Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Literary Fingerprints

On Monday, Debbie spoke about anonymous writing. A feeling most of us are familiar with, if for all the wrong reasons. In her post, she mentioned Don Foster’s idea of the literary fingerprint; the DNA from our pen that would convict any one of us of authoring a piece of writing. He was likely referring to habitual wording and phrasing, moldy metaphors we lean on. But, as I read Debbie’s post, I wondered if Foster was referring to voice – that ill defined, yet sought after attribute of writing no one understands but can only point to when it is present. If something of the writer sticks to everything he pens, certainly voice would be the glue. I’ve written and taught about voice in fiction. After several years of writing, I thought I might know something about the subject. Turns out I don’t. I’m not unhappy about the revelation. Writers are never bothered by being wrong. We know how to rewrite. And we know being absolutely right is the death of art.

Still, it surprised me when Roger Rosenblatt, in
Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, dismissed the subject of voice with a metaphorical wave of his hand. “Voice is merely the latest cliché to signify good writing. Its predecessor was ‘authority’.”
One man’s opinion. So what? Except that it sat right with me. I understood what he meant and why there was no need to talk about it any further. Voice is simply a way of saying that writer believed in herself.
In theater we call it stage presence. In film it’s scene stealer. That actor who chews the scenery, and makes us believe he
is the character.

Voice is writing with an assurance that translates by osmosis to the reader. It has nothing to do with POV or which tense you tell the story in. It’s not about diphthongs or Irish accents. It’s plunging into story without timidity or throat clearing. By sheer perfection of word choice and sentence structure the author conveys her absolute confidence to the reader.
An elbow nudge and wink from the captain of the ship. Authorial authority. Rosenblatt says, “Voice is the knowledge of what you want to say. After that, it becomes any voice that serves your purpose.”
Maybe that’s why he swatted the topic aside. It’s simply an outcome of years of perfecting the craft and art of writing enough to allow yourself to write like you mean it. And there’s no talking about that. There is only doing.I like the thought that my literary fingerprint may one day be confidence, not that my story is perfect, or even right, but that I deserve the opportunity to tell it my way.

I recommend Rosenblatt’s book for reasons I can’t articulate. Not because it will teach you about writing a novel, but it presses the writer's consciousness into your grey matter and you come away with a heightened ability to express what you’ve always known.


Katie Ganshert said...

Wow. That really sits with me too.

"It’s plunging into story without timidity or throat clearing."

I love that. And I also think this is why my rough drafts are so rotten. I do a lot of throat-clearing as I wade through the rough draft. It's after multiple read-throughs and revisions that I cut the crap and get to the point already. :) Which goes along with something I've always said about voice - for me, my voice doesn't just pour naturally onto the page. I have to work for it.

Amy K. Sorrells said...

Bonnie--so appreciate this post today! My current novel has a pretty unique voice, and I find my
pen/fingers feel sluggish whenever I'm hesitant about speaking freely through her. It's when I open my heart unabashedly that my character is able to sing. ( Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to go find at the bookstore!)

Dina Sleiman said...

Some writing just jumps off the page and magically pulls you into the story world. It's not something that can be taught.

Wendy Paine Miller said...


And this sounds like a one great book.

Oh, and the yes up there is affirming what you wrote about voice. I believe voice happens on the page when you lose yourself to the writing, when you free yourself up to the story and "let it all hang out." All the grammatical and structural stuff can be editing out, but the's there.

~ Wendy

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I feel like a just got a pep talk! Thanks, Novel Matters coaches! Now I'm ready to get some writing done!

Bonnie Grove said...

Katie: I love your comment! As we are beginning, unsure what it is we truly mean to say, we clear our throats and write beautiful words. But it's a smoke screen. Once we are able to say Here is what I mean, we can begin to find the voice that will speak best on that meanings behalf. We have to work at it. We have to build ourselves to confidence. Thanks for your great comment.

Amy: Are there times you wonder, "Where does this timidity come from? Why do I hesitate when I know what I must do?" I hope you enjoy the book!

Bonnie Grove said...

Dina: I agree, it's not something that can be taught. But it can be hard won. Wouldn't it be interesting to find a favorite author who has a number of books out, find the first written, and compare it to the latest? I think there would be a sense of being able to trace the progression of strong voice over time, as the author grew into her skin.

Wendy: Let is all hang out confidence is a rare commodity. Knowing for certain THIS is what you mean to say is the place to start. When you have that, you can write the most amazing digressions, the most meandering prose, and still bring the reader back to the unflappable point of the story. And they will cheer.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: Woo Hoo! Go Susie, Go!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Bonnie; when I was in college I did an independent study. I studied Steinbeck. I read his novels in chronological order. It was interesting to actually feel the change in his writing as the novels progressed.

