Category Archives: Narrative Voice

The Right Voice for a Dick

The music was a dirge, some long-forgotten Celtic lament full of wailing. It washed over me like surf over a half-buried corpse at low tide. Ira stood behind the bar cleaning the same glass he’d been running a dirty towel over for the past ten years.

I raised an eyebrow in his direction, just a flicker. It was all I needed. A beer slid down the bar at me. I smiled. We’d been doing this a long time.

I didn’t turn when I heard the door open. Didn’t have to. When Ira’s hand froze on the glass, I knew there was something worth looking at. I peeked at the mirror behind him. The thing in the doorway definitely wasn’t from around here. Neither was whatever it had on a leash, a beast of roughly the same species, but down on all fours.

Both of their heads turned in unison, the noonday sun casting a halo around, squat, inhuman forms. Their bloodshot eyes locked on me, and on they came. I lost an angle on them in the mirror, but the thump of bare, leathery feet and hands placed them right behind me. I took a sip of beer and stared straight ahead.

Your move, I thought as the stench of sulfur wafted around me. Seconds ticked by. A strong hand clamped down on my shoulder, turned me on the barstool, slow enough not to spill the beer still in my hand. That was polite, I thought.

It was the one on all fours that had the intelligent eyes. Strange, that.

“Hoar’thuft. Moid dan sul bree ik rael Jonny Stiles?” it croaked in a voice that was equal parts whisper and bandsaw.

I stared at the little one for exactly three seconds. “Yeah? Who’s asking?” My eyes shifted to the one standing. It smiled, or, at least did what demons use for a smile… all teeth and wide eyes, the sort of look that wakes old church ladies up with screams and sweaty sheets.

“Wuldrix cu sein Beelzebub,” the short one growled.

It was an order, not a request.

My eyes never left his… or its… I could never tell with demons.

“Ira,” I said slowly, “hold my spot. I’ll be back in an hour.”

It was the little one’s turn to smile.

 *  *  *

Colette started April off with a prompt about aliens and bars, the intention being a discussion of voice and perspective in fiction. It sounded like a writing prompt to me, so I came up with what you just read.

(NOTE: Don’t be surprised if you see that in a short story from me one of these days.)

What’s germane to this month’s Fictorian topic is what we can deduce from just 380 words:

  • This is going to be a first-person POV story
  • We’ll pretty much only know what the protagonist Jonny Stiles knows
  • The tone and word choices throughout let us know this is noir fiction and probably detective noir
  • “Alien” doesn’t have to mean from another country or planet
  • Jonny Stiles is a regular in Ira’s bar and might have a drinking problem
  • Jonny isn’t surprised by the presence of demons
  • Jonny speaks the language of Hell
  • Demons know him by name
  • Jonny isn’t surprised to hear that the Devil wants to see him
  • Jonny is cool as a cucumber at the thought of going to Hell

I like to think this is the sort of prose that sucks a reader in and prompts the following questions:

  • Who is Jonny Stiles?
  • Why is he so calm about meeting the Devil in Hell?
  • Why the hell does the Devil want to see Jonny?

It’s these kinds of questions that prompt a reader to care about a protagonist, and, more importantly, encourage the reader to keep going. Furthermore, the advantage of first-person is that the reader knows—or at least hopes—that they’ll be visiting Hell as “I” not as someone else. The reader has a vested interest in the outcome, because it’s happening to them as far as their brain is concerned. That little use of “I” rather than “he” or “she” makes a mountain of difference in the experience. Just imagine… a free trip to Hell, answering the question of one half of the afterlife, without having to pony up one’s immortal soul as part of the bargain.

There are few among us who don’t have that deep, dark little part that is just the teensiest bit curious about Hell, about the seedier side of human endeavor. When a writer offers up the tantalizing promise of feeding that desire, most are willing to take the bait, especially if the price of admission is just a few more words… and a few more… and a few more.

In many respects, that’s what writers need to do: convince the reader to invest the time for just a few more. Writers are crack-dealers when it comes right down to it… feeding brains with a very different sort of drug.

If you’re writing genre fiction, you really do need to consider two things. The first is what and how much of the story you want to expose to the reader. When using first person, the reader should know only what the protagonist knows (with very few exceptions). Using third person opens up doors to getting the perspective of other characters in the story. There are reasons to use both of them, and it’s important for the writer to understand and implement the right one.

The second thing to consider the tone of your language. Word choice is what differentiates your writing from another author’s. It also differentiates noir from tea-cozy from western. There’s a language for damn near every genre, and the people who read that genre speak it fluently. You need to work hard to get your words right, and it’s this process that sets the great writers apart from the good ones… and the bad. The good ones frequently ponder and haggle and angst over a single word. They hold it up to the light and determine if it’s as potent as they need it to be.

So give thought to your words. They can be as potent as crack cocaine or as bland as American cheese.

On a side-note, I have crafted this meaningless bar chart below (tongue in cheek, naturally) as both an experiment and an inside joke with my fellow Fictorians.




