What I'm reading: How to Abduct a Highland Lord, by Karen Hawkins.
Thanks so much to Neil Plakcy for his insights into voice yesterday. The subtleties and nuances of writing, those 'you can't teach it' intangibles are the things that we're always striving to improve in our own writing.
And speaking of writing. I'm finally back into a semblance of the pre-holiday routine. One thing I noticed—when I actually applied fingers to keyboard, my anxiety level dropped markedly. Even though I'm still not sure exactly how I want to get through the "and all hell breaks loose" moments, just putting words onto the page reminded me why writers write no matter what.
I'd like to expand on Neil's post about voice. He went into detail about the character's voices. It's important in a book that they sound like themselves. That means knowing their history, their age, education, as well as occupation, nationality—the list goes on. A reader should be able to know who's speaking from the dialogue on the page.
Cowboys don't talk like artists, who don't talk like sailors, who don't talk like politicians. And men don't talk like women, no matter what job each has. I went into this in my series on His Brain, Her Brain (if you type that into the search box, you'll find those posts back in early September, 2008.) When I write my male characters' dialogue, I always go back and cut it down by at least 25%.
I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same, "Talking to a Child" voice. Obviously, it doesn't bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it's consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn't just a one-time deal.
However, today I'd like to address the author's voice. From what I understand, voice develops as an author writes. I believe I commented yesterday that I judge the growth of my voice with the increasing ease of writing narrative. Not dialogue, because that is someone else's voice on the page—the character's. But all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break—that's the author. And that's where the intangibles lie. When I was starting, and I'd enter contests, I'd get very disparate feedback from judges. Another author told me it meant I had a strong voice, which might or might not appeal to a reader.
Voice is something a reader recognizes instinctively. It's what makes bestselling authors. Sure skill comes into the picture, too. You have to know how to plot, pace, create settings and characters, etc. But voice is what readers really fall in love with when they're reading. It's 'HOW' you tell your stories.
Can anyone confuse Suzanne Brockmann with Lee Child? Janet Evanovich with Michael Connelly? Even Nora Roberts has a distinctive voice that is recognizable whether she's writing a romance as Roberts, or one of her "In Death" futuristics as JD Robb.
Try looking at your manuscript, or the book you're reading. Find a passage that's filled with narrative. How does the author deal with it? Is it in the same vein as the dialogue, or do you get jolted out of the story because all of a sudden there's an outsider taking over? If it's a funny book, the narrative needs to reflect that sense of humor. If it's serious, the author shouldn't be cracking wise in narrative. If your character speaks in short, choppy sentences, then he's likely to think that way, too. Again, the narrative should continue in that same style.
Which brings me to another thought. When I was in high school, we were required to discuss the "style" of all the books and stories we read. A student asked the teacher to define "style." He said, "It's the words the author chooses to use." Which sums it up pretty well for me. Perhaps we should use that term for the author's voice, to differentiate it from the characters' dialogue.
Voice can't be taught. It comes only after spending hours, days, months, years at the keyboard. It is, to use a favorite term of an author friend, "organic." It comes from within, and it feels right. If you're thinking about it, you're not developing your voice.
Elmore Leonard points out that the essence of being a good writer is keeping yourself off the page. So if it sounds 'writerly' it needs to be cut.