Jilly: Voice

VoiceI’ve been away from home the last couple of days, visiting my mum. She’s in her late 80s and her health is variable, so I try to get the most out of every hour I spend with her. It can be challenging, and I’ve learned by experience that there is no point taking my WIP along. By the end of the day, I’m generally too fried to tackle anything more demanding than a large glass of wine and a good book.

Reading inspires me, but I don’t read new novels in the sub-genre I’m writing, because I don’t want to borrow, even subconsciously, and I don’t want to be put off developing something my story needs because it feels too close to something someone else has created. So new fantasy or urban fantasy authors are off-limits. I’m not in the mood for contemporaries or historicals. Romantic suspense might be a possibility, but best of all, for now, is a Terry Pratchett re-reading binge. Pratchett suits my current reading needs perfectly – he’s familiar, fantastic, funny, brilliant, inspirational and unique.

I’m currently half-way through Mort, the fourth Discworld novel – the one in which the eponymous hero becomes Death’s apprentice. I threw it in my travel bag without even thinking about the storyline, but after a day spent with the residents of mum’s nursing home a story about life and death expertly told with intelligence, humor and compassion was, oddly, exactly what I needed.

I sneaked in a few more pages over breakfast yesterday morning, and as always, I was dazzled by Pratchett’s voice. Take this description of Death’s horse (my italics):

“Binky moved at an easy gallop, his great muscles sliding under his skin as easily as alligators off a sandbank…”

The interwebs defines voice as the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality and character. Pratchett has it in spades. Without writing show-offy, grandstanding prose, he finds fresh, interesting ways to describe the familiar. If you’d given me a hundred, or a thousand attempts to complete the simile as easily as…, crocodiles and sandbanks would never have occurred to me, but anyone who’s ever watched a saurian slip into a river would know exactly what he was talking about.

I chewed on that all the way home, because a couple of smart contest judges who’ve read my pages have offered feedback like ‘you have a few nice voice-y moments, but not enough of them.’ Fellow Eight Lady and ace critiquer Jeanne said something similar, and when I read the opening scenes of my WIP I have to admit I’ve left some banal placeholders in there.

One that’s been niggling at me for some time is in Alexis’s first fight scene. She’s been practice fighting all her life in the monastery and she’s got wicked martial arts skillz, but this is the first time she’s ever had to defend herself for real. She knocks out Farris, one of Kierce’s men, with an elbow strike to the head. Alexis is six feet tall, but Farris is head and shoulders taller and maybe double her weight. He drops immediately like…what?

A stone? That’s embarrassing to admit to, even as a placeholder. Not as bad as a marionette with its strings cut, but almost.

I would love to find a simile that’s pure Alexis. Something distinctive but natural, that reflects her life, that would be familiar to a girl who grew up as a trainee monk on an island monastery with an almost exclusively male population. In addition to fighting she knows about prayers, mantras, and catechisms, and routine tasks. She’s educated, but she’s lived a simple life of plain homespun clothes, plain food, water from the well, cold water to wash in. The monastery has a kitchen garden, and a surprisingly advanced infirmary.

She’d have seen trees being felled, but that’s almost as bad as the stone.

Alexis grew up on an island. Like a hungry gannet? They dive for fish into the sea at incredible speed from a great height. It’s not right, but it’s a start.

Farris dropped like…


I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually. If you have any good ideas (or any ideas at all!) please take pity on me and share 🙂 . Thank you!

Edited to add:

Bonus! After reading this post Jeanne sent me a brilliant email with her thoughts on Alexis and voice in general. She had some very smart insights to offer, and we decided her reply deserved a blog post of its own. So please check back here on Tuesday for Jeanne’s perspective on how to create powerful, voicey metaphors 😀 .

11 thoughts on “Jilly: Voice

  1. “Binky moved at an easy gallop, his great muscles sliding under his skin as easily as alligators off a sandbank…”

    This is such a great line, especially because alligators make me think of death, anyway.