Setting the Scene with POV and Two Aliens in a Bar

Ah, the bane of writers everywhere—the joys of “setting the scene”. For the longest time, I admit, I had only the vaguest, unformed idea what that meant. I mean, I knew it was describing a setting or situation in which your characters are placed, but I kind of missed the important part. It’s the describing of a setting or situation where something is about to happen. It is a description that implies conflict and tension.

That critical bit about things getting ready to happen is the hard part, and in my opinion, viewpoint is probably one of the best tools for setting the scene when telling a story. Over and above word choice and setting and dialogue and all those other things we like to harp about when talking about technique and storytelling. Why’s that? Because, in my opinion, all those things come from your point of view.

It may be obvious, but point of view is one of the very first decisions on how to tell a story, so, for completeness sake, lets run down the differences real quick. We’ll keep to 1st and 3rd here as 2nd person is so little and specialized in use that it deserves it’s own post (which you’ll get from Tracy Hickman, so stick around for that!).

With 3rd person, we have the external narrator with varying levels of distance, from omniscient (furthest) to limited (closest) viewpoints. With omniscient, you get the “god” perspective. Objective is through an impartial observer, and limited traps us in the head of one character at a time.

With 1st person, we have an extremely close narration that allows the reader to take on the experiences and personality of the narrator.  The constant use of “I” reinforces this aspect, which makes empathy with the narrator an almost given.

Each has its uses and can be very effective in particular genres and situations.

To be honest, most of us will be doing 3rd person limited or 1st person these days. While omniscient viewpoint works for milieu tales, like Lord of the Rings or Dune where the setting and culture take precedence, it’s gone out of favor over the last few decades. Objective can work, too, but my favorites are when you’re in it with the person your supposed to sympathize with rather than hearing about it from someone else.

The real issue is: the further from the character’s personal viewpoint you get, the less the reader tends to care about them. If your story is about a the setting, like with Dune, distance works. Not so much for a character piece.

So, let’s take our prompt—two aliens walking into a bar.

With a 1st person narrative, obviously, we have to pick a character. For simplicity’s sake, lets pick the human guy sitting alone in the corner who sees our aliens come in together. Say, our human is a drifter with a snarky personality, who’s had dealings with this particular species and tells us right off, they don’t get along. Instant tension. Our drifter gets uncomfortable, keeps his eyes on the newcomers, pushes his glass away and asks for the bill right quick. All the while, we’re getting the narrator’s snarky version of what’s going on. The scene is being set just by having the narrator get antsy in his own personal way. With 1st person, personality is key, and we’ve only got our narrator to tell us how to interpret what’s happening.

Third person gives us a little more leeway. What if the first alien, Bob, is from a culture where public inebriation only happens when someone dies, and there’s a birthday party going on. When he gets into the bar, he starts thinking about the funerals he’s been to. Suddenly, you’ve got tension with what’s actually happening around him and the somber mood he’s now in. Bob gives us information about his people and their ways by how he handles the situation. Maybe he’s upset that he’s mood got soured by the joviality. Maybe he finds humans obscene for using alcohol to celebrate a life rather than a death. Maybe Bob picks our drifter in the corner because of his uncomfortableness, thinking this lone human might agree with him.

Depending on the distance with 3rd person, we could get as particular in limited perspective as with 1st person—Bob’s been dying for a certain beverage, but it’s too sweet for the somber mood he’s now in—or more generalized with Bob’s recount of how his friend accidentally picked a fight with the drifter, if you want go more of an objective viewpoint. Both of these, of course, keep us in Bob’s head, so we open the scene up a bit to things that our drifter might have missed while we were so focused on his pithy turns of phrase. At the same time, we’re not buried under exposition as to why Bob’s people think parties are for the dead, because we’re right with Bob as he experiences things.

With 3rd person omniscient, all bets are off. We can get information from Bob, his friend, the drifter, the bartender, the birthday party-goers. We can learn the history of Bob’s people, the trouble the drifter had with them, probably even a few facts about the bar even the owner didn’t know. We’re also often supplied with what it all means and why its important. We lose much of the detailed personal impressions that our characters might have for more of an overarching view of the point of the scene.

Setting the scene isn’t easy, but picking the right viewpoint from the start, can make it a lot easier in the end. Pick carefully, my friend.



In Praise of the Queen’s English

First, a PSA:  Grantville Gazette VI, edited by Eric Flint and published by Baen Books, is on the stands now.  It contains my story Suite for Four Hands, which is part of a series of stories exploring how musicians of the early 17th century might react if the music of the late 20th century was dropped in their laps.  Check it out.

Now, on with today’s post.

What do the following words have in common?

Slept, dreamt, leapt, burnt, dwellt, swept.

They are all representatives of a class of irregular verbs.  Four of them are also examples of a trend by American publishers to ‘regularize’ many irregular verbs in American usage.  You’ve seen it, even though it may not have registered with you.  Dreamed instead of dreamt, burned instead of burnt, dwelled instead of dwellt.  (Slept and swept have somehow managed to avoid being replaced with sleeped and sweeped.)

