My husband said something to me yesterday about my writing that took me by surprise and got me thinking. Here’s a rundown of how the conversation went down:
“If I didn’t know you wrote this, I’d never know you wrote this,” he said.
“What in the world does that mean?” My criticism antenna, a very sensitive piece of equipment, sounded a warning in my head. My left eye twitched, jaw tightened, fists clenched, ready to throw the first punch.
“Well, you don’t talk like you write–at all. It’s a completely different voice on paper.” I could tell from his sideways glance, wry smile, and slow delivery that he was treading lightly. He’s had a lot of practice the last seventeen years.
“Is that a good thing? Or am I going to embarrass myself when I have to speak in public one day about my book? ‘Gee golly gosh, y’all. Mighty good of you to read that there little story I wrote.’ Hmm?” A hand was probably waving furiously during this display of sarcasm.
Eyes rolled my way, punctuated with a snort of laughter. “I just mean that when I read your writing, I forget that you wrote it. I forget Teresa. You fade away and the story, the characters take over.” The look he gave me after delivering this answer earned him an apology for my snippy-ness. (If you’re reading this, I love you dear.)
Wow. So, the above recollection is not any sort of plug for my writing. But what began as an all-defenses-up battle against criticism (which we shouldn’t do anyway, if we’re smart) became a serving of humble pie, table for one. My sweet husband was giving me a huge compliment. As writers, we should be acutely aware of our place on the page: behind the scenes.
Another quick antidote. My husband works in professional theater as a production stage manager. He calls cues lighting/sound/entrance cues from a dark booth behind the seats or, most often, just off stage past thick black curtains. The show literally cannot go on without him (and much of the other crew for that matter). The logistic orchestration he provides for the actors and musicians is paramount to what happens on stage. One can’t happen without the other. Similarly, a writer cannot tell his story while on stage with his actors. He must record cues, place props in just the right places, then call the shots when the curtain rises. But the writer’s place belongs behind the curtains once the story begins.
I’m not really sure how I manage to be successful, at least according to my husband, at quieting my own voice within my writing. I think it has something to do with being lost in the story myself. But here are three suggestions I came up with after thinking on it a while:
- Have well-developed characters. The more you know your characters inside and out, the more they will come into focus on the page, allowing you to blur to the background. I know things about my characters that sometimes don’t make it to the page. A favorite meal, age when they were first kissed, etc. They are fully lived individuals in my head. If they are for you, they will be for your reader.
- Use plenty of dialogue. During rewrites of my current work-in-progress, I added quite a bit of new dialogue. It allows me to tell the story more through the questions and reactions of my characters than through my own imagination of what’s happening. Livy, my main female character in Good Graces, can react to Jack, the leading man, in her own words. Then the reader interprets those words on their own, instead of hearing your writer-narrative voice tell them how to interpret it.
- Show, don’t tell, with specifics. I know, I know…we writers hear this ALL the time. It’s probably the thing I’ve had to work on the hardest lately. Above, I mentioned using dialogue to literally give your characters a voice. Telling is another way your voice becomes louder than it should be. When you tell your reader, “The tree’s leaves are green.” there’s a good chance they will subconsciously “hear” you. Instead, show them: “The majestic oak, matured at least one hundred years, was made new again that spring, it’s leaves the color of emeralds sparking in the sun.” They SEE this tree and its leaves, instead of HEAR you telling them about it.
As a writer, do you think about your own voice in your writing? How do you combat this? Or maybe you think a writer’s voice should be easy to detect? As a reader, can you think of an author particularly good at disappearing from the page?