Showing posts with label Ernest Hemingway. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ernest Hemingway. Show all posts

Friday, June 13

Writers: Owning Your Voice

Writers: Owning Your Voice

This morning someone asked me: 
What makes a scene gripping? What characteristic, more than any other, draws a reader into a story?
A number of answers sprang to mind: suspense, deep characterization, an intricate plot. Most of all, though, I look for an intriguing voice

Hemingway's voice is minimalist, stark, intriguing. Chuck Wendig's voice, on the other hand, is loud, sonorous, poetic, startling.

Sometimes I think a writer's voice is the single most important thing for pulling me into a story. But, of course, one's voice--what makes a voice compelling--is all bound up with developing character and fleshing out setting.

Examples of a strong voice

Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants:
"The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry."
Terry Pratchett, Going Postal:
"They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged."
Stephen King, Misery:
"Then there was a mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakably a woman's mouth in spite of its hard spitless lips, and the wind from this woman's mouth blew into his own mouth and down his throat, puffing his lungs, and when the lips were pulled back he smelled his warder for the first time, smelled her on the outrush of the breath she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman, a dreadful mixed stench of vanilla cookies and chocolate ice cream and chicken gravy and peanut-butter fudge."
I picked those three examples because I loved them, their meter, their flow, their rhythm, and because they are from books I couldn't put down (though it took me a while, quite a while, to recover from reading Misery.)

Chuck Wendig is another writer with a voice that jumps out and grabs you (or pushes you down a stairwell, whichever). I find his voice big, bold and startling. Wonderful. If you'd like to sample it, try this excerpt from the start of his serialized story, The Forever Endeavor, over at (Note: Chuck Wendig's work usually comes with a NSFW warning.)

The elements of voice

Voice is a bit like a criminal's signature. It's something that you do even when you don't want to do it. It's a part of you, a part of the way you think, a part of the way you write.

What makes one voice different than another? Good question. On one level, simple things like sentence length--and how that difference ricochets through a work. In the examples I gave, above, look at how short Hemingway's sentences are compared to either King's or Pratchett's.

"The traditional definition of a writer’s 'voice' is, simply put, that writer’s chosen style. 'John Q. Snarlmonkey writes with snark and panache, using tons of ellipses and lots of capital letters and made-up words. I love Snarlmonkey’s voice.' Voice equals style. That’s the easy answer."
Here's a more difficult one:
"The writer’s voice is the thing that marks the work as a creation of that writer and that writer only. You read a thing and you say, 'This could not have been written by anybody else.' That is voice."[1]
Stephen King has a distinctive voice, one that is his and his alone. Many of King's fans who read Richard Bachman's work recognized King behind the pseudonym long before he was outed.[2]

Developing your own voice

Developing one's voice is a dark art. It happens, somehow, but no one is quite sure how, except that it has a lot to do with writing (a lot) and reading (a lot).

I agree with what Chuck Wendig said at the end of his article, that you have to write with confidence. I would add, though, that if you can't write with confidence--after all, in the beginning confidence can be difficult to come by--write with resignation. 

Resignation that, ultimately, there is one way of writing that defines you, one way that feels more natural than any other.[3] That's scary because what's going to happen if your friends, your family, don't like that style? What happens if it turns out your style is shocking? Unconventional? 

I think that developing one's own style takes brashness. A writer needs to lock up the jabbering, naysaying, sensible, reasonable voices that urge caution and, instead, dip her pen in the blood of her fears and phobias and insecurities and lay herself bare on the page. 

No wonder artistic types are a bundle of nerves.


1. 25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice, by Chuck Wendig over at

2. "The link between King and his shadow writer was exposed after a Washington, D.C. bookstore clerk, Steve Brown, noted similarities between the writing styles of King and Bachman." (Richard Bachman over at

3. I think that developing one's own style, one's own voice, has a lot to do with the idea of soul, or of whatever it is that makes a person unique. Yes, writers can intentionally mimic the styles of others but, at the end of the day, the way a person writes either grows out of all those inky, inconvenient, personal, individual, aweful-and-exhilerating things that make a person that person, or they turn away from the terror and play it safe. I think we've all played it safe, but when we do our best work we face the terror. 

