Friday, December 19, 2014

Talking about Voice -- Read Strong Literary Voices in "The Catcher in the Rye," by JD Salinger, and "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.

Last week's post was about voice, and told you that before you write anything, you need to consider your writing voice.

If you're writing fiction, your voice will vary depending on who your narrator is.  In "The Catcher in the Rye," a very famous novel by JD Salinger, the narrator is the protagonist, a teenager who keeps getting kicked out of expensive private schools because he's not a very good student.  This novel was written in 1945, so Holden, our narrator, talks a bit funny, using words like "crummy" and "lousy."  But when you read it, you can clearly hear his voice in your head:

IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all ― I'm not saying that ― but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that's all I told D.B. about, and he's my brother and all. He's in Hollywood. That isn't too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He's going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He's got a lot of dough, now. He didn't use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was "The Secret Goldfish." It was about this little kid that wouldn't let anybody look at his goldfish because he'd bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me.

In non-fiction, you will still have a voice.  A good, strong voice is what the reader hears in his/her head while reading your work.  That's why non-fiction like Bill Bryson is more fun to read than non-fiction like your average grade-twelve text book: Bill Bryson has an engaging voice and when you read it, you can hear him in your head, talking to you about space and the history of the world and William Shakespeare and exciting stuff like that:

Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you—indeed, don't even know that you are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting—fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that's it for you.

See how wonderful it is to read a book that talks to you with its own voice.  Unfortunately, neither of these books are in the public domain, so are not available for free download on Nerdvark's favourite website,, but I'm fairly certain you can buy them on Amazon or something.

Nerdvark wants to develop his voice by writing from the point of view of his pal, Nardvark.  In order to do that, Nerdvark decides to use simple sentences, crap vocabulary, and idiotic topics:

Mmm, pizza -- just the deliciousest dang food in the world today.  The most bestest thing about pizza is how you can put anything, yes, anything you want to eat on a pizza and it will still be pizza.  Just as a ferinstance, yesterday for brekkie I went into the kitchen, got out some of the-day-before-yesterday's leftover pizza, slathered it with nommy peanut butter and mayonnaise and sprinkled on capers, Sour Skittles, and slivered almonds, and voila, new, improved, perfect pizza for me!

Thanks for reading.  Please check back next time for some IGCSE stuff that might help all you IGCSE students out there.

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