This is apparently an American movement.  The rest of the English-speaking world seems to be doing fine being irregular with irregular verbs.  Now, I am not particularly an Anglophile.  (But I’m not an Anglophobe, either.)  Outside of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m not especially fond of English writers per se.  (And I’m not sure why I like Dickens-I just do.)  Most of the ‘classics’ of English Literature leave me in a state of vast ennui.  I will even admit to having successfully managed to avoid reading Shakespeare throughout my high school and college careers.

That said, I must stand up and shout against this trend in American publishing.  Author C. J. Cherryh probably described the background and circumstances better than I can in a post a number of years ago.  But regardless of the whys and wherefores of the trend, the fact remains that by removing the usage of these irregular verbs, publishers and copy-editors are removing tools from our writers’ tool chests.  They are removing richness and flavor from our writing.  They are, in fact, reducing our ability to write in distinctive styles.  And I find that deplorable.

When I write, I quite frequently use particular words to create specific effects in the reader; ‘aural’ effects, for lack of a better term.  In my mind, and to my ear, ‘dreamed’ has a different effect than ‘dreamt’.  And I’m not rigidly locked in to one form or the other, although I have noticed that I tend to use ‘dreamed’ forms more in science fiction and ‘dreamt’ forms more in fantasy.  But regardless of the genre, if I use one over the other, it’s because I want the effect of that specific word in the passage at hand.

I guess I’m funny that way.  People can criticize my plots or my characterizations and I’ll listen with an open mind.  And most of the time I’ll take criticism of my narrative and dialogue without getting particularly upset.  But for some reason, if after due consideration I choose a specific word to create a particular effect, to have someone object to the use of that word really rubs my fur the wrong way.  Of course, as a new author, the state of my fur may not be the copy-editor’s highest priority. Which, while probably appropriate from the consideration of publishing as a business, is unfortunate from the consideration of the craft and art of writing.

But today, the rise of e-publishing and the freedom it provides for self-publishing is creating changes in the traditional publishing models, and some of these arbitrary rules may not be a factor much longer.  One can only hope.

So I sing the praise of irregular verbs!  Join the chorus when it comes around.

On the Fictorian Art

The truth is, writing fiction is hard.  No, correction, writing good fiction is hard.  This is borne out by the fact that the majority of new books in any given year are non-fiction.  The last statistics I remember seeing were that three out of every four new books published in the U.S. were non-fiction.  And if you removed elementary children books from the mix, the proportion would be even higher.

At first that seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?  I mean, when I look at a thick history of World War II, or a 500 page comparative theology book, or a multi-volume biography of someone like the Duke of Wellington, I am (reluctantly) impressed, and I think to myself that I could never do that.

Well, that may or may not be true.  But let’s look at this logically for a moment.

What is required to produce a work such as one of my three examples?

1.      The non-fiction author must do a lot of research and fact-gathering in order to lay the foundation for the book.

Does a fiction author have to do research?  If he’s any good, you betcha.  Why?  Because an author has to know the milieu/universe where his story is going to be laid, whether it’s historical, current, future, or fantasy in nature.  (See the posts about world-building.)

2.      The non-fiction author has to organize the researched material to support the thesis of the book.

Does a fiction author have to organize her material?  Yep.  She has to make sure that her story is consistent and has continuity.  Otherwise, people won’t enjoy it.

3.      The non-fiction author has to present the information well to make his case, and to tell the story he wants to tell.  (And yes, many non-fiction authors do tell stories.)

Does a fiction author have to tell . . .  Of course a fiction author has to tell a story!  That’s what writing fiction is all about, isn’t it?

So if the general skill set and methods appear to be so similar between the non-fiction author and the fiction author, what’s the difference between the two disciplines?  Getting back to the initial theme of this post, what makes writing fiction hard?  Or harder than writing non-fiction?

I would submit that it lies in the goal of the writer.

The non-fiction writer writes to impart information.  That’s pretty much it.  Oh, maybe she wants you to adopt a philosophical/political position based on her presentation, but it still comes down to imparting information.

The fiction writer writes to tell a story.  That’s the difference.  But more than that, the fiction writer writes to entertain, to enthrall, to enlist, to elicit, even to addict.  That requires something unique, something not ordinarily present in non-fiction:  the creative voice.

I’m sure there are people who will argue with me, but to me, the level of creativity required to write good fiction takes us out of the realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art.  No matter how good our writing skills are, no matter how polished our authorial technique may be, if there is no creative voice in the story, it’s a flop.  And not everyone has the creative voice.

That’s not to say that skills and craftsmanship are not important.  They are.  After all, we really should know what the rules are before we can understand when it’s appropriate to bend or break them.  But there must be more than that in good fiction.  And it is the learning to apply the creative voice to the results of the research and the organizing of the material and the presentation of the material/case/story that makes fiction hard.

I’ve read a ridiculously large number of books in my life.  I can tell you with some assurance that I have never finished a non-fiction book, then turned back to page 1 and started over again.  I can, on the other hand, point to a number of fiction books where I have done exactly that.  I can even point you to one novel that I read cover to cover eight times in the first eight days I owned it.  Those authors’ creative voices entertained me, enticed me, drew me into their stories so profoundly that I didn’t want to let go.

That is the Fictorian Art.  And that is what we as Fictorians aspire to-are driven to, in most cases.

Welcome to the Fictorian world.