    One thing to remember with Pratchett is that I think he had to allow himself permission to be voice-y. Some of his very early novels (pre-Disc) can be really stodgy. It’s as if he suddenly threw away some of the rules and said, “To hell with it. (italics) I’m going to use footnotes because I LIKE them (italics/).) But a perfect line like that — had to be a gift from the gods.

    Another thing to remember is that he’s writing in omniscient, so he’s allowed a kind of voice-y that seems less filtered. As long as we believe that the narrator may have seen alligators, it’d work. I doubt Mort had seen much of Om, so wouldn’t even know about crocodiles if the story was in tight-third.

    I think you are going the right direction. Is there some dread disease that would fell a big man? My mind went immediately to some convoluted simile that involved the temple gong and a fraying rope that supported it.

    In a fight scene, some may not want to clutter the landscape with a simile. Some might want to stick with a simple down. Not you, though. You’ve written a blog post about it, so obviously the girls are giving you some grief about it. There needs to be a simile there, and it better be a good one.

    Some variant of falling like a big heavy thing. Bag of rice or other large foodstuff that isn’t a bag of flour. A game animal being shot. Building materials being dropped from a roof or ladder. Possibly something being felled by a hurricane/typhoon? (Trees, roofs, temple gongs — I don’t know why I keep coming back to the temple gong. Possibly boxing allusions or something.)

    Good luck and keep us posted! Can’t wait to see what Jeanne says!

    • I don’t think I’ve read any pre-Discworld Pratchett, Michaeline, but even in the Discworld you can see his voice and craft grow stronger with every book. You’re right about the omniscient, too.

      I’ve tried speeding the scene up with a simple ‘down’, and the girls feel as though there’s something missing. Even a stone reads better. I do want it to be quick and simple though. I like the dread disease thought – Alexis’s mother was a healer, so she’d know a bit about that.

      Check out Jeanne’s post today – lots of great food for thought there!

      • Jeanne’s post was great! Given the dynamics and everything, maybe that big Abraxis tree would be a good bet. I don’t know if you even need to foreshadow it. Pratchett manages to get away with some throwaway world-building that is never mentioned before or after. His best stuff, though, runs through stories like a thread. Cabbages, for example. An awful lot of cabbages in Pratchett, and often fraught with more portent than a cabbage should lawfully have.

        • I know, what is it with Pratchett and cabbages? And you just reminded me that years ago, when I worked in advertising, our Russian office had a bank advert that was all cabbages. If I recall correctly, cabbage is (or was) local slang for money.

          Jeannes’s post is excellent. I’m still cogitating 🙂 .

        • (-: He really resents cabbages. Come to think of it, I think there are few British authors who have it in for the lowly, boring cabbage. Somebody wrote of how the halls smelled of boiled cabbage and despair. Or something like that. In my house, we only had cabbage as cole slaw or sauerkraut, so it was never that boring. Pratchett did well with his metaphor, though, because even though I had no experience with the boring cabbage, I certainly experienced it second-hand with his prose.

  2. Pingback: Jeanne: Thoughts on Voice and Metaphor – Eight Ladies Writing

  3. When you described the fight scene, I thought, “Farris isn’t going to go straight down.” Here’s a really big guy who just got an elbow to the head from a smaller woman. He’s going to show some disbelief. It’s going to be a slow, but substantial fall. I imagined a building that’s imploded — it sort of hangs there for a second, then comes crashing down. (That might not be a good metaphor for your work, though.)

    • Alexis is six feet tall, she has the technique to strike Farris in precisely the right place, and she hits with added oomph because Story Reasons. Farris underestimates her because she’s outnumbered, she doesn’t look strong or trained, and he’s trying to contain her rather than hurt her. He’s complacent and sloppy and gets a nasty surprise.

      I think you might be right about a split second of hang time though, especially as the whole thing seems to be happening in slow motion for Alexis. Like the images of a factory chimney demolition – one minute it’s there, the next it just crumbles. But in a pre-industrial world. Hmmm. Thanks, Annette!

  4. Pingback: Jilly: Season of Fruitfulness. Again. – Eight Ladies Writing

  5. Pingback: Jeanne Estridge » Fiction Friday: Metaphor and Voice

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