FINDING YOUR VOICE
by M. Stephen Lukac
A few years back, I wrote a story about a man caught between his wife and his mistress. Torn between the only woman whose love he wanted and the only woman who loved him, the man did the only thing he could.
He ate them.
I was (and still am) very proud of that story. I thought it spoke to the dichotomy of what we want and what we have, and did so without being prurient. I also believed the cannibalism and subsequent dénouement accurately portrayed a husband whose mind had snapped under the weight of an impossible choice. It was filled with rich imagery, richer language and –best of all- some seriously creepy moments.
Soon after I finished it, I heard about an anthology edited by Kealan Patrick Burke, one of the best editors and writers in the business. Kealan and I had shared a buggering from the micro press implosion of the early oughts (and while I’m thinking about it, we really need a cutesy euphemism for the decade spanning 2001 through 2010), indulged in The Creature at several conventions, and on one memorable morning in 2003, he and his lovely wife, Jenna, introduced me to the joys of the Golden Corral breakfast buffet. Considering our mutual love of spirits and waffles, I thought my little tale of love gone wrong and impromptu seaside buffets had a better than average chance of being included in The Gorezone Anthology.
Nope. Didn’t happen.
In his rejection letter, Kealan mentioned several things he liked about the piece, but the majority of his note focused on his main reason for passing on the story. At the time, I disagreed with his reasoning (sorry Kealan), but understood the underlying logic of his rejection:
The prose didn’t “sound” like me.
“That was the whole idea,” I said to my monitor as I re-read Kealan’s email for the fifteenth time (and I’m sure I’m not the only writer that has long, involved conversations with their computer screen, especially when rejections invade their inbox). “It wasn’t supposed to sound like me. I worked long and hard to make sure it didn’t sound like me, and this is what I get for all my trouble.”
If I remember correctly, I continued this one-sided dialogue for several more minutes and then filed the email in the Rejections folder and moved the story into the electronic version of my trunk, never to be seen again.
But I thought about what Kealan said. I’ve thought about it for the last five years, and after so many months of careful consideration, I’ve concluded that Kealan was right.
At the time, the existing, public samples of my “voice” as a writer were few, consisting of one novel (Oogie Boogie Central – shameless plug #1) and one non-fiction collection (But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . . – shameless plug #2). Unfortunately, I had submitted my grand experiment in prose to the one editor on the planet familiar with those examples, due in large part to the mutual buggering I mentioned earlier.
When Kealan opened my submission, he had certain expectations of what he’d find. Sadly, those expectations were not met. Reviewers and readers of my fiction tend to praise my dialogue; this piece had no quotation marks whatsoever, and not because I was fashioning an homage to Cormac McCarthy. I also tend to write the way I talk. Friends who’ve read my books often remark that they can imagine me saying what they read. One reader told me she heard my voice in her head while reading Oogie Boogie Central (and if you’re familiar with the Oogie Boogie novels, you’ll appreciate the irony of that statement). However, this story was different. There was nothing in this piece to remind the reader of the writer, unless the writer had inadvertently swallowed a thesaurus.
After commiserating with friends and colleagues, I eventually accepted Kealan’s critique, placed my cannibalistic tale in the electronic trunk and set to work on the next Oogie Boogie book (Oogie Boogie Bounce – shameless plug #3).
Easier said than done.
Perhaps it was the brief interval between completing the short story and starting the novel. Maybe I was still smarting from the sting of rejection. Then again, it could have been the uncertainty of beginning a sequel and attempting to provide exposition for new readers while avoiding the regurgitation of previous plot. Whatever the cause, the beginning of Bounce refused to coalesce, even though I knew what the story was supposed to be.
It just didn’t sound right.
I did what I always do when my muse refuses to cooperate; I immerse myself in a good book, preferably one I’ve read before. My reason for this is to look at the prose mechanically, without the intrusion of plot, hoping the writer’s skill will awaken whatever talent lies dormant in me (or, that I’ll have that moment of clarity all writers experience and think, “I can do better than this”). I chose one of the many Stephen King novels I own and popped the footrest on the recliner, prepared to enter the Zen state where I could rediscover my ability.
As I began to read, my thoughts kept creeping back to the copy of Lisey’s Story still sitting on my shelves, unread. Now, usually I’ll drop anything I’m doing short of CPR to devour a new Stephen King novel, but I had re-shelved this one after skimming only twenty pages. I found myself rereading the same paragraph over and over, unable to fall into the story. I regretted abandoning Mr. King after such a short sample (something I had never done), but there were more books in my TBR pile demanding attention.
But, I mused as I continued revisiting one of my favorites, maybe I had unearthed the source of my block. My reaction to the account of Ms. Lisey stemmed from unmet expectations. This sounded like a stranger’s tale, told by an unfamiliar balladeer, not the recognizable tone I anticipated. If you’re paying for Van Halen, it better be Eddie picking that axe, not some session guy with an AFM card, because no matter how talented he is, he won’t measure up to the original.
I also came to a sobering conclusion. As an unpublished writer, you have options that don’t exist once you see print. Regardless of the venue, if people have paid to read your work (and enjoyed the experience), they’re going to want more. Not necessarily more of the same (although there are several authors I can name who make their living providing volume after volume of repetitive dreck), but more of what drew them to you the first time.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your voice.
Tell whatever story you want, but be sure it’s you telling it. There’s a reason Elvis sold a gazillion records -including hillbilly tunes and gospel favorites- and a-ha vanished after one single. If you tell it right, someone will want to listen. Tell it wrong, and nobody will care, not even your mom (and trust me, your mom is genetically programmed to care about everything you do).
After my minor epiphany, I placed my butt in the seat and hit the keyboard again. Lo and behold, out came the story I wanted to tell. And, exposition issues aside, I found myself easily slipping back into the mindset best suited for Milo, Keith and company.
And while it’s too soon to be sure, early reviews have been positive, and the few readers I’ve heard from tell me they like Bounce better than Central, and they hope they’ll see Breakdown soon.
I’d like to think they will, but I’m having a hell of a time getting started. I think there are currently five versions of Chapter One in my “Abandoned” folder, and while the extra material might work for a Director’s Cut DVD, the same can’t be said for novels.
Maybe I should go read The Stand again.
But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .
Postscript #1: If, like me, you had your doubts about The King after Lisey’s Story and Blaze, you should run out and pick up a copy of Duma Key, post haste. I was hooked after the first page, and happy to see that Mr. Steve had evicted the amphibians from his trachea and found his voice again.
Postscript #2: Weep not for my overly purple piece concerning the carnivorous husband, his wife and his mistress. Back in 2005, someone on a message board posted the guidelines for an anthology based on The Ten Commandments, Thou Shalt Not, published by Dark Cloud Press. After following the most anal formatting requirements I’ve ever seen, I sent them a copy of my little story that couldn’t.
Their acceptance was the fastest response I ever received from a publisher. Better yet, their check was good and that sale was my first –and so far, my only- professional sale, as defined by our friends at the HWA.
Turns out the editor had never heard of me.
M Stephen Lukac has been reading since he was three, writing since he was seven and selling other people’s books since he was twenty-eight. At forty, he realized it might be time to get serious.
He loves stories set in coherent worlds, where the rules and situations –no matter how fantastic they may be- remain consistent across the author’s body of work. Experiencing the creation of a fictional universe –whether overt or subtle- is akin to peeking over God’s shoulder. Inhabiting those creations, regardless of the medium, is his second favorite thing.
His favorite thing is definitely not talking about himself in the third person.
But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .
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