Tag Archives: writer’s voice

Some Loosely Connected Thoughts on Interactive Fiction, Second-Person Perspective, and Writer’s Voice

I’ve been playing a lot of interactive fiction lately. I like the term “interactive fiction” a lot. As a writer it helps me justify my time-wasting so much better than, “games with text instead of pictures”.

If you’re not familiar with interactive fiction, it’s the type of game where descriptions print on the screen and you have to tell your character what to do. For example, the opening to an IF game might look something like this:

You step out of the wreckage of your dad’s Starspeeder 3000 onto the surface of the planet. The ground squishes beneath your feet like soggy bread, and the air of the planet, though breathable, smells distinctly of unwashed feet. To the east you see something swelling up from the earth that resembles nothing so much as an inverted mushroom covered in electric blue fur. From the north you hear a haunting kind of music that seems to swell with the wind. As you contemplate exactly how long you’re going to be grounded for crashing dad’s space ship, you realize how lucky you are to have landed on a planet with a stable magnetic field, for otherwise directions like “north” and “east” would have no meaning.

You’ll notice something about that little fragment. It’s all in second-person. There are probably exceptions to this, but for the most part these IF games are all written in second person, feeding descriptions and dialogue to “you” allowing you to immerse yourself in the adventure.

For a while now I’ve been thinking about a various ways second-person could be implemented in fiction. For whatever reason, there’s something inherently awkward about straight second-person in long fiction. It can work well enough in shorter stories, but once you stretch into novella length and beyond second person starts to feel tedious.

Part of the reason for this is that straight-forward second person feels as if someone has invaded your psychic personal space, telling you what you’re thinking, doing and saying, without you having any control over it. But maybe the way to make second-person more palatable would be to come at it indirectly.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let me answer by asking you a question: which “person” is this blog post written in? Seems like most votes would go for first-person. After all you keep hearing me talk about myself and what my perspective it don’t you? But in the sentence before this one, “you” was the subject. Except you can clearly see that I’ve included first person elements and- okay yes, you caught me, I’m doing it again.

Point being, “person” isn’t as concrete a thing as you might’ve been led to believe. This is something I learned a good while back from reading a book of short stories by H. G. Wells. In many of these stories Wells would use a framing device in which a first-person narrator opened the story and then related the bulk of the narrative as something he’d been told by someone else. As such 95% of the story came through in third person despite technically being first person. And, since the framing-device narrator is speaking directly to the implied “you” that is the reader you could even argue that there is an implicit layer of second person there as well.

And here was where I thought I’d been struck by an epiphany. The key to making second person work might lie in making the person doing the telling a character as well as the person being told. If there were a distinct enough “I” delivering the “you” maybe it would translate into more readable second person fiction.

I say I “thought” I’d had an epiphany. Because what I realized later was this: it doesn’t matter which person you’re trying to tell a story in, there is always someone doing the telling. This is something that’s obvious to us in first-person fiction. When you’re writing first-person the teller is a character in the story. But when it comes to third-person we forget that the person telling that story is a character as well.

Now you might be thinking, “But I’m the one telling the story. I’m not a character.” But you forget that everything that makes it onto the page is filtered through you. You’re the one who tells some details and leaves others out. You’re the one who decides which characters you’re going to focus on and when. And, perhaps most importantly, you’re the one who decides the way the story will be told.

This is that mystic and unfathomable thing called “voice”. Except maybe it shouldn’t be so mystic and unfathomable. Because what it really boils down to is the author accepting his status as an “invisible character.” The audience is seeing the world though his eyes, and the fact that those eyes belong to him and no one else, matters.

When I write a story, the thing I’m saying without saying is, “Hi, I’m Albert. And I’m going to tell you a story.” And when I pick up a book to read, I’m entering into an implicit understanding with the author that he is going to deliver the tale from his heart in his words.

So when you sit down to write, in whatever person, don’t be afraid to let the you shine through the story. Always remember: you can’t tell a story without becoming part of the story. And if you do it right the story just might become a part of you.

Mr. Woods and the Very Silly Song: What my Choir Director Taught Me About Finding My Writing Voice

I still remember highschool. Boy do I ever remember it. I was not, at the time, what you might call a social butterfly. I was more of a social slug, hiding under my little rock, shunning all human contact, and then wondering why no one liked me.

My highschool was kind of weird too. In my highschool everyone was required to be in the school choir. Everyone.

It wasn’t a problem for me. To tell you the truth, I rather enjoyed it at time. We sang some highfalutin classical-type stuff, but we also got to sing fun and silly songs like, “The Sow Took the Measles and She Died in the Spring.” (This is totally a real thing, and it is AWESOME.)

Every year we had to put on a concert some time in the spring. Which in its way was pretty cool, because we were good. We had the baddest choir teacher around, this guy named Mr. Woods who was kind of mutant cross between Mr. Rogers and a drill sergeant. Best teacher ever.

Only one year there was a snag. One of the songs we were singing, one of the silly ones mind you, required a solo.

Mr. Woods asked for volunteers. My hand did not shoot up. No one’s did. Because, you know, volunteers. It just sounds wrong. So Mr. Woods picked someone. This kid stood up and croaked out something that sounded like it came out of frog with laryngitis. Okay, you know what, actually it wasn’t that bad. But it was…boring. I mean we’re talking about a nonsense song here. It’s not supposed to be technically perfect. It’s supposed to be fun.

So when Mr. Woods asked if anyone else wanted to try, I stood up and belted out the song in the weirdest voice I could conjure. I made a complete fool out of myself, and I had a great time doing it.

