On writing, one’s voice and the intimidation of virtuosity

I read a gripping story on Lightspeed yesterday (http://bit.ly/1lj69Pp), How to Get Back to the Forest by Sofia Samatar. It’s what I call a virtuoso performance—the story grabbed me right off and didn’t let go—it was like taking a deep hit of 100% oxygen: you just have to go and run a 100-yard dash. And then run back again. The dialogue was deft and swift, the plot teasers set quickly, the hook came early and hit hard; you had to feel this one—anyone who’s had something stuck in their skin and freaked out would understand. That fishing lure your friend back-casted into your neck, the time you caught some creepy-crawly stuck in your short hairs. That feeling. After five thousand or so words of this, taken over my lunch hour, I’m ready to totter over to the couch and have a lie-down, as Douglas Adams would’ve said.

The setting was perfect for this sort of delivery. It’s an intimate depiction: you’re in the middle of a group of teenage girls at camp, all feeding off each other’s frenzy, first person. I’m usually leery of first-person, I rarely attempt it myself and in fact I’m working on a story right now that is first-person. And I’m sitting there after my lie-down thinking, I could never have written anything paced as quickly as that. Put down the pen, back to writing C++!

It’s great to read good writing but at times it can be disorienting, especially if you are working out of your comfort zone. I feel I’m more of a marathoner. Fifty thousand words is just getting me warmed up.  If an unpublished pretender may be excused for invoking one of the greats, I’m with Vonnegut on this one: short stories are a trick. They are hard. Getting that hook, delivering it in 5000 words, well, I’m not there. Yet this is how we have to break in: short fiction. It is step one.

My style tends to be a lot more sedate, laid-back. The reader has time to twist a wry grin at the odd exposure of the character’s foibles, have a sip of wine, wonder at the next challenge. I’m not talking the dense and interminable type of wander you find in the New Yorker; I don’t have the patience to get that intimate in everyday detail. My stuff moves, but it’s a jog, not a dash. And so, after the headrush of a piece like Samatar’s, I have to take a deep breath and remember: there is an audience somewhere for my stuff. Not everyone wants to take that hit of 100% O2 every day. You don’t make a croque-monsieur your daily luncheon. I’m writing peanut butter and jelly, and when I review my stuff, I see little chunks of strawberry in the jam. That will have to do, for now.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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