Please welcome author Molly Best Tinsley to Writer Unboxed today! When Molly approached us with an interesting story about how listening to the voices in her story helped to save it, we knew we wanted to share it. First, more about Molly from her bio:
In a fit of sanity, Molly Best Tinsley decided that 20 years teaching literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval were enough. She resigned and moved west to Ashland, Oregon, where she facilitates workshops and enjoys exploring different genres. Her fiction has earned two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships and the Oregon Book Award. Her plays have been produced nationwide. Her latest novel is the literary thriller, Things Too Big to Name (Fuze Publishing, 2019).
How can voices save your story? Read on, with thanks to Molly.
How Hearing Voice(s) Led to Order In a Previously Chaotic Manuscript
I wound up calling it a novel-in-progress because it kept resisting the confines of a short story. Changing its label did not make the path forward any easier. Ideas would present themselves, but when I pursued them, I’d slam up against a subject that felt like a dead end. A ghost, for example, when I didn’t believe in them; the pornographic industry and the criminal justice system, about which my pathetic ignorance might be impossible to hide.
Lugging my misgivings, I trailed the narrative all over the place, jotting notes, googling research, and worrying that after I died, someone would check my computer and conclude I was hooked on X-rated videos. Still, the manuscript file did grow, disorganized and unloved.
One day in the muddled middle, as I silently reread everything I had so far, I noticed I was hearing it inflected in my head. In other words, it had a voice. When further analysis actually identified three voices, I had the glimmer of order I needed to see the novel through. By the time I had a zero draft, Margaret had braided three different stories, each directed to a different audience—a threatening stranger, her threatened self, and a lover whose death she’d never grieved.
The First Voice Opened on Neutral Territory
The earliest draft of what would become Things Too Big to Name grew out of a third-person account of a twilight collision between an automobile and a stag. The voice was formal, intelligent, deliberately neutral, as befit the driver, Margaret Torrens, an English professor who’d recently traded the city for a rural cabin. I hoped her sense of irony would give it an edge.
The Second Voice Followed a Shift in Perspective
When Margaret gets back to her cabin after the accident, much to her surprise and mine, her husband appears, and though dead for decades, manages to pull her into a conversation that opens up their past. Listening to it unfold, I realized it pointed to something she was hiding. I began to probe their brief life together and unearthed another timeline with its own narrative strand.
The more I wrote along that timeline, the more I felt confined by the third person. It was producing a voice that felt as reserved and inflexible as Margaret’s public persona. I shifted to first person, and immediately her private, emotional life began to speak. As this second strand developed, so did its vulnerable, confessional voice, one that evolved into love letters to a ghost.
Meanwhile, I’d begun testing the idea of a new point of entry: Margaret has been locked in a cell undergoing psychiatric evaluation following an act of violence. Tasked with recording the precise events that landed her there, she begins with the accident involving the deer. Although I shifted this voice into first person, it maintained its original detachment and formality, advancing her strategy to mislead her psychologist. Tonally, it was distinctly different from the yearning that suffused her love letters.
The Third Voice Evolved as Desperate Self-care
Margaret’s story was now framed as an interrogation, a tense game of cat-and-mouse. In the accounts she submitted daily to the psychologist, she had to sound like a reliable narrator, a model of accuracy and consistency. But her complex predicament left her with much to keep straight; hence the story’s third voice, which emerged as daily notes to herself, jotted to restore balance after parrying her questioner. These notes required endless tinkering to get the voice right. They could not sound literary; they needed to be rough, fragmented, and yet coherent.
Analyzing Voice In Your Story
Some insights I gleaned wrestling my story into a book may further the development of a distinctive voice regardless of point of view. Consider:
- Audience and purpose: Those two specifications might not immediately pop to mind in third-person narration, yet they suggest a way to test and focus voice. You may feel it’s just you narrating for the general world of readers, but which you are you calling forth, for what subset of them?
- What is your attitude toward your story? Are you sympathetic to the action or do you disapprove? Do you find it comic? Then a deadpan voice might render it best.
- If you have consciously invented a narrator, ask about her investment in the story. Why has she broken silence, and for whom? These questions challenge your technique by setting limits, and from limits comes specificity. Hence “limited omniscience” has become the most popular choice for the third person: the narrator speaks from the narrowed vantage of a central character, whose attitudes, feelings, and intentions her voice can thus reflect.
- Narration as action: Words not only say something, they can do things too–praise, rationalize, mock, confess, plead, mourn, you name it. Imagine the motives, and an audience, and allow them to inflect your voice.
This account of my writing process doesn’t really capture its nonlinearity. Margaret was prone to detours, into life with her husband, and death, avoiding the week that led up to her incarceration. The psychologist was impatient to pry out the facts he wanted to hear. The competing time frames, with their differing access to information, kept me looping back to revise with every chapter forward. I suppose I should have devised a chart or something, but I tend to panic when faced with anything resembling a spreadsheet. Instead, voice became a light that pointed where I was and what I could know.
How has your process surprised you by illuminating what your story was about or how it might best be told? Do you plan complex stories out in advance, rely on spreadsheets and the like, or listen instead to a quieter inner voice–or voices, as the case may be? The floor is yours.