It gave me great hope.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, this is a superlatively helpful post. Perhaps the best I have ever read on the subject of voice. Thank you so much.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: I'd love to hear more about the changes you noticed (how cruel for me to ask! I realize this isn't something to finished yesterday) - but I think your observations would teach us all.

Latayne: Thank you my dear friend. Mwah!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Bonnie, I'll pull out my research. Of course I still have it. Let me look it over and give a small report. :)

Lori Benton said...

Bonnie, I like these thoughts, and thank you for pointing us toward what sounds like an excellent writing craft book. I feel like you just thrust a treasure map into my hands.

My copy's on the way.

Susie Finkbeiner said...'s a brief thought about the works of Steinbeck. Now, keep in mind that my research was done when I was a sleep deprived 21 year old. :)

Steinbeck wrote very well from the beginning of his career. He had solid story lines and his characters vivid. He had a lot of success too.

However, writing "The Grapes of Wrath" changed him. I think it gave him a renewed purpose for writing. Instead of writing for the art of it or to make a point he was writing to open eyes and bring about change. And it worked for him. (see "Writing Days" his journal from the days of writing "Grapes")

Another major shift in his writing occurred when he realized the demand for his books to become films. He began writing more descriptively so that they would translate to the "big screen".

The man wrote obsessively and through many difficult times of life. He was a quirky feller and struggled with relationships. He was, however, very gifted.

He had some rough books, some great books and some "eh" books. And that should be a great comfort to us. Even the masters have some books that are just okay.

Marian said...

Thanks so much for this timely piece of wisdom. I am speaking to a group of seniors tomorrow and I prepared a speech (based on my book) according to what I perceived they wanted to hear. The speech seemed very flat...until I changed things around to say what I know I have to say. Now I'm excited.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Once I read that men shouldn't write women's voices, visa versa. Black/white. Rich/poor. Young/old.
All because of 'authority'. A man just didn't know enough about being a woman etc.
This is often the case. I don't like any female character in Tolkien's novels. But when an author gets it right it doesn't matter. When one writes with 'authority' or confident voice the art sings through and the author slips into the background, which is definitely my goal.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Voice is what swept me into "Talking to the Dead" on the first page. And it shines through all your bog posts too. You're one of the few writers I know who manages to be intellectually profound and playfully rambunctious at the same time.

No throat clearing from you! Love it. =)

Megan Sayer said...

Yes. This post was a real Aha! moment. As Latayne said, one of the best things I've ever read about voice.

The Aha! for me was understanding why I tend to return to certain emotions in my writing again and again, and some of my characters return again and again...I feel my authority in these areas, and with these people. I have BEEN them.

Recently I've been feeling I need to push my writing boundaries more, to create characters that are different. This post has altered that. The challenge I'm feeling at the moment is allowing that feeling of authority to speak louder through them - to allow them to articulate the more subtle emotions of those experiences, the ones that make my characters ring true and fresh. It's about going deeper rather than broader, and embracing the fact that this is me, and this is what (and who) I write.

Christa Allan said...

When I sense I'm editing in my head before the words hit the page, I force myself to go back and write what I avoided.

Writing without a safety net. It really is the balancing act for me.

Bonnie Grove said...

Lori: I hope you enjoy it. There's something great about it - but not obviously so. If that makes sense. Let me know what you thought.

Susie: It is comforting to know that the great novelist all struggle - and each book feels like reinventing the wheel in someways. What you did in the previous novel, and what worked for that story won't work for the next one. Every story forces you to start again. Thanks so much for going over those notes for us. Very encouraging!

Marian: Good for you! I hope your speaking engagement goes well and you bless those folks.

Bonnie Grove said...

Henrietta: You've pointed out an interesting paradox - the strongly assured voice is the one who is happy to bury itself. There's something to chew on.

Karen: Your kind words at the end of what has been a rather blicky day for me, were a balm. I'm so grateful for them, and for you. Thank you.

Megan: Deeper rather than broader. Excellent! I agree totally. That was a serious Aha moment for you, girl! Impressive!

Christa: Isn't it great to be surrounded by so many smart people? I'm loving this. Yes, yes, yes. When we throat clear, and hedge around, the best thing to do is stop and look for the thing you're avoiding. Chances are, it's the thing you mean to say!

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

WOW, Bonnie. Thank you for helping me to comprehend what voice is truly all about. I've read the advice to write with authority and you've showed me how to do this. I also agree that what worked for one novel will not work for another. This resource from Rosenblatt seems like one I need to get.

Steve G said...

This is about the artist recognizing they are an artist. I like that.

katharine said...

I feel like you just gave me a secret weapon in which to fight off self-doubt and my crazy Aunt Sunda who said I had too many characters.