Wednesday, July 3

Is Writing Rewriting? A Historical Perspective

Is Writing Rewriting? A Historical Perspective

Should Writers Rewrite?

There is a saying you've probably heard: rewriting is writing.

Some writers swear by this, for instance Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway and Susan Sontag have all written passionately and convincingly on the virtue, in fact the necessity, of rewriting.

Other writers, Dean Wesley Smith prominent among them, just as passionately disagree. DWS points to writers like Harlan Ellison, writers who wrote stories in one draft, stories which have gone on to win awards. Dean himself has written a 70,000 word novel in 10 days and sold it for a tidy sum.

So, what's the deal with rewriting? Is it a writer's salvation or their bane?

I found this article by the Boston Globe absolutely fascinating: Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists.

Craig Fehrman writes:
It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.

Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”
. . . .

What first got Sullivan thinking about revision was encountering a version of Ernest Hemingway she’d never seen before. While a first-year PhD student at Harvard, Sullivan visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and its Hemingway collection. She marveled at the famous author’s archive—his letters, his family scrapbooks, even his bullfighting materials. But one thing in particular stood out to her: the typescript of his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It showed Hemingway changing his book dramatically from one version to the next. Monologues vanished, entire plot points disappeared, and, in the end, he arrived at the terse, mysterious novel that became part of the American literary canon. “The Hemingway style that’s so familiar to us wasn’t in the first draft,” Sullivan says. “It was a product of revision.” [emphasis mine]
. . . .

“We often assume that style comes out of nowhere ... But style is produced in revision, and revision is not something writers do naturally.”

The Cost Of Paper

Why this attitude toward revision?  For one thing, the cost of paper! CF writes:
In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.

All of these factors suggest that revision was not something that happened on the page. Indeed, during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. “I am like the tyger (in poesy),” Lord Byron wrote in a letter. “If I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.”

What Is Good Writing?

This, really, is the nub of the issue. What counts as good writing? CF writes that Hemingway's attitude toward rewriting was ...
"... driven in part by a new philosophy of what made good writing. The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hemingway famously described his “principle of the iceberg”: “There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”

A Shift In Technology

But it wasn't just a change in philosophy that made rewriting more attractive, there was also an advance in technology that made paper cheaper to make. CF writes:
"An equally big part of this change, Sullivan suggests, was a shift in literary technology. In 1850, Britain was producing about 100,000 tons of paper per year; by 1903, that number had increased to 800,000 tons per year. Printers started setting type by machine, which was five times faster than setting it by hand and allowed page proofs to be easily shared and corrected. Before long, authors were guiding their books through a long and potentially fertile process: first a manuscript, then a typescript, perhaps a magazine serial, and finally a series of proofs for the book. “One thing it allowed for that revision by handwriting didn’t is massive structural transformation,” Sullivan says. “Some writers reduced their work massively, and some expanded it massively.”

Jack Kerouac: Don't Afterthink!

Of course, not everyone is a modernist. That is, not every writer believes "that careful and substantial reworking would ultimately produce the best literature".

Can Revision Be Overdone?

CF writes:
In the last 30 years ... technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.

“The ideal environment for revision is one where you can preserve several different versions of a text,” Sullivan says. With only one in-progress draft on a computer, we lose the cues that led the Modernists to step back from their work and to revise it. “It’s that moment of typing things up that led to the really surprising and inventive changes,” Sullivan says. “The authors came back to their text, but it seemed estranged.”

A Cautionary Note

CF ends his article on a note of caution. He mentions that many authors who teach at universities "need to look more like professors and to discuss their laborious processes ... ‘We can’t teach you how to write, but we can teach you how to revise.’ And it’s a big business.”

