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Life is Very Short, and There’s no Time

Dear Betsy,

I love your blog. I love that you say motherfucker, ass, fuck, shit, and so on. It makes me laugh, smile, and learn what you’re saying all the more. Kudos.

So my true question goes like this. How does a writer get voice in their writing? Are there examples that you just fucking dig, that scream voice? Fuck yeah, voice? What advice would you have for a writer like me, who maybe has a voice, but isn’t getting it on paper like she fucking should?

But in the meantime, would it help to swear my face off on the page? I shvitzed like a whore in church as I fell with that motherfucking 35W bridge, but I took most of the cursing out of my sample, for a variety of reasons – thinking it would limit my readership if I swore too much. But, did that leave my chapter flat? Voiceless?

You are completely awesome. Thank you.

Dear Sweet Love: The only word that I find truly reprehensible in your letter is “kudos.” The first time I heard it (at a publishing meeting), I thought it was a made up word: a cross between a granola bar and that scary movie, Cujo (based on Stephen King’s novel). I thought they were saying, “Cujos, cujos,” and I couldn’t figure it the fuck out.

Don’t swear. It’s unbecoming. Voice is a helluva lot more than some four letter words. It’s everything in one respect because your reader either trusts it or not. Every element matters such as structure, style, character, pacing, plot, etc. but the voice is the engine. It can hum, purr, or roar, but you’ve got to have control of it. It’s probably impossible to teach because it’s in the DNA of the sentences, unlike syntax or tense of pov which you can take a red pen to and say, here, look, this isn’t working.

“Schvitzed like a whore?” Hello? Sprinkle your yiddish even more sparingly than your curse words and you’ll be okay. I think.

Love, Betsy

17 Responses

  1. OK, I’ve been suspecting we were separated at birth, but this clinched it. I just told someone the other day that “kudos” was one of my most loathed words. That and “24/7” and “utilize.” I have a litany of others, but I would have a coronary if I were forced to type them all out.

    I agree with you, of course. Use the words that work best, but not so much that they work against you.

    But kudos, 24/7 and utilize? Fuck those.

  2. ‘The only word that I find truly reprehensible in your letter is “kudos.” ‘

    Hahaha. I had the same reaction. It has never sounded natural to me.

    That and someone who walks up and says, “Greetings.” Really? That’s what sprung naturally from you? Instead of some sort of greeting leaping out of your chest, you chose the label for them? Huh.

    Great examples are everywhere, though. When I saw the subject was voice, at first I assumed it was in honor of my hero, JD Salinger (even if he did later go nuts.) The opening sentence of Catcher in the Rye is priceless:

    “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.”

    I try using that voice, but it sure as hell demonstrates what the concept is all about.

  3. “Kudos”, “24/7” and “utilize” are right up there, all right.

    For me, however, nothing compares to “validate”. A dentist’s drill in both eardrums would be better.

  4. Yours is the best definition of Voice I have ever encountered. “The engine.” Thank you.

  5. Uunnnhh. Must refrain from potty-mouthed torrent. Must. Refrain.

    Ooo, goody, are we playing the loathed words and phrases game? I LOVE this game.

    110% (or any percentage above 100), when applied to effort.

    Blatant misuse of the word “ironic.” I blame Alanis Morrisette. “A black fly in your chardonnay” isn’t ironic, it’s just a–must. refrain.–bummer. I’ve removed it from my vocabulary, to avoid falling victim. Sometimes I miss it.

  6. Fuck rules. Even so, the word “broth” has no place in literature.

  7. […] Life is Very Short, and There’s no Time « Betsy Lerner […]

  8. Yeah, voice is everything and the hardest to nail and keep consistent. It’s what makes you recognize someone as soon as they start to talk. It’s an attitude, a point of view, and all the tools that go into conveying it. Like a singer’s voice – you don’t have to hear what they’re saying, only how they’re saying it. And you instantly know if they’re speaking to you.

  9. Pardon me, but what the fuck is going on with the car warranty thing?

  10. Life is very short, and there’s no time.

    Yes —

    I have often thought,
    “There’s no such thing as time.”

  11. Yeah, I don’t know about that Yiddish-dropping. And the mixed metaphors: Yiddish and church. Eh.

  12. Don’t try so hard. Everyone’s got voice already. The problem is, most of us mumble. Betsy’s voice isn’t that she says motherfucker. It’s that she’s Betsy, saying motherfucker.

    Tell your story as clearly as you can, though the experiences of characters only you could’ve created. That’s voice.

  13. One aspect of voice that stands out to me is the use of pauses. In writing, when and where are commas and periods used? When I rehears dialogue in my mind, pauses in speech go a long way in separating characters. I thought McCarthy’s The Road was a great study in voice. The dialogue is absent of proper punctuation, yet the reader always knows who’s talking.

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