Me-Worms and They-Worms: The Hunt for Voice

By Tamara Hunter

These pretzels are making me thirsty.

These PRETZELS are making me THIRSTY.


Who knew pretzels could hold so many shades of meaning? As Elaine, George, Jerry and Kramer demonstrated in the Seinfeld episode which catapulted the phrase into the vernacular, the slightest change in context, emphasis and tone has the power to give one simple sentence a dozen different subtexts.

In George’s hands the phrase – Kramer’s sole line in the Woody Allen movie which forms the backdrop to the episode – became an expression of rage; in Elaine’s, resignation.

In much the same way, the subtlest changes can make all the difference to whether an author nails or blows their character’s ‘voice.’ Use swear words or don’t, omit punctuation, slavishly interpret an accent or just hint at it – all are decisions which can completely change the way a character comes across.

When writing his latest novel The Life, Walkley Award-winning journalist-turned-author Malcolm Knox wanted to find a way to translate the classic Australian male grunt to the page. The book, about an ageing surfer dreaming of a comeback, has been compared to Tim Winton’s much-lauded novel, Breath.

However Knox told the Perth Writers Festival session, ‘Hearing Voices’, that while Winton’s book – also about a surfer – was beautiful, he’d been shooting for something else.

“(Breath) is a beautifully written novel but it is a written novel. I wanted to do something a bit different – a spoken novel. The voices I heard around me, the Australian male grunt – that has a lot of silences and limitations but also its own music.  I wanted to somehow capture that music.”

In doing so, Knox had to make a decision about how many expletives to include. Even though it would have been truer to the surfing scene to have far more of them in central character DK’s dialogue, Knox knew it would be counter-productive.

“If you tried to reproduce that on to the page, not only is it extremely offensive to many readers, but it becomes extremely limiting to the writer,” he said. “And I just feel like you are wasting a lot of ink on that word.

“Yes I knew the voice but I took this one word away from that voice and as often happens in anything, the power of suppression can be a very creative power. Denying that voice the ability to say ‘fucken’ every second breath was challenging him to say something else other than ‘fucken’, which he does every now and then. But he’s not a swearer and that’s something I hope liberated him to express himself.”

Knox said his chief rule of thumb when trying to achieve his character’s voice was to get himself out and the character in.

“I’m not DK and the work is finding ‘me-worms’ and removing them and replacing them with ‘DK-worms’ – finding my accent and rhythms and ways of speaking and getting them out and his in.”

Fellow Australian author Wayne Macauley likened the business of finding a character’s voice to an actor’s routine when preparing for a stage performance. Much like the actor, the author had to remove his or her ego and become the character for the duration.

“The difference when writing a book is it happens not over two hours but two years,” Macauley told the same session. “What you are trying to do is find the method to enter that character – to find a way into that voice as if you were an actor about to step on stage and inhabit a character. (They find) one line that is the essence of their character and use that.”

For Macauley, that one defining line is always the first of the book. In his novel The Cook, he had to find the voice of an ambitious and unusual young man from the wrong side of the tracks. Macauley wanted to capture the adrenaline and speed of the character right away and so chose, like Peter Carey in The True History of the Kelly Gang, to have no punctuation other than a full stop at the end of his very first sentence.

“I think the critical thing was getting the first sentence of my first paragraph down that had some written hint of the character. That is your touchstone and will be your touchstone thereafter for who this person is. If I strayed off into my indulgent writer’s voice later it would be a matter of testing it against that first sentence and realigning the prose.”

Sometimes, Knox added, nailing voice really was as technical and bland as taking the commas out. Although he’d had a voice he wanted to capture, he hadn’t bothered too much with it in the first draft.

“In the first draft I was more concerned with the story and the development of characters. When I read that first draft…it didn’t ring true. It wasn’t authentic. But the reason for me was not anything mystical – it was something like I should have taken the commas out and I should have done search and replace with certain words or grammatical formulations and, as I said before, gotten me out and him in.

