Friday, September 18, 2009


To pull off the so-called “impossible” – getting into the head of the opposite sex and understanding from this point of view, surprisingly enough, surrounds elemental, fundamental reliance on a “woman of substance” inside the VOICE.

VOICE in any dramatic, commercial fiction relies on strong Active Voice over weak passive textbook, WAS/WERE-riddled voices (leave the qualifying voice to the politicians). These basic grammatical decisions (word choice, exorcising qualifiers for absolutes, using active verbs over passives and cripplingly slow helping verbs, and exorcising the verb to be) are the crucibles of language about which E.B. White wrote in The Elements of Style and supported by the fine book Writing Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Style comes out of extremely small elements you choose to make work for you—like a plug in the wall. Or items you fail to utilize.

As small as the choice difference between say the word before and ago, maybe and perhaps, this is “shaping” voice. This “becomes you”--BECOMEs your style. If you choose a folksy or shoddy or simplistic or complex or formal or informal voice, your reader will know it from the outset and is normally willing to follow it so long as this voice remains consistent and consistently believable.

So is VOICE the single most important element of your story? Absolutely, and yet it is created of all the other elements and choices you make, from setting to dialect to no dialect to the difference between between and betwixt, leaped and leapt, or using a comma for a dash. I personally make a habit of using contractions, dashes, and mixing sentence types from simple to compound to complex to compound-complex. All my choices…all lessons we continually need to relearn with each book.

All good writing relies on the reader ‘falling for’ your Feminine or Male authorial\narrative voice, the point of view speaker, the mind you set your reader down into comfortably or awkwardly. If it is an ill fit, little wonder. The holy all of it is this: an author is a trick cyclist on the unicycle juggling twenty four plates in the air, spinning each ‘choice and decision and element’ at the end of long sticks all at once! Each plate, each stick, each prop is an important element, but they all culminate in the overall greatest EFFECT or illusion we writers create. The effect that your story has on the reader’s ear and mind’s eye. (A story is only as good as the effect it has on a reader.)
If I had said the writer is LIKE a trick cyclist rather than stating it as a fact, it rings a different bell, sends a different and less powerful blow. The use of LIKE and AS is terribly overdone in some “voices” in female-lead crime fiction. As are adjectives. As are adverbs. As is the use of passives, especially the WAS/WERE verb—a major killer of action and visualization. These mistaken choices riddle even a great deal of published fiction, and especially in the first person narrative along with the personal pronoun references to the narrator: I, me, my, mine, myself, often using the personal pronoun three and four times in a given sentence.

What a reader hears and pictures comes about as result of our giving him a believable SOUND in his head—along with images. The author’s voice, or the narrative voice (not always the same) or the character’s voice creates that sound. A “qualifying” character’s voice can be filled with qualifiers, but you are damned if your narrator or main character’s voice is riddled with qualifying, iffy, wishy-washiness. An absolute gives the same sentence the mental Kodak moments that look, feel, taste, smell, and sound like IMAGES. Images are made of this; they are not made of lines like: He was standing as if in a trance, and was soon climbing through a reddish fog that seemed to be lifting amid the treeline that almost acted as a filter to the sunlit Georgia hills. But rather: In a trance, Mick stood and climbed through a coppery red fog filtering through the Georgia treeline.

Robert W. Walker
"Dead On takes the reader's capacity for the imagination of horror to stomach turning depths, and then gives it more twists than a Georgia backroad that paves an Indian trail." - Nash Black


Larry D. Sweazy said...

Good post, Rob. I'm working on a project with a female protagonist, first-person, and it's one of the most challenging exercises I've attempted. Your advice helps.

Deb Larson said...

I agree with your post. But what I find exasperating is the "professionals" who can get away with this stuff. I picked up the sixth book of J.K. Rowlings, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," and the first sentence is riddled with "It was, was sitting, was slipping." And the second sentence is no better. It begins with: "He was waiting ..."
Kind of makes one wonder who edited this thing.

Norm Cowie said...

I always figgered if'n ya wanna write as a female, just be insane and illogical...

(backing off hastily)

just kidding, ladies, just kidding.

Terry Odell said...

Being female, I have to go back and insert the male voice to my male characters, since there is definitely a difference in the way men and women are hard wired. I've been told my male characters are stronger and more compelling than my female leads, perhaps because I don't take writing as a 'guy' as a given.

To add yet another wrinkle, one must also consider the reader demographic. Because women who read romance want the men to behave the way they WANT them to behave, to think they way they WANT them to think. That does provide a little leeway for anyone writing any of the romance sub-genres, although this applies primarily to the male-female scenes. Since I write cops and action-adventure, my heroes have to be "real" guys unless they're sequestered with the heroine.

Some tidbits I've picked up at workshops:

Little girls want to fit in. Little boys like to be the boss. As women, we grow up wanting to be part of the group and don't like to make waves, whereas for men, it's about the hierarchy. Girls share secrets, like to connect. Boys want to be higher up the ladder and use language to one-up each other. If that doesn't work, they may resort to physical means.

Which is why men don't ask for directions -- it puts them 'one step under' the person they're asking for help. And it helps explain why men don't apologize. That also puts them in a subservient role. Or if they do, it's more like, "I'm sorry if you feel that way..."

If anyone's interested in a more in depth look at this his-her language, I've done a series on my blog of His Brain-Her Brain. If you type that into the search box, you should pull up those posts. Or you can contact me if you want more.

Anonymous said...

Some great advice, Rob. Thanks!

Rob Walker said...

Carful Norm! I usually put it this way...I can write from the mindset of a lady, but I don't pretend to understand them....

Thanks to all who've taken the time to come by and leave a message. We try to make it easy as pie to leave a comment here without all the drama. I say save the drama for your mamma.