Cassandra Khaw: Vexed About Voice

Cassandra Khaw went for a bit of a tear on Twitter about voice in one’s writing — and how every writer has a different feel to a voice, but also how a lot of advice tries to sand that down so we all write the same. She’s right to be vexed by that, and so when she wrote a guest post on that very vexation, well, c’mon. It’s too good not to post. (And as you’ll see below, she’s also too good a writer to ignore…)

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Voice.

I got angry about a picture a few weeks ago. This one, to be specific.

Now, there’s nothing ostensibly wrong about that advice, and it does drive its point home by being an ugly sentence, full of unnecessary words, and utterly devoid of music. Taken objectively, it’s good advice, especially for new writers who are fresh to the fray.

So, why was I so vexed?

Because of how the writer’s group responded to it. There’s a tangible aura of scorn, I suppose, for anyone who dips into the purple territory, for anything that doesn’t involve the most efficient language. Hell, I remember one guy declaring that ornate writing prevents you from being published. For anyone already in the industry, it’d simply be an opinion, to be discarded or internalized as necessary. But in a community with young writers, new writers? Writers who haven’t yet developed the confidence to put themselves out there? Writers who have not discovered if their prose is closer to poetry, or if a love for mathematical equations might permeate their words?

That’s dangerous.

Voice.

Voice is interesting. Voice isn’t just your go-to vocabulary, your understanding of grammatical structure, your knowledge of rhythm. Voice is more ambiguous, more ethereal. I’ve never quite figured out how to categorize it. But it is that thing that makes you you, even when someone else has channeled your style. It is an echo of your soul, your thoughts, a piece of you that strings itself through your words, immortalized in the cadence of your paragraphs, the poetry of your observations.

It is a precious thing that can take years to cultivate, years to develop. It’s something that never really quits growing either. It is unique to you, and only you, and it is the thing that makes a piece of writing sing. (Because, you know, voice and song and the collaboration between larynx and music — I’ll stop now.)

And here’s the point I’m trying to make: voices can be silenced. It’s no secret that writing can be an incredibly raw act. The decision to put yourself out there for public scrutiny? That’s a terrifying choice to make. Now, imagine being that afraid and being told, “Hey, by the way? People aren’t going to like you.”

Now. This shouldn’t be conflated with good critique. (There’s an entire post to be written about bad critique, especially when it’s fueled by negative emotion.) Critique can be fantastic. But it’s a different thing entirely when someone else is trying to police your technique. Sure, everyone needs a foundation. Give that new writer a book to read, a piece of advice to follow, a set of guidelines to look over? But tell them also: This is what people say, but this isn’t what you have to do.

After that? Get out of the way.

Because you don’t need to be there when the author is developing their voice, not unless you’re specifically asked to be. You don’t need to influence them. They can decide who influences them. They can choose to call up a little bit of Lewis Carroll, pair it with a glimmer of Anne Leckie. They can decide if they want to be inspired by Brooklyn hip-hop, or if they want to lace it with the patois of their own history.

And if they’re allowed to do this, if they’re given time to grow, the results can be so beautiful. Look at this excerpt from Peter Watts’ The Things.

It was malformed and incomplete, but its essentials were clear enough. It looked like a great wrinkled tumor, like cellular competition gone wild—as though the very processes that defined life had somehow turned against it instead. It was obscenely vascularised; it must have consumed oxygen and nutrients far out of proportion to its mass. I could not see how anything like that could even exist, how it could have reached that size without being outcompeted by more efficient morphologies.

Nor could I imagine what it did. But then I began to look with new eyes at these offshoots, these biped shapes my own cells had so scrupulously and unthinkingly copied when they reshaped me for this world. Unused to inventory—why catalog body parts that only turn into other things at the slightest provocation?—I really saw, for the first time, that swollen structure atop each body. So much larger than it should be: a bony hemisphere into which a million ganglionic interfaces could fit with room to spare. Every offshoot had one. Each piece of biomass carried one of these huge twisted clots of tissue.

Don’t read it in a gulp. Breathe it in. It is dense. Watts’ retelling of The Thing pulls from his scientific background, uses terminology that others would shy from. Vascularised. Morphologies. Ganglionic. Not necessarily difficult words, but words that layer into the density of his writing, which requires patience and a willing to scavenge for meaning in the jargon. But so rewarding for it. This is clearly what it is, what it should be: a scientist’s voice.

And now, an excerpt from Catherynne Valente’s The Lily and the Horn.

My daughter and I fetch knives and buckets and descend the stairs into the underworld beneath our home. Laburnum Castle is a mushroom lying only half above ground. Her lacy, lovely parts reach up toward the sun, but the better part of her dark body stretches out through the seastone caverns below, vast rooms and chambers and vaults with ceilings more lovely than any painted chapel in Mother-of-Millions, shot through with frescoes and motifs of copper and quartz and sapphire and opal. Down here, the real work of war clangs and thuds and corkscrews toward tonight. Smells as rich as brocade hang in the kitchens like banners, knives flash out of the mist and the shadows.

