Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Originality (Or, It's all in the voice)

I've just finished reading a book that captivated me unexpectedly - The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. In it, one of the characters, Brett, quotes Pulitzer-prize winning author Wiilla Cather as saying:
"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."
This got me thinking; what is it that makes one story more enticing than another?

I think about the stories I've written, all the great novels I've read so far, and all the fantastaic tales yet to be told. When you get down to brass tacks, there are a limited number of conflict themes in writing, and every story ever written can fit into one of them (or a combination of them): man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, man vs. himself, man vs. machine/technology, and man vs. fate. A writer often thinks her story is the most original and unique plot ever devised when, in reality, its themes are based on the same stories humans have been telling since antiquity, in times when oral story-telling was the only way to go.

Why do we keep telling the same tales over and over? Because for every person who has experienced one or more of the above-mentioned challenges (and who hasn't?), the experience is special, individualized, personal, and oftentimes incredibly fascinating and worth telling. It is that fierce desire mentioned by Cather that drives us to write it down, translate thoughts into words, and give voice to what was once simply an idea.

And that is the key, I think. In attempting to answer the question of what makes one story more enticing than another, it isn't the plot or the characters; it's the voice. Meg Waite Clayton's voice is unique, and it spoke to me clearly, without sounding like any other I'd read before. I envy her that. Her story is one of friendship, falling into the combined conflicts of woman vs. society, woman vs. herself, and woman vs. fate. Nothing particularly original, but the voice sure is. I feel that if I were to be fortunate enough to sit down to lunch with Ms. Clayton, I'd know exactly what she'd sound like even before she opened her mouth. It would be like meeting a pen-pal for the first time and having the sensation of familiarity, as if I could say, "I just knew you'd sound like that."

As we fiction writers delve into our latest projects (or search desperately for our misplaced muses, as am I), I encourage you all not to fret so much over how to make your story stand out in a saturated market of bestsellers. Instead, trust in your voice. If you listen carefully enough, you'll realize that no one can really sound like you, except for you. In closing, I will summon the words of one of my favorite animated characters and say, "Bee yourself." (Can you guess who it is?)


  1. You're right...there are a limited number of stories, really. So it all boils down to voice and execution.

    Bee yourself? The only thing I can think of is that little Honey Nut Cheerios bee.

  2. Oooh, a book that sounds worthy! I'll have to put it on the top of my list.

    I agree, voice is imperative. I also need rich characters, and well executed mechanics and style.

    I don't have a clue about Bee yourself. *pouts* Sorry. Maybe the one with Seinfeld? Which I never saw.
    My favorite motivational quote from an animated character is "Just keep swimming" by Dory in Finding Nemo, though.

    Have a delightful weekend, Wendy!

  3. That BEE line is from an unexpected character! Genie from Aladdin. :) (hen he's a bee, of course)
    I know my Disney trivia. <3

    This post is so true. I guess that's why agents and editors are always looking for "a great voice."

  4. You are so right! Your writing has to reflect you. :)

  5. Ref: voice

    Which is why some authors become auto buys whether we know anything about the novel or not.

  6. My writer's group and I were just talking about the importance of voice.

  7. I love this advice. Thanks, Wendy!