Mark Terry

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

You Knows It When You Reads It

March 23, 2010
We talk a lot about "voice." How important it is. To-date, I don't think anyone's given it a good definition, and sure as hell nobody I've ever heard talk or write about it has given a good idea on how to develop it short of "read a lot; write a lot" which covers most of what you need to become a publishable writer.

I've often heard agents and editors say that when they pick up a manuscript and the voice jumps out at them, they know just ... know.

Not helpful for us writers, certainly. But I was reminded of this just last night. I like novelist Robert Crais a lot. I love his Elvis Cole novels, have enjoyed his stand-alones, especially DEMOLITION ANGEL. I picked up his latest a month or so ago, THE FIRST RULE, which is a Joe Pike novel. For whatever reason I put off reading it, partially just to keep some variety in my reading, alternating thrillers with SF with crime novels with...

So last night I picked up THE FIRST RULE and read:

Frank Meyer closed his computer as the early winter darkness fell over his home in Westwood, California, not far from the UCLA campus. Westwood was an affluent area on the Westside of Los Angeles, resting between Beverly Hills and Brentwood in a twine of gracious residential streets and comfortable, well-to-do homes. Frank Meyer--more surprised about it than anyone else, considering his background--lived in such a home.

Okay. Nothing amazing there, I don't think. A couple things did strike me, though. It seemed very assured. There's a rock solid construction aspect to this that jumped out at me, even in three sentences. A sense of place. I like the phrase "in a twine of..." I also think the final sentence, suggesting that there's more to Frank than just an upper middle class suburban resident is very deft.

The second paragraph is interesting as well and perhaps more subtle.

Work finished, Frank settled back in his home office, listening to his sons crash through the far side of the house like baby rhinos. They made him happy, and so did the rich scent of braising beef that promised stew or boeuf bourguignon, which he never pronounced correctly but loved to eat. Voices came from the family room, too far away to make out the program, but almost certainly the sound of a game show on television. Cindy hated the nightly news.

Hmmm. Some fairly sophisticated characterization and scene-setting going on here. We're getting a real sense of Frank and a sense of family (of which something really horrible is soon to happen). A couple things strike me about this. I like the "...sons crash through the far side of the house like baby rhinos." I think his use of the verb "crash" is nice because of all the energy and sound and images it creates, and the "baby rhinos" is a nice touch. The joke about the dinner is interesting. And then, again, there's that last sentence that sends something a little jarring through all the domestic bliss, just a tiny bit.

Is there voice here? I think there is, but it's not necessarily immediately apparent. And it's possible that other readers just won't respond to it. Overall, what hits me most about these opening paragraphs is the careful modulation, the solid sentence structure, just how much information is being provided with very little effort. It seems effortless, but the more I analyze it the more I suspect he spent some time on each and every word. Scene setting, characterization, mood, with just tiny hints that hell will probably break loose soon (and it's a Robert Crais novel, so we know that's going to happen anyway; we're generally pre-sold). Here's the sentence that ends the first section on page 7:

Frank Meyer had no reason to suspect that something unspeakable was about to happen.

Now, the next section, we get a change of voice, a bit, a change of tone, a change of language:

Four men in the vehicle, black cutouts in the shadowed interior, Moon driving, Moon's boy Lil Tai riding shotgun, Jamal in back with the Russian. Moon, eyes flicking between the houses and the white boy, wasn't sure if the foreigner was a Russian or not. What with all the Eastern Bloc assholes runnin' around, boy coulda been Armenian, Lithuanian, or a muthuhfuckin' Transylvanian vampire, and Moon couldn't tell'm apart. All Moon knew, he was makin' more cash since hookin' up with the foreign muthuhfucka chillin' behind him than any time in his life.

Hmmm. There's a lot here. Once you get past the first part of the first sentence, we're inside Moon's head, his POV, more or less, even though it's still in third-person. The language changes, the images change, it moves to a street dialect (muthuhfucka versus motherfucker, to me, is fairly interesting word choices), dropping the g's.

So, to me, the question is: Do you hear the "voice" here?


Blogger Eric said...

I have never been able to quite grasp what is meant by voice. My first thought is that it is a fancy name for the writer's style, but I've read that that isn't so. It's something else or more. Neither is it (I don't think) as simple as a book being told in the style a certain character would tell it in. Or is it? I have no handle on voice, that's for sure.

I will subscribe to your blog via Bloglines again and see if the next one shows up for me.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I know when I analyze it I have a problem identifying it.

12:05 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I do hear it, but I like my "voice" such as it is, to get the hell out of the way of the story. Too much voice and wordplay ruins a story for me, distracts me too much. I know I'm probably one of the few who think this.

I felt like the first graph is dull dull dull. Ordinary life, ordinary night... which might be the intent. I loathe that line saying he has no idea something bad's about to happen. It goes all omniscient on my ass, and I prefer distant 3rd or close 3rd. I don't really find a reason to care in this graph whether something good or bad happens to them or not. But then, maybe I'm not supposed to care.

The second POV works okay and is more interesting (vilians usually are) but all the apostrophes drove me nuts. I have a pov in which g's are dropped and since it's a futuristic, and since these people can't read, I don't use apostrophes. I'm debating on ways to make their sections look even differenter :)

12:14 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

SSS--I've often had an issue with how Crais starts his novels. Not a major issues, but he often works to set the scene rather than just get into the scene, so sometimes they seem a slow start. And there's usually nothing about his books that you would call slow.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I prefer this first paragraph, from Loren D. Estleman's American Detective:

The driveway was white stone, like a spill of salt between polished granite posts. A square of teal-colored lawn lay on either side, with furniture arranged on it in suites no decorator would approve: sectional sofas next to six-burner ranges, gold-plated bathroom fixtures among patio chairs carefully lichened with blobs of verdigris, stereo components deployed on top of plate-glass aquariums with no fish inside. A life-size statue of the property’s owner cast in bronze stood on a carved mound with one foot raised, winding up to pitch a baseball. With a realtor’s red-white-and-blue sign stuck in front of the quasi-neoclassical-Greco-Roman-Gothic-Art-Moderne house sprawled in the middle of the lot, it was the most expensive yard sale since they put Soviet Russia on the block.

Now THAT'S voice, IMO.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, Loren, he's a stylist.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I'm late to this party, but I hate the paragraph Jude posted, LOL! And I can't swear I would pick up the one you posted, but I probably would.

Which shows again . . . you either respond to a voice or you don't.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, at the risk of offending Loren Estleman (something I did at least once before), a local writer who I've done an event or two with, I admire his writing a great deal. But I don't read him much. I just don't respond to it. Different likes, I guess.

7:03 AM  

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