Something a writer thinks about a lot is Voice – at least, it’s something this writer thinks about a lot, though I can’t say I think about it at the right times. I don’t often consider it while I’m writing, which is probably when it would make a difference. I tend to be shy about using a strong voice in my writing, thinking it would make the work too mannered and get in the way of the story; yet I purely love a strong voice when reading.
The best examples I know of strong, consistent narrative voice come from perhaps the last place you’d look for it; birding blogs. To be specific, macho birding blogs. I follow a set of birding blogs that never fail to delight me, and it’s not just the bird photos – it’s the voice.
Let’s look at Seagull Steve and Felonious Jive, over at Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds. When you see a blog post titled “Costa Rica: Hammering Lifers at Las Alturas, Grit Blazing In Golfito“, you know you are in the presence of Voice. This blog has a well-developed online persona.
In October of this year, I returned to an autumnal birding battleground where I had not waged avian war since 1999: Ventura County. It was like MacArthur returning to the goddamn Phillipines.
This blog introduced me to the term ‘crushing’ in birding, something which I have recently seen local birders use even though none of us can really define it. We just want to sound like the cool kids.
Then there’s This Machine Watches Birds, by Nate McGowan, and another verb I never thought applied to birds.
I was going to write this post about how I went to the valley and dipped on a Northern Jacana and how it sucks and blah blah blah. Fuck that whiny shit. I went to the valley and saw awesome fucking birds that most of you don’t see very often. I wouldn’t want to hear someone bitching about dipping on a Grassquit if they got to see Limpkin, Snail Kite, and Antillean Nighthawk. Dipping on birds is part of birding.
Macho birding at its best! Nate’s sidebar :
my exploits revolve around watching birds, listening to birds, and destroying birds with a camera.
Now I certainly get something from these blogs’ voice that the authors can’t, and that is the frisson of these new and exciting verbs – which is even stronger because they are not explained, nor are the geographic terms. I’ve seen the same technique used in science fiction to great effect. It gives an air of negligent expertise. I have to admit, I also enjoy the profanity.
Birdcrusher hangs out with these people, but positions himself as a younger and less grizzled version.
And now, a boy arrives at the puffins. In a dark blind on Machias Island as HJs were being furiously exchanged in the shadows, a boy and three nerds brutally did this. The devastation was total. A boy prays and hopes that the island’s seabird populations will recover from his actions.
This voice, frankly, sounds like a parody of the others. It makes their secret too obvious – that it is all about using in-terms without explaining them (HJs?) and applying violent words to a nonviolent activity. It falls into meta with the number of terms – furiously, brutally, devastation in two sentences? – and the clash between his self-presentation as a boy and the violent language. I can’t fall into unselfconscious enjoyment of this one; it jerks me into critical analysis. Which is not at all a bad thing. If I were writing in one of these voices I would definitely want to have self-parody in my toolbox, and be able to jerk the reader around like this.
The voices in these blogs don’t depend on tricks of phrase alone, though. From the very nature of the blogs, they must contain content and it must be specialized content that demonstrates their expertise. Seagull Steve’s persona would not work if he didn’t tell us which bird is actually the most over-rated in California, with supporting argument. Nate McGowan’s blog would just be posturing if he did not in fact post amazing bird photos and discussions of identification. Nor would using a voice like this in fiction writing work unless you could demonstrate the character’s actual expertise.
The best stab I’ve made at an expert’s voice was in The Adjunct, though there’s nothing macho about that character. It was fun to write something in my wheelhouse, where I actually had the depth of expertise to draw on. It would be a way bigger challenge to create one of these characters in an area I wasn’t strong in, because it is my impression that you need a lot of submerged expertise to support a little Voice. But it would be worth the work.