toward the occult. Nor do I have reason to believe they would approve of my take on them, but I’ll just have to take my chances.

Working Review: Voice Changers

The past couple months have been dry ones for writing here. When I do sit down to work, I edit existing work, like the House of Cats episodes written in November. So I have felt hungry for new words. I turned to Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen, another of the writing books languishing, unread, in my house. And with this week’s working review only in the back of my mind, I stumbled on a great chapter on voice.

Yolen describes the misleading emphasis given to “finding one’s voice” in writing courses, “as if the damn thing is lost somewhere (99).” She focuses instead on the voice of a specific story, the style it demands, and downplays the idea of the author’s true voice. I’m not sure I completely agree with Yolen’s argument, as I understand it, of the voice of each story being radically different. But her demonstration of different voices was fantastic.

Yolen briefly describes six different voices she has pulled specifically from the fantasy genre (fantasy here including the related subsets of horror, historical, and young adult) and two more general fiction voices. It was the focus on fantasy that caught my attention. She runs the same basic idea — a barbarian (literal or figurative) and a/the queen have tea together — through each of the voices, changing the story and the tone as she does so. Having found great success in the similar exercise I demonstrated here on archetypes, I thought I would try my hand at this as well, though I am cutting it down to three voices. My basic idea will be: a dog and a child meet at a crossroads.

Schoolboy Voice: think Harry Potter

Mary put one small foot in front of the other, arms out to her sides, balancing like a tightrope walker in the rut left by wagon wheels in the road. She swung the empty basket from hand to hand, thinking of the cakes she would fill it with in town. She reached the crossroads just as the sun got hot enough for Mary to take off her little cloak. In the field beyond the faded guide post, which no longer pointed in any direction, a wild dog pounced on something in the grass. He came up with his mouth full of something, which squeaked and writhed for a moment, then crunch crunch gulp, he ate it.

Mary looked down the right hand road then down the left hand road. “I think,” she said with reasonable certainty, “Avaigne is down the right hand road.” And she started in that direction.

“What business do you have in Dorsie?” A voice asked behind her.

“None. I am off to Avaigne,” Mary said as she turned.

The wild dog, his black lips wet and red, shook his head sadly. “That is not the way to Avaigne,” he said.

“I have never met a talking dog before,” Mary said. “Are there very many that can?”

Again the dog shook his head sadly and sighed like his heart might break. He must be very upset about something, Mary thought, to make so many mournful expressions and sigh so loudly. “Very few indeed,” he said. “If you would like, I will take you to Avaigne.”

“Only if you are quite certain you know the way,” Mary said even as she turned to follow him down the left hand road. “I thought for sure it was the right hand road.”

Dark Angel Voice: horror that sneaks up and spirits away your soul

Mary met the dog at the crossroads. She did not notice him at first. She swept her gaze down the right hand road then down the left hand road. As her eye moved over the signpost, she saw a flash of black. When she looked again, the dog was there. “You startled me, doggie,” Mary said and patted him on the head. “I am off to Avaigne.”

She turned to go down the right hand path. Then a shadow of doubt crept into her mind. She felt, quite unexpectedly, she did not want to take the right hand path. Perhaps she had remembered wrong. The path did not look inviting. No, she decided, she had been mistaken; the happy streets of Avaigne must wait along the left hand path.

Mary followed the left hand path. She looked up as the path ducked under a great oak tree and saw a crow perched in its branches, cawing loudly. Mary had no reason to look behind her as she walked, so she did not see the crow drop, stone dead, into her footprints. Nor did she see the dog stop to sniff the body before swallowing it in one huge gulp. The dog licked his lips and burped, a crow’s caw exploding past his teeth, and padded after Mary.

Dave Broder Voice: reportage

On Monday morning, the dog reached the halfway point of his commute, traveling from his home in Hampshire to Dorsie, where he works as local scamp and village idiot, and met up with a child at the crossroads to Dorsie and Avaigne. The child needed direction to Avaigne. The lie that followed would change both their lives, but for the moment, the dog just thought he had found the assistant he needed.

What a mess. I really struggled with this. I think part of the problem was that, when I did the archetype exercise, there was not existing samples to imitate; in this exercise, I felt constrained by Yolen’s examples and could not seem to find my way into a fiction of my own. I had to cut the list down to a sampling of what she did, as the full list would have made me crazy.

My schoolboy voice came out more Alice in Wonderland than Harry Potter, but I liked the wide-eyed confidence of Mary in it. And the dog made me think of the mock turtle for some reason. The Dave Broder was the first one I wrote, just to get an idea of what my mini story would be, and I remembered that I have always been hopeless with journalism. Deliberately thinking of the story in terms of who-what-when-where-why seemed to ruin it for me. My mind refused to provide anything else to flesh out the scene. The dark angel voice was the one that finally flowed for me. I’ve never written horror before; I don’t think I have read any since grade school and those books of 13 More Terrifying Tales. But it was fun!

I think of voice as being something that comes from the writer: give five writers the same events and they will each write it in their own distinct voice. But when it comes to a single writer’s voice changing from story to story, I never gave it much thought. It was just something that happened, a variation on a theme. I need to try my hand at more genres and more voices and deliberately search for the voice of the story, as Yolen suggests. I think I have been missing out on something here.