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More Workshops - Voice

Updated: May 20, 2020

So, two more workshops last weekend. These were both Clarion West workshops. I have decided that since I am still not in a positon to apply for the six-week intensive workshop (cancelled this year as a result of the pandemic, and next year is booked for this year's contenders, so it would be at least two years before I could attend. In any case, I would have to apply), I should try to take advantage of the short term online workshops they now offer. So I signed up for three over the course of the month of May. Two were held last weekend. One was, "Putting Voice to Work in Horror and Dark Fantasy with Siobhan Carroll" and the other, "Voice, Point of View and Free Indirect Style with Kathleen Alcala". Siobhan was a co-student in Andy Duncan's workshop on Performance. She read a piece there which was extremely evocative and gave me incentive to find out more about what she might have to say. Kathleen Alcala I didn't know, but I was interested in the issue of managing multiple points of view.

Sorting threads, but this is also like the exercise of choosing one's voice in writing

Turned out both workshops complemented each other nicely. One might have thought there would be a lot of overlap, and there was to some extent, but the approaches were distinctive and each had something to offer when learning about voice. Siobahn identified three kinds of voice : the writer's voice and the characters' voice are the two most commonly addressed, but she noted that the narrator also has a voice that is often different from the others and is sometimes neglected in classes about writing. She also noted that according to a science fiction publisher she knows, the three most marketable elements of science fiction are voice, character and worldbuilding. According to the publisher, you need two out of three to achieve success. As she noted, character and worldbuilding are generally quite well understood, but not voice so much. Kathleen, on the other hand, was interested in how voice can be used in different ways than point of view. Many writers tend to conflate the two. So she had us do exercises where we wrote the same scene using differences in voice, but leaving point of view unchanged. I ended up writing the same scene once as if the character were present in the scene, and a second time as if the character were remembering the scene. Both were told in third person limited omniscient, but they came out very differently. In the in situ scene, I used shorter and simpler sentences, whereas in the memory-based scene the language rambled more.

Siobhan gave us several exercises designed to pull us out of our comfort zone as writers. She did this partly because it is good practice for a writer generally to do this, but also because writing horror or dark fantasy is generally anchored in the experience as a writer of being in an uncomfortable situation. She had us imagine a familiar space, and then invent a character not like us who was uncomfortable in the space. Then she suggested we introduce a foreshadowing of an event that would further unsettle the character and that the character wouldn't see coming. So I invented a teen delinquent sitting in my own armchair, in a post plague world, trying to make sense of the things in my house. And then I had him listen to a distant whine in the air he couldn't identify. Probably not enough to turn into a story, but intriguing nonetheless. Finally she presented us with a list of types of horror, for example, horror involving monsters such as werewolves, vampires or selkies, and horror based on urban legends such as the serial killer, the deadly hitchhiker or the chain letter (not one I have ever heard much about before). She proposed we write the start of a horror/dark fantasy tale based on one of these ideas. I combined the idea of the selkie with the idea of the hitchhiker, during the current pandemic. This one might go places.

She also had us think about our writer's voice, since that is the source of "our richest and most complex source material". Aspects of this she listed included values and themes, but also the kinds of character relationships we are most drawn to portray, the kinds of humour that attract us, and what makes us uncomfortable. Obviously this later point is specifically geared towards horror and/or dark fantasy, but it could be of interest to any writer.

Kathleen, on the other hand, referenced a great many works to illustrate her points, much in the way Francine Prose suggested in her book. Like Siobahn, the exercises she proposed were largely oriented towards getting us to vary voice. She suggested writing a character like ourselves, and one different from ourselves. I ended up working on a backstory segment for one of my more enigmatic characters in Incarnations of Evil, the Gestapo officer character called Wilk. I may actually extend the segment I wrote, not to incorporate it within the existing novel but perhaps to do something else with it. Finally she suggested we do a framing story, and for that I chose to develop something for the invention of the Crucium Matrix technology during the period the solar system was being explored in my future history, but I chose to frame it within a dialogue between master and apprentice scribes. That also may be extendable into a full story, although probably not a novel.

Siobahn introduced voice via Edgar Allen Poe's 1846 essay "The Philosophy of Composition", which introduced the idea of the "unity of effect" as one of the main techniques in writing. In Poe, the effect consisted of delaying the completion of the tale, the outcome, as long as possible. Kathleen, on the other hand, used E.M. Forster's book "Aspects of the Novel" as a reference. She noted that Forster introduced the interesting idea of the prophetic or fantasy voice, a tool of great interest to writers of fantasy and science fiction, as well as generally to any writer. Prophetic voice involves a kind of mythological or archetypal perspective including knowledge of the far future. This is very much one of the voices I use in the Chronicles.

Overall, a productive weekend both in terms of opening up my understanding of different aspects of writing and putting some of these insights to work in practical writing exercises which, in some cases, may develop legs.

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