I’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 😀 .