On Voice

The last post on Wonkomance was like the smartest thing written about writing, so if you’re looking for something insightful and mind-bending, CLICK HERE.

For those of you still with me, I’ve been thinking about voice lately. No, scratch that. I’ve been thinking about voice ALL THE TIME EVER. Because that’s the most important thing to me. Sometimes it seems like the only thing almost not quite. Which is tough because many smart and talented people say the exact same thing about “story”, this vague and nebulous thing that is more than plot but less than the whole, shunting voice to the side along with window curtains and ambient lighting.

I just can’t. Honestly. It’s like telling me the sky is pink when I’m staring up at the cool, peaceful blue.

So anyway. I’ve got Pandora on in my car, and this song comes on by Akon. I start thinking about the lyrics. Overanalyzing, as I do. And when it says nobody wants to see them together, I was like hey, that’s applicable, because my book that came out, it has that setup.

I’m listening and I’m listening and the hero is fighting for their right to love, yeah, and then I was like hold up. Because THEN people started telling his fictional heroine lies to get between them. And her suspicion was aggravated by the hero’s own dissembling due to his insecurities about his past. BUT THEN his love conquered that fear and etc, etc. Which is exactly how it goes in my book AKON HOW DID YOU KNOW?

Because it’s all been done before. It has. We are all just mashing and grinding this archetypal pulp and coming up with a glass of story juice. And we want it to be fresh! We want it to be new, because that’s the point of this writing gig. To tell the story from our own perspective and in our own voice.

Which leads me to…

A few days ago I was compulsively clicking links scrolling through my twitter feed. I came upon a blog where writers submitted their work and then some sort of industry professional (editor, agent, etc) would critique it. Neat.

This time the industry professional was an author. But when I read the critiques, my heart sank. The critiquer had a comment for almost every sentence. I felt the critiquer author was trying to rewrite it in her voice instead of the (actual) author’s. In fact, the best line, the moment of genius in a brief excerpt was cut entirely. Man, I hope that author doesn’t listen to that. But she might because the status of the critiquer and the site is big tall ledge, and our self doubt is always handy to give us a push.

It can be very hard to hold that line sometimes, but we have to, we have to, because voice is the life of the story. I mean, looking at the authors on this sidebar, the ones I love to read, voice is so much a part of their writing. WRITING is so much a part of their writing, if you know what I mean. It’s not just the story; it’s how the story is told.

Speaking specifically to wonkomance, I wonder how much of the wonkiness is inherent in the voice. You might think not, because wonkiness is in the story, right? Story story story, they drill into my head. Renaissance fair actor heroes and plumber heroines and reverse Cinderella stories. That’s all story, plot, things that happen and not the way it was said.

But the thing is, the same synopsis in the hands of different authors could be wildly different books. It’s the things we choose to mention or ignore. In the words we use and the metaphors we choose. I really think voice IS the “story”. They are inseparable. You can’t eschew the glittering surface of the ocean and demand the depths; one is a flipside of the other.

At least I think so. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it :)

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” Jack Kerouac

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 6 Comments

It’s All Greek to Me: Argue for Your Wonk with Classical Appeals

Imagine you’re a 17th-century theatre goer of some means headed to Blackfriars Theater for a night of Romance and Spectacle with a little wry king-bashing and trap-door special fx. Imagine too, that the billing is something certified wonktastical complete with a magically conjured storm and a duke and his daughter with a villainous island native and possibly a few other goddesses and spirits and there is also a boatswain and a romance with the Prince of Naples*. For example.

Recreated Blackfriars Theater in Stanton, VA. I have been here, because I married a Shakespeare scholar.

Recreated Blackfriars Theater in Stanton, VA. I have been here, because I married a Shakespeare scholar.

Naturally, you may be skeptical. Of course, this playwright is known to be pretty amusing, but you keeping getting hung up on the boatswain. As you are taking a seat and procuring Ye Olde Concessions for your date, the ushers hand you a printed program titled THE ARGUMENT.

No really. THE ARGUMENT** prints, for your consideration, tonight’s plot, characters, goals, conflicts, and motivation; in fact, it tells you how the playwright and players expect you to feel when you watch the play. It’s a pitch, a query, a blurb, and back cover copy all-in-one.

