Blogs-A-Million, Day 108: Voices

January 17th, 2011

This is an interesting situation. I’ve reached a point I’ve been striving toward for four months, and now that I’m here I’m completely unprepared.

The situation is the section of PULPED — roughly the last third — in which Simeon Grist and Madison Jefferson come together.  It’s the section I’ve been aiming at since I started writing this thing.

The issue is voice, and here’s how I got here.

Part One is called THE IMAGISPHERE and takes place in the “limbo” that discontinued mystery and thriller series characters inhabit, a sort of rundown genre sub-paradise in which hard-boiled private eyes rub shoulders (not by choice) with the central characters of quilting mysteries, paranormal detectives, English country-house butlers who solve murders when not polishing the silver, and that most dreaded of all fictional detectives, the amateur sleuth.

They sit around up there in their respective fictional settings — Topanga shack, ancestral home, etc. — which have all been crammed together into an architecturally very disjointed neighborhood.  With nothing but time on their hands, the characters hash over old cases and complain about their writers, who weren’t good enough to keep them in print.

In fact, they’re all bored senseless.  The title of the first chapter in the book is I Sneeze Wetly in the General Direction of Your Boredom.

Once in a very great while the prevailing mood of irritated stultification is broken.  Someone in the “real world” opens one of few remaining copies of the detective’s — let’s say Simeon’s –books, and for that period of time, the detective has a “window” into the world of books and readers.  And then, while Simeon and a character named Lobelia (from a series of cooking cozies with titles like Chocolate is Murder) are watching one of Simeon’s last surviving readers, someone wraps a pair of very large and capable hands around the reader’s throat and strangles him.

Simeon wants to get to the bottom of the murder (for one thing, it’s the first fresh one in decades, and for another, he doesn’t have enough readers to take calmly the loss of one of them) and then various odd things begin to happen “up there” that suggest that the murder of Simeon’s reader might have its roots in someone who’s up in limbo.

All of this section is told in Simeon’s first-person, which is kind of lippy and irreverent, just like all the other first-person private eyes I was unconsciously stealing from when I wrote the six books in which he appeared.

And then, for Part Two, which is called JOSHUA TREE, we go to the very un-ethereal high desert of San Bernardino County, where we find ourselves with Madison Jefferson, an unfortunately-named young woman who worked in a crummy used-book store with the murdered man — and who, in fact, found the body.  Madison is one of the unexpected delights of writing this book.  She’s got a nervous, self-deprecating intelligence and a well-concealed spine of toughness, and she’s a joy to write.  In fact, just yesterday she said my favorite line of dialogue in the book so far.

And she becomes involved inadvertently in the investigation of her colleague’s murder; she discovers that he was hopelessly in love with her, that he was lonely and sad, and that, in retrospect, she had been a self-involved twit not to be more conscious of him and, just maybe, pay some attention to him and make him a little happier.   Then she realizes that he was in the middle of something extremely odd and even ominous, and that she’s possibly in serious trouble.

All of this is told in what I think of as  Madison’s Third Person, an extremely close third person, as though the camera were right on her shoulder, but it mirrors her thought processes, notices things in the order in which she would notice them, shares her reactions, and even occasionally dips into her mind.  I could write this third person happily forever.

But I can’t.  In order to resolve the mystery and keep Madison’s feet out of the fire, it’s necessary to get Simeon into the “real world” (quotations are necessary) and bring them together.  That’s Part Three, THE TWAIN SHALL MEET.

And the voice is causing me conniptions.

I don’t know what I thought I was going to do.  Right up until the moment they see each other for the first time, the two voices work great.  And then they’re sharing a page, and everything goes out the window.

At the moment, I’m using a more generalized third person (it feels so weird to call Simeon by name in the narrative, instead of “I”) with occasional swoops into Madison’s Third Person for a few pages — a chapter section, for example.  This is a unique situation for me — for the first time ever, I (a) can see quite a way ahead in a story, and (b) have no idea how to write it.

And voice is, if not everything, pretty close.  Well, we shall see what we shall see.

9 Responses to “Blogs-A-Million, Day 108: Voices”

  1. EverettK Says:

    No problem, Mate! Here’s what you do:

    You separate Simeon’s and Madison’s stories by paragraph, and you write Simeon’s first person and left-justified,
    and you write Madison’s in third person and right-justified.

    See? Problem solved!

    No?

    Sheesh. Some people are so focused on their own problems that they just refuse to see a solution when it’s handed to them along with their head…

    [Seriously, I have UTMOST confidence in you, Tim. You’ve not failed to find a solution yet!]

  2. Laren Bright Says:

    Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into. Wait, I said that about something else in an earlier blog.

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    This sounds very intriguing. I love the picture-so who is in charge of the voice. I’m with Everett on this one. You always manage. By the way, thank you for the insight into how you compose, (and how to look at movies).

