Thursday, June 17, 2010

Drawbacks of Playing with Voice and Style

New writers often fret over finding their "voice"––that certain distinction that becomes one's own––like looking at an unsigned painting and identifying it with Picasso. When I reviewed for SV, submissions came to us with no name attached, yet, several times, I was able to connect the story I was reading to someone I knew. That's voice.

I've never been particularly interested in developing a distinctive voice. My nature is to crave change and challenge. When I worked full-time, even in a field I enjoyed, I never stayed in one job for more than five years, and it wasn't so much a matter of growing bored with the duties and surroundings, I was itchy for the thrill of the hunt . While I have great neighbors, each time a sale sign goes up on my street, I feel a little flutter of excitement for the unknown. Who will fill that house? How will they change it? What kind of parties will they throw, if any?

Of the four stories I've been shopping around lately (including the two recent acceptances), one is a  traditional tale of a dysfunctional family (with one unusual note). It contains all the de rigueur similes and self-examination.  The other is a tragi-comic piece about two Italian immigrant women locked in competition over their illnesses.  "Snow White" (just published) is what I would call strongly "experimental," and the story just recently accepted,  "Split-Seconds," is also experimental, but with a more traditional mother-daughter theme. That's quite a range.

I didn't set out, in any of the three less traditional cases, to write something "different." It just came out that way. In fact, with Snow White I had decided to try changing a very old, unpublished story from the old standard third limited POV into second person. In the end not one thing remained the same except that both main characters worked in a hospital.

There are good and bad things about not sticking to one voice or style. Aside from the sheer joy of letting myself go wherever the story takes me, I found it much easier to target markets (something I normally have difficulty with) for my more experimental pieces. I knew right off where they should never go, and while they were both rejected a number of times, most of those rejections came with good feedback. So I was matching pretty well. On the other hand, the more traditional story could fit anywhere from the New Yorker to any name here literary journal, with the only determining feature being quality. In other words, it was extremely difficult to narrow my market, and I was competing against every other literary/mainstream writer submitting to the same publications.

The drawback is that good feedback often comes with the coveted, "We'd like to see more of your work." And there's the rub, because the only similarity between the story those editors seriously considered and anything else I might send them is the name under the title. I can't edit and resubmit what they already rejected, and I don't have anything else, so that market, promising as it was, is closed to me unless sometime in the future I write something similar, which is not very likely.

Of course, that is the joy of not making my living from this. It is also one of the rare benefits of having realized some time ago that the odds are against someone like me becoming "famous." I can write what I want when I want. So I think that's what I will continue doing.

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