It’s a contract—between you and the players, the playwright.

Now I’m going to crank back the time machine even further, so we can hang out with Aristotle. Aristotle really, really loved his buddy Sophocles’ plays. Artistotle would have retweeted the fuck out of Sophocles’ opening nights. Since this was not an option, Aristotle wrote Poetics, one of the biggest mash notes in history, where he claimed that everything he loved about Sophocles’ plays was what was required by any play to be awesome. Sophocles is most famous play is Oedipus Rex—a dad-killing, son-marries-mom, self-blinding wonkospectacular. Poetics requires that all stories have six elements: characters, a plot, a spectacle, beautiful language, a big idea, and singing/dancing***.

Aristotle, bearded and togaed.

Aristotle, bearded and togaed.

So, put your seat belt back on and we’ll head back to Blackfriars, where the curtain is about to go up on our desert island play. What you notice is that THE ARGUMENT, which you are now using to fan yourself because with all of these tallow candles and bodies it’s getting pretty dang hot, has a lot to say about those six elements. This is because 17th-century literati were deeply devoted to classical argument for what made art good, and applied a love letter from Aristotle to Sophocles to the entirety of the world of letters. In fact, we’ve never truly abandoned this devotion. Which makes sense because Aristotle’s Poetics is mainly reader response to Sophocles’ work, and I can’t imagine that basic human response to what makes something the goodness has changed, even in 2500 years.

So let’s put more banana peels in the flux capacitor and wander into a 4th Century BCE scroll store. Here, we’ll flip through Aristotle’s other work Rhetoric. This work applies to the three appeals of a successful argument: logos, pathos, and ethos. I want to lean against a marble column and talk about this in just a little bit more depth than the six elements of poetics (which we have a good handle on as interested readers and writers already), because this is where I begin to suggest a complex and useful craft tool for writing and responding to successful wonkomance. Namely, that a story can be epically, immensely wonked and be satisfying to an extremely wide audience of readers, possibly for hundreds of years, as long as it forwards a winning argument. ****

Logos demands that the author appeal to rhetorical reason through the use of enthymemes, which is a syllogism where the premises are not explicitly tested, but easily disputed—in other words, the author must build the argument on evidence that she links together with chains of meaning where one thesis follows another and they all support the major argument being made.

But really, what it means is that all wonkomance will call on Lieutenant Commander Data.

Data is a fully functional android, but until he got his emotion chip from Soong, he finds human behavior to be idiosyncratic and nearly meaningless. Data responds best to an appeal to reason where requests to him are based on demonstrable evidence. Data is a computer—he uses large strings of this evidence to create meaning.

His brow is ever so on the verge of furrowed.

His brow is ever so on the verge of furrowed.

Wonkomance may rely on poetics (any of the six elements) that are illogical, but if an element is inherently illogical, the wonkomance must have evidence throughout the story that argues for the meaning of that illogical element. An illogical plot, for example, could make for a wonkomance of the ages as long as overarching logos is satisfied by providing a chain of evidence for this plot. It will probably require that the other five elements support the plot—how the author characterizes the protagonists, for example, will argue that this h/h function best within the action of an illogical plot. Or the “big idea” of the story is revealed through the twisty caper of the wonked plot.

The author’s job is to win at logos. To look at all of her elements and shape them until they are a chain of beautiful evidence that appeal to the reader’s sense of reason. What’s sublime is that if the author looks at all the bits and pieces of her story as another way she can prove logos, all those bits and pieces can be absolutely wonked. The question the author asks herself, the question that every reader will have when considering logos is “does this story make meaning?”

Pathos is the appeal to the reader’s emotion. The author must win by either making the reader feel good about accepting the argument or feel bad about not accepting it, or possibly both.

Big hair, big feels, bonus Riker.

Big hair, big feels, bonus Riker.

Commander Deanna Troi helps us out here. Troi is an extra-sensory empath who has the ability to sense emotions, and because she is also a therapist, her intent to help those she is working with by identifying their emotions with them so that these emotions can be understood. I believe her power comes from her hair, but this is never explicitly stated in the show.