  4. Bonnie Says:

    I’m picturing Simeon starting (and then apologizing and stopping and then starting again) to talk to Madison in the first person, as though he were treating her as another reader, and under whatever form of admonishment is appropriate to her personality, gradually getting used to talking to her as though she were another character in one of his books.

    But that’s a facile, off-the-cuff suggestion for a problem that I’m sure is much more complex.

    Slight topic shift: One of your Bangkok book critics on Amazon complains that your characters don’t “sound” Thai. My kneejerk reaction to that was, “Oh, you are the kind of person, Mr. Snotty Reviewer, who would have all the actors in a Chekhov play speaking English in broken accents reminiscent of Boris and Natasha (as one actor friend told me once, “it makes me wish there were no W’s in this play”).”

    But after getting over my snit-fit, I wondered how much/hard you think about which language a given character is speaking at any time in the Poke books. One of the reasons for this is that I think they would be awesome as audio books, and if I knew how to get the folks at Audible interested, I’d work on them. It’s just really tricky to convey language differences when you are dealing with two languages but only one can be used in the narrative (for obvious reasons).

    One of the most amazing tours de force in this regard was performed by the guy who wrote the Raj Quartett (I’m blanking–Scott? Scott something?) Without using any funny spelling or weird apostrophizing he so completely nailed Lady Chatterjee in her narration that I thought I was listening to my old boss at IIASA, Kirit Parikh (whose native language I believe was Gujarati).

    Sorry, that wandered a bit. I’m still a bit out of it. Will probably dream in html tonight.

  5. Gary Says:

    It would probably be far too heavy to have Madison’s voice always in italics from the beginning. If you minimize the amount of story with both voices together, and if they’re in each other’s presence, you could preface each voice passage with a reference to the other person.

    She’s lying. I can tell from her eyes. (Simeon’s voice continues)…

    He thinks I’m lying. (Madison’s voice continues)…

    And then maybe after that by using alternating paragraphs – like unattributed dialog, but without the quotes. And terminate it with some dialog aloud, in quotes, to make it clear that the thinking ‘exchange’ has ended.

    I dunno. It’s a tough one.

  6. fairyhedgehog Says:

    It’s tough but intriguing. I wonder if a compromise voice is more distancing than finding a way to use either or both of the other voices… but what do I know?

    I’ll be interested to hear how you resolve it.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Gosh, Everett, I tried your right-left notion and it made every page look like a losing position in Tetris.

    Laren and Lil, it is a mess, but I have no choice but to work my way through it. I’m in the process of deciding that the solution is to take the story in such an interesting direction that people would read it if it were in pig Latin. Of course, now I have to think of sufficiently interesting story elements, but this little insight had the effect of re-centering me in the way I look at the book, and bang! some new story arrived.

    Hi, Bonnie — I think a lot about the language people are using, but then I generally junk it as long as they don’t get too colloquially American. It’s easy to mimic language patterns and they will often remind us that we’re reading a translation of another language, but we have to remember that among the people who are speaking, those patterns are virtually inaudible; they’re sifting the words for meaning just as we are when we talk to one another. We American rarely remark (if we’re not writers, that is) on how “American” someone sounds — that’s the observation of someone to whom we sound “different,” and since the people who speak Thai to each other don’t sound “Thai” to each other, I just leave it along and go for clear, interesting, largely uncolloquial English

    So, re: voice, everyone — I’m refocused on story, trying to make it so compelling that voice won’t detract from it, while at the same time remaining open to any inspiration that may pop it vaporous little head up.

  8. EverettK Says:

    Why not have somewhat alternating sections, some told from Simeon’s point of view which would be first-person, of course, and some told from Madison’s point of view which would be close third-person. Each section would be headed by Simeon or Madison to help orient the reader. You wouldn’t want to jump back and forth TOO often or the reader would get whiplash. But a switch every half-chapter to chapter would certainly be bearable. And this would give the added advantage (maybe, your mileage may vary) of allowing the reader to see each character from the OTHER character’s point of view.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    What I’m doing so far, Everett, is using a generalized third person when they’re together and when Simeon is on his own, which he is briefly after they’re taken prisoner, and Madison’s very close third whenever I feel like it — usually for a chapter section, the kind that I set off in manuscript with asterisks.

    And it seems to be working fine. I played with going back and forth between Poke’s first and Madison’s close third in the 2-3 chapters before they finally meet, and the meeting is actually seen from both perspectives. Then, after a long Poke first-person segment as he gets them out of the fix they’re in (alternated with Madison’s third) we’re into the second person most of the time.

    But it’s nice to know that I really have three voices available to me, because a change of voice (when it’s justified) is a great way to kick off a chapter.

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