Tag Archives: James Frey

Using Voice to Set Yourself Apart

As my fellow Fictorians are showing you so far this month, there are many ways to set yourself apart as a writer. In my mind, the most memorable way to set yourself apart is voice, to the surprise of no one. In past posts, I’ve highlighted how you might create tension with narrative voice, and used well-known authors with distinct voices as examples. In this post, I’d like to dive into what voice is, the many ways one can use it, and highlight some examples that will hopefully give you plenty of ideas.

First, what is voice? Voice goes by many names. Style. Point of View. Vernacular. Narrative voice. Language. It is all of these things. For the sake of clarity, I defer to my friend Mignon, whom many of you may know as Grammar Girl. Julie Wildhaber writes on the Grammar Girl website:

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. (read more here)

It’s the thing that makes a reader say, “Ah. I can tell Kristin wrote this, because there are many f-bombs, and she ends every chapter on a cliffhanger,” for example.

If Socrates fermented goods, this would be his beer label.

Letting your voice shine is all about one important rule: “Know thyself.” This is not only my own personal credo for just about everything, it’s an important practice that will inform you of your strengths.

Are you funny, or at least have great confidence that you are? Can you translate or work on translating that humor into written form?

Are you good at calculating out the worst case scenario? When friends tell you their darkest fears and worries, are you able to take it another shade darker? Do you have no problem screwing with your characters and making their lives miserable?

Is your writing structure unique? Are you aware of grammatical rules and structures, but can’t help but twist and/or ignore them?

Here are some examples of authors using those very strengths and turning them into voice.

Maria Semple is one funny lady. She wrote for the television show Arrested Development, which banked on candid, awkward family dynamics to amuse their viewers. When it comes to her writing, Maria translates the same odd, character-driven situational humor into fiction. Her second novel, Where’d You go, Bernadette? may be a shade more sophisticated than Arrested Development, but you can expect the same wit and brand of humor that her television writing is known for.

Robert Kirkman doesn’t mind making a character suffer. He doesn’t mind making all of his characters suffer. As Robert has his hand in more and more projects, the common thread between all of them is his signature move: make the character(s) suffer. While reading The Walking Dead, one panel completely floored me. It was too dark, in fact, to be translated to the television version (though I dreaded I’d see it when the time came). If you’d like to read the comic books, skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who’ve read a good chunk of the comic books, you may already guess which part I’m talking about. It’s the Red Wedding of The Walking Dead. Instead of just Laurie taking a bullet, the bullet travels through her baby girl in her arms as well. The worst case scenario, one darker than I would ever dare to think up, becomes a reality in the blink of an eye. When I read it, I thought for sure I felt my heart drop.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an author I’ve mentioned many times in my Fictorians posts who is, in my mind, the king of grammatical voicing: James Frey. If you’re currently in the beginning stages of your career and trying to get published and you’ve read James’ work, he might make you a little crazy. And it’s not because he isn’t good – oh he’s good. It’s because you’ll wonder how he was able to get away with his style and still get published. An example, from the first page I opened up to just now from A Million Little Pieces:

I stare at him.
Trying can’t hurt, Kid.
There is truth in his eyes. Truth is all that matters.
And trying’s nothing to be scared of.
Truth.
Just try.

Where are the quotation marks? Dialogue tags? Adjectives? And yet, from this short section, we can tell this is a conversation, or at least one person talking to another person. We can make very good guesses as to who is whom (given more context). This is James’ style. While different at first, it grows on you very quickly, and your eyes ease from one word to the next until, before you know it, you’re flipping the last page of the book. His style was unlike anything I’d ever seen before (Hemingway would be jealous of his brevity), and I immediately adored the rock-solid voicing.

The bottomline is this: you don’t have to be the next Maria Semple, Robert Kirkman, or James Frey. You just gotta be you! It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

First: know thyself. Next: write.

The Thin Line Between Memoir and Realistic Fiction

“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.” – Stephen King, Joyland

imgres-3In the summer, my brother and I would walk to our small town library. Sometimes, we’d cross paths with a man walking his mountain lion on the sidewalk. One time, the mountain lion bit my arm, and I needed fourteen stitches.

It’s crazy, but it’s actually mostly true. I was afraid for my life when I saw the mountain lion, but it never actually bit my arm. But it’s plausible, and who’s to say I’m wrong? It’s my memory, after all.

I technically could sell this story as a memoir. But when someone starts digging into my history and finds that, although there was a man in my hometown that had a pet mountain lion, there are no hospital records of me getting stitches.

This sort of thing is nothing new to the literary world. The most recent case of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces brought this to the public’s attention. Frey’s gritty, gripping tale of addiction was marketed as a memoir, although years earlier, Frey had tried to sell it as contemporary realistic fiction. When no publishers picked it up, he pitched it as a memoir. When Clifford Irving received a three-quarter million advance for The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, he delivered. Only, Hughes proved he had never met Irving, and Irving spent 17 months in jail for his lie. Misha Defonseca wrote a harrowing tale of her childhood during the Holocaust, only to be disproven by a genealogist who found that Defonseca was Catholic. “Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish,” said Defonseca. “There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”

These transgressions were surely career-killers, amiright? imgres-1

Well, not exactly. James Frey became a household name. His book Bright Shiny Morning, released after the scandal, was a bestseller. His lie only seemed to make him more popular.

I can understand how a reader would feel betrayed. I felt a twinge of it. But here’s the thing. I don’t expect most memoirists to tell the truth. I expect embellishment, because our memories are dirty liars. A Million Little Pieces is still one of my favorite books, even after The Smoking Gun revealed factual inaccuracies. Because a good story entertains or reveals some truth. And if it’s a really good story, it does both.

While I don’t care if a memoir’s facts are proven false, many people do. Like, say, publishers. Readers. Higher ups in the publishing world. While A Million Little Pieces sold even more copies after the scandal, you can bet that no one wants to publish another “memoir” by Frey, unless it’s about how he lied.

imgres-2Remember the story I wrote at the beginning of this post? Here’s an interesting experiment. What is the first thing that you remember about it? I doubt that the first thing you remembered was that part of the story wasn’t true. And that is the power of story. A story doesn’t necessarily tell the truth, it just reveals it.