“It’s always just interplay between gut feeling and what you can do with your hands. That is probably what any artist, any woodworker or sculptor, will say to you is at the heart of the matter of getting the uniqueness of what you are trying to get down. You are trying to match-make between what is going on in your gut and what is going on with all those tools of punctuation and keystrokes.”

Canadian author Michael Crummey’s biggest challenge in his latest novel, the fantastical tale Galore, was nailing the notoriously elusive, almost mediaeval accent of his Newfoundland home.

“Part of what I am trying to do when writing a book set in Newfoundland is trying to reveal the characters but the place itself as well,” Crummey said. “The Newfoundland accent is a really hard one for people who aren’t from there to do well. In movies, American actors butcher the accent. When people write it down it sounds cartoonish – it looks cartoonish on the page but that’s not how they sound. It’s a challenge to get it down on the page without cocking it up.”

Crummey spent a year researching the novel and had a clear idea of how he wanted it to feel. “A big part of that was the voice. I didn’t start until I felt it was present. It sounds very airy fairy but from the moment I started the book I felt like I had the voice I wanted.”

He said it was impossible to get dialogue right without first knowing your characters properly.

“If I am having a problem (getting two characters to speak to one another) it’s usually because I don’t know them well enough or there is something about the characters that doesn’t fit the story and therefore when they open their mouths what comes out just doesn’t belong. Once I have nailed the characters I have a clear sense of who they are. It’s similar to putting two people in a room and having them talk. I don’t feel like I am making it up. There’s that feeling of just letting them go and talk amongst themselves.”

Crummey added that good dialogue in fiction was not necessarily realistic dialogue.

“If you just take two people having a normal conversation and transcribe it on a page…it would be boring, even if they’re saying something interesting. Normal conversation does not wear well on the page. So it’s trying to create the illusion of real conversation that gets across what you want it to get across. It’s kind of a conjurer’s trick.”

Knox said he had often been asked if he knew how ‘brave’ he was being when he chose to write his book in the way he had, with DK’s distinctive, poorly punctuated voice such a dominant feature.

“If you are a writer sitting down to please everybody I think you are lost at page one,” he said. “Equally if you try to please nobody you are lost. We are trying to walk some fine lines. When people say to me they are reading this book and enjoying it I have to say ‘What page are you up to?’ If they’re inside the first 20 pages I say ‘Let’s have another conversation later’. If they say they’re up to or past page 40 or 50 I know I have got them. There will be people who drop off because they can’t stomach poor punctuation and repetition and all the tics of this character’s voice. But it’s not their book.”

Macauley agreed, saying some readers had told him they had struggled with the first 10 pages of his book but then become swept up in it, unable to stop reading – “which of course is a huge compliment. It’s the compliment I want.”

He said he had been conscious of walking a fine line but believed literature did not exist simply to massage the reader.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t as writers occasionally set challenges for readers and give them rewards. That would be wrong if there was no rewards. But literature that has touched me in the past has often been the kind of literature that I have started reading and thought ‘Oh my God, this is really quite different and quite tough’, but once you are into it you go to some other place.

“We are mindful of our readers. It’s a conversation. It’s a dialogue. That doesn’t mean you can’t raise the bar.”

Malcolm Knox is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and  author of Summerland, A Private Man and Jamaica, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Award and won the Colin Roderick Award. His latest book is The Life.

Michael Crummey was born and grew up in Newfoundland before moving to mainland Canada for 12 years. He returned to Newfoundland in 1999 and has published three books of poetry, a collection of stories, and three novels. His latest book is Galore.

Wayne Macauley is a widely published Melbourne short story writer and novelist. He won The Age Short Story Competition in 1995, was runner-up in the 2001 HQ Magazine Short Story Contest and was anthologised in Best Australian Stories 2001. The Cook is his latest novel.

Tamara Hunter is a freelance journalist with 24 years’ experience, most of that time spent working for The West Australian newspaper across both news and features. She spends her time wrangling either children or deadlines (sometimes both at once!) and uses creative writing like Polyfilla – to fill the gaps and keep herself sane. It’s almost working.

More reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >

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