Like Troi, the author must identify the emotions in her story and argue for their acceptance by the reader. We’re talking about wonkomance, so we’re talking about love, and while it may be easy enough to identify love via simple h/h declaration, in fact, this is not enough. This love must be argued for. Not only do the h/h have to convince the other of their love, the h/h must convince the reader as well. Which means the author has to position herself as Troi, midwifing the emotional scenes from the action so that they can be specifically identified and claimed.

Again, this is particularly useful to wonkomance because readers and writers of a wonked love story are often most attracted to wonk via the pathos argument. We like to see an unusual appeal forwarded by the author—we want fucked up love. We also want to believe in this fucked up love. We want the author to convince us that this love is the only way, and we want every part of the story to argue, in chorus, for this love until we would rather gut ourselves than have it denied the h/h. In fact, the more fucked up the love, the more wonked, the more complex this argument really is. The more the author will have to examine every glance and conversation and sigh for how it supports this love. This is a difficult appeal to pull off—it’s easy for the reader to feel manipulated if the emotional action is not argued truthfully.


“Make it so.”

I saved Picard for last because, like always, Patrick Stewart brings everything in the entire world to full circle. In this case, his background is in the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he has played Prospero in our desert island play***** cited in our first time travel to Blackfriars.  I know you totally thought I wasn’t going to head back to all that, but I am nothing if not tidy.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard is depicted as a highly intelligent and moral master of diplomacy and debate. He is truly the epitome****** of ethos, where the author must attempt to appeal to the reader by arguing that either a major element of the story, or the author herself, can be believed and trusted. This is where the author must “make it so,” where “it” is a trustworthy and believable wonkomance.

I feel that ethos, more than any of the other classical appeals, when it is not successfully argued for, may be the reason a reader DNFs a book. I DNF’ed a book recently****** that had the promise of excellent wonkomance but in sixty pages forwarded slut-shaming, inexplicable lack of condom use, and a hate-on for powerful working women. I could not believe in such irresponsible hater characters and I could not trust an author who created them. HOWEVER, ethos would suggest that the author may be able to still uphold ethos and present hateful characters and ideas if trust and believability were established in other ways—obviously this will be a difficult and complex argument for the author to make, but it’s not impossible. Poetics suggests a lot of elements for the author to consider; beautiful language, a tight plot, or some strong characterization (perhaps even a song and or dance) may save ethos in cases like this.

Leaving 4th Century BCE and returning to Blackfriars, we look again at THE ARGUMENT during intermission, in light of what we’ve learned. All of those elements are clearly vital to a good story. Aristotle knew it then, and we understand that now. We’re human, wonked or no, we want to see great characters in a terrific plot with big ideas and beautiful language (and possibly some dancing). But if we like our romance wonky, we have another burden as authors, and more requirements as readers.

There must be a convincing argument, and it must rest equally on three pillars—logos, pathos, and ethos. Just like Starship Enterprise could not manage without Picard, Data, and Troi, wonkomance, besides containing the expected elements of poetics, must be captained by a crew prepared for every contingency. In wonkomance, poetical elements are the necessary background for a foreground of argument in high relief. The more wonked your story, the more poetical elements are a priori, necessary, and the more difficult the argument for the author. The reader must not only be entertained, the reader must be convinced, appealed to satisfyingly.

Patrick Stewart in THE TEMPEST.

Patrick Stewart in THE TEMPEST.

The Tempest is 400-year-old wonkomance, and if its good enough for Patrick Stewart, than it’s good enough for everyone in the entire universe.



*obvs The Tempest

**There are only about ten extant examples of playbill arguments in existence. For more information, marry a Shakespeare scholar.

***My challenge to you, romance novelists, is more singing and dancing

****Thesis-like area of this post

*****The Tempest

******I’m throwing out the Greek words all over the place.

*******No, I will not tell you what it is.

BONUS FOOTNOTE “It’s all Greek to Me” comes from Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | 12 Comments

Lusty Weevils and Brain Genitals: The Strengths and Pitfalls of First Person

Most romance is written from the third-person point of view, but Team Wonkomance has collectively written a whop-load of first-person stories. Amber Lin, in her post First-Person POVs Have More Fun, touched on her own feelings about reading and writing in first person, and all the Wonkettes except for me have or will soon have published first-person stories.