I have chosen the menu of our war as carefully as the stones in my hair. All my art has bent upon it. I chose the wines for their color—nearly black, thick and bitter and sharp. I baked the bread to be as sweet as the pudding. The vital thing, as any wife can tell you, is spice. Each dish must taste vibrant, strong, vicious with flavor. Under my eaves they will dine on curried doves, black pepper and peacock marrow soup, blancmange drunk with clove and fiery sumac, sealmeat and fennel pies swimming in garlic and apricots, roast suckling lion in a sauce of brandy, ginger, and pink chilis, and pomegranate cakes soaked in claret.

Less complex language, but no less intricate. Common wisdom suggests that you should show and not tell, that a feast can and should be quickly encapsulated in a few lines, instead of explained to a fine detail. But this story is so much richer because Valente ignores that rule, and instead allows us to taste, feel, and experience every nuance of the world.

Of course, you don’t need to be bombastic to have beautiful writing. Seth Dickinson’s writing is sharp, economical. It is poetic, certainly, but one that has been mapped out to a letter, ruthlessly clean. From his recent Laws of Night and Silk:

Warlord Absu wears black beneath a mantle of red, the colors of flesh and war. For a decade she has led the defense of the highlands. For a decade before that—well: Kavian was not born with sisters, but she has one. This loyalty is burnt into her. Absu is the pole where Kavian’s needle points.

“Lord of hosts,” Kavian murmurs. She’s nervous tonight, so she bows deep. The warlord considers her in brief, silent reserve.

“Tonight we will bind you to a terrible duty. The two mature abnarchs are our only hope.” Her eyes! Kavian remembers their ferocity, but never remembers it. She is so intent: “You’re our finest. But one error could destroy us.”

And Malon Edwards’ writing? The Half Dark Promise is an absolute triumph, one that does not rewrite its core to fit everyone. It uses words and sentence structures that are uniquely its own. It doesn’t pause to explain every word, like what we’re often told to do, to provide English translations for foreign words. And that decision makes this story all the more powerful.

I was surprised on the first day of school when Bobby took my hand on our walk home. He was nervous. He flushed rose-red down to his neck. But he didn’t let go. He’d signed the half dark promise just like every other timoun in Chicago. Even lekòl segondè elèv yo with their teenage swagger and their foul mouths held hands on the walk home. Bobby’s hand was sweaty. Large. Callused. The hands of a smith’s son. But I didn’t mind. Vrèman vre—truth be told—I was just pleased Bobby wasn’t calling me names while speaking to me. That didn’t happen at my old school. Actually, that didn’t happen at my new school, either.

I could give you a thousand examples, point you to a hundred more writers, each completely different from the next. My own work is influenced by my native tongues, my national background. Hokkien is tonal and I look to find a kind of music in words. I think also in smells, tastes, regardless of whether they’re foul or delicious. Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming novella Hammers on Bone.

“Yeah?” I champ at my cigarette, bouncing it from one corner of my mouth to the other. There’s a pervasive smell in the hallway. Not quite a stench, but something unpleasant. Like the remnants of a molly party, or old sex left to crust on skin. “What about his old man? He working the kid? That why your son isn’t showing up at school?”

The broad twitches, shoulders scissoring back, spine contracting. It’s a tiny motion, one of those blink-and-you-lose-it tells but oh, do I catch it. “My fiance doesn’t involve our sons in hard labor.”

“Uh huh.” I rap ash from my cigarette and grin like the devil come to dine on Georgia. “Mind if I look around?”

‘Old sex left to crust on skin.’ I’ve had beta readers tell me that the description turned their stomachs, concise as it is.

And honestly, when you get right down to it, There is no one shape for writing to take, no singular form that is better than any other. Voice is unique, and voices need room to exist.

Let them grow.

You don’t want to miss seeing what they could be.

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Cassandra Khaw is a London-based writer who still has her roots buried deep in Southeast Asia where there are sometimes more ghosts than people. Her work tends to revolve around intersectional cultures, mythological mash-ups, and bizarre urban architecture. When not embroiled in fiction, she writes about technology and video games for a variety of places including RockPaperShotgun and Ars Technica UK.

Offerings of fluffy things are always welcomed.

Cassandra Khaw: Website | Twitter

19 comments

  • This is a really helpful description of voice which is something I struggle with what is it, do I have one, how do I find one, should I shut up now? Thank you very much!

  • Love this so much I’ve shared on Twitter and facebook. I remember when I used to be able to read a piece of prose and could tell who wrote it by voice alone. Recent writers have had voice beaten out of them and I agree, it should be allowed. No, encouraged.