To make a long story short, I got the part.

So what does any of this have to do with writing? Who says it does? Can’t I just share a pointless highschool anecdote and leave it at that? No? Okay, then: the point.

We writers like to talk a lot about this thing called “voice.” It’s the thing that makes us unique as a writer, sets us apart from everyone else. But there’s not a lot of clear advice on how to find it.

Of course part of the answer is practice practice practice. Writers write. Get your butt in that chair and…well you know the drill.

But I think part of the problem some writers have in finding their voice is the same problem the first kid who got up to sing had. Fear. Because you just know he was standing up there thinking, “I don’t want to make a fool out of myself with this thing. People might laugh at me.”

People might laugh at you? It’s a silly song dude. They’re supposed to laugh. If they don’t laugh, you fail.

Writing is the same way. You’ve got to let go of your self-consciousness and belt out what you’ve got to say at the top of your lungs. No, it’s not going to be perfect. The practice thing still applies. But if you want to make it in this world of writing you’re going to have to lay it all on the line.

Want to know why Chuck Wendig is so popular? It’s not because He’s saying things no one has ever heard before in the history of the world. But he says them in a way that is purely his and his alone. It’s fearless and over the top, and people love it.

I’m not saying you need to be another Chuck Wendig. I’m saying you need to be yourself. Clichéd? Yup, totally. And for very good reason.

Own your writing. Carve out your own little niche and make it yours. Bean it over the head with a crowbar and drag it home with you.

Because that’s what it take to succeed. In singing, in writing, in life.

Memoirs of an Imperfect Snowflake

When I was learning to write (and who am I kidding, I’ll always be learning) I knew I had to read a lot of books in order to hone my craft.  After all, I could learn all the writing “rules” in the world, but I knew the best way to grow as a writer was by absorbing all the subtle nuances and hidden rhythms that make up good prose.  So when I started blogging seriously I took the same approach.  I figured if I was going to have a blog, I was going to need to study other blogs, good and bad, to see what worked and what didn’t.  If I was ever going to be successful I needed to know who was doing it right and who was doing it wrong.

But yesterday I hit a snag.

Let me set the scene for you:  A new reader named mlkabik had just commented on my blog.  Whenever someone does that, I always check out their blog and try to find something I can comment on beyond just saying “I like this post.” There are two reasons for this.  First, I’m trying to build a following here.  I know if another blogger knows I cared enough to click through and comment on his work he’ll be more likely to come back to see what I have tomorrow.  But second and just as important, I really do enjoy encouraging my fellow-writers.  If no one ever commented on this blog I’d probably get discouraged and give up, and I know I’m not the only one in need of encouragement out there.

So I clicked through and took a look at mlkabik’s blog.  Here is a small sample of one particular post that caught my eye.

The smell reminds me of my awkward flirtation, both with her and her church (though only one smelled like my hands do now). The overstuffed couch and her wandering, milk-fed legs. The early morning drives to my mom’s – the fogginess of what the night was.

Now I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff.  The meandering evocative prose is like manna to my soul.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is, I can’t write like this.  Not even close.  Well, okay, I could try to write like that.  I might even manage some kind of success if I sat down and really worked at it.  But it wouldn’t be me.

Once upon a time that bothered me.  I’d read an author and think, “I can’t write like this guy can write.  This sounds so different from my stuff.  I’ll never be as good as he is.”  If you’re a writer you’ve probably experienced the same thing.  And what’s worse, that feeling of inferiority can be crippling if you let it fester.  You’ll start to think to yourself “If I’m never going to be as good as this guy, I might at well hang it up. What’s the use in pounding out my second-rate drivel?”

But recently I realized I was approaching the problem in the wrong way.  Because the truth is I’m not a bad writer.  And if the comments are anything to go on neither are you.  Do we need some rough edges knocked off? Sure.  Do we still have a lot to learn? Absolutely!  But we’re not inferior just because we can’t write like someone else.

Don’t believe me?  Keep reading.

Ever heard of Ernest Hemingway? If you haven’t you should stop reading right now and go and read The Old Man and the Sea, because it is awesome.  Seriously, go.  We’ll be here when you get back.

Done? Good wasn’t it? But do you know how Ernest Hemingway got his start as a novelist?  He started reading after F. Scott Fitzgerald.  You’re probably most familiar with Fitzgerald as the author of The Great Gatsby which is another fantastic book.

But the two have a style that is nothing alike.  Fitzgerald could string out grandiose and magnificent sentences of such eloquent beauty and poetic perfection that it’s hard not to cry when you look at them.  Hemingway, on the other hand, wrote sentences like a man swinging an ax.  Methodical, rhythmic, effective.

Now imagine if Ernest Hemingway had read Fitzgerald’s work and said, “My writing isn’t like this at all.  I should give it up and go home.”  We would have lost one of the greatest writers of our time.

Because the truth is we don’t all write alike.  We all have a voice that shines through our words, and that voice, when all the distractions and all the insecurities are stripped away, is something as complex and unique as a fingerprint.  And that isn’t a bad thing.  To become better writers we must study what other writers have done, but that doesn’t mean we’re under some obligation to produce the same kind of work.

Because I may think mlkabik’s writing is like manna from heaven, but every once in a while, I’m in the mood for a little pumpernickel rye bread, lightly toasted, with just a scrape of butter on the top.

And now, I’ve made myself hungry.


On a completely unrelated note today’s post is number 111 and it falls on 1.11.11.  I didn’t plan it that way, but I think it’s uber cool.