So I thought I’d do a “Wonko-Weigh-In” and check in with Wonkomance bloggers about why and when they write in first-person, whether there’s a relationship between first-person and wonkiness, and if so, what it is.

I “spoke to” Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna (a.k.a Meg Maguire), Amber Lin, and Mary Ann Rivers. Charlotte writes almost exclusively in first-person; Cara splits hers about fifty-fifty; Amber’s first two novels are first person; Mary Ann will make her romance debut from Loveswept with a first-person novella this year.

control coverWhat makes you decide to write something first person? Are some narrators (or sub-genres) better suited for it?

Charlotte Stein: To be honest, first person is my natural, default state. It’s more often that I’ll decide to write something in third person, then think, “Ah, yes, this would be better in first.” For me personally, all my narrators want to be first person.

Mary Ann Rivers: I approach a project from both an aural and visual perspective. Maybe because I’m a musician, maybe because I have synesthesia. I typically understand the scope of the project, what I want it to accomplish, who the characters are, what the primary emotional arc is—and some projects “look” and “sound” like first person. If I’m having trouble hearing it, I think more about the surrounding structure—general plot, characters, scope—then I usually hear it better.

Amber Lin: Oh man, I really wish I had something smart and scientific to say here. For me, a story has its own POV and even tense (present or past). It comes out in the early stages before I even feel completely comfortable with that character’s voice. If I try to force it into a different POV, I can keep it up for a while but when I get into a flow (a.k.a. the good words start coming) it slips back into its natural POV.

Cara McKenna: It’s never a conscious decision, actually. It’s just something I know, as I sit down and begin writing. In general, I seem to use first person when one protagonist’s journey is going to prove more dramatic than the other’s, coupled with a desire to keep the other character’s motives and thoughts shrouded. Also, when one character is especially neurotic, with a very strong voice of their own.

I’ve heard people (usually not writers) say that first person is “easier” or a “cop out.” What are your thoughts on that?

Charlotte Stein: Erm…LOL? First person is only easy if you think it begins and ends with one person blah blah blahing about themselves. I mean sure, it would be absolutely simple to write “I did this and I did that and I am orsum, the end.” But first person done right is eight hundred times more than that, and so difficult it often gives me an aneurysm. You have to not only get across the main character…you’ve got to get across every other character through their eyes. In fact, to me, good first person is when you don’t even focus directly on the main character. The main character is unaware of themselves, and they grow through someone else and their experiences.

Mary Ann Rivers: I think that if the POV is correct for the project, the writing will be as hard or as easy as the story demands. Regardless of POV, writing some stories is like dream flying and writing other stories is like driving a goddamned Conestoga wagon across the continental divide.

Amber Lin: Yes, I’ve heard that and never really understood how it being “easier” implies that it’s a “cop out.” We all do things to make our writing easier, from forming writing habits to outlining to finding our unique voice—whatever. That would be like me giving an author a hard time because his books follow the three-act structure. You dirty cheat! Well, it is easier to use the three-act structure… it also leads to a better book.after hours cover

What do you lose from a story when you choose first person? What do you gain?

Cara McKenna: You lose the ability to “out” the other character’s deepest feelings, short of a soul-bearing hunk of dialogue (which done wrong just becomes a verbal info-dump.) And even if a hero’s spilling his guts in dialogue, there’s no guarantee he’s not lying, or holding something deeper back.

One thing you gain is the ability to have an unreliable narrator, which is great fun. My first-person narrators don’t lie to the reader, but they often lie to themselves, or at least delude themselves (as we humans all do), justifying reckless, self-serving decisions in real time (think Robin, from Ruin Me.) It means the reader’s stuck sitting there occasionally thinking, “What is wrong with you, dummy?!” But I kind of enjoy that.

Amber Lin: A great example of a thoroughly unreliable but totally lovable narrator is the hero of J.L. Merrow’s Muscling Through, who… is of low intelligence. But so awesome. We see everything happen through his eyes and form our own opinion about what is really happening. It’s vemuscling through coverry active (and fun!) reading.

Does it feel different to write sex scenes in first than in third? How/why?