    • Right?!? I miss that too. And I LOATTTTHHHEEE that meme. It IS an ugly sentence! Also, lazy.

      I feel like the “spare, bare-bones minimalism” trend really took off with Robert Parker, but what people forget is that DR Parker had a PHD IN LITERATURE and HIGHLY HONED CRAFT and wrote the way he did for REASONS. So much of what I see in commercial fiction right now is terribly derivative, and comparing much of what’s being published right now to work like that is about like comparing a fourth-grade art student’s efforts to the later works of Klee and Kandinsky.

      ANYWAY.

  • I’ve been a part of several writer’s groups where “One True Way-isms” run rampant. When I’ve tried to caution writers they should take such advice with a grain-of-salt, half the time I’m shouted down for doing it wrong. When asking questions like “Where do the proceeds go from this group anthology?” I’ve been accused of ruining people’s fun. I’ve always preface my advice with the phrase “This is what works for ME” then tell the would-be writers “Find YOUR way. It may not be the same as someone else’s.”

  • Very true. I’ve found myself trying to write to sound more intellectual, or more “like an author” but it tends to sound forced and not like myself at all. I would hate for everyone to start writing the same. What a sad and boring world we would live in. Write as you, for you. If other people love it, then yay! You’ve found your people.

  • I like this. When learning there are so many curve balls you get confused but maybe that’s the way to finally get there. I don’t know. Appreciate this post.

  • I don’t think I can applaud this enough. It is an issue with which I struggle mightily whenever I choose to write, and I write quite infrequently due to it.

    Mr. Wendig recently did a flash fiction challenge, and I picked up the challenge, wrote, and posted to my blog. I had quite a few read the story, but two left comments. One was “love the twist at the end!” The other? “Your grammar and punctuation is a bit off.”

    What? Out of the entire story, THAT is what you picked up on? While I appreciated the input, I could not help but wonder if it was one of my professors (it actually was not) trying to keep me on the straight-and-narrow; writing in an academically-acceptable style.

    Well, that just is not my style. I frequently “got myself in trouble” in my history classes by using a bit of a non-conformist style by inserting anecdotes, small in-jokes that the audience for whom I wrote would understand, and trying to write in a flowing, conversational tone. Granted, that was non-fiction writing and had I not used that style it would be incredibly dry, but that same style and tone can translate to fiction and if one is comfortable writing that way, they SHOULD. A colleague of mine had a similar philosophy, and he DID get in some trouble when writing his thesis. He’d made a reference to a historical character who developed a pseudonym to be more recognizable (and, to be honest, a bit more frightening). To illustrate the example, he put a footnote in that said “Because no one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Wesley.” It was light, humorous, and a good many of his readers would get the reference. But he was told in no uncertain terms that it was unacceptable for academic writing and was told to remove it.

    Why? Writing is an extension of one’s PERSONALITY. It’s SUPPOSED to be infused with a unique style. It does not matter if it is academic writing, or fiction, or poetry, or a haiku. I am not aware of a way to tell a story, historical or otherwise, that does not have at least some personality to it.

    So, knowing this, it is probably time I “got over myself” and made an effort to accept the criticism as it comes, knowing that some can be taken to heart while some I can say “Sorry, that’s just not my style.”

  • Sometimes I forget how important it is to hear these things as a beginning writer. I’ve been writing and reading long enough that when I hear “writing advice” that directly counters my style, I can brush it off pretty easily. When I’m talking with inexperienced or insecure writers, I have to remind myself to phrase my advice not as “don’t” but as “here are some reasons why you shouldn’t”.

  • I’d always thought of voice as the style in which the prose was written, or the narrator’s voice if the story is being told by a character. I mean, other than to point out grammatical errors, who is anyone to say what is right or wrong?

  • Voice is all down to the, the words they choose, the order they go in and how the sentences they form fit together. Everyone has an opinion over if a “voice” suits a certain section of writing to how an entire novel is written. To move a reader to think about what has been written, or to move someone emotionally as has been said above, you have done your job as a writer. That to me is what voice is.

  • June 17, 2016 at 8:15 AM // Reply

    THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU! Wonderful words, Cassandra. And the examples you chose are perfect. I despair of genre writing advice that denies beautiful writing–usually in favor of plot, as though there can’t be both? My best books are those in which I allowed my voice thorough freedom. They’re also the books that get the most extreme responses, exuberant love and adamant dislike, which always thrills me. It tells me I’m writing honestly. My favorite authors write with that honesty. Now you’ve given me several more to enjoy. Many thanks!

  • I’m currently revising my first murder mystery novel, and all my beta readers keep saying that the words are too big. Words like “delineation.” I keep telling myself that my readers are smart, and they know what delineations are, and I don’t need to change it to the less accurate “ridges.”

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