Thursday, January 27, 2011

Walking on Air

“Whenever I see a sight like these clouds, I think maybe everyone is wrong; maybe you can walk on air. Maybe we should just try. Everything could have changed without our noticing. Laws of physics, I mean. Why not? I want it to be true that such miracles occur.” What We Keep, Elizabeth Berg

This is the voice of a woman in need of a miracle, someone who wants so much to find answers and is willing to consider more than what she's always believed.

Sharon's post got me thinking about voice, and I pulled some great examples from recent & favorite reads:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and threw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying.” The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver

A teen-aged girl from a small Southern town tells her story.

“Late afternoon. We were playing, my gang against his, and when he ran at me again, bully that he was, bigger than me, and catching me off balance, I felt the power go out of me as I shouted: “You’ll never get where you’re going.” He fell down white in the sandy earth…” Christ the Lord, Anne Rice

Jesus as a child - you just want to know what he was like as a kid.

“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

I still find myself wondering if the bees were real or a figment of this young girl's imagination, although they were very real to her.

“’It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

I love the wry humor in this, since Lizzy is in no hurry to be married. Even if she didn't directly say it, you can hear her pointing it out, can't you?

“I was born in 1904, so that when I was pregnant in 1943 I was near enough to be past the rightful age to bear children.” Jewel, Bret Lott

There is so much about Jewel's situation in this first sentence.

“It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Her loneliness and heartbreak is palpable. I felt for her before I even knew her.

"I'm ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

Such spunk shows in these few words. If he were young, he would say, "Whatever."

‘Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue.” The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

She sounds like the kind of person I would like to know - upbeat, positive and excited by life.

I recently returned a book to the library after only reading three chapters, and it was due to my frustration with the main characters. They had no distinct voices. Readers should be able to tell that a character is a poor farmer living in the deep South during WWII without having to be told! I'm not advocating the use of dialect. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers suggests using word choice, cadence and grammar to impart this rather than to distract the reader with dropped endings or phonetic spellings.

From comments we've received, voice is a strong determining factor as to whether or not a reader sticks with a book to the end. I started the same book 3 times and finally finished it, and I realize that there was no particular voice established until several chapters into the story. But the book had a voice of its own, and that's what I was getting for the first chapter or so. It turned out to be a very good story, which I will post on in the near future.

Have you struggled with a book's voice and been glad you persevered?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

This may sound weird and I'm not sure this happens to you ladies, but sometimes I'll pick up a book and have the hardest time getting into it only to find myself devouring it months later.

My moods impact how well I take to a book or what I'm going through also influences the stick with it factor.

You just jogged my memory of how in Water there's a line about how you stop losing track of your age around 34 or 35. Oh, this is so true!

~ Wendy

Nicole said...

Since I'm a patient reader and love long stories, I'll give the writer a considerable time to establish voice and character appeal. But usually if it doesn't grab me within the first five chapters, I'll finish the book but never find the love.

Meg Moseley said...

For me, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one that deserved a second chance. I started it about a year ago and couldn't get into it. I thought it started too slowly.

I picked it up again a few days ago. Now I see the "slow start" for what it is: a beautiful foundation for the rest of the story. I'm so glad I gave it another try.

Latayne C Scott said...

Great post, Debbie!

You're describing for me what I call the Faulkner factor. Whenever I begin one of his books I become lost in the loops of his tellings, and wonder where he's going. And voice!! What voice!! It carries me past all my doubts about him and the story.

But then he reaches a point I call the tonic, where everything comes together and it is all the more satisfying for the wait.

On the other hand, I think I've mentioned here on this blog that when I first asked Janet Grant to represent me and told her my favorite author was Faulkner and I would love to write like him, she said, "Oh dear."

Lynn Dean said...

I've been fascinated by the phenomenon of a young secular author, Amanda Hocking. She stuck six e-books on Amazon about a year ago, and now has six titles in Amazon's Top 100. Amazing from any perspective!

At first I attributed her success to YA vampire fascination, but then I downloaded some sample chapters. Whatever else you may think of Miss Hocking's writing, the girl has VOICE! It's no wonder she found ready appeal.

I also can't help but notice that so many of the examples of excellent voice are 1st person. We're told that it's hard to do 1st person well, but when it IS done well, it is powerful.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Wendy, I'm the same way. I've learned not to get rid of a book I've lost interest in because I will often go back to it and wonder what I was thinking.
Nicole, there are a few I haven't finished, but not many. I think, if it was my book, I'd want readers to give it a chance.
Meg, I did the same with Bel Canto and I'm glad I stuck with it.
Latayne, I have not read Faulkner (I say sheepishly) but I pledge to on your recommendation.
Lynn, it's amazing how 1st person can pull you right into the story. Suddenly you're experiencing it for yourself!

Patti Hill said...

Debbie, loved your examples. I'm reading a book--a FIRST book by this author I can't remember--titled Mudbound. There are at least five different first-person narrators. It's a great study in how to make each voice unique. Very powerful and well-written.

BK said...

Oh I've learned not to give up. I forget which of his titles it was, but one of Charles Martin's books spent like umpteen pages just set in a Circle K type store and I wanted to throw the book at him and tell him to move it along. But I was glad I stuck with it. It was a very fine read.

I'm currently reading War & Peace by ear (audio CD) and the first 20 chapters, it's nothing but characters sitting around talking. I've been reading since October of last year (there are 50-some audio CD's in the set!) and am down to the last set, but I am absolutely thrilled that I stuck with it because Tolstoy has a better grasp of the human mind and its indiosyncracies then probably anybody else I've ever read.

BK said...

Oye. Old age is causing me more typos. I meant "6 CD's left in the set".

Nicole said...

Oh, Latayne, I hate Faulkner. Oh so much. If you want to torture me, make me read him! Funny how different tastes in writers can be, huh?

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I definitely identify with the 'love it later' read. It happens with scripture too as the Holy Spirit uses a long known verse in a new way. Must be a sign of movement, forward we hope!
I just read 'Banner by the Wayside' by Samuel Hopkins Adams.
"Silence fell. A rich chord sounded and grew to a swelling harmony. The little listener below held her breath in sheer delight. She had never before heard secular part-singing. The voices trained to the strait control of the hymnbook were like prisoners released. They blended with a fullness, a suppleness, a passionate fecundity of sound that stirred her to uncomprehended and frightening sensations."
(oh, I hate the small vocabulary of spell check. Can you see that it underlined 'umcomprehended'?)
Or how about: "Seventy-eight dollars. Enough to stock up with. And we still got old Cain(a painting they showed for money) We could raise the ante on Cain. Folks are going to be mortal pious after the chastening effects of this visitation of wrath (a cholera epidemic). I got that from a parson. Do you reckon you could talk the Honourable into a charter or two for us, lad?"?
I tried to read "A woman called Fancy" by Frank Yerby. Very good voice but tangles of human detritus that I wasn't interested in. The bad were too bad, the good too good and Fancy knew herself way too well.
I pick these books up in the ancient section of second hand book shops, never knowing if I have a treasure or a lump of coal.

Latayne C Scott said...

Nicole, do you love Hemingway? I have found that many people who love Faulkner and Joyce hate Hemingway. Just wondering!

Nicole said...

Nope. Hated Hemingway's writing, but I thought he was a great storyteller. Never have read Joyce.

Loved Dostoevsky, D. H. Lawrence, Flaubert, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ken Kesey, all back in the day . . .