Cara McKenna: It can feel limiting, on occasion. I have an erotic romance called After Hours coming out in April from Penguin, which is in first person. The hero in that book is really dynamic, and really dirty. There were lots of times as I was drafting that story when I wished I could write one of the sexual encounters from his perspective. He’d be thinking just the nastiest, awesomest shit.

But aside from that, it doesn’t feel different, to me. Once I’m thousands of words into a book, I don’t actively think about the POV anymore. The sex is, in turns, as easy and difficult to write as it would be in third.

Mary Ann Rivers: There is an artificiality about ANY kind POV in a sex scene. Because what makes something hot to read is different than any kind of actual point of view during sex. I think the writer wants to find some balance between rubbing out the reader’s brain genitals and an authentic “sex voice,” regardless of POV. I’ve yawned my way through third POV that hits all the involved partners in a sex scene, where one sort of assumes the scene should be somehow hotter because you’ve got what everyone’s thinking and feeling, and I’ve made special bookmarks for scenes in some books that really limit the POV during the sex but have that balance going on.

Why does first person so often feel wonkier? Does first person have to be wonkier?

Charlotte Stein: Because I think you have to like and agree with the narrator. You have to be right in their shoes and feel what they feel, and IMO that’s really hard for many people. It’s too close.

Cara McKenna: I think first feels wonkier in certain genres. It’s still relatively rare in romance, and romance is a genre that makes a lot of promises to its readers, so when one of those conventions is tweaked, it can feel funny, at first. But I think it’s becoming more and more common, possibly thanks to the recent popularity explosion of young adult (which features lots of first-person narration.)

That said, I suspect most readers adapt after a page or two, caught up in the story. It’s like watching a subtitled movie; it may feel cumbersome for a minute, but your brain quickly adjusts to the format.

Can you learn something from writing first person that helps your third-person writing?

Mary Ann Rivers: Mainly, I think my growth as a writer is most possible when I choose the best POV for every story I write, versus picking a POV like I might pick a lane through downtown Houston, hands clenched at 10 and 2, refusing to look to the right or left, lest I triple flip into a flaming explosion of something actually interesting.

Cara McKenna: I think the tricky truth is, you can say anything in third that you can in first. In first, your heroine could think, “Man, I wanted to burrow inside his heart like a lusty weevil.” Obviously, that’s a wonky heroine, to be thinking in those terms, but you can say the same thing in third. “Man, she wanted to burrow inside his heart like a lusty weevil,” or “Man, I want to burrow inside his heart like a lusty weevil, she mused psychotically.” I think you can get just as deep in third, but one thing you can’t do is go off on think-y tangents. A thinky tangent or a protracted memory (not quite a flashback) can work in first, but in third they can really clutter up a page.

What’s your own favorite first person romance/erotic story? What’s (one of your) all-time favorite first person work(s), wonky or otherwise?

comfort object cover smallCharlotte Stein: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s probably my all time favourite first person piece of work, both because the story is so beautiful and wrenching and romantic, but also because the use of the first person in it is absolutely perfect and devastating. It’s gorgeous, and I love it. Also love Margaret Atwood’s use of the first person.

Amber Lin: Comfort Object by Annabel Joseph is a hot BDSM romance, pre-Fifty Shades. [It has] alternating hero and heroine first person POVs.

Cara McKenna: I’ll give you two authors, how about that? The two that immediately spring to mind for me, and from opposites shores of the romance pond, are Kristan Higgins and Charlotte Stein. Two masters of first person, yet two completely different reading experiences.

Mary Ann Rivers: Tess Gallagher, the poet, in her book Moon Crossing Bridge, wrote a long sequence of first person poems about the death of her husband, the incomparable Raymond Carver. Those poems lay me out. They’re almost hard to listen to, her grief, except that the grief is processed through the beauty of the poem, the craft of it. Those poems should be impossible, but they’re not. She made them. Saw them, heard them, made them. My husband, in his collection of short stories has a story from the first-person POV of a man with severe aphasia who’s fallen in love with one of those people who sit in redwood trees to save them from loggers. That story should be IMPOSSIBLE but it’s sexy and romantic and sold his book and what he gets asked about the most, years later.




Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 13 Comments