CF writes that revision has always come with a cost. "... revision can go too far, making something worse instead of better.”

I think John Updike may have said it best: "Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying."

All in all a balanced, fascinating article. The link again is: Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for the link.

Photo credit: "corn in the moonlight" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, January 17

Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing

Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing

I woke up today thinking about tragedy and its role in creating art.

What is it we hope to accomplish by writing? Do we write to evoke emotion? Do we write to create a world more real than the one in which we live? Do we write to tell the truth; not the literal truth, but the real truth?

Yesterday I blogged about how to create suspenseful stories and the importance of making what your character has to lose--the stakes--both high and obvious. I led with a picture of a real-life tragedy taken by John L. Gaunt, one that won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1955.

The photograph was of a couple who had just learnt their small son, he was only 19 months old, had been swept out to sea and was dead. The picture captures the parents as the woman, the enormity of her grief settling on her, turns toward her husband, the sea at her back.
Down by the water, Gaunt finds a distraught young couple by the shoreline. Moments before, their 19-month-old son was playing happily in their yard. Somehow, he wandered down to the
beach. He was swept away by the fierce tide.

The little boy is gone. There is nothing anyone can do. Gaunt, who has a daughter about the same age, takes four quick photographs of the grieving couple. "As I made the last exposure,
they turned and walked away" he says. The little boys body is later recovered from the surf.
I find Gaunt's photograph emotionally compelling. It is difficult for me to look at it and not feel grief.

But not every story needs to evoke raw emotion--grief, loss--in the almost brutal way this picture does.

One of the authors I admire most is Ernest Hemingway. I think Hills Like White Elephants is the best short story I have read or will ever read. And, yes, there is a tragedy, a loss, but it is, compared to the enormity of the loss captured in Gaunt's photograph, more muted. It is, among other things, the loss of innocence, of hope.

So, what's my point?

Genre Versus Mainstream

Most of the books I read--urban fantasy sprinkled with horror as well as the occasional mainstream story--are not heavy on tragedy. Not the kind of tragedy evident in, say, Hamlet.

And that's not a bad thing.

I suspect that one of the reasons genre literature occasionally gets snubbed by those whose tastes run more toward the mainstream may be just this difference: genre fiction tends to be lighter. Funnier. It has happy endings. Not all the time, but a lot of the time.

Does that mean genre fiction is any less literature? That it is in some way lesser?

I don't think so. Perhaps it all hinges on how a person answers this question:

What are we supposed to be doing when we write? What is this whole writing thing about, anyway?

Some folks say, and I know this is glib, that "the purpose of writing is to evoke emotion" and that's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't say much. For instance, what kind of emotion? How intense should the emotion be? Why emotion and not, for instance, thought?

Earlier today I came across a quotation that articulates my answer to this question far more eloquently than I could. Unsurprisingly, it is from one of Ernest Hemingway's letters.

Ernest Hemingway On What Makes A Writer

This is the most true thing I've ever read:
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer. ("Old Newsman Writes : A Letter from Cuba" in Esquire (December 1934), Wikiquote)
What is the purpose of writing? To tell, to communicate, the truth whether that be through evoking emotion or thought. When I say "truth" I don't mean the literal truth, I mean the real truth. But it's not just that, good writing also creates a place, a space, another world for others to experience, if they choose.
I've shared my musings about why we write, what the purpose of all this scribbling is. But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Why do you write? Do you write to evoke emotion in your readers? Do you write to tell the truth--not the literal truth, but the real truth? Do you write to share your world, and your worldview? Or is it something else? 
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I had hoped to write about the importance of making your characters, especially your protagonist, flawed. Oh well. At least I have my blog post for tomorrow!

Other posts you might like:

- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High
- The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence
- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer

Photo credit: "Untitled" by thejbird under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.